Charles Manson rarely communicates with the world outside of Corcoran State Prison, where he's been incarcerated since 1989. Locked away from not only regular citizens, but often other prisoners when he's in protective custody or solitary confinement, Manson's mind has become more unhinged. This was discovered when, using a smuggled cell phone, Manson reached out to Canadian author Marlin Marynick, who would later write the best-selling biography Charles Manson Now, about interviewing Manson for a film Manson had been imagining.
Still holding onto the 10 hours of phone conversations, that had become the basis for his book, Marynick was put in touch with animator Leah Shore following the 2010 Sundance Film Festival premiere of her short film Meatwaffle. The next month it was decided that Leah would make a "strange fine art/animated vision" out of Marynick's Manson recordings in an attempt to convey the man, the myth, and his madness—or as people called Manson in prison, the "old man." Marynick says, "Everyone in Manson's world ends up with a nickname."
Shore's film, also titled Old Man, is a dizzying, stream-of-consciousness exploration into, around, and through what makes Manson tick. Painstakingly edited down to five minutes, the short crunches as many thoughts together as it does animated mediums: from clay, colored pencil, ink, paint, digital, and more.
It doesn't feel insane, maybe just because it gets at something stranger. Manson's manic pontifications on our brainwashed society, air, God, mass suicide, and more have their moments of clarity and dare I say brilliance. All of this is enhanced and the thoughts exacerbated by Shore's non-stop, raw, and wild animation. When you're listening to someone so steeped in myth and legend, it's hard to parse what he really believes and what you believe he believes. And so when Manson unexpectedly gets up and walks away, you're left staring at your screen wondering what the hell just happened.
Watch the film, then check out the conversation I had with filmmaker Leah Shore and the interviewer himself, Marlin Marynick.
VICE: How did this interview with Charles even happen?
Marlin Marynick: The audio in the film is based on my phone conversations with Charles Manson. We had a mutual friend. When Manson found out I was involved in film, he called and asked if I would be interested in doing an interview. His vision was that I was to dress as a soldier, and he would be dressed as a general. He wanted to command all the armies in the world to stop fighting each other, and start fighting pollution. Of course, the prison system would never allow this, so that interview never happened.
Leah, were you familiar with Marlin's work before you came across his interview?
Leah Shore: To be honest, no, but I did immediately read Charles Manson Now. It is a wonderful biography about Marlin, his life, how hard and wonderful it has been and it leading up to him befriending Mr. Charles Manson. You should read it. It's a great read.
I was fortunate to have my undergrad thesis Meatwaffle compete at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. There, I met producer/entrepreneur Chris Barrett. He came up to me and said, "I saw your film. It was awesome and psychedelic. I know someone who is friends with Charles Manson and I think you two should make a film." Then, I was introduced to Marlin. We hit it off as friends and collaborators. I was also introduced to my EP, Carl D'Andre, without whom I wouldn't have been able to make the film.
Once you heard it, did you know what you wanted to do with it?
Shore: I received the audio after talking to Grey Wolf, Manson's best friend and Marlin. Marlin trusted my strange fine art/animated vision and gave me everything I needed. I still have some amazing audio, some with Manson improvising a song on the toilet. It, unfortunately, did not go with the story. I knew I wanted to make a five-minute film. I knew it was going to be a mixed medium film. And I knew that I should probably edit the audio to make it seamless, as if I were listening to one absolute thought, as opposed to a bunch of different ones.
The audio you are listening to is my obsessively edited version. I was given access to hours of phone conversations between Marlin and Charles Manson. It took me about three months to edit it down to the five minute version you are listening to. So when I was done editing the audio, I knew I could start the picture aspect of the film, which took me two and a half years to finish.
And so I assume Charles and Marlin were cool with all this?
Marynick: Manson was cool with allowing Leah to use the audio. I love Leah's work, and could see what she wanted to do with it right away. I think the film turned out amazingly well.
Do you have any idea of what Charles thinks of this recording and the fact that it's one of the only documents let loose since his incarceration and the fact that there's now an animated film to that conversation that has traveled the world?
Shore: Well, I hear from a certain bird that Charles actually knows about the film and me and that he completely approves. So thank you, Old Man! I approve of it too! I think he is just happy that this recording is out and that people can hear him and his thoughts. He wants to be heard still and apparently prison will not stop the man.
Marynick: I wish Charlie could see it; he never got to see the film though.
Leah, are you like one of those people that are obsessed with Charles Manson, but in like an unhealthy way?
Shore: No. Not. At. All. In fact, I purposefully did not research him too much. I wanted to reflect on the audio alone and try not to judge him. I wanted to make something that was raw and wasn't like any other Manson-themed films.
Marlin, were you shocked that he talked to you over, what I assume to be, many other interested parties?
Marynick: Our relationship eventually became a book, Charles Manson Now. I think the fascinating thing with him is that he is very different from the public's perception. He is a media creation. Of course his voice is undeniable, you know who you are talking to immediately. He is timeless, and in a way it's like talking to history. I think the film gives a candid look into what he is really like, what you hear is Charlie talking about what is important to him. I'm still a little shocked that he calls. He doesn't care about celebrity, or fame, not at all. He has very different values than most people.
What was the most shocking part of your conversation with Charles?
Marynick: He is the most direct person I've ever talked to. That takes some getting use to. The most shocking thing would be what he has to deal with. On the 40th anniversary of the murders, he had over 2,500 media requests from all over the world. He gets more mail than any American inmate ever. There are always films, books, music—everybody wants something from him.
He has spent most of his prison life in solitary confinement. I think he was forced to face his demons—that level of isolation has to do something to a person. I have no idea how he does it. There is almost a curse that goes along with him, there is this seductive vortex of madness that surrounds him, people are attracted to this, and they are destroyed financially, or professionally. It happens all the time. I've been watching that happen for four or five years.
What are you two up to now?
Marynick: For the past 20 years, I've worked in psychiatry. I'm part of a crisis response team in my city. I do emergency, outreach stuff for our mental health clinic.
Shore: I am trying to produce four short films, three that are live action that focus on women going through menopause in a surreal way, a comedy, a character study, and one that is animated and is a comedy about a kid that learns how to read. I am also trying to pitch three comedic shows. Two animated dirty, comedic adult shows and one live action adult show. Someone should probably let me pitch to them. They are groovy and insane. I want to make a feature and start producing music videos in the near future as well.
That's great. Thanks for talking Leah and Marlin.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as the senior curator for Vimeo's On Demandplatform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.