Die Yuppie Scum! Director Mary Harron on American Psycho
In her first feature, I Shot Andy Warhol, Mary Harron remembered the craziness of the ‘60s. With her adaptation of novelist Bret Easton Ellis’ satirical gorefest, American Psycho, she coolly captured the money-driven insanity of the ’80s. From our print issue archives, and appearing online for the first time, is this Winter, 2000 cover story: Peter Bowen talks to Harron about social satire, interior design, and Leonardo.
In 1991, Bret Easton Ellis’ satirical novel American Psycho caused a minor scandal. Readers and critics could not agree as to whether its icy portrayal of the young, handsome, successful Patrick Bateman, an uber-yuppie who divided his time between nouvelle cuisine and dissecting women, was a cruel misogynistic fantasy or scathing send up of ’80s materialism. Mary Harron’s recent adaptation of the novel — due out this winter from Lions Gate — seems no less cursed with controversy, whether it be Harron’s brief replacement as director when Leonardo DiCaprio expressed interest in the starring role or the local protests in Toronto over the mere presence of the violent film’s production. And while Harron plays the story as a period piece, revisiting the not-so-distant past of Valentino suits and duck confit, its mix of identity crisis and abrupt violence seem oddly more in tune with the tenor of our times. For one, it joins a long list of recent films that fix their subjects as a national cause — whether it be American Beauty, History X, Hollow,Job, Movie, Pie, Pimp or Love Story. But more importantly, this fable of a fractured identity in a post-capitalist, hyper-mediated world seems now a mirror of our culture rather than a warning about it.
Ultimately, the film exists as a snap-shot of a particular cultural psychosis. As co-writer Guinevere Turner observes, Bateman “is less a person and more a phenomenon. He is the personification of his environment.” And Harron’s and Turner’s Bateman-as-phenomenon is both period and eternal, both a relic of a self-indulgent economy, and a monster who still lives among us. Bateman’s world is, as Turner stresses, “all surface and just surface,” albeit in his case the surfaces are the clichéd faux finishes of bad ’80s post-modernist architecture. Bateman, with his suave misogynist ways, his encyclopedic knowledge of Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis & the News, may be a phantasm from the ’80s, but the psychological abyss he inhabits is as contemporary as our obsession with it. Indeed, next to Bateman’s murderous fantasies, the recent revelation that Columbine High School killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold imagined Spielberg or Tarantino adapting their story seems perfectly logical. For them, the only question was who would option it first.
Filmmaker: Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho came out in the ’80s to extremely mixed reviews that called it everything from a brilliant satire to a pointless, adolescent fantasy. What was your initial opinion?
Mary Harron: I read it when it first came out in London and thought it had been terribly misread. Everyone seemed to be disregarding the satire.
Filmmaker: And when did the idea of the film come to you?
Harron: One of the producers called me up and asked me if I would be interested in it. They sent me one of the many scripts that they had. When I looked at it, I knew that I wanted to do my own adaptation. At the time I was working with Guin [Turner], and so I asked her if she would collaborate with me. We started from scratch, wanting to make it a period piece and social satire.
Filmmaker: Would you call the film a comedy?
Harron: It is a black comedy/horror film. I am sure that this mix of genres will make some people uncomfortable, since it goes from being funny to unsettling without any transition.
Filmmaker: In addition, there is no character for the viewer to easily, or reliably, identify with other than Patrick. It seems that in many satires, there is a character who gives the story perspective and proportion.
Harron: Is that really true? What about A Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove?
Filmmaker: Both those films create the same anxiety one experiences watching American Psycho.
Harron: I didn’t want to create a sympathetic character so that people could identify with the story. What would be the point of that? Then it would just be another genre piece. People talk about identification as if you have to be with every main character in a film heart and soul. That is not true. If a character is the main character and they are in every scene, you follow their path, like Fritz Lang’s M. You are with him at some level without necessarily identifying with him emotionally.
Filmmaker: I think you do identify with those characters, but you do so at a price — you start to question your own sanity. You have distanced this story by making it a period piece. What were the ’80s like to you?
Harron: I was part of it, and I also sort of disapproved of it. I think that in any satire you need that ambiguity, between loving and hating your subject. When I first read the book, it reminded me of Evelyn Waugh’s first novels, like Vile Bodies, a satire on the 1920s in London. It is a more benign book that American Psycho, but it has some of the same surreal black comedy — a comedy of manners of a decadent, crazy world of money and privilege.
Filmmaker: That kind of satire often seems too ambiguous and ambivalent for many Americans. Do you feel that American audiences are generally more comfortable with something like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street,, which has a clear moral message?
Harron: I think that the film is very European. I am Canadian and spent all my teenage years in England, and I went to University in England, and in some ways I am not very American. I have lived in America part of my adulthood, and I live here now and am married to an American. But there is something in me that is both Canadian and European. I don’t have that heart-warming, emotionally involved story in me. I am prepared for people to be disconcerted by it.
Filmmaker: I suspect that the range of reactions will be very similar to the book. But speaking of novels into movies, there seems to be an affinity between your version of American Psycho and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Each protagonist has this empty interior self. And in addition to the obvious misogyny, there is a strong gay element at play in both pieces.
