Filmmaker Daniel Farrands Tells a Moving, Yet Chilling Story About Sharon Tate
For the longest time, writer/director Daniel Farrands has found himself drawn to telling the story of Sharon Tate and her friends who were killed by members of the Charles Manson cult in 1969. He lives in LA, where of course, those infamous Bel Air murders are never too far from discussion whenever someone mentions the words “true crime.” Farrands has also been a student of the horror genre for many years and is a seasoned producer of such thrillers as The Id (2015) and The Amityville Murders (2018).
As if all of that isn’t enough, his mother was pregnant with him fifty years ago at the same time Tate was pregnant with her baby. All of that informs his chilling and yet, incredibly sensitive new film The Haunting of Sharon Tate.
Still, Farrands wasn’t entirely sure he should tackle such a difficult subject, especially given that Tate’s relatives tend to bristle at Hollywood retelling the tale. “We are treading on such very holy ground with this,” he told me. “This is sacred territory. To depict this story, I felt a tremendous responsibility just from the concept of it, to do something that felt respectful of these people who lost their lives in such a horrific way, and I had to find a way into it as a storyteller that would empower these characters in a way that had not been seen before.”
His way in was two-fold. First, Farrands focuses wholly on the victims of that August 9 night at 10050 Cielo Drive in Bel Air. He leaves the Manson family members on the periphery. They figure in the recreation of the notorious massacre, of course, but beyond that, no. The actor who plays Manson in it doesn’t even get face time. Instead, the filmmaker concentrates on Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent.
And while the scenes where those five people meet their demise is a central part of the film, it only accounts for about 10 minutes of the film. Instead, the core of it is showcasing the interactions between the five, mostly before the terror began. In truth, this film is more character study than a horror film, as Farrands works to ensure that his players aren’t relegated to those whited out figures in the crime scene photos from Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s bestseller about the Tate/La Bianca Murders. (Farrands doesn’t touch upon the second night of killings by Manson followers. Perhaps that could be a second film.)
Farrand’s second way into this material to treat it with sensitivity and not sensationalism was to let Tate’s words inform his script. Affectingly played by Hilary Duff, in a career-changing role, she gives voice to many of Tate’s actual quotes peppered throughout the story. Farrands uses interviews she gave discussing marriage, pregnancy, and her career in Hollywood, not to mention her greatest fears and doubts. He incorporates some thoughts she shared at the time about dreams, nightmares, and premonitions she had that she’d die early. Truth is always stranger than fiction, and Farrands’ script knows that it is far more terrifying too.
The script keeps a close watch on the people in the drama, but that’s not to say that the film slacks on production values. Quite the contrary, the cinematography by Carlo Rinaldi captures both the hazy beauty of Los Angeles as well as the phantasmagoric frenzy the night of the killings. The costumes by Susan Doepner-Senac epitomize the 60s without caricaturing it. And the hair and makeup people do an excellent job of making Duff resemble the sultrier Tate.
Most impressive may be the production design by Brenton Berna and Zack Matzganis. They uncannily capture the look and feel of the Cielo home. “Luckily,” Farrands told me, “we shot the movie in Los Angeles where I found two houses that had essentially what we wanted. The house you see from the front is a house in Laurel Canyon, and it was designed by Robert Byrd, the same architect who designed the Cielo Drive house. The garage is almost an exact replica, right down to the red color.”
The lawn and pool are from another location, but it looks incredibly similar to the actual one on the property that Tate’s husband Roman Polanski leased from music producer Terry Melcher.
Farrands is a stickler for such details, but he saves the best ones for his mining of the relationships between Tate and the others. Her banter with best friend Sebring, played by an exceedingly charming Jonathan Bennett, has a ‘complete each other’s sentences’ intimacy to it. As for her relationship with the devil-may-care house guest friends of Polanski’s, that’s where some of the movie’s best tension lies.
Folger (Lydia Hearst) and Wojciech (Pawel Szajda) could be charming, but they lived for the moment, and his drug-dealing brought a lot of negative vibes and customers into the house. That created enormous stress for Tate, and she finds some solace in talking with Steven Parent (Ryan Cargill). That’s a big liberty Farrands takes in his script since Parent was a friend of the house’s caretaker Willie Garretson, not Tate’s, but it’s a clever conceit that makes sense as it allows Tate to share her thoughts with an objective outsider and lets the filmmaker speak truth through such a device.
The joys of Tate are shown in part too. She loved animals, was sweet almost to a fault and had an easy, breezy sensuality that personified California dreaming. Still, dread seeps in around the corners of every scene here, never forgetting the tragedy that will befall Tate and her friends. Farrands commented, “It is beyond what we can imagine…the level of fear that would take over…that hormone we have within us that will protect us, that fight or flight thing. (Tate) was tied up and couldn’t go anywhere and was put at the mercy of these psychotic people.”
Farrands wisely refrains from showing a full attack on the eight-months pregnant Tate during her final moments alive. We know what happens, and no cinematic imagery needs to underline that fact. Instead, the filmmaker ensures that we walk away from this film feeling the tragedy all the more because it happened to people that we’ve come to know and like. Finally, these people are the main characters in their story.
“I feel like we’re at a strange place again today,” the director admitted, citing comparisons between mass shootings terrifying the modern populace in ways similar to the effect Manson and his minions had on the nation cresting into the 70s. Farrands is right, and indeed, all good period pieces have a lot to say about the present. The Haunting of Sharon Tate also critiques the horror genre, reminding viewers that the scariest effects in this type of film are not CGI blood and gore, but the terror etched on innocent faces. You will be haunted by Sharon Tate’s face after seeing this film and how her beautiful life and spirit were so callously snuffed out. It’s that moving, and that scary.
by Jeff York
Jeff York has been writing film criticism online since 2011. His weekly blog “The Establishing Shot” is read in 27 countries and he was a film critic for the Examiner online for six years, covering mainstream cinema, as well as horror until the magazine shuttered in 2016. Jeff comes from the world of Chicago advertising, and he’s also an illustrator whose work has appeared in hundreds of periodicals including Playboy, the Chicago Tribune, and W magazine. Jeff is an optioned screenwriter, an original member of the Chicago Indie Critics (CIC), and belongs to both SAG-AFTRA and the International Screenwriters Association. You can find his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes as well.
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