Factory Outlet: Rose Troche Talks with Director Mary Harron about I Shot Andy Warhol
[Editor’s Note: The following piece was originally published as the cover story of our Spring, 1996 edition. It appears online here for the first time.]
When we invited Go Fish director Rose Troche to interview Mary Harron, the director and co-writer of I Shot Andy Warhol, we hardly anticipated such a happy chain of coincidences. On the subject of bio-pics, Harron’s film explores the political and psychological contradictions of Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol, while Troche is currently at work developing a film on Dorothy Arzner, perhaps Hollywood’s greatest female director. Both Solanas and Arzner, while ostensibly lesbians, continually thwarted history’s and popular media’s attempts to easily categorize them. Harron is also currently writing another bio-pic on Betty Page with Troche’s Go Fish partner, Guinivere Turner. In addition, Troche is waiting for HBO to greenlight her comic short about two housewives whose daughters discover them having an affair and is also attached to direct Summer of Sirens, penned by Kirk Aanes. —Peter Bowen
Troche: I’ve been working of a picture about Hollywood director Dorothy Arzner. How did you deal with historical research for I Shot Andy Warhol?
Harron: Even though I was a researcher for years and a fact checker before that, I had to have a researcher, if just for morale. In my punk days, I used to have a part-time job as a fact checker for American Heritage Magazine. The New York Public Library was open in the evening so I could stay all night there. I am used to library work, but the phone work is very different. I have to really feel like myself to work on the phone.
Troche: How do you track down the people, for example, when you have a lot of supporting characters? With my project, I got Judith Mayne who is an expert on Arzner to help me out. How did you choose supporting people?
Harron: What you need first is a consultant, someone who is an expert in their field. Then once you have the phone numbers, you just start calling. With Valerie, for example, I heard that she wrote for her school paper. So our research editor, Diane Tucker, got a list of all the editors of her college paper from the University of Maryland and called them all up until she found one person who had worked with Valerie. She got me the number of one of her professors who is now at the University of Oregon, and he gave me the names and numbers of some of the people who were friendly with her. So I rang them and they gave me other numbers.
Troche: It becomes a constant unfolding.
Harron: One person leads to the other, and so on. One thing you have to remember is that the process is a bit subjective. You have to balance every person’s account against what another character says. You can’t take one person’s account as the truth. But as you go on, [the process] creates its own internal logic. I learned that from working in documentary. At some point, I am going to have to free myself up. I am not going to do another bio-pic. I really think I have to do the more difficult step of cutting myself loose from recorded fact.
Troche: I am having the opposite problem. I need that structure.
Harron: I worked for five years as a researcher with four of those years doing in-depth research for “The South Bank Show” for programs on Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Raymond Chandler. I had done a lot of work on Warhol way before I started this film. You read, you talk on the phone, and then you start to get a notion in your head of a structure. You start to have an internal structure. It’s like it’s hidden and you just have to chip away to find it. And then you will hear things, and you’ll think that belongs in the story. You can read lots of stuff and nothing will happen, and then in one conversation, you find something that belongs. When you are speaking to people, you have to think, what do I need from this person and how do I get it to fit with everything else to make a portrait?
Troche: What is interesting about your approach to Valerie Solonas and Warhol is that if this material were in the hands of most directors, they would have villainized Valerie or Andy or someone. He would have been some blood-sucking user, instead of the passive, slightly naive guy you portray. And while you capture this side, the fact of the matter is that this kind of characterization is not as marketable.
Harron: I have respect for Warhol as an artist and as a person. If you read a lot about him, he was very smart, but he could also be very mean to people. But you have to love his art. In a lot of ways he is underrated as an artist. He was a very interesting character. I don’t know how you can do a dramatic story without not seeing it in black and white. I remember what Viva said about Warhol: “He wasn’t bombing Cambodia. He wasn’t napalming children.” So how bad was he? I feel that it was an unfortunate collision of different worlds. Valerie was much more political and visionary. She was very radical, especially for the art world. But she was never fabulous enough for that world.
Troche: Totally not.
Harron: Nor was she an accolade type. I don’t think she went in worshiping Andy. She was just into the scene.
Troche: She seemed to misunderstand who she had to be in order to function in the Factory. The film makes it very clear that she was fabulous in her own way. She was the kind of individual that Andy wanted, but only so far, and after that she was clearly too serious for him.
