“I have all the characteristics of a human being: flesh, blood, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why.”
I have been amused to see how, with time, the popularity of Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” (2000) just keeps growing. It is consistently on everyone’s list as one of the greatest horror films. When it was in production, there were threats of protests against it being made because the Columbine shootings had been so recent as well as organizations deeming the book and the upcoming film to be misogynistic. Director Harron had to fight to get a not yet famous Christian Bale cast for the studio was pining after Leonardo DiCaprio. When it was released, it got mixed reviews, and I vividly recall finding it difficult to get someone to go with me to see it. A couple of days ago, I sat down to watch it again, and was amazed at how prophetic it feels. The chills that it provides are not from the murders that Patrick Bateman, the main character, enacts, but in the realization that our existing state is a direct consequence of the culture and the obsessions that this film satirizes.
Viewed through the COVID prism, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the character of Bateman – who has started to feel haunted by the shallowness of the world he’s lusted after and the things amassed for himself. He’s obsessed with the Donald Trump of the 80s, and what he represents. Bateman is surrounded by the status-driven masters of the universe on Wall Street – where getting last minute dinner reservations at the chicest restaurants and being seated at the best tables are themselves a form of nourishment. His maintenance of his physical appearance, his shower routine, his fixation with his cleansing and moisturization of his face are a total immersion into capitalist consumption – and Harron observes them all as if they were modern day sacraments. “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman,” he observes. “Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.” What’s even sadder is that Bateman is not alone. The entire millieu that surrounds him is as self-centered and vain as he is – and equally addicted to greed. That’s the real horror of this film – and a lot of the comedy derives from watching the operatic excesses.
Bateman is a wealthy investment banker – although we never see him actually doing any work. His office – like his apartment – is white on white and minimalist. He’s engaged to a socialite named Evelyn whom he has an antipathy towards, but she is a necessary accoutrement. They gravitate in a circle of wealthy young urban professionals like themselves. His co-workers are constantly sizing each other up by their Valentino Couture suits. A hilarious scene – often quoted by fans of the film – is all about them comparing their business cards. In an internal monologue, Bateman comments, “Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh my God… it even has a watermark.” He muses about the symbolism of songs – demonstrating his voraciousness for pop culture. He will recite his dissertations on Whitney Houston, Phill Collins and Huey Lewis and the News. “I think their undisputed masterpiece is ‘Hip to be Square,’ a song so catchy, most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics,” he deliberates. “But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself.”
To find some meaning to the mendacity and to also release some of his own self-loathing, Bateman has started to fantasize about murdering people. In an early scene at a nightclub, as the female bartender walks away after taking his order, he faces the mirror, and his image reflects his internal rage. Eventually he murders Paul Allen who exemplifies a perfect counterpart to him. It escalates to him raping and torturing women. But is it all really happening or is Bateman simply going mad? And even more dreadful to ponder, do people care about his murderous rampage?
Harron dissects male narcissism and consumption – and takes it to its most extreme shape. Perceptibly, she emphasizes the space that surrounds Bateman – in particular the emptiness around his figure. It is all very disconcerting and astringently entertaining. The camera gives you the point of view of the women as Bateman lures them in for his violent act – and the view is amusing. She also gets Bale to give us an iconic performance. It’s extraordinary to watch him slowly becoming unhinged. I’ve also never seen an actor who is able to communicate the shallowness of a human being in an empty look in his eyes – shark-like.
Patrick Bateman: “My name is Patrick Bateman. I’m 27 years old. I believe in taking care of myself, and a balanced diet and a rigorous exercise routine. In the morning, if my face is a little puffy, I’ll put on an ice pack while doing my stomach crunches. I can do a thousand now. After I remove the ice pack I use a deep pore cleanser lotion. In the shower I use a water activated gel cleanser, then a honey almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub. Then I apply an herb-mint facial masque which I leave on for 10 minutes while I prepare the rest of my routine. I always use an after shave lotion with little or no alcohol, because alcohol dries your face out and makes you look older. Then moisturizer, then an anti-aging eye balm followed by a final moisturizing protective lotion.”
