Bret Easton Ellis on American Psycho, Christian Bale, and His Problem with Women Directors

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.

American Psycho is by far the most controversial work that Bret Easton Ellis has written, and yet when it comes to the adaptations of his novels, Mary Harron's 2000 film is the most critically acclaimed and well-regarded. It went through a bumpy production process that attracted directors like Oliver Stone and David Cronenberg and actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, but the final result eventually became a calling card for both Harron and its star, Christian Bale, and it's only grown in public esteem since its release.

Still, is Ellis happy with it? Not quite. Yesterday, he shared his thoughts on the compromised movie adaptation of Less Than Zero, and today, he delves into the tortured backstory of American Psycho and how he feels about female directors in general.

In many ways, American Psycho is an extremely faithful adaptation. A lot of the dialogue and scenes are taken straight from the book. And yet, when I saw you last, you were sort of implying that you thought Mary Harron was hamstrung by it.

Oh yeah, I do. I think any director would have been.

How so?

Well, the book has this reputation and it has its following, and if you're going to take that material from one medium to another, you're just going to have to make some decisions about it. The book itself doesn't really answer a lot of the questions it poses, but by the very nature of the medium of a movie, you kind of have to answer those questions.

What questions do you think she answered that she shouldn't have? Whether or not this was all in Patrick Bateman's head?

Right. And a movie automatically says, "It's real." Then, at the end, it tries to have it both ways by suggesting that it wasn't. Which you could argue is interesting, but I think it basically confused a lot of people, and I think even Mary would admit that.

I feel like the film has become almost more iconic in the years since it's come out.

Oh, it totally has. Completely. It's insane.

Did you see the Miles Fisher video that drew from it?

Loved it. Love Miles Fisher.

Did you expect American Psycho to become so iconic?

Not at all. I mean, I did not think that was going to be a particularly popular book. I thought it was going to be very pretentious. No, I didn't have any idea.

At this point, it's probably the most well-known of the films adapted from your novels.

Totally, totally.

Are you OK with that?

I've gotta be.

It went through a lot of director-actor combinations before it eventually got made. The earliest one I could find was Stuart Gordon intending to direct Johnny Depp. What did you think of that?

Well, I don't know about Johnny Depp's feelings about it, but I talked to Stuart Gordon a lot, and I thought he was the wrong director for it. I expressed that, but I don't think [producer] Ed Pressman was necessarily listening to me.

And then David Cronenberg attached himself. Is that the point where you actually wrote a draft of the screenplay yourself?

I did write a draft. David told me, "I want to make this movie, but I don't want any scenes in restaurants, I don't want any scenes in clubs, I don't want to shoot any of the violence..."

Why no scenes in restaurants or clubs? That's half the movie!

Because he said they're very difficult to shoot. "They're static, they're boring, people are at a table, and you can't really do a lot with it." He said, "I don't want to shoot in restaurants and clubs, and I want the script to be about 65 to 70 pages long, because it takes me about two minutes to shoot a page. I don't do a minute a page, I do two minutes a page."


I mean, these directions were insane. I just went off and wrote a script that I thought would be best for the movie. It did veer off a lot from the book, because I was kind of bored with the book. I'd been living with it for, like, three and a half years, four years. I invented some scenes.

Like a musical sequence?

There was a musical sequence at the end, yes.

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  • Jay says:

    I just read this entire thread and could not stop laughing. The simple fact that so many women find what Mr. Ellis is saying to be demeaning is just another example of people not hearing what they want to hear when they read an article. If this were an article about child birthing, and a woman made a dirogatory remark about male stupidity on the subject, I honestly don't think any man would have something to say. Look at the facts: there isn't one, not one, big name female director in Hollywood right now. Im talking about someone on the level of speilberg or scorsese or Michael Mann. It's just the way it is.

    Now what I find to be truly hilarious, are the women on this thread who found American Psycho to be a misogynist price of trash. It is admittedly a feminist book. The men in the book are patsies; fascinated completely by toys and "hard body's". The more powerful characters in the book are actually female. And if you have a problem with gory violence I suggest you start picketing Thomas Harris' house because last I checked Red Dragon, Hannibal and Silence of the lambs all have some pretty gory scenes in them. Oh wait a minute... The hero of the latter is a woman. Guess we won't hear about that then.

    • Gwen says:

      I love this much. I'm a girl. I know a lot of other girls who do as well. Just putting that out there.

    • Trixie says:

      You're assuming that the most successful directors are the best, which is problem #1...

    • Sarah says:

      Just wanted to point out a huge issue with your logic to me. Childbirth, at least right now anyway, can only be experienced and therefore understood by a woman. That could change one day, but hasn't yet. Directing, on the other hand, can be experienced and understood in myriad of ways by women and men So you definitely would need a better analogy for your point to ring true.

      Also, reading interviews with Ellis previously, I had been convinced that he was interesting and not at misogynistic. However, this interview has completely made me rethink some of that. His generalizing and boxing-in of women and men is really disgusting and simple-minded.

