June 28, 2013 at 02:00 PM EDT

It’s no longer shocking when established film directors turn to TV — after all, Martin Scorsese, Jane Campion, and David Fincher have all done it recently to great acclaim.

Still, you may be surprised to learn that Lifetime’s upcoming Anna Nicole Smith biopic was directed by none other than Mary Harron — a filmmaker best known for her wicked work on controversial cult favorites like I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho. Thanks in part to Harron’s pedigree, the movie also managed to attract an unusually accomplished cast, including Oscar winner Martin Landau (as Anna Nicole’s wealthy husband J. Howard Marshall), Oscar nominee Virginia Madsen (as Anna’s mother, Virgie), indie stalwart Adam Goldberg (as Anna’s lawyer and companion, Howard K. Stern), and Princess Bride star-turned-character actor Cary Elwes (as J. Howard’s scheming son E. Pierce Marshall).

So how did a movie maverick find herself on the set of a made-for-TV flick about a notorious celebrity train wreck? Easy — the film’s producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Maron, simply called her up and asked if she wanted the job. (Zadan and Maron must have a thing for Marilyn Monroe; their canceled series Smash revolved around a Marilyn musical, while Anna Nicole is peppered with references to Monroe being Smith’s idol.)

“They said they wanted to do a director-driven movie, and that was very interesting,” Harron explained in a phone interview. “And I thought it was interesting to try and do a TV movie that was like a movie-movie, in a way.”

What is it that separates Anna Nicole from a garden-variety Lifetime movie — and why does Harron think we’re still fascinated with Smith’s story, even six years after her death? The answer lies in Anna Nicole‘s unique approach to its subject, according to the director — and the enduring allure of the “beauty queen” story.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve made two other movies about misunderstood female figures — Valerie Solanas (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Bettie Page (The Notorious Bettie Page). Did you see any connection between these women and Anna Nicole?

MARY HARRON: Yes, I did. They’re all outsiders, in a way, and I think the trajectory of Bettie Page and Anna — the beauty queen story often has great similarities. Same with [Marilyn] Monroe: They have poor childhoods, they’re emotionally neglected, there’s some kind of sexual abuse somewhere in the story. And then this desire for fame and attention, which is a substitute for love. I was interested in seeing how this classic pin-up story — which is what Anna Nicole was, really — played out in the ’80s and ’90s.

As you said, these tragic beauty queen stories tend to follow similar trajectories. How do you put your own stamp on a story that a lot of people feel they already know?

When I read the script, I knew it would be female-centered and sympathetic to her. If it was a Lifetime movie, it would be about the woman — she would be the heroine, and I liked that. I wanted her to be sympathetic. She did some bad things — [she was] a terrible mother in some ways — but she was a very sympathetic person, and a vulnerable person. I didn’t want it to be mocking her. If you look online at the comments people do about her real life, and obviously with the reality show — which was kind of grotesque — people are very abusive about her. People are mean about her.

The term “Lifetime movie” carries certain connotations. People have preconceptions about what that means — did you?

I suppose everybody does have preconceptions. But when Craig and Neil called me, I knew that Lifetime wanted to do a new kind of movie. I had heard that they were looking to kind of broaden their range. And frankly, when I saw the script, it didn’t read like a Lifetime movie script — or like the ones that people think of, which tend to be more, uh —

— melodramatic?

Yeah. More woman in peril, I suppose. And I like melodrama. Those can be really gripping and fun. But this was more complex. It wasn’t just a woman as a victim, it was also a woman as an agent of her destiny — God knows, she really did have a lot of drive to succeed. So it was quite a complex character here.

You mentioned that Meron and Zadan wanted to make a TV movie that felt like a “movie-movie.” What do you mean by that?

Just the way it was shot — the kind of lighting I would use, and the kind of cinematography I would use on an independent film. The guy who shot it, Mike Simmonds, is a really great young DP who actually hadn’t worked in television at all. [He] had done a lot of indie movies like Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. I knew that he was very fast, and that he could really do creative things with minimal lighting. It wouldn’t just have TV lighting. Lighting is very important to me. It’s all about the lighting. [Laughs]

Does the finished product seem like an indie movie to you?

I think it’s its own thing. It’s like an indie version of a TV movie, I would say. It’s more a hybrid. I think if you were doing an indie film, it would be a little bit more R-rated. But you have certain guidelines that you have to follow for Lifetime — there’s no nudity.

Was it difficult to conform to TV standards while making an R-rated story?

