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Why director Mary Harron made a movie about the woman who shot Andy Warhol

Mary Harron recreated the milieu of Andy Warhol and The Factory for her first feature film in 1996.

Movie about Valerie Solanas turns 25 in 2021

Director Mary Harron speaks during a media conference for Alias Grace at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12, 2017. (Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press)

It's been 25 years since Canadian-born movie director Mary Harron looked deep into the milieu of artist Andy Warhol's 1960s studio The Factory and at Valerie Solanas, the woman at the centre of the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol.    

Harron, the daughter of actor/comedian Don Harron, appeared on CBC-TV numerous times in 1996 to discuss the Warhol film, which was her first feature. She revisited it this week on CBC Radio's with guest host Jael Richardson.

The director has since helmed more feature films and episodes of TV shows, including the miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. More recently, she revisited the art world for 2021's Dali Land, set in the latter years of Spanish painter Salvador Dalí

Warhol, recently described by CBC News as a "pop-art phenom," is also back on the public radar as the focus of a recently opened showcase of his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

But in 1996, it wasn't Warhol's work or the people that surrounded him as much as Solanas and her attempt on his life that fascinated Harron when she made I Shot Andy Warhol.

'Lost history' 

Mary Harron's Warhol story

26 years ago
Duration 3:27
Director Mary Harron tells CBC's On the Arts about her 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol.

"It was Valerie that really impelled me to make this film, because of the mystery of her story," Harron told film critic Christopher Heard on CBC Newsworld's On the Arts in May 1996. "Not knowing who she was ... the lack of information about her."

She said Solanas's existence was "a real piece of lost history" and an "unknown story" that she wanted to explore.

Meanwhile, there was a "banal element" to Warhol's Factory, where people would "just sit around talking endlessly about nothing" that made it less interesting to the filmmaker.

'Turning point'

In another interview that aired the same day on the CBC network, she told Midday's Brent Bambury she had been intrigued by Warhol himself when she was younger.

"As I was growing up, Warhol was the most famous artist in the world, apart from Picasso," Harron said. "My mother [disapproved] of him, so that made him even more interesting." 

She said she viewed Warhol's shooting, in 1968, as a "turning point" in his life.

"I think that Warhol before and after the shooting are totally different people," said Harron. "He actually physically died on the operating table and came back to life."

According to the New York Times, Solanas's bullets "punctured [Warhol's] stomach, liver, spleen, esophagus and lungs." Warhol lived another 19 years, but he wore always wore a surgical corset "to support his abdomen." 

He died in 1987.

'Radical feminist' writings 

Mary Harron talks to Brent Bambury

26 years ago
Duration 7:13
The director of I Shot Andy Warhol talks to the Midday host when her film comes out in 1996.

Bambury asked how Solanas's best-known writing, a "radical feminist" work called the S.C.U.M. Manifesto that he described as "a bit insane," had informed Harron's film. 

"What fascinated me is, 'Is she crazy, is she sane, is she brilliant, is she just nuts?'" said Harron. "There's an analysis of what is wrong ... with the way men and women behave toward one another that is really quite brilliant in the manifesto."

In a 2020 look at Solanas's life and death, the New York Times noted that actor Lili Taylor's portrayal of her in I Shot Andy Warhol had been "widely praised."

Solanas and Warhol shared some attributes in common, said Harron.

"They were blue collar, they were Catholic, they were persecuted at school, they grew up poor," she said. "They grew up socially awkward and very, very bright, underestimated by the people around them."

Jael Richardson's interview with Mary Harron on Q aired Thursday, Aug. 5. 

On the Factory floor: An interview with Andy Warhol

3 years ago
Duration 2:08
From the Factory, the artist described what he likes to watch on TV and took a screen test of his interviewer.

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