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Mary Harron says the darkness of 'American Psycho' led her to 'Alias Grace'

Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in
Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in "Alias Grace."
Jan Thijs/Netflix
Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in
(L-R) "Alias Grace" director Mary Harron with series stars Sarah Gadon and Anna Paquin.
Eric Charbonneau
Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in
(L-R) "Alias Grace" director Mary Harron with series stars Sarah Gadon and Anna Paquin.
Eric Charbonneau

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In 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote the dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” about life in a future totalitarian society called Gilead.

A little more than a decade later, Atwood penned “Alias Grace,” a work of historical fiction about Grace Marks, a real-life Irish immigrant servant who was convicted of killing her employer and his housekeeper in mid-1800s Canada.

Twenty years after that, in 2016, filming began on television adaptations of both novels. The location was the same too — both were filmed in and around Toronto.

"The Handmaid’s Tale" became an Emmy-winning Hulu series and “Alias Grace,” a six-part miniseries, recently debuted on Netflix:

Canadian actor and writer Sarah Polley wrote and produced “Alias Grace,” working closely with Atwood. Polley enlisted fellow Canadian filmmaker Mary Harron to direct the series, which takes on timely issues such as anti-immigrant sentiment and women’s rights.

Harron is probably best known for directing the 2000 film, "American Psycho," starring Christian Bale as a sociopathic investment banker.  She recently spoke with The Frame host John Horn about "Alias Grace."

Interview highlights:

On what it was about the Canadian-ness of the story that she wanted to illuminate:

We were all really interested ... in actually seeing what our past was like. I grew up in liberal Canada — it was more like Sweden or Denmark. But if you look back, 19th century Canada is a brutal British colonial society. The prisons were incredibly harsh, the attitudes towards immigrants were extremely prejudiced, it had a very rigid class system. So it was very interesting seeing the sort of barbarity of our own past. It's not at all how we think of ourselves. 

On her sense of why Sarah Polley asked her to direct the series, rather than taking on the job herself:

I think it was for many reasons. She didn't feel in the right place to direct it. There's a violence level and a certain kind of darkness and uncomfortableness to a lot of it, and she felt like that was something that my work kind of specialized in (laughs) ... Get that woman who makes you feel uncomfortable! But it was really the most flattering thing that's ever happened to me. She gave me this enormous, enormous gift.

On how the dark, violent stories she's taken on match up with her own personality:

I don't think I could survive in this industry if I wasn't basically kind of an optimistic person and quite a sunny person. I think I'm definitely someone who gets out their darkness and their conflicts in their work. And what's interesting is when you work on something dark, often you have a very good experience on set — because you keep the darkness for the scenes. I don't believe in having a really disturbing environment on set or torturing people, you know what I mean? I think you have to focus it all in the work. 

On the truth of Grace Marks' story that she and Sarah Polley and Margaret Atwood wanted to preserve:

The thing that we wanted most was the historical authenticity of things like the class system, how people talked to each other. But it's not just that, it's how people thought. Most period pieces that come out of Hollywood are really just modern people in period dress. Their attitudes to sex, their attitudes to race, to class, are really usually very modern and very unhistorical. And in this case, part of what the whole story's about is the period. It's like, Let's go back into the past, let's look at how the Irish immigrants were looked at, let's look at how working class girls were treated, let's look at how women thought about themselves. They didn't think about themselves the way we do today, they didn't talk about sex the way we do today. So that was all really accurate. What I guess is the big question mark is the murders themselves.

On the ambiguous nature of the story, with Grace as a somewhat unreliable narrator:

I think the ambiguity is one of the things that most attracted me to it. Because a lot of the times I get sent scripts about murder, sometimes based on real-life murders, and they're always like puzzles with a solution at the end. And once you get the answer, well, then there's no need to go back to it — the puzzle's solved. But because this is based on a real life murder mystery, and also because it's Margaret Atwood and things are always complex, there is no final answer. We will never know the ultimate truth of this story. You'll come to your own conclusions, but the secret died with the people who were in that farmhouse. And I found that then it becomes really about other things. And what Sarah Polley and Sarah Gadon [who plays Grace] and I always said to each other when were making this was that, by the end of it, even if you think Grace is guilty, you will at least know why she might have been led to participate in those murders, whether she did or not. But if you think she did, this is how she came to that point.

To hear the full interview with Mary Harron, click the blue player above.

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