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Punk rock filmmaker Mary Harron visits the Triangle

And discusses her counterculture interests

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The notorious Mary Harron, on the set of The Notorious Bettie Page, will visit Duke Jan. 28-30. - PHOTO BY ABBOTT GENSER/ PICTUREHOUSE
  • Photo by Abbott Genser/ Picturehouse
  • The notorious Mary Harron, on the set of The Notorious Bettie Page, will visit Duke Jan. 28-30.

When I interviewed filmmaker Mary Harron by telephone last week, she was preparing to depart her Brooklyn home for Utah and the Sundance Film Festival, where she was joining Marcia Gay Harden, Diego Luna, Sandra Oh and Quentin Tarantino on the Dramatic Competition grand jury.

"It should be fun," said Harron. "Plus, I've never met Tarantino, so I'm also excited about that."

The mere prospect of the voluble Tarantino chatting up the director of American Psycho is tantalizing, and hopefully Harron will have a story or two to share with area moviegoers when she departs Park City for Durham to launch the inaugural Filmmaker Residency Program sponsored by Duke University's Film/Video/Digital Program (FVD). Over three days, beginning Monday, Jan. 28, Harron will meet with students and faculty throughout Duke's filmmaking community, including Ted Bogosian's filmmaking master course and the Center for Documentary Studies.

The centerpiece of Harron's stay is what FVD's Screen/ Society is billing a three-night "Mary Harron Retrospective." Over consecutive evenings in the Griffith Film Theater at Duke's Bryan Center, Harron will introduce each of her feature films—I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page—and participate in post-screening Q&A sessions. By day, she will also oversee nonpublic showings of some of her television work and The Weather Underground, a documentary looking at radical activists of the 1970s, of which Harron was executive producer.

"This is the most complete visit I've ever done in terms of talking about my work," says Harron. "There are common themes [in my films], but I only seem to be aware of them in retrospect. All three of my feature films are about isolated people set against a particular social backdrop. It's their story in their time: Warhol in the '60s; Patrick Bateman in the world of '80s investment bankers and their crazy New York highlife; Bettie Page is very much about sex in the '50s. So, I'm interested in their individual stories, but I'm also interested in their particular world."

Harron began her career as a punk rock journalist, first in England (where she graduated from Oxford University) and later in New York City, where she helped start and write for Punk magazine. For years, she has been developing a film script of Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me, a sweeping chronicle of the 1970s New York punk scene. Differences of opinion between Harron and McNeil on how to approach and adapt the book have temporarily stalled the project, but she remains committed to it.

Also delaying Harron's other projects, including her upcoming IFC pilot Best American, is the ongoing Writers Guild strike. Harron, an active member of the writers' and directors' guilds, believes the strike "was a long time coming." "We got a terrible deal on DVD residuals—I think it's about 4 cents per DVD—that all the writers and directors are still bitter about. So, we don't want to make the same mistake with Internet download sales, which is clearly where the technology is going.

"For example," continues Harron, "American Psycho was a huge seller on DVD. The sales from the last video release of the film alone were about 400,000 copies, and I got a DVD residuals check of around $8,000. That seems wrong.

"I hope things will get resolved soon," Harron says. "It might not be the exact deal we want, but every so often you have to make a stand to remind those in corporate power who you are."

The irony, points out Harron, is that were it not for the strike, she would be in preproduction on some project and unable to participate in the program at Duke. In this one instance, Hollywood's loss is the Triangle's gain.

Each screening in the Mary Harron retrospective is free and begins at 7:30 p.m. For more information, go to fvd.aas.duke.edu.

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