Mary Harron was only too happy to find her American psycho producer Ed Pressman when he sent her a project on Salvador Dali. The only problem was that she wasn’t immediately attuned to the story.
“I’ve done I killed Andy Warhol and I didn’t know if I wanted to do another photo on an artist”, says the Canadian director of Dalilandwhich will make its world premiere as Toronto’s closing night film on September 17.
Fortunately, her husband, screenwriter John C Walsh, with whom she had collaborated on television projects but never feature films until now, brought to light two seductive elements of the story: the terror of death and aging that stalked the Spanish giant of the surrealist art world and his wife. and muse Gala, and the couple themselves.
“It’s the portrait of a marriage,” she says, “a particularly crazy marriage.” Harron and Walsh shifted the narrative thrust towards these themes and away from the project’s initially more pronounced focus on artistic fraud, industrialized by Dali’s associates using his signature on thousands of blank lithographs.
Apparently a coming-of-age tale of James, a fresh-faced assistant to Dali on the eve of an important show in New York, Daliland takes the young man and the spectator behind the velvet curtain. There, deeper themes play out against a 1973 backdrop fueled by hedonism, excess and extreme personalities. In short, familiar Harron territory. “They really liked the script,” Harron says of the producers.
Then life got in the way. “It just takes years to make a movie,” sighs Harron. “I went and did this Netflix series Alias Grace and then i did charlie says, so I had to ask everyone to wait. Things will be done when they should be done.
In 2021, about seven years after Pressman first proposed the project, Daliland had reckoned with schedule delays, casting changes and Covid-19 and was nearing the start line. Ben Kingsley would play the mustachioed maestro opposite Barbara Sukowa as Gala. The famous German actress and protege of Rainer Werner Fassbinder has replaced Lesley Manville, who left to honor a previous engagement.
Ezra Miller, who plays young Dali, was first cast as starstruck assistant James and when the actor stepped down to be in Fantastic Beasts: Dumbledore’s Secrets, Harron’s casting director sent him links to drama school showcases. She found Christopher Briney, a graduate of Pace University in New York.
David O Sacks Productions and Pressman Film were the main financiers of the title alongside private investors from the US, UK, France and Asia. Production was ready to start in Portugal, which had been relatively Covid-free until it was no longer and went into lockdown, after which UK producer Chris Curling of Zephyr Films helped move principal photography United Kingdom.
The producers – who include Pressman’s son Sam Pressman, Curling, David O Sacks and Daniel Brunt – have accessed UK tax relief and the government’s film and TV production restart scheme, while the sales agent international Bankside Films has received marketing support from the UK Global Screen Fund. CAA Media Finance represents US rights.
Daliland shot for 25 days from March to April 2021, mostly at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, which became the St. Regis New York where for four decades Dali kept a studio and visited each winter with Gala and their entourage of revelers .
Anglesey in Wales doubled for Cap de Creus near Cadaques, the Catalan seaside resort where the artist vacationed in his previous life. “You have to carefully back away from the sheep,” Harron recalls with a smile.
The director notes that newcomer Briney showed “seriousness and maturity” from his first day of filming. “Ben and all the actors have been very nice to him.” In fact, on the first day, the youngster was late because he had just auditioned for the male lead in the YA series. The summer when I became pretty for Prime Video, which became a hit and saw its Instagram following grow from several thousand to 1.6 million. “He’ll have a great career,” Harron said.
Sukowa, who starred in Margarethe von Trotta Hannah Arendt and Rose Luxemburg and Fassbinder Lola, among many others, was unfazed by the busy shoot. “She was like, ‘It’s okay, Fassbinder was giving me a take,'” the filmmaker recalled, adding that “Ben comes in with a completely done performance – it’s very intense, he has incredible focus before he gets on set” .
Directing Kingsley, the Oscar-winning lead role of Gandhi whose credits include Schindler’s list and sexy beast, Harron impassive: “You hesitate a little because it’s a bit like approaching the Pope, but he is always very respectful towards the directors. He’s really good at improvisation, although I don’t think that’s his favorite thing. And he’s very good at comedy.
As Dali, the sun around which New York’s avant-garde art scene orbits, Harron says Kingsley saw a chance to play the one role he didn’t in the Royal Shakespeare Company. “He says it was his King Lear,” Harron reveals.
Sukowa poured passion, fury and love into Gala, says Harron. “[Gala] breaks the stereotype of the muse… She was this very vital and violent force.
Her penchant for young male lovers is on full display in Daliland and, similarly, Harron presents Dali’s instruction to models to slather paint their derrieres as a perfectly reasonable occurrence in the workplace.
“It was in the 70s,” says Harron. “Dali loved nudity and scenes of excess and orgiasm. He was a voyeur, of which we show a few. I was young in New York in the 70s and in some ways it was an innocent time.
Miller plays young Dali in a handful of scenes. The movie locked down before the actor’s controversial behavior and mental health issues surfaced. “It’s terrible for everyone what happened with Ezra,” Harron says, “but the movie is over. It would be so damaging [to remove the scenes]. [Ezra is] a really important part of it.
Chronicling extremes without attaching moral judgment has been a defining feature of Harron’s career. His portrayals of controversial characters, voluntarily or not, in I killed Andy Warhol and The famous Betty Pageor studies in psychopathy in the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis American psycho and the drama of Charles Manson charlie says earned him a cult following.
The closest she’s ever come to directing a story about a contemporary personality was a TV movie about the late Playboy cover girl and model Anna Nicole Smith. The director has done quite a bit of contemporary TV, but is generally leery of living famous people. “It just seems too close and then you have to deal with how they feel about it. If it’s past, it’s a bit more like fiction.
When considering his career milestones, Harron can’t help but check out the name of most of his features and a TV venture. I killed Andy Warhol (1996), according to her, is special because it was her first feature film, whereas American psycho (2000) “had the greatest impact”. Adapted by Margaret Atwood Alias Grace in 2017 was significant as she directed all six episodes of the series and compares it to “doing a long movie”. charlie says as of 2018 remains a source of pride that she wishes she had received more attention.
“My favorite is usually the most recent, which is Dalilandsays Harron. She and Walsh are working on another feature film and there are other projects in the mix, though she declines to say what’s next. “I don’t want to disturb anyone.