Available to stream on Peacock and to rent on Amazon, Apple TV, Redbox, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, FandangoNOW, Microsoft, DIRECTV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner
Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis
Directed by Mary Harron
Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Josh Lucas, Samantha Mathis, Matt Ross, Bill Sage, Chloë Sevigny, Cara Seymour, Justin Theroux, Guinevere Turner, Reg E. Cathey and Reese Witherspoon
Director and Co-Writer Mary Harron on Bringing “American Psycho” to the Screen
“Leo, Leo, Leo.” The name dripped longingly off the lips of teenage girls in 1997, following the unmatched success of ‘Titanic.’ But adolescents weren’t the only ones lusting after him. Studios everywhere were clamouring to seduce the golden boy into signing up for their next project, and, though their prospects were modest, the starry-eyed producers of “American Psycho” were no different. On a lark, Lion’s Gate, the company that owned the project, sent a copy of the script and a $20m offer to Leonardo DiCaprio. To everyone’s surprise, the actor was interested. This, of course, was unbeknown to “American Psycho” director Mary Harron. The creator of ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’ – and a rock critic at the Guardian in the early 80s – had been working for months on this black comedy about an 80s Wall Street serial killer – scripting a number of drafts with writing partner Guinevere Turner (“Go Fish”) and deciding, after an exhaustive search, to place British actor Christian Bale (“Velvet Goldmine”) in the lead role. “When I offered him the part,” the 46-year-old Harron recalls, “he said he had all these messages on his answering machine telling him this was career suicide. And that just made him more excited. That’s sort of how I reacted, too.” Lion’s Gate, on the other hand, was less keen. Bent on reaping a healthy international profit, they wanted a bigger Hollywood name, someone like Edward Norton. “We had a huge battle over it,” Harron says. “They would’ve taken almost anybody over Christian.” Lion’s Gate announced DiCaprio’s involvement at Cannes in May 1998. Bale was stunned; Harron aghast. “When you’re trying to get your film financed, you’re up against a bunch of people who don’t care anything about that.” She takes a deep breath. “Most of the time they don’t care if the cast is appropriate or not, and movies have sunk like that. Like Demi Moore in ‘The Scarlet Letter?’ Ridiculous.” Despite the urgings of the project’s producer Ed Pressman, Harron, allied with Bale, refused to meet with the film’s new star. “Leonardo wasn’t remotely right [for the part]. There’s something very boyish about him. He’s not credible as one of these tough Wall Street guys.” Besides, she adds, “he brought way too much baggage with him – I did not want to deal with someone who had a 13-year-old fan base. They shouldn’t see the movie. It could’ve gotten us in a lot of trouble.” DiCaprio’s fans were barely old enough to read in 1991, when writer Bret Easton Ellis shocked the literary world with “American Psycho.” His stomach-churning tale of a yuppie madman with a tendency to mutilate his dates was also was a clever, comically exaggerated satire of 80s materialism and conformity. Feminists and critics, however, were not amused. When original publishers Simon & Schuster dropped the novel after company employees objected furiously it almost destroyed Ellis’s career. Vintage eventually picked it up, but the furore remained. As such, prospects of a film looked bleak – until 1992, when Johnny Depp apparently expressed interest in it. A succession of scripts followed, and various directors and stars would ultimately flirt with the project.
