When director Mary Harron first sent Christian Bale the script for American Psycho, he didn’t know much about it—except that it was based on a Bret Easton Ellis novel that made people mad.
“I had no idea what to expect. I had not read the book at that time. I had heard of the controversy, people calling for it to be banned, and I was not expecting what I read,” Bale told MovieMaker. “As I read it, I was exploding with laughter. And I didn’t know if that was Mary’s intent.”
Bale proceeded with caution: “I spoke with her on the phone, and I said, ‘I’ve just got to get this over with, because this might end our conversation and insult you. But I find this to be one of the most ridiculous and hilarious scripts.’ And she went, ‘Bingo. That’s it. Please fly out to meet me.’”
Lots of people aren’t sure, at first, how to take American Psycho. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, 20 years ago this month, almost no one was ready to accept it.
“The amount of hostility at Sundance really did take me aback,” says Harron. “The audience just sat there and did not know how to react. Because this little group of us, the editor, me, Christian, a few other people—we were laughing away. We knew the scenes that are meant to be funny are funny.”
Adds Guinevere Turner, Harron’s co-writer on the film:
“I was supposed to have dinner that night with Kevin Smith. And I was listening to a message from him—he’d gone to the screening—and he said, ‘I don’t feel well, I’m not going to be able to make dinner.’ And I was like, oh, that’s weird. And years later he told me, ‘I hated that movie so much that I couldn’t have dinner with you. I didn’t know what I was going to say. And then I saw it on cable and I realized it’s actually genius.’”
Ellis has always explained that his novel American Psycho is a darkly comic satire of the shallow, greedy men he too-often encountered as a young novelist in 1980s Manhattan. Wall Street serial killer Patrick Bateman, the lead character played by Bale in the film, delivers trite Top 40 critiques and catalogues his rapes and murders in the same disembodied tone. No one believes he’s a killer because he looks just like everyone else in his coterie of well-dressed, handsome stock bros. He reveres Donald Trump.
But long before the rise of cancel culture, the novel stood out for its capacity to divide and offend. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem and members of the National Organization of Women strongly objected to the book in part because of leaked excerpts—removed from the context of the satire that fills most of the pages—that depicted horrific violence against women.
Ellis, disappointed in the film adaptation of his first novel, Less Than Zero, was surprised anyone wanted the movie rights to American Psycho, a book he considered potentially un-filmable.
“There was not a line, believe me, of people who wanted to produce this movie,” Ellis says.
And yet the book eventually passed through many screenwriters, directors and stars, from Ellis to David Cronenberg to Oliver Stone. At one point, Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as Patrick Bateman.
And Harron became perhaps the only movie director ever to quit rather than work with DiCaprio.
Here is MovieMaker’s oral history of American Psycho.
American Psycho, the novel
Objections to the book led to its cancellation by its original publisher in 1990. But the attention helped it become a bestseller when it was published in 1991.
Willem Dafoe, who plays Detective Donald Kimball: Everyone was reading the book among my friends… I liked the book very much. It was very postmodern, it was transgressive, and it walked the line between comedy and something very grave at the same time.
Chloë Sevigny, who plays Jean, Bateman’s secretary: I remember my brother, it was his favorite book, in high school and I think in college. … It was very much ingrained in my psyche, that book, the cover. I thought it was a really powerful story and I guess I wasn’t afraid of the controversy.
I’d already lived through Kids as my first movie, and after that, everything’s kind of easy breezy.
Bret Easton Ellis: The media latched onto this story and turned it into something that I knew it wasn’t. What was initially unsettling was to be part of a scandal that was being created that you knew wasn’t true… To have The New York Times have 14 or 15 stories that are negative about you, that are painting you in a light that is simply not true and are dispensing information that is simply not true—that’s a problem.
Mary Harron: I was living in London, working for the BBC when it came out. And I was working on an arts show and it was a bit of a scandal… one of the producers wanted to do an item on it.
I bought it and started reading it on the subway on the way to work, and as soon as I started reading it, I felt like, this has really been misunderstood. There’s a kind of dark satirical work here that reminded me of Evelyn Waugh. Then when I hit the real violence, I had to stop reading for a while.
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