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..."
But then it happened really fast.
It happened super fast. It happened unbelievably fast, less than two and a half years.
And the director has only made two films since then.
I know. The second film he made, Where the Money Is, actually opened on the same weekend that American Psycho opened. He had a miserable experience on Less than Zero. I never met him until about three weeks before the movie opened. I was going to a screening of the movie, and he wanted to meet with me, and I didn't know why. I met him at 5 o'clock in the afternoon at Nell's in Manhattan. He was the only person in the place, and he was drunk, and he looked up and said, "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."
He intended to make a tougher movie?
I think so, yeah. I mean, Andrew McCarthy's talked about this as well. I think one of the producers took over and kind of directed the last half of the movie.
Did you have any say in Andrew McCarthy doing the audiobook for Imperial Bedrooms?
Well, not input, but...I don't know how it came about. The producer of the audiobook, who produced the audiobook of Lunar Park, asked me if I had any ideas. I think maybe he tossed out three or four names, and I thought the best out of them would be Andrew McCarthy, for any number of reasons.
Are you still in touch with Robert Downey Jr?
The film helped launch him.
It did. You know what, we were both partying a lot when we knew each other. I think there came a point where Robert had to move away from the people he'd been doing that with, and I completely understand that. During my partying days, I had friends who stopped doing it, and they just couldn't hang out with me anymore. I think that was one of the reasons that Robert and I have not spoken in a while.
He's in a very different place.
A totally different place. It's unbelievable.