Bret Easton Ellis on Less Than Zero, Its Adaptation, and Its Sequel Imperial Bedrooms
Bret Easton Ellis has written six books (his seventh, Imperial Bedrooms, comes out next month), and all six have been optioned by Hollywood. Of those six, four were made into movies, and they run the gamut from iconic to underseen, acclaimed to lambasted. Each day this week, Ellis will tackle a different adaptation of his books for Movieline, giving his take on what worked, what didn't, and what went on behind the scenes.
As a property, Less Than Zero heralded the arrival of two major talents: Bret Easton Ellis, the young author who had written the novel while in college, and Robert Downey Jr., who co-starred in the 1987 film adaptation as the wily junkie Julian. Still, while the Marek Kanievska-directed movie had style to burn and gorgeous production design (by Barbara Ling) and cinematography (by Ed Lachman), it softened and moralized Ellis's sex-drugs-and-violence tale by considerable amounts.
Ellis's seventh novel, Imperial Bedrooms, comes out next month, and since it revisits the characters from Less Than Zero in the present day, I thought there'd be no better time for Ellis to revisit the film that was made from the original book. (Ellis adds another layer of meta-reality to Imperial Bedrooms by having those characters discuss the film, too.) Over drinks at Soho House in Los Angeles, we began the conversation, and over the next few days, it will touch on the other filmed adaptations of his work, as well as new projects he's writing (including one for Gus Van Sant).
That first line in Imperial Bedrooms -- "They had made a movie about us" -- feels almost peremptory, as though you have to acknowledge that there was a film version of Less Than Zero before you can even get to the book. I know you didn't envision the actors from that film when you were revisiting those characters for Imperial Bedrooms, but do you think your readers will when they read it?
I think it's a case-by-case thing. When I read, like, The Great Gatsby, I'm not picturing Robert Redford or Mia Farrow -- I have my own ideas who the characters are. Yeah, maybe readers do do that. I'm sure they do. I imagine it's pretty hard to read Carrie and not think of Sissy Spacek. Although you know what, that's not true, because I reread Carrie recently and I wasn't thinking of Sissy Spacek. I don't know if readers are [envisioning those actors] or not, but it's not my concern.
So it doesn't bother you that if you google "Less Than Zero," the movie is the first result, and not the book?
No, not at all. I totally understand that.
What do you think powers that? Movies just have more sway in our culture?
Oh, totally. Completely, they do. I mean, they sway me more.
You respond more to a movie than to a book?
Oh, yeah. They're much more powerful sensory experiences than novels. A novel is a different kind of transport, I guess, and it's very easy to let a movie envelop you. It's difficult for a novel to have that same power, because one is a passive experience and one is an active experience. You're working with the novel as you read it, creating your own virtual reality. You're picturing what everyone looks like, what everyone's wearing, what the scene looks like in your mind, and the movie's doing all that for you. It's the rare book that's able to transport you in a way that a movie does. Even a not-so-good movie can kind of give you some thrills or a rush. I mean, we all see so many more movies than we do read novels. It's not a problem, it's just how it is.
I know you didn't like the film of Less Than Zero at first, because it was such a loose, moralistic adaptation, but that you've softened on it in the years since. I was surprised when I rewatched it for this interview how much I liked it more now. The look, the clothes...there's a real time capsule aspect to it.
Oh, totally. It looked great. That's why it's gotten better as it's gotten older. It's aged well. I suppose that if there was no novel, we'd probably be even fonder of it, but there's that novel that keeps messing everything up. I think that movie is gorgeous, and the performances that I thought were shaky seem much better now. Like, Jami Gertz seems much better to me now than she did 20 years ago. It's something I can watch.
At the time it was made, were you too flattered that it was being turned into a movie to really object to it?
So at what point did you become unhappy with it?
Well, who was happy with it? I don't know anyone who was happy with it. The director wasn't happy with it, and it was this compromised movie for many, many reasons. I don't think it began that way - I think that Scott Rudin and Barry Diller, who were the ones who brought it to 20th Century Fox, had a very different movie in mind. I think when there was the regime change at the studio with Leonard Goldberg taking over, who was a family man who had kids, it became a different beast. I grew up around Hollywood, and I had no real desire to see the book made into a movie. I thought, "Well, we'll take the money, and 98% of all books optioned never make it to the screen, so..."
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And with this series, I now have something to build my week around...
"Less Than Zero" didn't launch Robert Downey, Jr. "Weird Science" did. Watch it (again) if you want to see a youthful and raw RDJ.
You can't deny his brilliant work in Back to School, either.
Call me crazy, but I loved this adaptation. I was surprised how far the movie went for its time (e.g. McCarthy walking in on Downey mid-BJ). The production design and costumes are so incredibly evocative of the 80s, too. If I remember correctly, Roger Ebert loves this gem, too.
If you were fucking Christian Bale five times a week, I still wouldn't be as jealous of you as I am over your getting to speak with Ellis. He is my favorite author/artist/whatever by far, even if he never responds to my adorable if slightly creepy/obsessive tweets.
I never would have gotten that from your screen name!
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