Bracebridge, Ont.-born, Oxford-educated and Brooklyn-dwelling director Mary Harron’s feature films artfully explore aspects of obsession, sexuality and, ahem, creative expression. They’re equally notable for career performances by Lily Taylor ( I Shot Andy Warhol), Christian Bale ( American Psycho) and Gretchen Mol ( The Notorious Bettie Page).
The Moth Diaries, Harron’s fourth feature, steps into the secluded world of an exclusive all-girls boarding school. Rebecca (Irish actor Sarah Bolger) turns to her diary and new English teacher (Scott Speedman) when she becomes concerned about her best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon) and a darkly enigmatic new student Ernessa (Brit supermodel Lily Cole), whom Rebecca suspects is a vampire.
Before the film’s unveiling at festivals in Venice (Sept. 6) and then Toronto (Sept. 13), Harron talks about creating and populating a modern adolescent gothic.
What attracted you to adapting Rachel Klein’s 2002 novel?
Five years ago a producer gave me the book. I read it over the weekend and fell in love with it. Adolescent girls’ friendship is very intense. I can remember that feeling – that friendship was the most important thing in my life. There are almost no words to describe it, and there are almost no movies about this. So this portrait of adolescence – and all its elements, like anorexia and fear of sexuality – played out in the structure of the supernatural was very intriguing.
This is the first feature screenplay you’ve written on your own. How was that?
It took a long time to get it right. It’s atmospheric, ambiguous and doesn’t have a clear narrative plot. But the visual descriptions are very cinematic. The book is set in the 1960s, but I kept it contemporary. Having done three period pieces, I’m fine with that. The story is timeless, it kind of updates the Gothic tradition.
Tell me about casting the three key female characters.
Lily Cole plays the outsider, Ernessa. In the book, she’s German. I was looking to cast someone European and envisioned somebody very different from Lily. As I watched her audition tape performance, she became more sinister and I thought, ‘That’s it.’ She was a supermodel, and as an actor she had tremendous physical command of her body. Both Sarahs were child actresses and are very natural. Lucy was hardest to cast. I needed somebody who was the complicated object of adoration, who was beautiful in the right way. And [Gadon]has great poise and composure. [Bolger]did not have the experience of carrying a movie – here she’s in almost every scene and it’s very intense work.
Young women make up most of your cast. Was it like a pyjama party? Did you have to put on the mom face?
It felt like summer camp sometimes. We shot at this beautiful former monastery [in Montreal] All the dressing rooms were former monks’ rooms. We did some improv and played Rock Band, but I was always rehearsing them. It became a joke, because my quick direction would always be “Faster, tighter.” I would get them to do scenes over and over again. [Laughing]I love directing people who actually listen to me.
So, uh, have you heard about that other young-adult vampire novel?
When I was given The Moth Diaries I’d never heard of Twilight. By the time my oldest daughter started reading it, I was writing the script. Then when Twilight came out it was huge [laughing]but still I had trouble getting it financed. Twilight is a romance. With Moth Diaries, I was thinking more of Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining and [Spanish horror film] The Orphanage.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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