Recently dubbed by Time magazine as “The Garbo of Bondage,” ’50s era pin-up Bettie Page is now more popular, and ostensibly more lusted after, than she was when her Eisenhower-era black and white nudie photos—and infamous (though non-nude) Irving Klaw “S&M lite” pix—were sold from under counters and in plain brown wrap. Inevitably they drew the attention of government morals-minders, who, of course, used various investigations as an excuse to look at as many Bettie Page pictures as possible.But Page wasn’t just an object of what feminist academics would call “the male gaze;” she became, as well, a symbol for a certain defiant ownership of one’s own sexuality, as witnessed by artists like Olivia who use Page as an icon of Ashtarte-like power.With so much Bettie Page mojo around—books (Klaw’s grandson is writing his), new collections of photos, new “where is Bettie now?” articles appearing (she famously exited the camera’s gaze in the early ’60s) constantly—a Bettie Page film was inevitable. And Mary Harron, getting a wonderfully sexy/innocent performance out of Gretchen Mol, who may never be thought of as blonde again, delivers that film in The Notorious Bettie Page, which opens this month, after recent successful showings at SXSW and other festivals.Harron talked with Below the Line about recreating the ’50s, recreating Bettie, and how directing A-list television like Six Feet Under differs from doing features.Below the Line: In your experience, what are the essential differences between directing for TV and making a feature?Mary Harron: The difference is [that with TV] you come into existing set-ups. [The crew] knows the style much better than you do. Six Feet Under was an amazing machine. We couldn’t even put our handbags down. Things [on set] moved so fast. You have to fit in with them—it’s not your show. The director is just a hired hand.BTL: And you don’t get to pick your crew! How did you gather your key heads for Bettie Page? Let’s start with DP Mott Hupfel.Harron: I was initially looking for bigger-name DPs, [but] I had a pile of DVDs and tapes I’d been sent by agents. I put one on called The American Astronaut, a $1 million black and white film Hupfel shot—a space-age western musical.BTL: For the black and white, since you were planning on using that?Harron: Yes. So I contacted his agent, [who] hold me [Hupfel] had done a lot of commercials. [After that] it’s a matter of how you’re going to get on with them, so we had lunch together. It’s not a good idea to talk to producers [about DPs]. You have to talk to directors about them. Producers don’t know what it’s like on a set.BTL: So who was next? What about the production designer?Harron: I’d already chosen Gideon Ponte. He worked [as production designer] with me on American Psycho. [And] John Dunn is an amazing costume designer. You go on what they’ve done.BTL: How did the department heads research the looks you wanted? Did they look at old Irving Klaw bondage films? Bettie Page pictures?Harron: The department heads find their teams, and in their world, they scan photographs from different books—not necessarily [pictures of] that location, but images that suggest what that location feels like. My friend Gideon [Ponte] brought in ’50s photographs. One was a picture taken in New York in the ’50s of James Dean in a coffee shop. A lot by [crime photographer] Weegee.BTL: Weegee! I love his stuff. Were you going for a noir look in the black and white segments?Harron: Noir is a very designed, controlled world. That’s why Sam Fuller was interesting to us.BTL: What films of his did you watch with your crew?Harron: Pickup on South Street was the film I felt was most right [for our look]. The Night of the Hunter is one of my favorite movies, though we didn’t really do it. Orson Welles, totally, [and] Douglas Sirk. Mexican [’50s era] Luis BuÃ±uel, Wuthering Heights. It’s not a great BuÃ±uel, but it seemed right for us.BTL: How did you find your editor, Tricia Cooke?Harron: Tricia had worked on a lot of Coen Brothers films. [The editor] is the other closest relationship you have, besides you and the DP. She also felt strongly we should go for opticals [in post]. Digital doesn’t have the same poetry. We had a battle to persuade HBO to let us use black and white stock. I think that was the single best decision I made. People don’t see that anymore. We had to do tests for HBO, then we tested a DI, but the trouble is, it’s a low-budget movie, and we were offered a pretty low-res DI. We went to LA to do a DVD transfer—we never had a proper DI—basically we were projecting a DVD! But I hope I get another turn, when DIs become cheaper. I’ve never been happy with the resolution of the print. We also had the live photos of Betty, and those we did digitally.BTL: But when you switched from the black and white of the New York scenes to the Sirk-like Technicolor of the Florida sequences, that was all film stock?Harron: I love the old technology. I love film. This is a movie about the ’50s. It’s also about film, and about image.
Written by Mark London Williams