“How many elves do we have?” Director Mary Harron is surveying the scene as she prepares to shoot American Psycho’s titular killer, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), mingling at a holiday party packed with financial hotshots. Though it’s a brisk early-spring morning in Toronto, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas on the set – a private home doubling as a Manhattan penthouse – thanks to the pine garlands, red-ribboned wreaths, and two ceiling-high trees adorning the living room. While the only scary sights in this scene are the ’80s-style a I hair and costumes (oversize coifs, puffy satin gowns, and boxy pinstripe suits abound), Harron still looks a bit uncomfortable. As she counts the “elves” – Asian actors carrying serving trays and dressed in red flannel leggings, green jackets, and pointy green hats – the director turns to a visiting reporter with an apologetic look. “In the book, it was dwarfs,” she explains. “But I just couldn’t…” She may be filming an adaptation of one of the most shockingly violent novels ever published, but Harron has to draw the line somewhere. Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial 1991 satire about a conspicuously consuming serial killer in 1980s New York City, the $10 million movie is Lions Gate’s biggest production to date – and one that the Canadian-based indie is banking on to transform it into a Miramax-level player. (Literally, in fact: The studio is offering cash dividends to moviegoers who invest virtual shares in American Psycho on the Hollywood Stock Exchange website – provided the film scares up at least $20 million in four weeks at the box office.)
Of course, the movie has potentially killer consequences for all involved. With his fierce and funny performance as the yuppie monster, the Welsh-born Bale could finally break out beyond his cult following of “Baleheads” (no joke). Then there’s I Shot Andi Warhol director Harron, 47, who wrote the script with partner Guinevere Turner, 31, and battled for four years to bring Bateman to the big screen (even getting pushed off the project once), and who just may see her sophomore feature effort redeem what could be the most reviled book of the decade.
“It’s a social satire on the ’80s. American Psycho caught something about the era that nothing else had,” Harron says. “It was a shame that the violence got in the way of the book being appreciated, so part of me feels that we’re rescuing it from its own bad reputation.”
American Psycho raised suspicions even before it hit stores. Original publisher Simon & Schuster got squeamish about the novel’s horrific content (including torture scenes involving jumper cables, sewer rats, and nail guns) and dropped it at the last minute; Vintage Contemporaries then snapped it up, and the book is now in its 34th printing. While a handful of critics praised the novel’s pitch-black skewering of the drug-fueled greed-is-good era, most screamed bloody murder about Ellis’ work, labeling it “moronic and sadistic,” “[potentially] dangerous to women,” and “the exploitative rantings of a spoiled youth.”
Naturally, Hollywood couldn’t resist; producer Edward R. Pressman (Wall Street) bought the film rights in 1992. After Pressman rejected scripts by Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), David Cronenberg (Crash), and Ellis himself, Harron and Turner succeeded in 1996 with what the director calls a “female paranoid fantasy” version. “When Bateman is running around naked with a chain saw,” she says, “this is your worst nightmare as a woman.”
And a dream come true for Lions Gate, which was looking to graduate from art-house fare like Love and Death on Long Island and Buffalo 66 to what Lions Gate Releasing co-president Tom Ortenberg calls “hip, edgy, commercially relevant films.” The company eagerly agreed to finance the film in 1997 – but things quickly soured when it came to casting. After Bale auditioned in ’97, Harron was convinced that the charming fop from Little Women could pull off American Psycho’s lady-killer (“I thought he was almost too scary,” she says). But Bale gave studio execs the heebie-jeebies for a different reason: They feared hiring the relatively unknown actor would hinder lucrative overseas sales.
Then came The Offer Heard Round the World. “We sent the script to Leo Di-Caprio,” says Lions Gate Productions president Michael Paseornek. “He had hundreds of offers – this was right after Titanic – and [his manager] called me and said, ‘Leo really likes this script.'” Suddenly, Bale – who had a verbal agreement with Harron but no contract – was out, and Di-Caprio was in, for a hefty $21 million. While much of the indie community condemned Lions Gate’s move, there was one unexpected endorsement. “I thought Leonardo was a great idea,” says Ellis. “He would have turned it into something even more perverse, as a film and a cultural event.”
Harron, meanwhile, was left in limbo as other directors began circling the project. “I really gave up hope [of getting the movie back] when Oliver Stone held a reading,” Harron says of Stone’s August ’98 meeting with DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Reese Witherspoon (who was later cast as Bateman’s socialite fiancée). “We thought, ‘That’s it.'”
Bale was feeling pretty hopeless himself. The 26-year-old actor, who at 13 starred in Steven Spielberg’s first World War II drama, Empire of the Sun, had been counting on Bateman to help him shake the “period-costume-drama nice-guy roles” that continually clogged his in-box. He was in Rome filming just such a part – Demetrius in the 1999 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – when he got the news. “I was covered in mud after a day on the set, and I recall screaming at somebody on the phone,” says Bale. “Then I lay in bed with mud all over the sheets, listening to music and going mental, basically.”