Harron: Too serious, yes.
Troche: For him, it was, “Alright, go out and have yourself a revolution, but get it away from me.”
Harron: Ten years later she might have been cool, but in that world there was no place for politics. Of course she was a very radical person, but she did not create feminism. No one person could. Valerie had very little understanding of the effect of her actions. Vivian Gornick, who wrote a pretty good introduction to the 1971 SCUM Manifesto, said that Valerie would ring her up at two in the morning and scream at her and have no notion that she had done anything wrong. Finally at one point, Vivian fought back and said, “Stop phoning me and stop treating me like that.” Valerie was amazed. She was brilliant as a visionary of society, but she was very bad when it came to receiving the little signals of behavior, like how you conduct yourself with other people. What was Dorothy Arzner like?
Troche: Well not quite the character that Valerie was.
Harron: But everyone has mixtures of good and bad about them in different proportions. The power relations with others, that is what’s important to discover.
Troche: Arzner was just this character who was in Hollywood but also outside of it. She was a real lesbian, a dumpy dyke, not the glamorpuss bisexual that everyone wanted, like Garbo. She wasn’t beautiful enough for that.
Harron: I think that keeping an open mind is really important when doing your research. When I say you come up with an internal structure, I don’t mean that you start off knowing the meaning of it all. Because the information you find might change your story. You might find out terrible things about Dorothy Arzner, that she was dreadful to another partner, and that will make your story more complicated. You can’t shut it out. For example, I found out that Valerie had slept with men, in fact had lived with a man, even though she identified herself politically and emotionally as a lesbian. Sexually she was more of a bisexual. That’s why I put in the scene where she sleeps with a revolutionary.
Troche: Well, you’re not making a documentary. You use the facts as you have found them, and they make a story.
Harron: I have to credit [co-writer] Daniel Minahan for steering me away from clinging to the facts. You have to make things up. He had this brilliant idea for the way Valerie meets her publisher, Maurice Giordias.
Troche: How do you select which facts are important? This story could have very well given a different series of events. I think that it’s wonderful that while you take something based in reality and make it engaging by introducing a fictional element, you don’t lose sight of the person.
Harron: It’s also true about consolidating characters. Candy Darling did not take Valerie to the Factory the first time; she went with a photographer, Nat Finkelstein. But you don’t want to introduce another character. So there is a more convenient explanation for the event. We did not substantially alter the facts as we know them; we just put the information in different characters.
Troche: Obviously you needed to make clear that Candy and Valerie had a relationship, and that gives you another scene for them to hang out together, so that when you can get to that scene where Valerie turns on Candy, it is a powerful scene.
Harron: Actually we made that up too. Although I think that Candy was at the taping of the Alan Burke show. We were trying to find some catalyst that sent her over the edge, like the tv show. Jeremiah Newton wrote up the scene of the television show based on his memory of the events, and then I placed it as if it happened the day before the shooting. Indeed, originally we had all kinds of things happening that night: she gets thrown out of her apartment, she has to give someone a blow job for a place to sleep, etc. But in the end, we cut them all out. Jeremiah said that Valerie would never hit Candy but I am not so sure about that. I think that she would have.
Troche: The string of events that create Valerie’s character never make her one single thing.
Harron: I never knew, still don’t know, why she shot Andy Warhol. What Dan Minahan and I were trying to do in creating the script was to try and find a reason. It wasn’t until the editing that I acknowledged that I just don’t know and that I should leave it a mystery.
Troche: Did anyone ever interview her?
Harron: Yes, after she had been put away. She would say, “Read my manifesto.” She didn’t mean “Read my manifesto, it will tell you why,” but rather “Read my manifesto it will tell you what I am.”
Troche: What’s interesting about the process of the bio-pic is knowing when to make things up, and when not to, and how to keep the integrity of the character. If you had gone to a pitch meeting at Miramax, someone would probably say, “Maybe Valerie had a puppy when she was little, and that puppy got run over by a truck, and then right before she shoots Andy, she finds a stray dog and sees someone with white hair shoot the dog.”