“The years I spent on this property,” sighs producer Ed Pressman (“The Crow”), “the only person who actually ever conveyed a clear solution as to how to do it was Mary.” But DiCaprio was not part of her plan. At the same time, the mere idea of one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors starring in a would-be slasher film provoked a maelstrom of protest from activists, feminist icon Gloria Steinem prominent among them. It certainly didn’t help Lion’s Gate that their one strong female voice, the stalwart Harron, was unceremoniously bumped from the project. “Basically, as soon as I said I didn’t want to compromise my position, Lion’s Gate wanted me out,” she says. Soon after, DiCaprio had drafted a short list of directors, including Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese, with whom he’d like to work. (DiCaprio would end up collaborating with both, starring in Boyle’s “The Beach” and Scorsese’s…”Gangs of New York.”) While other names – David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme, and even Stanley Kubrick – were also rumoured choices, no other female directors were considered. Then in came Oliver Stone. “He was probably the single worst single person to do it,” she says. “I like Stone’s stuff, but social satire is not his forte… and he’s not known for his well-rounded, three-dimensional female characters.” Stone began to chip away at Harron’s script, preparing to rewrite it altogether. “It was then an issue of how the script could be improved,” says Pressman. “Oliver’s approach was more psychological. Mary’s was satirical.” The movie’s progress then fell into the same slump that had plagued the project for years: DiCaprio and Stone couldn’t agree on the film’s direction. “Leo was looking for solutions to things that weren’t problems when he first started. So they had many meetings together trying to figure out if they could do it together,” Pressman says. “As time went on more and more questions came into Leo’s mind – which might have been about the script or other factors.” In the end, DiCaprio bolted off to make ‘The Beach.’ Harron had remained conspicuously quiet during this whole upheaval, which also resulted in Stone’s exit. “I wanted the movie back,” she says, explaining her silence. “I never actually felt like Leo would make that movie, because it was such a crazy thing for him to do. The film was so controversial.” During this period, she’d frequently commiserate on the phone with Bale, who passed on projects for nine months confident that DiCaprio would depart. “Everyone thought we were crazy,” she says. Lion’s Gate eventually agreed to give her the project back – with Bale playing the lead – under the agreement that her budget would not exceed $10m and that she’d cast recognisable talent (Chloe Sevigny, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, and Willem Dafoe among them) in the supporting roles. “Lion’s Gate wouldn’t speak to me for four months,” Harron says with a laugh. “Now they’re apologising.” (theguardian.com)
Harron on Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman
“…Patrick Bateman is a very specific character. Christian Bale had something, an authority and a darkness, whereas DiCaprio is more of a poetic actor. Some actors can draw from their own darkness. Both Bale and Lili Taylor have this fathomless place in them; when you look at them you can go far into them. They can both play very saintly and very bad. I mean, Christian Bale played Jesus in something. Christian is also a great comic actor and he brought that to the role. We had a very similar take on the character. I think, being partly British, he thought the role of Bateman was funny and approached it with humor. He loved the patheticness of the character, how embarrassing Bateman was. Trying to be cool and failing so badly.” (believermag.com)
The Making of “American Psycho”
American Psycho eventually began shooting in March…in Toronto, Canada, against a backdrop of protest from an activist group called Concerned Canadians Against Violence in Entertainment. Apparently, local police had found a copy of ‘American Psycho’ in the home of a convicted murderer called Paul Bernardo – though a recent article suggests it actually belonged to his wife. None of these protesters had read the script, much less seen the film, and Harron found herself again forced to live down the book’s reputation. “If people are objecting to a level of graphic violence,” she says, “then the attacks on ‘American Psycho’ are very inaccurate.” “There are so many films that are much more violent,” Harron continues. “Seven’ and ‘8MMm never attracted the same kind of out rage.” Then again, both these pictures are moralistic tales with despicable killers, ones that are categorically responsible for their actions. Harron agrees. “My film is upsetting, because it doesn’t offer that kind of resolution. With Hollywood films, people want to be told that the good will win out. There is a very clear punishment at the end.” ‘Psycho,’ by contrast, throws that type of black and white morality into question, and is bold enough to do it with a sense of humour. “The society is so obsessed with surface, that as long as Patrick obeys all these rules about wearing the right suit and going to the right restaurant and being seen with the right women, no one is going to look any further,” Harron says. She spends a good portion of the movie detailing this type of narcissism, starting with the film’s opening: a deadpan Bateman guiding us through his endless morning beauty routine, moisturiser by moisturiser. “We were able to use French cosmetics,” Harron says, referring to her uphill battle to get product approvals. “European companies were much more open to us.” Most of the film’s clothing, for instance, came from Cerruti and Vivienne Westwood, because American designers like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren “didn’t want to be associated with anything so horrible.” In an ironic marketing strategy, Psycho’s German distributor will use this image of a taut-bodied, well-groomed, and somewhat homoerotic Bale to sell the actor as a sex symbol. Go figure.
