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American Psycho: An Oral History, 20 Years After Its Divisive Debut

American Psycho: An Oral History, 20 Years After Its Divisive Debut

Christian Bale American Psycho oral history
Photos courtesy of Lionsgate

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Christian Bale: She really threw herself on the sword for me. I will always appreciate that, so much. She has incredible integrity and just stuck with me throughout. 

Mary Harron: Obviously, I think DiCaprio’s a great actor, but I thought he was wrong for it. I thought Christian was better for it, and I also thought, and I think my instinct was right on this, he carried enormous baggage because he had just come off Titanic and I thought you cannot take someone who has a worldwide fanbase of 15-year-old girls, 14-year-olds girls, and cast him as Patrick Bateman. It’ll be intolerable, and everyone will interfere, and everyone will be terrified.

It would be very bad for him and very bad for the movie. Because everybody will be all over it. They’ll rewrite the script and all the rest. And I knew I could only make this work if I had complete control over it, over the tone and everything.

The other thing is, a lot of the plot depends on people mistaking Bateman for someone else. Not a lot of people look like Leo DiCaprio. 

They called me and said we’re going to offer him $20 million, but the budget of the movie will remain $6 million. You’re giving the star enormous power over this project, and basically taking it away from the director if you’re making it that disproportionate. So that just didn’t interest me. 

I’d only done one movie, so it was a big thing to do. But I’d seen lots of movies that have gone awry because they cast a huge star that they shouldn’t have cast. I thought people would respect that and say, oh wow, integrity. But actually I think a lot of people thought I was crazy. So I went through a period after they fired me, of thinking, God, my career’s really ruined, because everyone’s going to think I’m out of my mind for walking away from this.

‘There’s Other People Making the Film Now’

Oliver Stone came in to direct, and Cameron Diaz briefly joined the cast. Harron and Turner heard that there were plans to take a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach to Bateman, which would have allowed DiCaprio to be sympathetic in at least some scenes. Bale, meanwhile, was certain he would somehow get the role back. He kept calling Harron with ideas, and working out to maintain Bateman’s ripped physique.

Christian Bale: I had to. I’m English. I had never gone to a gym in my life. You lose that quicker than you gain it. 

I said to her, ‘I’m still gonna make this, and I’m still gonna keep prepping on it.’ And I would call her to talk about scenes, and she would be on a family vacation and she’d say, ‘Christian, please, I’m trying to have dinner. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s other people making the film now.’ And I’d say, ‘Mary, just stop being so negative. We’re gonna do this.’ Everybody thought I was crazy, but it became a crusade for me.  

Bret Easton Ellis: I think I would have regretted it if Oliver Stone had made it with him. I don’t think Oliver Stone would have been the right director for this at all. Something about Mary’s style—the restraint she showed—is what makes the movie effective. I don’t think Oliver Stone is good at restraint. … And I don’t know if Leo, who is the greatest screen actor of his generation, would have survived it. And I know that Leo really, really wanted to do it and I know he was talked out of it. 

Guinevere Turner: Gloria Steinem… as legend would have it, took him to a baseball game and said, “Please don’t do this movie. You’re the biggest movie star in the world right now, and teenage girls are living for you, and I really don’t want them all to run to the theater to see a movie where you’re a man who kills women.”

Also Read: Quentin Tarantino: Things I’ve Learned as a MovieMaker

Ironically she later married Christian Bale’s dad. I always wondered what those Thanksgivings were like.

Bret Easton Ellis: Ultimately I think Christian Bale, in that moment, was the better choice. And of course Leo got to play a version of this as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, and he was spectacular.

‘The Potential to Be Iconic’

When DiCaprio and Stone opted out, Bale and Harron returned to American Psycho. Shooting began in Toronto and New York, with a cast of stars and soon-to-be stars that included Dafoe, Sevigny, Matt Ross, Reese Witherspoon, Jared Leto, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Samantha Mathis and Cara Seymour.

Christian Bale: I had the book with me all the time on-set. Mary stayed true to a majority of the dialogue within it, so every scene I would kind of be skimming through it and looking at it and finding little bits and conferring in the corner with Mary on it. 

Chloë Sevigny: I remember us shooting things that were more extreme so they could have that in the film to take out, and being like, ‘Hmm, that’s cool, that’s good. That’s a good strategy.’ The ’90s were a constant battle with the censors, the ratings board was such a big thing then—or it was just the movies I was making. 

Sex vs. violence. And of course American Psycho has both, so. 

Christian Bale Chloe Sevigny American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis

Chloë Sevigny as Jean, one of the very few likable characters in American Psycho.

Willem Dafoe: When I entered the movie I remember they were already in production. … When I arrived for my first scene with Christian Bale, he was fantastic. And I think he’s excellent in the movie. It’s one of his best roles. He was like a machine. And I mean it in the best way. … His rhythms, his clarity, his control were just incredible. 

Mary Harron: We were filming the business-card scene and I remember that Josh Lucas and Justin Theroux came up to me after one of the takes and said he breaks into a sweat at the same time… every time.

Matt Ross, who plays Luis Carruthers: With the business-card scene, I think we all knew we were participating in something that had the potential to be iconic.