Harron: Exactly. Some people told me to give her a female best friend, but Valerie didn’t have a female best friend. Most things people pitched to me were really crap. You keep your story interesting by sticking to the truth. That really grounds you, cause it keeps it complicated. The things you find out, the things that aren’t expected, make sense. When people fly off and leave the reality behind, they get into formulaic plots. People wanted me to make her sympathetic, but the beauty of the story is that she wasn’t. If Valerie were alive I don’t think I could have done the film. She was really into control. She would have come onto the production and wanted to write it.
Troche: It would have been interesting.
Harron: It would have been hell. When was Arzner’s time?
Troche: Late ‘40s, at the height of the studio system, but also when it was starting to break a bit. You talk about Warhol and the confusion of personality, but in Hollywood then, there was no separation between personal and professional lives. Take Barbara Stanwyck. Her film persona and her personal life were so befuddled. You had to wonder what character she was playing in her personal life. [In Arzner’s time], the issue wasn’t so much if they were gay or not, but who could make them feel the most wanted.
Harron: That’s right, I think that people overestimate sex. Valerie wanted to define herself as a lesbian for emotional and political reasons. It was not about desire, but about living in a male-dominated society. She had a romantic fantasy about women, and female love, but she had no gift for getting it. Her political hatred for men, her anger for men, were for the way that society regarded women as weak-minded and intuitive.
Troche: You have been out there and working for years. It seems so absurd for people to call this your freshman effort.
Harron: The thing I found kind of difficult is that people don’t understand television experience. There is no independent film, everyone goes to work for English tv.
Troche: And English tv is of such a higher caliber than here. To do television here is a very different thing than doing BBC documentaries.
Harron: People are very patronizing here if you have worked in television. They think of it as hack work. There is a lot of television comedy here, like Roseanne’s show, that I admire. And there is also a lot of good writing in crime shows like Homicide. But no one takes television seriously. In terms of survival I would have no problem doing television. But no one understands what I did before. They were short, very stylized films. For example, I did a half-hour film about boredom for Channel Four.
Troche: What I found frustrating is having people talk about Go Fish as my first film as if I hadn’t done anything before it. At Sundance, you get reduced to the common denominator of first feature film, as if that were the brass ring.
Harron: I don’t know what Tarantino had done before Reservoir Dogs, but he didn’t seem to have much experience other than watching lots of films. For me, that is unusual. I rely on the slow steady progress of continually doing lots of stuff. When I did a feature film, everything I had done before was part of it, like working with interviewees, or getting non-actors to do things for you. Even though I had not worked with professional actors, the experience of getting people to do things for you was very helpful. I like to collaborate, and I like the process, but I try to have the final word. I would say that I am quietly bossy. I had a passionate identification with Valerie’s sense of being told what a woman was or what she could do.
Troche: I know. Before you even prove yourself, people are telling you how much you can do.
Harron: When I was at the BBC the people that were highly regarded were these boy geniuses, who were expected to go off and make movies. I never thought, “I could do a drama” until I did it. I had to have a lot more drive to prove myself.
Troche: It is so much easier calling them boy geniuses. It is almost as if the word was made for men.
Harron: They were so technically competent, out there planning their tracking shot…
Troche: That money shot. I admire them but I don’t feel influenced by the same things.
Harron: Exactly. Even though films like Scorcese’s Taxi Driver definitely influenced me—Valerie’s character is very much based on Travis Bickle—I feel more comfortable with romantic comedies.
Troche: My half-hour piece for HBO is all about getting rid of my Doris Day demon.
Harron: But are they demons? What really influenced Warhol were films like Dance Girl Dance, Stage Door and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, all films about ambitious young women coming to the city to make a career. I love those films. I always thought that I could be that ambitious. And I think part of what you identify with in Valerie is this young girl coming to the city.
Troche: I wanted to talk about the state of independent film. You are seen as a first-time director, but your film does not go into the mindless cynicism that marks many independent films.
Harron: You know what, you have to be young to be that cynical—
Troche: —or does it come from a complete lack of experience? The obvious draw of Arzner for me is that I am so interested in the Hollywood system, and now what has taken over that. Stars are no longer owned by the studios anymore, but they are sort of owned by the media.
Harron: You can’t control your image. And that is always something that I thought about when presenting myself. It is always better to be underestimated than overestimated. If you are a director, you don’t need too much personality. That’s one of the advantages of being a director. I feel like I am so lucky to have Christine.
Troche: I feel the same way.
Harron: When the purse is empty, the heart is full.
Troche: Too bad you can’t make a film that way.