From the moment he acquired the book’s rights in 1992, Pressman was determined not to finance a film that was too offensive. The producer would ultimately reject a number of scripts, including one written by Ellis himself, that Pressman has described as being “completely pornographic and ending with a musical number.” Harron’s kinder, gentler, and decidedly more cerebral film looks restrained by comparison. “I felt that the only way to stop it from being really exploitative was [to affect] a kind of cool detachment,” she says. “If we’re seeing the murders from the killer’s point of view, you would get into it.” But despite her many attempts at deflecting the hype about its violence, the buzz on the film was so intense that by the time it debuted at this year’s Sundance film festival, tickets were being scalped for as much as $200. “There is a whole debate about representation: should you reflect the violence in your society? Or should you present the world as you would like it to be?” she says. “It’s about the kind of film you want to make. And I don’t want to present the world as I would like it to be.” Ironically, the American ratings board would initially threaten to slap the film with an adult-only certificate because of a sex scene. It seems the killer was having a little too much fun cavorting with a couple of prostitutes before terrorising them. “They said it was the overall tone of the scene. It was disturbing, because it’s deliberately unerotic,” says Harron, who ultimately trimmed the offending images in order to gain an R rating. “He’s just looking at himself in the mirror, having his whole fantasy, and the girls look kind of bored. I thought this was realistic.” She pauses and sighs. “It always comes down to taking out a few seconds of pelvic grinding.” (theguardian.com)
About Author Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis is the author of six novels including, “Less Than Zero”, “The Rules of Attraction,” “American Psycho,” “Glamorama,” “Lunar Park,” and “Imperial Bedrooms,” and a collection of stories, “The Informers.” His works have been translated into 27 languages. “Less Than Zero,” “The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho,” and “The Informers” have all been made into films. Ellis was at first regarded as one of the so-called literary Brat Pack, which also included Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney. He is a self-proclaimed satirist whose trademark technique, as a writer, is the expression of extreme acts and opinions in an affectless style. Ellis employs a technique of linking novels with common, recurring characters. Dubbed “the voice of a generation” nearly 30 years ago, Ellis primarily through the use of social media has maintained his status as not only a cultural provocateur but one of the most sought after interviews in the world. Out magazine honored him as one of 2013’s “Out100” for, among many reasons, his outspokenness and the refreshing honesty of his compulsively readable Twitter account. The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast delivers a weekly glimpse into the entertainment industry’s top writers, directors, actors, and musicians. Each week Ellis will discuss the issues and complexities that keep the creative world turning with the people at the center of that world. The same sensibilities that have formed Ellis’s impressive catalog in literature and film will be on display with each and every new episode of The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast. Bravo television network is currently developing a high-concept adaptation of his novel “The Rules of Attraction.” (chartwellspeakers.com)
About Director and Co-Writer Mary Harron
“I was very ambitious at a young age. When I was six, I would tell everybody that I wanted to be an authoress. I always had great, unformed ambitions to see the world and do interesting things. When I was a teenager, we moved to London. I thought at first I would go to art school, but then I started going to the National Film Theatre. It was a very important place to me. I would go there on my own, and I got a membership on my own. They would send you this magazine, Sight & Sound. I have very vivid memories of that magazine—I remember one issue that had the cover of Coppola’s “The Rain People.” That image stayed with me. A lot of times I didn’t see the films, just the stills. I first saw Fritz Lang’s “M” there. At sixteen I was going there a lot. I saw “Double Indemnity.” I would read about the films in the catalog, and I would build the films up in my mind. Those films really affected me. I started seeing those films, and I had this idea in my head that I might write a screenplay one day. My first couple terms at