  • Gwen says:

    Oh and comparing a woman calling a man stupid on the subject of childbirth and comparing it to this article is just idiotic. Are you implying that women know nothing about filmmaking? Haha that's just ridiculous. Men CAN'T have children, women can and do make successful films. Clearly. Also, I assure you that some men would have something to say if a woman called all men stupid when it comes to childbirth because...that isn't true at all. A male obstetrician sure knows more about it than I ever will.

    • Tim says:

      Are you kidding me? No, he's not talking about whether or not women can make films. He's just saying that men wouldn't react the same way that women are reacting to this article if there was an idea expressed (in an article or comment on an article) that men are stupid for not knowing something about childbirth. He was just saying there are no big name female directors right now. Its a FACT... not an attack against women.

  • Courtney says:

    I don't think it's fair to say there are no women Spielberg's or Scorsese's. Filmmaking is an art form which is open to interpretation. People attribute success largely in part of the scale and budget of the film, and how much money it gains at the box office. My definition of success in storytelling, is it having a impact on my life as soon as I walk away from it. Not every filmmaker is trying to become Spielberg. Film making is about telling a story, which should be compelling and important to it's creators. I'm sick and tired of hearing these weak comparisons. It's not about being male or female. It's about creating a compelling and intelligent story. This book was written my a male and interpreted to film by a female. Both book and film left a powerful mark in my mind when completed.

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  • […] At the time of the film release, Ellis was positive about the film and seemed happy with the outcome according to Turner. It appears his opinion has changed in the interceding years. He has said the book never should have been made into a film. And, he’s stated that he’s not a fan of women directors. The female-directed movies are not as good as those directed by men because film is a visual medium better suited to men. It’s all in this Movieline interview from 2010. […]

  • L_Iv says:

    Once again, men blind to their own privilege.
    "There are no big female directors" because men have been behind the camera since the darn thing was invented. They were the ones who wrote the scripts, funded the projects, built the studios, etc... Experienced male directors became mentors to young male directors, taught them what they knew, and the cycle continued. Like in any male dominated field, it can be difficult for women to "break-in" when they are surrounded by men, even just a few, who don't want to share their space with women.
    Also,these days, with billion dollar franchises, studios (mostly run by men) don't want to put cash-cow film franchises in the hands of women, because when it comes down to, in the boys club, women cannot be trusted. And that's fare, because women have not proven themselves to be worthy yet. The catch-22 is that women haven't been given the opportunity, and will continue not to be given any opportunity to prove themselves.
    The deck is stacked against women on this one... still... anyone who says "Strange Days" is not an awesomely directed movie (that's Kathryn Bigelow, circa 1996) can suck it.

  • […] itself in pop culture, inspiring dozens of parodies and thousands of Halloween costumes, much to Ellis’ disdain. The movie is celebrating its 15th anniversary, so to mark such a bloody occasion, here are some […]

  • […] Ellis threw a hissy fit because the Oscars actually allowed a woman to win an Oscar for directing, a field he has argued that “requires the male gaze,” because women aren’t capable of understanding visual language “because of how […]

  • […] the film version of American Psycho because it lacks the unreliability and ambiguity of the novel (and also because the director is a woman and falls subject to “emotionalism”–whatever, BEE). I’d personally argue that the film did a pretty good job making Bateman […]

  • […] at the time, said he found scenes set at restaurants “static” and “boring.” Another one of the […]

  • […] at the time, said he found scenes set at restaurants “static” and “boring.” Another one of the director’s demands came down […]

  • […] at the time, said he found scenes set at restaurants “static” and “boring.” Another one of the director’s demands came down […]

  • […] early draft which was considered by everyone (even Ellis himself) to be a mess. Ellis’ told Movieline his draft ended with a musical sequence: “Barry Manilow’s ‘Daybreak’ was […]

  • […] Bret Easton Ellis either dislikes or is ambivalent about almost all of the adaptations of his novels, including Less Than Zero and American Psycho. With Less Than Zero, Ellis has discussed the problems with the film on his podcast during an interview with the film’s star, Andrew McCarthy, wherein the studio neutered and/or changed much of the tone and intent of the novel. Ellis’s Less Than Zero novel functions as a tour through the decadence of the young, rich, and white in Southern California of the 1980s, with the main character, Clay, coming home for Christmas break disillusioned with it all. The film version decided to make Clay, who’s bisexual and has his share of vices in the book, into a heterosexual goody-goody who comes home trying to save his friends from drugs, and replaces the novel’s tour through partying hell with a redemptive arc and a love story. With American Psycho, it has become something of a cult classic, with many critics thinking it’s one of Christian Bale’s best performances. However, Ellis thinks the film is flawed because it conflicts with the nature of his novel, and thinks the visual medium tips the scale of whether the story is real or imagined. Ellis has also been a bit sexist with his opinion about female directors, which the film adaptation of American Psycho had with Mary Harron at the helm of the production. In Ellis’s view, a female film director lacks a proper “male gaze” and “male sensibility,” since women….  […]

  • […] what Bret Easton Ellis said about movies as a medium (not horror movies, just all movies), when he was asked in 2010 whether he thought Mary Harron was a good director. Harron directed an adaptation of his […]