I remember when the novel Less Than Zero came out. It was the mid-1980s and suddenly everyone was talking about this glamorous young author, Bret Easton Ellis. He was not much older than me—in his early 20s—and already famous (or infamous) around the world.
Several years later American Psycho came out and his reputation became something else entirely. This was an author unafraid to drag his readers to the darkest, nastiest places. I often wondered what this person must be like. Can you “know” an author by reading his novels? If so, then Bret Easton Ellis must be one scary motherfucker.
I first met Bret in his apartment in Los Angeles in May of 2007. He was neatly dressed, well groomed and greeted me with warmth and friendliness. I was being interviewed for the job of director on a film version of The Informers, a collection of his short stories from the early 1980s. In the room were the producer, Marco Weber, and his head of production, Vanessa Coifman.
I’d read Bret’s script, his own adaptation of his book, and was immediately drawn to it. It was very much his writing: Glamorous and awful. Beautiful Hell. The script disturbed me deeply, repulsed me even, but afterward I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew that it was different from anything else out there.
In the meeting we talked about the potential film version—that it would be more like a European movie than an American one; that the dark, wistful mood would be embraced rather than sugar-coated. In our heads we all saw the same movie and it was exciting. Marco offered me the job on the spot and we all shook hands.
Bret’s original draft of the script was more like a piece of literature than a blueprint for the production of a movie. The script just felt too drawn out for the type of movie it was and was too long for the amount of money we had. Moviemaking is often very mathematical. We had X amount of money and Y amount of days to shoot. At 150 pages (a screen minute per page), there was too much to shoot in the time we had. On top of this there were many locations from the 1980s in the script that no longer existed and would be impossible to re-create. So Bret and I were confronted with the task of editing the script down to a more streamlined 115 pages.
This was not as simple as hacking out chunks of the script; it had to be done with finesse and with the integrity of the original script in mind. It would have been dangerously easy at this stage to cut out what it was that made the script attractive in the first place.
I was immediately impressed with how easy it was to work with Bret. I found out that many of the stories in the original book of The Informers were very much autobiographical and so a lot of the scenes in the screenplay were very personal to him. I came on board with the objectivity of a director with no attachments. I felt that there were too many characters and locations, so being pragmatic and slightly ruthless, I suggested ways to combine characters and eliminate locations.
Bret was very obliging, understanding the process of moviemaking and letting go of any preciousness. But there were certain lines that couldn’t be crossed and he would remind me of this.
The process worked as follows: I would do an edit of the script—cutting things here and there as I saw fit, writing new links for things—and then hand the script back to Bret. He would then rewrite my changes, ultimately having the final decision on what stayed in the script and what could be lost. It was understood that the script always had to reflect his vision; it was his story after all.
The process was invigorating because we would often hone the different storylines to a point where their essences would become clearer. There was a lot of debate about the meanings of the stories and many quasi-intellectual discussions about storytelling, but there were never any arguments. I got to know Bret in a really interesting way; I got an insight into what makes him tick.
The film’s subject matter is dark and its treatment quite unconventional, thus it was a really difficult film to get financed. But finally, in October of 2007, we started a 30-day shoot with a tight 114-page shooting draft of the script—just under four pages a day.
Working with Bret was such a valuable process for me for many reasons: He’s smart, professional and possesses a unique talent. He sees things in a way that no one else can, which, for me as a director, was very exciting. He brought something to the process that I never could.
In the end, what I got most out of my time working with Bret is that the process demystified him for me. This famous figure from my youth is now just as imposing, but not because of the mythology that surrounds him; it’s because of a new appreciation on my part for his unique talent. MM
The Informers will be released by Senator Entertainment on April 24, 2009.