Oxford I did acting, but I can’t change my accent so I got parts only in American plays. I ended up doing film reviews, which got me into journalism, and I was then set on this path of being a journalist. It never occurred to me to be a film director, partly because I hadn’t seen a single film by a female director, but I liked the idea of being a writer moving to Hollywood and being unhappy; that sounded romantic and fabulous to me. I mean, I’d lived in Hollywood as a child; my father, Don Harron, was an actor under contract with Paramount…When I was eleven and twelve, I spent summers in Los Angeles with my father and first stepmother. Her name is Virginia Leith; she was the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s first film. I really absorbed her stories. I grew up interested in the underside of Hollywood, which I think David Lynch does really well. One part of a summer I stayed in West Hollywood; at that time it was a place where you were aware that there are big stars and these other people who were only briefly in touch with fame. I remember being really interested in the sad parts of Los Angeles, of which there are many, and knowing we weren’t up in the citadel on the hill, but we also weren’t on the bottom. Sometimes we were in the money and a part of that world, and sometimes we weren’t. I was very interested in the poetry of failure as a child.
…Growing up, I was lucky that my dad was never out of work. I was very fortunate in one way: that I never experienced real hardship, because my dad is this real dynamo. He was always working, so I had a sense of the ups and downs and endless disappointments, but at the same time I was never worried that we couldn’t eat or pay the bills. In that sense it was a good thing for me, because I realized you can always make money; you just do a lot of things. In a practical way it was good training because I knew you had to always be prepared to do a lot of different things to make it…In my early thirties I was working in television as a researcher. I was really stuck for a period of five years. I got to TV when I was thirty. I hated being a music writer, and kept wondering why I couldn’t be doing the exciting things that my friends were doing in television. I was so bored with being a researcher. I was doing theater reviews for the Observer and I was just determined to get somewhere. Out of that I got offered to present a TV show. So one summer I was the co-presenter for a late-night talk show, because they needed an arty girl. I kept my regular job as a researcher; I would do the show and then come back to my job and find work piled up on my desk. I remember once when the show was on, I went into the bank and they said, “Oh no, you don’t need ID.” I would get weird fan letters, and then once the show was over, it was gone. No one recognized me. It was just gone. So you don’t have to worry about fame being a problem, because it just disappears like that. That was a great experience for me—to have both the intoxication of a little bit of celebrity and then have it vanish.
…I was lucky with my first film because it had Warhol in it. That was the selling point. So, in a way, Warhol sold Valerie, but I was interested in the meeting of the two. My second film had a male protagonist, and then with Bettie Page I had a big problem in terms of its reception, because people were expecting something different from what I gave them. I wasn’t prepared for the criticism I got on that film, because she’s such a lovable figure, but a lot of men were disappointed in that film because they wanted it to be sexy. They wanted the male experience of Bettie, and in a way that makes it my most feminist film, because it’s about what it’s like to be Bettie. And for Bettie it’s not about being sexy; she’s not getting a sexual charge, she’s playing dress-up. She’s just being herself, having fun, and when she’s doing bondage she’s not doing it to be sexy. But there was a lot of anger among critics that I had not made a sexy movie…I always say to my husband: I make unpopular versions of popular things. I make a horror film and it’s not a horror film. None of my genre movies function as genre movies. When people see the conventions, they think they’re going to get the straightforward genre—I don’t give them that and they get mad. People see that and they think I don’t understand the conventions because I’m not a good filmmaker…(believermag.com) A few of Harron’s other works include “Anna Nicole,” “The Moth Diaries” and “Charlie Says” and episodes of “Pasadena,” “The L Word,” “Six Feet Under,” “Big Love,” “Constantine,” “Graceland,” “Alias Grace,” and most recently “The Expecting” in 2020. Harron is currently in pre-production on “Dali Land.”