Premiere of 'Charlie Says' to screen in Manchester
Readers: This story was updated at 8 a.m. on Friday to correct references to Jeremy Rosen.
MANCHESTER — When Jeremy Rosen had the opportunity to produce a major motion picture, he wanted to bring it back to his home state of Vermont.
And it turns out the road from Hollywood to the Green Mountain State takes a quick detour through the Capital District suburb of Delmar, N.Y., and heads straight for Manchester. That's where the domestic premiere of "Charlie Says" will be screened at Village Picture Shows on May 10 at 7 p.m. A cocktail reception for guests 21 and older will be held afterwards at stART Space, the abstract art gallery operated by theater co-owners Michael and Carolina Ellenbogen.
The film tells the story of the Manson Family murders of 50 years ago through the eyes of three women convicted in the murders. Rosen will hold a question and answer session with ticket holders 21 and older at StART Space during the reception.
It's an unexplored angle of one of the most notorious criminal stories in American history: How Charles Manson groomed, indoctrinated and controlled young women and turned them into murderers; and how they struggled to reclaim their identities while serving life prison sentences.
"We are examining these women as individuals, as victims of manipulation, as not just hippie zombie killer monsters," screenwriter Guinevere Turner told the Journal in an email. "In short, as whole people, and as people who aren't necessarily very different from us."
"I felt these women were very misunderstood, and that there was so clearly an untold part of the story — perhaps less sensational, but more interesting and complex," Turner told the Journal. "It fascinated me that no one ever talked about their life in prison. Here they were in the spotlight for most of a year — and then poof. No one cared anymore.
But obviously they were still alive, and though their lives weren't full of sex and drugs anymore, they were still fascinating people going through really interesting and singular
And one of the first audiences to see their story in theatrical release will be in Manchester.
The Northshire connection starts with the day Rosen, a Ludlow resident with twin careers as a film producer and an entertainment attorney, drove south to Manchester for a screening of "Borg Vs. McEnroe," a 2017 dramatization of the legendary 1980 Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.
One of the few theaters where the movie was screened was Village Picture Shows, and it just so happened that Michael Ellenbogen, who has been running the cinema for four years, was in the lobby chatting with patrons — "market research," Ellenbogen explained.
They struck up a conversation, and both quickly learned that they had three things in common: They loved independent film, they had each grown up in Delmar, and their fathers, Jeff Rosen and Norm Ellenbogen, had played tennis with each other. A friendship grew, and Rosen pledged to remember Manchester if one of his films ever made it to theatrical release.
"Michael was very excited about the idea and we've been strategizing ever since," Rosen said.
Enter "Charlie Says," which had its first U.S. screening on Wednesday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Its cast includes "Game of Thrones" actor Hannah Murray as Leslie Van Houten, one of Manson's followers and the central figure in one of the film's literary sources. Matt Smith, better known as the eleventh Doctor on "Doctor Who," is virtually unrecognizable as Manson. And Turner and director Mary Harron, who worked together on "American Psycho" and "The Notorious Bettie Page," are reunited for the film.
Don't be surprised if most of Ludlow's population arrives in Manchester next Friday night; Rosen has invited friends, family and Vermonters people he admires to attend. (U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is on the guest list, but there's no firm answer on his attendance, Rosen said Monday.)
"Given how much I love being a Vermonter, I want to do whatever I can and steer as much traffic and business towards Vermont as I can, and play a small role in re-establishing a film commission to help create revenue and opportunities and film-related jobs," Rosen said. "Hopefully events such as this will play a small part on that path."
New look at a familiar subject
Manson, who died in 2017, remains a grim fascination in American culture for his ability to groom and brainwash a cult-like "family" of followers, many of them young women, into committing a series of barbaric murders in the summer of 1969. Most have focused on Manson.
"The Manson family represented the nightmare version of hippie culture, like an embodiment of everything that straight America was frightened of," Harron told the Journal in an email. "And the Manson followers were so young and from seemingly normal middle class families -- how could these kids have done such terrible things? How could Manson have developed such a hold over them that he could order them to kill for him?"
"I think it has to do with the fact that the criminals were middle class white girls, and that scared America to its core," Turner said. "Also, the way the media latched onto the trials kept it very alive, and the showmanship of Manson and [prosecutor Vincent] Bugliosi fed into all of it."
"Statistically speaking, women rarely kill strangers. They kill people they know, for a reason we understand. I think that even people don't know that per se, some part of them doesn't expect this from women and therefore these crimes upset their idea of what is normal. (Like men killing whoever whenever and however)," Turner added.
Turner's script builds from two primary sources: "The Family" by Ed Sanders (1972), and prison educator Karlene Faith's book "The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten" (2001).
The story is told in flashbacks, as Faith (Merritt Wever, of "Welcome To Marwen," "Nurse Jackie," and "The Walking Dead") works with the women -- Marianne Rendon as Susan Atkins, Sosie Bacon as Patricia Krenwinkel, and Hannah Murray as Leslie Van Houten -- to deprogram them and help them come to terms with their pasts.
But Turner also brought a personal insight to the script: She herself was raised in a cult-like environment.
In an essay published Monday in The New Yorker, Turner said she was raised in the Lyman Family. That insular commune, founded in the 1970s in Boston's Fort Hill neighborhood by the late Mel Lyman, preached that space aliens would eventually take the group to live on Venus.
According to Turner's essay, members adhered to strict gender roles for men and women; children endured physical and psychological punishments; and young teenage girls were "chosen" by adult men to become their wives.
"One thing I wanted to show was how keeping these women in that unit trapped them for years in the echo chamber of Manson's manipulations," Turner wrote in the New Yorker. "I've always been struck by the sensationalist and reductive way that 60s and 70s cults are portrayed in the media. In a nation fixated on individualism, cults and communes are easy objects of disdain — and perhaps envy."
Harron said Turner's personal experience, and the time she spent talking with Faith before she died in 2017, made a significant difference in the film.
"Guinevere had tremendous insight into the inner workings of the cult and how Manson maintained psychological control over his followers," she told the Journal. "She was on set throughout the shoot to talk to the cast about what her research had shown about their characters and to give advice on details like how the kitchen in a commune would look."
Most crucially, Turner connected with Faith, who until that point had resisted Hollywood's interest in her story, and spent hours interviewing her about her experiences. "I think she trusted me because of my previous work (lesbian, feminist, and activist, like hers), and because we had a mutual friend that was someone she loved, who vouched for my integrity," Turner told the Journal.
Turner said she and Faith became good friends through the process, and she was devastated with Faith died in 2017, before the project could reach the screen.
"When I finished the first draft of the screenplay I asked her if she wanted to read it. She said "Oh, I know myself — I'll just want to point out every factual inaccuracy and drive you nuts. But I also know how movies work, and that sometimes you have to change facts around to tell the story. Why don't you just take me to the premiere?" Turner recalled. "I fully intended to do that. I will be thinking of her this week. I think she would like it a lot.
"Also I think she would be thrilled that Merritt Weaver was playing her. She was a big fan of the show 'Nurse Jackie."
"Charlie Says" is rated R by the MPAA for disturbing violent content, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use, and language.
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