Clocking in at 89 minutes, Anna Nicole gives viewers a capsulized look at the turbulent and tabloid infused life of Anna Nicole Smith. What elevates this Lifetime Television project is Agnes Bruckner’s charismatic and inspired work in the titular role, and landing celebrated filmmaker Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) was also a creative coup. Along with solid work from co-stars Martin Landau, Cary Elwes, and Adam Goldberg, Anna Nicole is an engaging biopic, and I recently talked to Harron about the film (which was just released this week on DVD).
Anna Nicole is beautifully lit. Why is lighting, in general, an important aspect in your filmmaking?
Lighting is mood and atmosphere and the tone of the film. With American Psycho it’s very hard light but also instant shadows. There’s other films that has a soft look. Nothing makes something look cheaper than bad TV with bad lighting.
When we were doing Anna Nicole, I got a really great DP, Michael Simmonds, who actually came from independent film and was used to working with minimal light and getting a great look. I knew we’d have to move very fast with Anna Nicole, and I didn’t want it to look like a TV movie. I wanted an interesting look. Even if you don’t really need to have a lot of money for sets or whatever, you can do so much with the light.
How much creative control did you have working in the TV medium?
Before I took it on, both the producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and the executives at Lifetime said, “We want you to do your look.” I was not trying to fit in with their look of past Lifetime movies. That’s why I was very keen on bringing in my own cinematographer.
It was difficult because we didn’t have long days. Poor Agnes Bruckner was in every scene virtually so you had to give her turnaround. So you couldn’t give her long hours since she would have to be up in hair and makeup in the morning. We had to work very fast. On that budget we had to do Greece, so instead of a Greek hotel we were doing it at a Hyatt in Atlanta, but Mike did a lot of beautiful things like letting the light flare out to make it look like it’s hot in the Mediterranean. (laughs) He made it work.
A lot of actors seem to do their best work in your films. What is the key, in general, with collaborating with your actors?
First of all (part of) directing movies is basically casting them right. If you don’t cast them right, you can’t get a good performance out of somebody who isn’t right for it. But (for example) Martin Landau, who is such a privilege to work with, who has been in everything, an Academy Award and all the rest, but he was so humble.
Several things that I’ve done, including I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page, they’re based on real people and actors love that. Actors love research and exploring the biography of their character. That also helps as well I think.
So essentially you let the actors do most of the leg work in crafting their characters?
Yes. They have to. You can’t absorb it for them. With Anna Nicole, there’s the reality show but I remember there was one interview that Agnes found that she was excited about because it was an earlier one. She wanted to see Anna before she became famous and before she became sort of so scandalous. Just to get a bit more of feel for the real person. I think that’s important too.
If you’re taking the biopic format, then what is most compelling in that story, the most important relationship was her relationship with Danny. That was the real tragedy. This is someone who had a terrible childhood herself and although she wasn’t the greatest mother, she truly loved her son. The person she loved most she, in a way, kind of destroyed. That’s what, I thought, made it so tragic.
When filmmakers come to you for advice, what’s your general response?
I was talking to some younger, women filmmakers a couple of nights ago. Making a film is so hard. You have to find a story that carries you. That you care about so much that it carries you over all the rejection or the financial difficulties. You have to attach yourself to a story that you just can’t let go off.
Anna Nicole (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Not Rated) is on now out on DVD.