Wednesday, June 23, 2010
'Leslie, My Name Is Evil' Stars Talk Manson Cult, Suburban Culture
* May 20, 2010
* By: Chris Jancelewicz
Canadian films are all snow and desolation and melancholy, right? Not anymore. 'Leslie, My Name Is Evil', a pseudo-fictional feature film directed and acted by Canadians, is found somewhere opposite on the spectrum, far from where we would expect it. Focusing on the Manson Family murders and subsequent trail of the late 1960s, the movie is a dark, satirical stab at the heart of what makes America America: the nuclear family, religiousness, 'wholesome' values, and military prowess.
In his film, director Reginald Harkema (known for his zany style and outlandish hair) looks specifically at one of the Manson girls on trial, Leslie Van Houten (Kristen Hager), as she goes from straight-laced daughter to outright devotee of the Manson cult. Harkema juxtaposes her journey with that of Perry (Gregory Smith), another buttoned-down youth who's selected as a member of the jury for the trail.
At times psychedelic and at other times sobering, 'Leslie' is an interesting departure from the usual Canadian canon. Moviefone got together with Harkema, Hager, and Ryan Robbins (who adeptly captures the manic essence of Charles Manson) to talk about the making of the film, and what it was like to embody – sorta – some of the most notorious people in American history.
Reg, what inspired you to make a film like this? And about this topic?
Harkema: It was a confluence of two things: the first Pink Mountaintops' album being in heavy rotation on my turntable with the song 'Leslie' playing, and me stumbling across a first-edition copy of 'Helter Skelter' at Value Village. I thought I could make some money off of it, but then I learned that the hottest Manson chick was this Dutch Christian girl named Leslie Van Houten – who's the exact same age as my mother. Then I wondered, "How could my mother become a hippie death cult murderess?"
I guess that's all it takes.
Harkema: That sucked me into the book, and then I found this little tidbit about one of the jurors being infatuated with Leslie. I thought that was an interesting story to tell between two people who can't speak to one another.
Those courtroom scenes can be really intense. Especially Leslie's stare – it's hypnotic!
Hager: Well, thank you! I think.
Reg, did you ever balk at the subject matter, or about approaching it in this way?
Harkema: The only time I ever sort of balked was when my next-door neighbour slipped me some ketamine, and I started having an out-of-body experience. I really felt like I was being sucked into hell. 'Halloween' was also on TV. Let me tell you: never try ketamine while writing a film. [Laughs]
What sorts of reactions have you received at film screenings?
Harkema: It's divided. People love it and hate it. Someone called it the second-worst movie of the year.
Hager: Yes, I would say exactly that. People are polarized.
How much research did each of you conduct for these roles?
Hager: I did more research than I've ever done for any other role. Ever. I spent a good month essentially locking myself up in my apartment watching anything and everything on Manson and his girls. Interviews, YouTube, documentaries, books, culture... you name it. I let it sink in and that was that.
Robbins: Yeah, I'm with Kristen. I think I came on a week-and-a-half before we started filming, so I didn't have as much time to prepare. It was a cram session for me. There is a lot of Manson's audio available, so I used that. And Reg had given me this book, essentially written by Charles Manson. I was more interested in his perception of himself than other peoples' opinions of him. I mean, no one willingly follows a madman unless there's a reason. I wanted to explore the girls and Manson from other angles.
Harkema: Follow them and bed them then, Ryan! You cutie. [Laughs]
Robbins: Now, now.
Playing Manson is obviously a major role. Actors would step over one another to play him. Were you ever nervous at all about taking this on?
Robbins: I went in apprehensive, but also a little excited. Speaking with Reg, I was really confident about his approach and vision. Keep in mind, our film is more of a statement than a biopic. There was more freedom that way.
Kristen, what was it like for you to go from Red Lake, Alberta to playing a Manson follower?
Hager: [Laughs] Well, it wasn't unlike Leslie's journey from a small suburban home. Fortunately I went to theatre school and had a few other jobs in between, but hands down this is one of my favourite roles. Definitely the most challenging.
What was the hardest scene you filmed for this movie?
Hager: [Laughs] For me, that's easy. It involved a kitchen knife and some blood. From the moment I read the script, I knew the murder sequence was going to be a challenge.
What were you actually stabbing?
Hager: A cardboard box. I don't know if there was anything in it or not. The make-up lady was sitting a bit too close to the box, squirting blood into my face and eyes.
Harkema: That was actually the toughest day for me. We were shooting in the middle of November in Toronto but it was supposed to be standing in for California in August.
What about you, Ryan? What was the hardest scene for you?
Robbins: Well, day one, the first shot is me having to have sex with Kristen. [Laughs] It's like, "Hey, how you doing? I'm the second guy you have sex with! Sorry about that."
Hager: It's always like that with every job I have. Intimacy is always the first thing.
Robbins: It was especially challenging because I was strapped to a huge cross in nothing but a loincloth with naked women dancing all over the place.
Harkema: That's really tough, Ryan! [Laughs]
If you can pinpoint it, what would you say is the main message you hope to send with this movie?
Harkema: I think it's a message-less movie. Take what you can from it. The only thing I hope to get out of this movie is that a boy and a girl, a girl and a girl, or a boy and a boy will go to it on a date and get into a big fight about what it means, and then have great make-up sex.
What stood out to me as the main issue was the stubborn adherence to that nuclear family, right-wing, religious ideal. It still seems to be prevalent today, 40 years later.
Robbins: That's what I remember thinking too, when I read the script.
Harkema: Yes, we're still making the exact same mistakes. My girlfriend of 10 years is American. We go to Tennessee and have Christmas with her southern Republican father, and then the other Christmas we'll go to Olympia, Washington with her mom's family, who are all dope-smoking lesbians. So the cultural divide of America is clearly demarcated, and that's what the movie is about – about how much that still exists today.