50 years after Manson murders, ‘The Haunting of Sharon Tate’ team says film empathizes with the victims – LA Daily News

Writer-director Daniel Farrands says the nerves that arrived as he started work on “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” never left him through the months of writing, shooting, and post-production on the film.

“It’s like, until this very moment, this interview with you, anxiety persists,” says Farrands, a veteran horror filmmaker whose work on the film has a ghostly dream-like quality. “We’re treading in a way on holy ground with this, and you have to be very careful.”

That same sense of responsibility toward the victims of the real-life crime was also felt by the cast, says Lydia Hearst.

Hearst plays Abigail Folger, Sharon Tate’s close friend, and one of the five who were murdered by members of the Manson Family cult at Tate’s Benedict Canyon home on Aug. 9, 1969. Hilary Duff plays Tate, who was married to director Roman Polanski at the time and pregnant with their first child.

“Just based on my own family and background, I would not be in a film that would exploit or sensationalize anyone,” says Hearst, whose mother Patty Hearst was kidnapped and coerced into joining a domestic terror group in 1974, a crime of roughly equal notoriety to the Manson murders five years earlier.

“I’m sure all of us who went into the film, we went into it with nothing but respect for the lives of the people who we were portraying,” Hearst says.

“The Haunting of Sharon Tate” is the first of at least three upcoming films that in part tell the stories of what happened that night at 10500 Cielo Drive some five decades ago this summer.

The others include director Mary Harron’s “Charlie Says,” which arrives May 10 and focuses more on the women involved in the Manson killings and how their lives unfolded in prison over the years that followed. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” from writer-director Quentin Tarantino hits theaters on July 26 with its multiple storylines, including the killings, set in Los Angeles in the summer of ’69. (A fourth film, “Tate” has Kate Bosworth in the title role and ends before she is killed; it for now does not have a release date.)

“The Haunting of Sharon Tate” is perhaps the most intimate of these three, with its cast primarily just the five women and men who died at Tate’s home. Its main set a look-alike designed by Robert Byrd, the Los Angeles architect who also built the now-torn-down Cielo Drive house.

As for the story, Farrands uses as a jumping-off point an article published by Fate magazine a few months after Tate’s death in which the writer told of interviewing the actress a year before the slayings and hearing her recount a nightmare or premonition of her dying violently in a manner similar to what actually happened.

“My approach to the story was – and had to be for me to consider doing something like this – to somehow find a way to empower these victims,” Farrands says. “And without giving sort of the unusual aspects of the plot away, I steered away very consciously from trying to do another recreation of the actual events, the way they happened.

“My way of doing that was to ask this question about fate that is thematically the throughline of the movie: If we had a chance to rewrite our own story could we do it? If we were empowered with knowledge we didn’t have, could we change the course of things?”

That idea – that a simple twist of fate might change the trajectory of one’s life – originated from the unlikely source of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1986 film “Peggy Sue Got Married,” in which the title character played by Kathleen Turner passes out in the present day only to wake up decades earlier in high school with a chance to redo decisions she’d made in that time period.

“I wanted to kind of transpose that theme onto a story that was obviously much different tonally, but ask the same thematic questions,” Farrands says. “By setting this movie in sort of an alternative universe, creatively I could tell a story that for me is more satisfying emotionally, and gave me what I needed, which was this kind of catharsis of giving these victims the chance to turn the tables on their murderers.”

Hearst says the main twist in “The Haunting of Sharon Tate,” was one of the major reasons she wanted to be part of the film. “You don’t want them to have the tragic ending,” she says. “You want them to have prevailed and been victorious over these horrible people.”

As a fan and collector of horror movies and memorabilia – and, oddly, one who owns all the back issues of Fate, the long-running magazine of the paranormal – Hearst says she also responded to the character-driven nature of the script.

“Many of my scenes were with Hilary, and she was so incredibly warm and wonderful,” Hearst says. “Some of those scenes where our characters were bonding were actually some of the most fun to film.”

And given the closeness of the cast – other than the five women and men and Tate’s house, the only other characters seen are fleeting glimpses of Manson & Co. – the violent scenes hit hard, she says.

“It’s a very strange thing to say but emotions were running high, especially when you know that this really did happen and you’re essentially reliving what these people went through,” Hearst says. “The tears, all of that, they were very real for all of us.”

Farrands and Hearst are both sensitive to criticisms that their film is exploitative – Debra Tate, Sharon Tate’s younger sister, criticized it when it was in production a year ago – and say they hope it won’t be judged before it’s viewed.

“I can understand people’s interest and intrigue with certain events and certain individuals,” Hearst says when asked how she feels about the many film and TV projects done about her mother’s story. “I would never blame an actor for taking on a role. The only time that I think I have to question why someone’s doing something is when they’re either mocking or trivializing the events that occurred or making it more sensational than it was.”

Farrands, meanwhile, says that even when he’s worked on installments in the “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th” franchises, he’s always tried to place the emotional and empathetic focus on the victims, and believes viewers will see that in this film, too.

“I get why the family would be upset that this kind of stuff is being done, but you know what, on the other hand, I sort of feel like, ‘Let me explain to you what this is, so that you don’t walk away thinking we’ve made this bloody, exploitative movie,’” Farrands says. “For me, it’s always about the human beings. I’ve always identified with the victims in everything I’ve done.”