The Story Behind American Psycho

It’s not a good time to be a banker. As the world teeters on the brink of financial armageddon, public anger has risen against those who got us into this mess.

“Were our big banks run by psychopaths?” asked a recent headline in Management Today, citing research that a large proportion of banking high-fliers suffer from anti-social, psychopathic personality disorders.

If Patrick Bateman was still around, he’d probably chuckle over that one.

American Psycho was born of the same shit, but different decade: back in the 1980s there was a boom, where lunch was for wimps and greed was good.

Yet success led to excess and it wasn’t long before the men in red braces met their end. In 1991, just as Time published a jokey obituary for the yuppie, Bret Easton Ellis’ novel arrived.

“When I moved to New York in the ’80s, I realised the city had been taken over by Wall Street and the yuppies,” Ellis said recently to Total Film. “I wrote it as an act of defiance to stop myself from slipping into that kind of lifestyle.”

Narrated by Wall Street investment banker Patrick Bateman, it took the deadening consumerism of the yuppies to its logical end as its anti-hero butchered prostitutes, co-workers and random strangers.

Backlash began before the book was even published. “A how-to manual on the torture and dismemberment of women,” was the verdict of Tammy Bruce, head of the National Organization of Women.

And, when the novel hit bookshops, it was engulfed in controversy. Sales rocketed; Ellis received death threats. This was surely one novel never destined to be a movie, right?

Next: Wrong... [page-break]

“I always knew someone was going to try and adapt it,” said Ellis. “It’s the nature of the game – the controversy and the title obviously meant something to the people with the money to make it.”

Producer Edward Pressman optioned it, having been behind the ‘80s stockbroker classic Wall Street. His first step was finding a director.

The source material defeated plenty. Stuart Gordon tried to turn it into an X-rated splatter pic (Ellis: “The producers got nervous”); David Cronenberg toyed with making it.

Ellis even wrote a screenplay himself, which ended with Bateman and the whole of New York dancing to a Barry Manilow song (“It was like a Coke commercial,” says the writer. “A lame idea in retrospect, but I was bored”).

In the end, though, it wasn’t a man but a woman, Canadian director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol), who wrestled Bateman on to the screen.

Next: "It was a bit of a stunt" [page-break]

“Having a woman direct it answered a lot of accusations about the book,” explained Pressman. But Ellis was more forthright about the choice of a female director:

“It was a bit of a stunt. I think part of the reason why a woman was hired was precisely to deflect the criticism and so make more money. Everything is a business decision. They said, ‘Let’s get a woman to direct it. Nora Ephron is probably not going to do it, so let’s see who else is out there.’”

Despite Ellis' cynicism, Harron proved to be an inspired choice. When the Toronto production became mired in controversy – after a copy of the book was found on the bedside table of Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo – she proved articulate and capable in the face of the media.

She was also the only filmmaker who worked on the project that understood the torture wouldn’t translate on to film.

Instead, Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner (who has a brief role as one of Bateman’s victims) concentrated on nailing the satire, capturing the blank, affect-less tone of the novel perfectly.

Now all they needed was someone to play Bateman.

Next: The DiCaprio Dilemma... [page-break]

1997. Leonardo DiCaprio had just come off Titanic and was the hottest star in the world. He could have his pick of any script. He wanted American Psycho and he almost got it.

Harron had already chosen Bale for the lead when DiCaprio’s interest was announced. The director refused to consider him:

“Leonardo had so much baggage coming of Titanic, like this huge 12-year-old girl fan base,” she said at the time.

But with production company Lions Gate seeing dollar signs, Harron and Bale were unceremoniously dumped.

A Cannes press release announced the news that DiCaprio would be joined by Oliver Stone in the director’s chair. Overnight the film’s budget doubled to $21m.

Common sense finally prevailed – Leo did the multiplex-friendly The Beach and left the slaying to his less high-profile colleague – but Harron was pissed at being sidelined after putting in two years of development work.

So was Bale, who changed agents and lobbied furiously to reclaim the part: “I was mad about it.”

Although the actor hated doing publicity, he realised how important having a high profile was to his career. It's no coinidence that five years later, he'd be on billboards around the globe as The Dark Knight.