Fortunately for Bale’s psychological well-being, Lions Gate and DiCaprio couldn’t agree on a start date. Faster than you can say sociopath in designer threads, he and Harron returned to Bateman duty. Says Paseornek, “We went back to Mary and said, ‘You can’t blame us for taking this shot.'” She didn’t. “Obviously, our first meeting was rather tense,” says Harron dryly. “But they finally backed down on casting superstars.” Adds Bale, who put off other offers for months in the hope that American Psycho might come through: “The movie has become something of a benchmark for indie films – a David and Goliath thing where people feel, rightly or wrongly, that David triumphed.”
The victory party ended quickly, however, when an initial protest over the film’s violence came frighteningly close to shutting down production. After the movie set up shop in Toronto early last year, an organization called Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment (C-CAVE) – upset about American Psycho’s connection to Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo, who owned a copy of the book – blitzed the Toronto media with faxes condemning the movie. Lions Gate soon had a bloody mess on its hands, as the first week’s locations – bank buildings serving as Bateman’s Wall Street office – declined the production access. “It was like dominoes,” says Paseornek. “All of a sudden every place our location manager had started to book was calling with whiny little excuses. Our lawyer contacted every person who signed an agreement and said ‘We’re not letting you out’ – because we would have just had to fold the film.” Though the media soon lost interest in C-CAVE’s campaign, the picture immediately went over budget: Lions Gate had to build the office set in a week. “You could estimate that all these problems cost us close to $700,000,” says Paseornek. “The initial damage was done.” The money woes continued when it came to lining up songs for the soundtrack. Bateman’s obsessive love of cheesy ’80s tunes (especially those by Huey Lewis and the News and Phil Collins) meant the rights had to be secured at all costs – most of which were inflated because, explains Lions Gate Releasing co-president Mark Urman, “If you have written a song into the dialogue of a movie, then they ask [the price] that they can get.” (A source close to the production says Lions Gate had to pony up $150,000 for Lewis’ “Hip to Be Square” and $120,000 for Collins’ “Sussudio.”)
Product placement proved to be even trickier. While Ellis’ novel has more brand names per page than plot points – a device he used to highlight Bateman’s preoccupation with status -companies like Calvin Klein, Stolichnaya, and Barneys weren’t excited about having their goods associated with a story about a guy who decapitates models while high on blow. “One of my favorite lines in the script is when they’re snorting cocaine and he says, ‘This is f**king Sweet’n Low!’ and we weren’t allowed to say it,” says Harron. “I have to say, the film has suffered from this – the brand-name quotient is lamentably low.”
Out if being rejected by American Express hurt, what came next – getting slapped with an NC-17 by the MPAA – was excruciating. Just ask Harron, camped in an editing room in downtown Manhattan and squinting at a monitor, where a ménage à trois featuring Bateman and two prostitutes is unfolding. It was this scene that drove the MPAA to give American Psycho the ultra-restrictive rating, and Harron – now six months pregnant and worn out from a recent move to New York’s suburban Westchester County – is reediting to get the more commercially viable R. But most of the shots that don’t feature pelvic grinding – an action the ratings board apparently frowns upon – are unusable, because they reveal the cloth pouches tied on with dental floss that cover the otherwise nude actors’ privates. “Next time,” sighs Harron, “I’ll just make everybody do it naked.”
Nobody could have predicted that it would be a naughty, choppy sex scene set to Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” that would cause American Psycho its biggest headache. Though the MPAA did have a few quibbles about the violence (a little less blood in the axe-to-the-face scene, please), it was Bateman’s three-way rendezvous that the board just couldn’t stomach. “They spoke about how nasty it was when he looked in the mirror [while having sex],” says Urman. “It’s like, Duh! The film is called American Psycho. It’s not American Beauty, it’s not American Pie – it’s about a bad man.” Bale was equally befuddled. “I thought it was because they found ‘Sussudio’ offensive,” he deadpans. “I had it all wrong.”
“When Bateman is running around with a chain saw,” says director Mary Harron, “this is your worst nightmare as a woman.”
An appeal to the ratings board was shot down, leaving Harron no choice but to trim the tryst. Out went about 20 seconds of bedroom high jinks, including a shot implying that Bateman was receiving tag-team fellatio (“I took that from a really cheap porno movie,” says the director proudly), and in what Harron calls an “absurd” concession, the word asshole was changed to ass. “I don’t think the scene was totally ruined,” says Harron, adding gamely, “the DVD will have it all.”
Not surprisingly, upstart Lions Gate chooses to see all the behind-the-scenes brouhaha as a tool to sell tickets. “People can’t stop talking about it,” insists Urman. “This is where controversy becomes your best friend as a distributor… People dare not go to a cocktail party and not have their own opinion about American Psycho.” Harron, however, is sick to death of the C-word: “I’ve had enough controversy already. It’s just like, let’s show it to people.” When it comes time for the director to make her third feature, you can be sure she’ll leave the lunatics alone. “It would be hard to find a more controversial subject – everything else after this will be a relief.” Just as long as the script doesn’t call for any dwarfs.
By Kerry Hayes.