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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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A Really Subversive, Feminist Movie’

Producer Edward Pressman and Muse Productions, founded by Chris and Roberta Hanley, obtained the rights and sought out a team to make the film. They eventually contacted Harron, who had recently directed the 1996 Valerie Solanis biopic I Shot Andy Warhol.

Mary Harron: They had had a couple directors attached before. Cronenberg had been attached, Stuart Gordon, the one who did Re-Animator had been attached, someone else had been attached. 

What occurred to me is that just enough time had passed to make a period film about the ’80s, and say things about the ’80s, and bring out the satire. And that was interesting to me. When I had my call with Ed Pressman to discuss it further, I said, ‘I don’t know if you can make a film of this book. But if you’ll give me the money to write a screenplay, I’ll try.’ Because they had sent me another screenplay and I wasn’t interested. I could only do it if I did my own version.

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I can’t remember when Guinevere came up, but pretty early, because we were already working on what became TheNotorious Bettie Page. I felt it would be a lot more fun to work with her on this. And because I had just done I Shot Andy Warhol, which was about a radical feminist, and she had just done Go Fish, an indie lesbian romantic comedy, no one could tell us what was and was not misogynist. 

Guinevere Turner, actor and co-screenwriter of American Psycho

Guinevere Turner: I had never heard of it, even. … She said they keep trying to find writers to adapt this book, and we were the sixth team to be hired. And she said you’re gonna hate me—because she knows I don’t like scary things—but I think we can make a really good movie out of this book. 

So I read it, and I was like ‘Ewww, I hate you—but I see what you mean.’ It’s actually really funny in addition to being horrifying. And with the right spin it could be a really subversive, feminist movie. 

Bret Easton Ellis: I never saw it as a feminist book. It was definitely a criticism of male values that were around me, and it was easier for me, I think, to witness those male values clearly because I was gay—I am gay. And I think that gave me a distance and a perspective as to noticing them more than if I was heterosexual and participating in the society at that time. I was definitely participating, but being gay really is a distance. You are four percent of the population. You do not share a lot of the same feelings and experiences that straight men do. Certainly not in late ’80s Manhattan. 

I think I was watching a lot of this behavior on the sidelines, and I wanted to criticize it. And a lot of it had to do with money above all else. Greed is good, the ethos of that era, that was bothering me. And just the attitude of the cocky young stockbroker, which really had spread among so many men. It was really apparent to me as a young man, struggling with the notion of becoming an adult finally, and not wanting to become an adult in that society. And then where else was there to go?

Guinevere Turner: Bret, when I first talked to him about it, he seemed genuinely hurt. Like it was a big surprise to him that there was any kind of outcry, and like he felt misunderstood.

Bret Easton Ellis: Hardly hurt. That is not true. I do think enough people understood the satirical element of it, and I always knew they would. … I always thought there was an audience that was going to get it. 

Believe me, there’s plenty of people who don’t. I’ve lived with someone for 10 years who can’t finish that book.

Casting Patrick Bateman

Guinevere Turner: Billy Crudup was attached before Mary met Christian. He was attached for about a month and a half. And then he called Mary one day and said, ‘I don’t feel like I can get this character.’ Which I just think is so incredible for an actor, to be that honest.

Mary Harron: I sent Christian the script and then he didn’t respond for ages. And then I talked to Christine Vachon about it because she was making Velvet Goldmine with him. … And so she called him and said, ‘You should really read this,’ and he did and he was like on a plane right away. 

Our oldest daughter was about three weeks old, I think, and Christian came to our place in the East Village to audition. My husband, John, had to take our daughter into the next room so that I could do the audition. 

Christian Bale: I couldn’t finish the scenes because she was laughing and shaking the camera, and I was laughing as well. 

Mary Harron: It was a summer’s day and the windows were open and I made him do the Paul Allen axe murder over and over. Oh my God, the neighbors. What must they have thought? This crazy yelling. 

Christian Bale: I think the thing that united us on it is I had no interest in his background, childhood—and she didn’t either. We looked at him as an alien who landed in the unabashedly capitalist New York of the ’80s, and looked around and said, ‘How do I perform like a successful male in this world?’ And that was our beginning point. And we didn’t want to talk about why was he this way, what happened in his childhood—there was none of that between Mary and I. 

Mary Harron: He saw the part the way that I did, and he got the humor of it. He didn’t see Bateman as cool. I sort of had the feeling a lot of the other actors kind of thought Bateman was cool. And he didn’t.

I met with a lot of actors about it but Christian was the only one who was right for it. Even though it was a gamble, because he hadn’t done anything at all like that before. The first time I’d seen him was in Little Women. But at one point I talked to [Velvet Goldmine director] Todd Haynes about him, and Todd Haynes said, “Christian Bale’s the best actor I’ve ever worked with.”

So I had a lot of faith in Christian.

Christian Bale as American Psycho Patrick Bateman. All images courtesy of Lionsgate

When he did the audition, I felt like he hadn’t quite got the right energy, because I think he was having trouble with doing the accent because he’d been doing a different British accent—he’s British and he’d done a different British accent for Velvet Goldmine, so he wasn’t quite getting that coiled kind of American energy. But I thought, he’s a great actor. He’ll get it. 

Christian Bale: I don’t know if you’re familiar with how bloody long it took us to get this film made? I had a lot of time to practice. 

Dinner With Bateman

Christian Bale: There was a dinner in L.A.—certainly Mary, Bret and myself. I believe Guinevere as well.

Bret Easton Ellis: He was in full Patrick Bateman mode in terms of the hair, the suit and the way he was talking. And it was incredibly distracting. And amusing, but then it became less amusing as he kept it going… I told him, at a certain point, you know you can stop this. It’s unnerving me. But jokingly. It was kind of like—it was unnerving in a way. I felt he didn’t need to keep it up, though I think he’s just that kind of actor. 

Christian Bale: I don’t recall doing that, but I wouldn’t put it past me. It does sound like that would have been fun. 

Mary Harron: He might have been doing the American accent, yeah. Other British actors I know do that. It’s just too hard to switch back and forth, so you start in it and stay in it for a long time. That was the problem I had initially: You’ve got to get that American rhythm. 

I don’t remember being unnerved. 

Bret Easton Ellis: If I was completely, adamantly against Christian Bale, I really hope she would not have listened to me. Because really no one knew what Christian was fully capable of, and the great performances hadn’t come yet. He was still the kid from Newsies and Empire of the Sun. … This was the pre-Batman Christian Bale. He was sort of a well-known Welsh actor who I’d seen in a couple things. It wasn’t like it was Leonardo DiCaprio, who was a giant international star from Titanic.

Speaking of Leonardo DiCaprio 

In May 1998, Lionsgate (then called Lions Gate) agreed to pay DiCaprio more than $20 million to star as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. 

Guinevere Turner: It was announced in the trades before anyone told us. And then Mary, amazingly—I always will be impressed with her for this—she’s just like, if they want it to be Leo DiCaprio, I’m not doing it. I was like, you’re not? He was the biggest movie star in the world. 

Continued on next page…

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