In order for that to happen though, he now had to live up to the part.

Next: The Bale Method... [page-break]

But whatever headlines DiCaprio’s involvement made in 1997, it's impossible to imagine anyone else but Christian Bale as Bateman.

“I think what Mary saw in him was a kind of focused narcissism,” said producer Edward Pressman. “And he himself understood how this role could change his career – and it did. He went after it with a vengeance.”

The Welsh-born actor was certainly hungry for the part. “People told me it was career-suicide,” he says. “But I thought, ‘Yes, I want to do it.’”

It became the first of his now familiar physical immersions in a role – whether dropping 63lbs for The Machinist, beefing back up for Batman Begins or swimming through leech-infested rivers for Herzog in Rescue Dawn.

When Harron suggested Bale work out, Bale hired a trainer and sculpted his body into the kind of six-pack buffness normally only found in Calvin Klein underwear ads (“You can’t play Bateman and have a beer belly”).

He had bleached his teeth (to get a “Tom Cruise smile”). He even hung out with Wall Street brokers (“Most of them knew the book backwards... I asked them what I should look at and they said, ‘Go rent Wall Street’”).

When Harron sent him home with a group porno VHS – research for Bateman’s preening, three-way sex scene set to Phil Collins’ ‘Sussudio’– Bale returned with a clutch of stick-figures drawings showing ideas for different positions.

Next: Playing It For Laughs... [page-break]

Bale’s OTT, near-camp performance is the nearest he’s come to doing comedy. Harron was in stitches watching him: “The thing is, Bateman has no centre. He’s trying to look at other people and see how they behave.

"When I saw the dailies of Christian’s scene with Willem Dafoe in the restaurant [when Bateman has lunch with the detective tracking one of his victims] I just burst out laughing.

"Christian was so funny. He’s watching Willem Dafoe eat, watching how he’s using the salt, watching how it’s done. You know, how do you eat a steak? Christian plays him so it’s almost like a Martian come to Earth trying to pass off being human.”

The genius of the performance is that the more insane Bale makes Bateman, the more we sympathise with him. By the end, as he becomes a gibbering wreck trying to feed stray cats into ATMs, we even feel sorry for him.

Unlike his fellow bankers, anonymous clones constantly being mistaken for one another, Bateman knows that their yuppie lifestyle is essentially mad – an endless parade of designer labels that’s soulless and emotionally bankrupt.

Only the truly mad could stay sane in such a world.

Next: The Reception... [page-break]

American Psycho debuted at Sundance where it polarised critics. Bale's performance was widely praised, but many found the film to be hollow and self-indulgent. Which is kind of the point.

On release, audiences were similarly divided. Whilst it made a respectable $15 million in the US (against a $7 million budget), it hardly set the box-office alight.

Instead, it gained a cult fandom normally reserved for Monthy Python movies, as evidenced by when a club in New York took its name from Bateman's favourite eatery Dorisa.

After opening, the comments page for the venue on Time Out New York got spammed by users calling themselves Patrick Bateman, Paul Allen and Donald Kimball: “I refuse to give the maître d’ here head”; “I have an 8.30 rez here Friday. Great! Sea Urchin Ceviche”; “That’s a fine chardonnay you’re not drinking”.

There’s even an 18in Bateman action figure – articulated, armed with accessory and a voice chip (“I have some videos to return”). Isn’t it ironic that a novel/movie about the dangers of consumerism should lead to such crass merchandising?

Ellis is unfazed (“Isn’t that just how it had to be?” he chuckles) although he’s slightly disappointed to report that he hasn’t been accosted by too many horror fanboys (“I wish I had, but I haven’t... Horror fanboys are delightful.”)

Harron remains equally bemused by the film’s continuing popularity with old and new audiences alike. “When they re-released it on DVD, it did even better than the first time,” she tells us.

“Young people who weren’t old enough to see it in cinemas really love it. It has this peculiar lifeforce. If I’m in Starbucks and they see my name on my credit card they start quoting me lines from the movie.”

For more thoughts on American Psycho, what happened next and how Ellis' first meeting with Bale scared him to death, check out the next issue of Total Film Magazine (158), on-sale July 30.

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