It’s not terribly — it’s just, “Oh, okay, guess we can’t show any breast. No nipple, no pasties in the strip club.” [Laughs] You just have to be careful. Which is a little hard with Anna, known for taking her clothes off. [There were] a lot of shots from the side and the back. You can create the illusion of showing more than you actually do. Including — [star Agnes Bruckner] had these big prosthetic breasts. [Laughs] A lot of time on the prosthetic breasts.

How did you cast Agnes?

We did see a lot of people — she did come in and read for it. When you’re playing a real person, it’s really demanding. You have to physically embody that person. You have to make it credible. So it was not just about “Can she do it as an actress?”; [it’s also about] “Can she look like Anna?” If you see her in real life, she’s not a girly girl at all. She never wears high heels; we had to cover up all her tattoos. But she embraced it.

Did you speak with Larry Birkhead or Howard K. Stern while you were making the film?

No — and anyway, that would be really difficult. They always see their story a little bit differently than you. In some ways, you just have to do the characters that are in the script.

Do you think they’ll see the movie?

I’m sure they’ll see it. I hope that they see that it’s a sympathetic portrait of Anna.

Did you watch The Anna Nicole Show when it was airing?

I was very interested in her. I just thought it was going to be so upsetting because of Danny [Smith, Anna Nicole’s son]. I was like, “Oh no, I can’t watch this.” Now we’re kind of toughened up — you’re used to people being humiliated onscreen all the time. I actually sort of love reality [TV]; I love The Real Housewives and all that. But at that point, it was like, this kid is being tormented. At the same [time], you could have done a great movie just about Anna and Howard K. Stern and the reality show.

Yeah, all that stuff is sort of glazed over in Anna Nicole — it covers a lot more of Anna’s rise than her fall.

I loved that last part. On the other hand, to understand Anna, you have to understand the childhood. And the relationship with J. Howard is very interesting — it is much sweeter than I expected. And I don’t think it’s just soft-pedaling; I think there really was an affection between them. He was a kind of father figure for someone who had had a terrible father, and she brought him back to life, really, when he was very, very depressed after the death of his wife — J. Howard’s wife and his mistress, who was a stripper, died around the same time. So it’s not like she was the first stripper in his life. He adored her, and he had a huge amount of money and wanted to spend it on her. You can’t really blame her.

Did she really wear her wedding dress to J. Howard’s funeral?

Yes, she certainly did. That’s Anna!

What were the weirdest things you learned about her while making the movie — the things that seemed too crazy to be true?

The thing where she’s taking J. Howard’s ashes around and showing them the new house, that’s real. And I don’t think it’s necessarily clear in the film — Anna’s father was sent to jail for sexually abusing her mother’s younger sister. Imagine that’s how you start in life.

I was also wondering about that scene where she’s wandering around in clown makeup.

That’s on the Internet, the real-life clown makeup scene. Originally I think the writers had put it in as her wearing the makeup to a children’s party and, like, scaring all the kids. But when I looked at the video, it was just this little girl who I guess she was friendly with in the Bahamas, a neighboring child, painting her face. It’s like two kids playing. I asked the writers if they would mind going to that version, and they said sure.

Anna Nicole died six years ago, and there’s already been another TV movie made about her life. Why do you think Lifetime chose to make a new film about her, and to release it now?

You know, I don’t know — you’d have to ask the producers. Because it just came out of the blue, really, for me. I remember however many years ago it was, how awful it was — reading about Anna and thinking, “Oh, she had a baby girl, that’s nice.” Because we’d seen her ups and downs and being 300 pounds and then slimming down. And then like three days later, the death of Danny was one of the most horrible public dramas. That was what I remember, this very tragic story. I’m amazed by how much interest there is in her now. I wasn’t expecting that; I just thought it was a good story.

And finally, I’m sure a lot of fans of your work are wondering — do you see any through-line from American Psycho to Anna Nicole?

[Long pause] They’re period movies. In a way, it’s American success, isn’t it? The dream and the perils of American success, and what does that do to you. For Anna, she’d gotten, for a time, everything you could want in a fantasy of publicity and attention and money — celebrity. And when it’s suddenly pulled away from you, there’s this terrible fall. It’s the American dream.

Anna Nicole premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.

Follow Hillary on Twitter.

Read more:

‘Anna Nicole’ costume designer on re-creating Smith’s iconic looks and working around Agnes Bruckner’s prosthetic breasts

‘The Anna Nicole Story’ trailer: Pills, booze, and one bummer of a ‘Fame’ cover — VIDEO

Lifetime’s ‘Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret’ sneak peek gets bloody — VIDEO

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