Murder American Style – Independent Feature Project article
MURDER: AMERICAN-STYLE by Lisa Garibay @ Independent Feature Project
The most controversial novel of the 90´s becomes the most controversial film of 2000. Writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) and Christian Bale (Metroland) give us the low down on their latest feature, “American Psycho”.
Don´t know the story behind American Psycho, a.k.a. “the Most Controversial Novel” of the 90´s? Well it´s time to wake up.
It’s now almost a decade since Bret Easton Ellis turned in his manuscript for his third novel, a manuscript whose original publisher rejected it when protesters began making noise about the violence depicted within. And thus, before it was even available to the public, began the tortured history surrounding the simple story of one Patrick Bateman, the perfect Wall Street yuppie who simply needs to kill.
Ellis has past experience in the Hollywood game. His ‘wunderkind’ novel Less Than Zero (published when he was just a 20-year-old student at Bennington College) was made into a slick film featuring young stars, although Ellis himself had nothing to do with it. Brouhaha surrounded Less Than Zero´s depiction of drugs use and flagrant sexual behavior, but it also forced people to take a hard look at what had pretty much always been in right in front of them. American Psycho´s murderous scenarios were gleaned from the files of the New York Police Department. Its protagonist does not introduce new forms of horror and evil upon the world so much as he focuses attention upon what´s already there.
A home was found for Ellis´ modern-day Frankenstein at Vintage, but protests were seething even before the paperback was stocked on bookstores shelves. Retailers (knowing that profit and controversy go hand in hand) responded by offering to not prominently display the novel yet go ahead and sell it to discerning adults. Mobs picketed. Parents ranted. The Washington Post called it “beautifully controlled”, The Los Angeles Time said we should “applaud Bret Easton Ellis”. Anne Rice was “outraged” by a planned boycott of the novel and publishing house Needless to say, Ellis had succeeded in doing what shot him into pop icon status. He freaks people out. But he also makes them think.
Filmmaker Mary Harron made her feature-film debut, I shot Andy Warhol, a film about The woman who attempted to assassinate Andy Warhol. Unusual film, unusual director. But how did a “feminist” end up devoted to bringing this “misogynist” story to the screen? Harron saw it not as a gore fest but something with substance, “a brilliant social satire.” So she and writing partner Guinevere Turner delivered a script (after three rejected versions – one by Ellis himself) and the film was underway.
But Hollywood being what it is, trouble ensued. Such a hot script got the attention of a hot star-Leonardo Di Caprio-who signed on and effectively wrestled control of the film from Harron and Christian Bale, the unique actor she had spotted as Bateman months before. Oliver Stone was now going to direct. The budget was inflated times ten. But then, like everything, the dust settled and sanity seemed to reign once more. Di Caprio departed, the project was handed back to Harron and filming was set in motion. But production in Toronto was greeted with howling protesters, angry picketers… you can guess the rest. Despite it all, American Psycho will open wide on Friday April 14, in theaters across the U.S.
Ellis was ultimately pleased at how his book translated onto the screen. “What (Harron and Turner) did is make it funny, keep a lot of the humor intact. It´s a black comedy at heart.” Harron has also said she aimed to get something else across. “American Psycho is not a message movie – we´re not preaching – but I hope that the film does reveal something about our society.”
Speaking to Turner last week, she described filming as “pretty fun – there was a lot of laughing on the set.” Talking about one indescribable scene in particular, she giggles, “When we were doing that scene, Christian said, ´If you feel anything poking you under the sheets, I have a sock on my penis! He was walking around the set with a sock on his penis and in shoes and socks. I tried not to look.”
The beaming smile conjured up at those memories fades into a grimace when she details how difficult it was to turn to novel into a script. “Mary and I spent two weeks in Mexico in this cabin reading the book to each other and deciding what we were going to put in the script. We´d wake up in the morning and say, ´What did you have a nightmare about last night?´ I just went back and looked at the book for the first time in a couple of years, and I´d forgotten just how horrible it is. I had successfully repressed all of that information that I had immersed myself in.
Turner also has a role in the film, a decision she made a while writing the script with Harron. She plays Elizabeth, a society peer of Bateman´s whom she saw similarities in. “I went to Sarah Lawrence, for one – I basically went to school with Elizabeth. And I thought the scene was so hilarious, I said Mary, I´m not writing another word unless you let me play this part!´ and she said okay.”
Bale talked about tough memories of the limbo he was during the directorial and casting tug-of-war. “That happened about six months after Mary asked me to do it. We did a read through, got the finances for it, and then all of sudden came the idea to make it a big-budget movie. Mary wouldn’t go with that so she was kicked off. We were sort of wandering out in the wilderness for about six months or so… But we just sort of kept up a dialogue and refused to admit that anybody else was going to make it, and it came back around.”