Christian Bale: Josh Lucas and I did a film together recently and he opened my eyes to something that I had been unaware of. He informed me that all of the other actors thought that I was the worst actor they’d ever seen. [Laughs] He was telling me they kept looking at me and talking about me, saying, ‘Why did Mary fight for this guy? He’s terrible.’ And it wasn’t until he saw the film that he changed his mind. And I was in the dark completely about that critique.

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman and Matt Ross as Luis Carruthers in American Psycho, directed by Mary Harron and based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis.

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman and Matt Ross as Luis Carruthers in American Psycho, directed by Mary Harron and based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis.

Chloë Sevigny: Working with Christian was pretty hard because I didn’t know this whole Method thing. I was pretty fresh. I hadn’t done that many films before, and that an actor would lose himself to such a degree and was so consumed by the part, I was having a hard time kind of… just wanting to socialize with him, but feeling that he didn’t, and then my ego being like, ‘Does he not like me? Does he think I’m a terrible actress?’ 

Guinevere Turner: He was just so 100 percent committed as an actor to being this character, to a disturbing point. He never spoke in his real accent and he never socialized with anyone while we were shooting. 

Christian Bale: Yeah. I start laughing if I know people too well. I start laughing in the middle of scenes. Especially with a character like that. 

Matt Ross: I also remember that after every day he would go work out for hours and hours and hours to get into that incredible shape. I remember Mary and I talking about just what an incredible work ethic he had. 

Chloë Sevigny: I remember as a wrap gift I gave him a 45 of “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads, which I thought was the greatest wrap gift, in the world, ever. But then when we went to festivals and stuff after, like Berlin and whatnot, he was very friendly then. When we were not shooting, doing press and stuff, he couldn’t have been a nicer guy.

In addition to co-writing the film, Turner played one of Bateman’s victims, Elizabeth.

Guinevere Turner: When you do a sex scene with someone and they kill you, actor-wise, you learn a lot about them. There’s so many ways that that could suck. And he was so incredibly great to work with. He’s not a diva actor. 

Decisions

Chloë Sevigny: I remember Mary and the DP fighting a lot, and I remember feeling really empathetic for her. … I just remember it was tense. 

My coverage was always kind of held for last. So I felt kind of bitter, because I was like, of course it’s Christian’s movie, and they should focus on his performance, but I wanted an opportunity as well, and sometimes I felt like I got the short end of the stick. And I felt like I was hyper-aware of what was going on with the camera because I was always watching that, because I was always like, are they gonna give me my due time? Which is a very actorly thing to do. 

Mary Harron: The date scene might be my favorite scene, when Chloë comes over to Bateman’s apartment. I remember she was so upset that she only got one take for her close-up. I felt really bad for her. But she was so great in that scene. She’s so beautiful and vulnerable.

Chloë Sevigny: Aww, god bless her. She’s so sweet.

Matt Ross: The DP shot Reservoir Dogs… He seemed to be a relatively kind of gruff, tough guy. My memory of it was that I think he was setting up shots that in Mary’s mind may have been cool shots, pretty shots, but didn’t tell the story she wanted to.

Guinevere Turner: A cool thing that Mary told me relatively recently is that in the scene where the detective that Willem plays and Christian are having lunch at Smith & Wollensky’s—and it’s really tense, and Bateman’s sort of losing his mind—she directed Willem to do several takes where he was sure that Patrick had done it and then several takes where he absolutely didn’t think he’d done it. And then she intercut the two styles. That, I think, is genius.

Willem Dafoe: I remember her telling me to play it those different ways. And then she cut it together in a way that was ambiguous where she kind of had her cake and ate it too. … That lifted up the scene.

Mary Harron: I’ve done that with a few other things… when you’re really on the edge of ambiguity, when you’re not sure what a character’s motivation is. 

Guinevere Turner: There’s a little thing that Reese Witherspoon does in the movie that always makes me laugh because she just invented it on the spot. They’re in a restaurant where Patrick breaks up with her and he’s saying I kill people and I’m losing my mind, and she’s like Whaaa? But then she just looks across the room and she waves at someone and goes like this [pointing at her wrist]. She’s just telling some woman all the way across the room that she loves her bracelet.

Matt Ross: I asked if I could wear adult braces, and Mary very intelligently said no.

President Bateman?

Following the logic that Bateman is like an alien, Bale reasoned that he would have been inspired to imitate both Tom Cruise and Donald Trump.

Christian Bale: I mean, look, if someone had landed at that time and he was looking around for cultural alpha males, business-world alpha males, et cetera, than Tom Cruise certainly would have been one of those that he would have looked at and aspired to be and attempted to emulate. And he’s still a leading man now.

So yeah, I had pictures of him inside the trailer, as I did other people, and ’80s models that Bateman probably would have looked at and tried to imitate. And certainly that megawatt smile with the perfect teeth.

Likewise, Donald Trump would have been somebody he would have looked at and said, ‘Ah, right. I need to have a little bit of that as well.’ … If Bateman were around today he’d probably be inspired to run for president.

Continue reading our American Psycho oral history on the next page…

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Reading Lounge | Evocatively Ambiguous

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    Nelson

    March 11, 2020 at 9:43 pm

    Are these interviews recent?

    • Tim Molloy

      Tim Molloy

      April 27, 2020 at 8:20 am

      We interviewed everyone in December and January and originally published this in January and in the winter issue of MovieMaker. We updated it to mark the theatrical release date on April 14. Thanks for reading!

  3. Pingback: The Best Christian Bale Movies, Ranked – Warta Saya

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