Turner was worried during that time as well. “The part where it was going to be yanked away from us to be potentially directed by Oliver Stone was really scary. We thought, ´Now we´re just going to have our names on the script but it could be rewritten. It could be done so badly, it could be a celebration of serial killers instead of a satire!`” About the casting debacle, she says, “It was a really fascinating experience to even come that close to Leonardo Di Caprio professionally, because all of a sudden everyone was calling me. I think it gave me this career boost, because something I wrote was connected with Leonardo Di Caprio for just a second. It´s bizarre the way that level of fame works.
“At the end of the day, we were actually really lucky that the whole thing happened in the first place because this movie has just gotten so much publicity that no one paid for. All of a sudden, everyone had heard about American Psycho.”
For Harron, Christian Bale had always been her ideal Bateman. Turner was less familiar with his work but not dissapointed in the least with Harron´s choice. “I actually didn’t know his work very well except for Empire of the Sun. But the thing that made Leonardo Di Caprio such a bad choice was the thing that made Christian a perfect choice, which is that he´s a point in his career where not everyone knows who he is, yet he´s a great actor. The mistaken identity thing (in the film) is very plausible with Christian because he´s this very handsome man, but you could confuse him with someone else. Whereas Leonardo Di Caprio – no one looks like Leonardo Di Caprio, first of all, and I think to have a big celebrity name in that part would have been distracting and made it even less believable.
“So it worked out great. The difference between what Christian looked like when he did his audition and when he walked on the set was unbelievable. He just made himself perfect. He was tanned and only eating egg whites – he was just like a machine. It was amazing. He never broke his American accent the whole time.” Laughing, she says, “We were at the wrap party at the end and he was talking in his British accent and people were like, ´Why are you talking like that?´”
Bale was attracted to the part because “it wasn’t anything like I thought it was going to be. I hadn’t read the novel, but I had a prejudice about it – I think a lot of people do – just because I had an idea it was some sort of deep psychological thriller-analysis of a serial killer. And it really wasn’t at all. I think, sort of unfairly, a lot of the book reviews focused on the violence and not on anything else. They neglected to mention any of the intelligence of the piece, or the satire, at all. “So I got the script, expecting it to be that…and it´s this sort of absurd side of it, really, that he´s a serial killer. It´s an analysis of the 80´s, of these trust fund guys – these over-privileged young men behaving badly – and then violence. I found myself going from laughing to really being disturbed at it but then to guilty laughter again. It danced really deftly between one and the other. It seemed like a real challenge. It was nothing like I’ve ever played before – remotely. So I really, really wanted to do it when Mary asked me to.”
He assesses his character with amused distance. “Bateman couldn’t really exist. There´s this obsession with vanity that he has – this perception of himself that he´s a real manly man – but he´s so incredibly narcissistic. Him and all his cronies also have this sort of really bitchy side, too. They think they´re real macho, but they have a lot of very, very bitchy traits.” When asked to describe the “Patrick Bateman Action Figure,” Bale laughs. “I guess it would have to be with a (raincoat) on it, you know, and he raises an axe and says “Take that bitch!” or something when you pull the string out the back.”
Getting into character for Bale required doing the opposite of his usual reparation. “It was just a different sort of approach than most characters, just because there´s really nothing emotional about playing Bateman whatsoever – it´s all entirely in the head. So everything most acting teachers teach about attempting to get some sort of realism or being truthful or disguising your performance, I was doing the opposite of all of that. It is a performance, and I blatantly gave a performance. But hopefully you won´t see me giving the performance, but showing Bateman as performing all the time in his own life.
“Also, I could be really studied about all his mannerisms, because Bateman is so self-aware of the image that he´s projecting at any moment. I didn’t worry about losing spontaneity by thinking and preparing it all too much. Mary said to me to view him as an alien who landed and was trying to assimilate himself into society and understand it, and that´s what I did. I never went into motivation in the slightest about it, because that would’ve been just too realistic an approach – giving the character some sort of history. I didn’t ever think about what happened to him before the movie starts or what happens afterwards.”
All of that didn’t keep Bale from throwing himself into a amazing performance. He trained with a vocal coach to wipe out any trace of his native London accent and did real-life research. “I had a hell of a long time – it was a year and a half between Mary asking me to do it and us actually filming. I did meet with some Wall Street guys on trading floors and stuff. I met the guys who are 26 now and guys who were 26 in the 80´s. It was more interesting than the way I was playing Bateman. He´s sort of unusual in that Bateman never really does any work, whereas these guys really do work pretty hard. Some of them, when they heard that I was playing Bateman, were going “Yeah Bateman!” across the trading floor. It was a little bit twisted,” he chuckles.
“I did a limited amount of research on serial killers, but mainly just looking at sort of psychopaths or psychotics because that´s actually what Bateman becomes by the end. But I didn’t focus on that too much, because basically Bret Easton Ellis just took an extreme cliché of a serial killer and stuck it up there. But really, the book and conversations with Mary and imagination – that was it for preparation.”
The screenwriters have been talking any criticism of the film´s subject matter in stride and maintain a basic philosophy about it. Turner says, “I think that people – especially people who are against the book – are coming at the movie with an attitude but coming away from with realizing that it´s a very different from the book. I´ve talked to a lot of reporters in the last couple of weeks – women reporters – who say. ´I hated that book, I was ready to hate the movie, but I think you guys turned it around completely,´ What they still believe to be a misogynist book they think is now a feminist film.
“The rumor was that when Leonardo Di Caprio was attached to the project, Gloria Steinem asked him for a meeting with her and begged him not to do the film for the good of the psyches of screaming 13-year-old girls around the world. Allegedly, that´s why Leonardo Di Caprio decided not to do the movie. But the weird thing is that the last time I saw Christian, I ran into him somewhere and he was with Gloria Steinem! It was kind of surreal – I was like, wow, I guess Gloria isn’t mad!”
Turner herself began without much background knowledge of the novel, its author, or the grilling both had received back in 1991. “I only knew about (the book) because Mary brought it to me and said, ´Here´s this book – it´s controversial, it´s grisly, but I think we can make something out of it. Keep an open mind, read it, and tell me what you think.´ So I was completely thinking about it as a movie while I was reading it, and thinking whether or not I wanted to be a part of it. I wasn’t aware of the controversy at all.” She recalls Harron comparing their situation to another hotly debated Hollywood project. “Mary makes a good point when she says it´s just like when Basic Instinct was being protested. Most of the people protesting things are people who haven´t actually seen them or read them, which I think is true and was very true of American Psycho and the controversy around it.”
To focus on a broader story, Turner describes the process she and Harron employed. “We did a couple of things. One, we took out the endless, endless violence. The book gets just gruesome with things that you seriously wish you had never read, which Mary and I would torture ourselves with by reading to each other over and over again.” Laughing, she continues, “We would just go, ´What is wrong with Bret??´
“The we really wanted to make Jean, the character of Patrick´s secretary, a sympathetic character. She´s a little stupid in the book and she dates him for a while and it gets weird. But it doesn’t end with her figuring it all out, which is what we wanted to imply in the film – that there´s some ray of hope because Jean actually is realizing that he is this serial killer.”
Audiences may wonder how much of what happens in film is “real” or just in the mind of its warped narrator. For the writers, there was definite line between Bateman’s fantasy and reality, which took a bit of finessing to accomplish. “The impression is supposed to be that Patrick Bateman is just loosing it – he´s not even sure who he´s taking to. Obviously, the ATM didn´t say ´Feed me a stray cat´ – he´s going cuckoo. And I think he killed Paul Allen, but it probably took a few slices and he got blood on himself and didn’t light a cigar afterwards. He´s imagining his life as a lot more glamorous and well executed than it actually is.”
“We were definitely saying that he was (killing people) and trying to write with that in mind, while still leaving it as this sort of surreal kind of thing where you can´t distinguish him from anyone else and no one else can either. Mary describes it as a fable, really, not to be taken on this really literal level, otherwise it kind of fall apart.”
As a fable, the story of American Psycho sticks a mirror in front of our collective memory and forces us to look at the 80´s with stark, satirical realism. It was important for Harron and Turner to keep the film set in that decade instead of updating it “because of the rampant consumerism back then,” says Turner. “It´s also kind of more fun visually to have a big shoulder pads and stark white designs. I don´t think we´re far away enough from the 90´s to satirize them in the same way.”
In addition, Turner sees Bateman’s story as a commentary on identity. “To me, it is about violence. Not just violence against women, because he kill men – he just kill whoever he feels like killing – but violence as a last-ditch effort to distinguish yourself from cookie-cutter culture. It´s kind of a joke the way Bateman´s just about the sloppiest serial killer that ever was and can´t get caught to save his life.” Once again, she reiterates her stance on the type of violence depicted. “It´s weird – he does literally kill as many men as women in the book, but somehow he´s become this serial killer who kills women. I understand the argument of violence towards women on the screen, but I also think that´s a little simple. It exists; it´s there. I don´t understand the criticism that there´s too much of it in movies. There´s too much of it in life.”
Bale will next be seen this summer as the villain in Shaft Returns, an update of 70´s legendary detective serial, directed by John Singleton and starring Samuel L. Jackson. Asked about how different it was to be a part of the frugal American Psycho versus a big-budget action picture, Bale shrugs, “I don´t really care about all that – independent of big budget. I´ll do a movie if I like the script. It doesn’t matter if there´s a lot of money behind it. Obviously, it´s good to get paid, but what I want is an interesting story, and I think that there are good movies made with big budgets and good ones with no budgets.”
Turner´s next project with Harron is a biopic of Bettie Page, the legendary 50´s pin-up girl. She has no regrets about what she went through with American Psycho, even when talking about one particularly grueling shoot. “It was such a drag to lay naked on a floor covered in blood for hours and not to be able to move because of blood continuity. At one point I said to the wardrobe people. ´Can you cover me with something?´ and they said they couldn’t because it would stick to the blood. So they put cones around me and a tarp over the cones.” She laughs. “But I thought, you know, if people are going to criticize me for making a movie where women get killed, then maybe I need to lay on the floor in some blood to really prove that I´m dedicated to it.”
Thanks to Kent for this interview