Harron: That is very big in it. I didn’t think about Highsmith while Guin and I were writing, but it did occur to me when I heard they were making the movie. That lack of “the inside” is both something that I find very interesting and intuitively true. It is the vacuum that creates the violence, it is the lack of feeling, as if there is an essential part missing.
Filmmaker: Obviously the story’s violence can be read as very misogynist, but it is interesting that the most significant murder is of a man, Paul Allen. For one, he seems to be the only victim with a last name.
Harron: I think that there is this very homoerotic thing going on in the book, and we tried to bring that out in the film. In those very macho, very testosterone-driven, very competitive male cultures, there is a very strong homoerotic element.
Filmmaker: In that way, do you see Patrick as more as a character or as a symptom?
Harron: That is a difficult question, and one of things that makes the film so difficult to adapt and to categorize. Guin and I continually had to tackle that question in adapting the novel, since the story is not psychologically realistic. I had to deal with that issue all the time when we were pitching the movie. At one development meeting, I kept being asked, “Shouldn’t we have more about his childhood? What were his traumas? What made him like this?” I don’t know. He killed 40 people. It is not about whether his parents were mean to him, or what traumas he had. In that way, he is a symptom; he’s emblematic.
Filmmaker: Bateman doesn’t seem to really be a person. He’s just a refraction of a certain moment in history.
Harron: Christian and I often talked about how not to think about the character in terms of psychology but rather as a collection of impulses and modes. On the set we would use shorthand, because he came very prepared. We would talk about what mode he was in rather than about his motivations.
Filmmaker: What were the modes?
Harron: Status anxiety, and the different fantasies that he was playing out. Patrick was always acting out roles for himself, like in the scene where he picks up Christie [Cara Seymour], the prostitute, and the escort girl comes over. He is dressed like James Bond doing his smooth romantic-seducer thing. And everything, of course, goes wrong, because women never do the right thing. In fact, he even plays as if Christie were his girlfriend, saying things in front of the escort, like, “Christie, our guests have arrived.” I would tell Christian early on to think of Bateman as a Martian who is trying to be a human being but keeps getting it wrong and ends up killing people.
Filmmaker: What made Christian your Patrick, since you stuck by him since the very first?
Harron: Yes, against much, much opposition. When I first watched the audition tapes, he reminded me a lot of [I Shot Andy Warhol star] Lili Taylor; he had this enormous reserve of power and hidden depths. It is very difficult to play madness convincingly — you have to have an enormous inner life in order to convey how much is going on beneath the surface. That’s very hard to find in a young actor. Also, Bateman had to be very good looking. Of the all people I had met — and I had met a number of young actors — he was the one I felt most at home with talking about the character. I am sure that it helped that he was English, because he had a great sense of humor about it. The problem with so many young American actors is that they all seemed to think they had to be the character; they personalized it. With Christian it was much more professional, in the way that English actors see roles as an extension of their craft, not their personalities.
Filmmaker: He handles the role so coolly that it is hard to say whether the end is an hallucination — or if the entire movie is an hallucination?
Harron: It was not all a hallucination in my mind or in Christian’s. In the middle of shooting, Christian told me he had been watching this show on serial killers and what the differences between them were. He told me, “A psychopath is someone like Ted Bundy who kills and knows it is wrong, but can’t stop or just doesn’t want to stop. And a psychotic is someone who has no boundaries in his or her mind.” Christian thought that for most of the film, Patrick is a psychopath, but after the murder of the two girls, he becomes a psychotic. To me that is completely right. I think up to that point he is a somewhat reliable narrator. After that, who knows?
Filmmaker: As a satire of a historical period, what does it mean for the narrator to be unreliable? Does that suggest history itself is a fantasy?
Harron: I don’t think so, because the satirical stuff is earlier. When he returns to the bar at the end, Patrick returns to the world that opens the movie. And what is the satire here? Here is a story about someone who does horrific crimes and no one finds out because everything on the surface of his life is perfect. As long as he says the right things, goes to the right restaurants, wears the right clothes, he gets away with murder.
Filmmaker: You have a have had a hard time on this project. It was taken away from you, but you then returned to it. Can you give us an emotional history of that period?
Harron: It was very hard when I thought that I had lost it, when they gave it to Leonardo. They were essentially saying they didn’t care what I thought. I had felt that I was such an integral part of it, but they can take something away from you at any time if it becomes convenient. If you are the director, you work on a film for years. I not only worked on the script with Guin, but worked on the film as a director — visualizing it, casting it, putting my team together. I had spent a huge amount of time pitching the film. And I also put whatever independent film credibility I had behind it. I had really worked very hard on this project that had been dormant for years. I also thought that I was quite important to the project. They had not been able to get a script that they liked before ours. It had been laying around for years. I guess that at that time Leonardo was just a phenomenon that changed all the rules.
Filmmaker: It is a rather ironic twist that in dealing with a film where everyone fears being replaced that fate would actually happen to you.
Harron: Yes, even though I conceived the reworking of the script that everyone liked so much. It was frustrating because nobody seemed to know what [kind of] movie this was. I felt very alone. And I thought that I was helping everyone, because I think the film would have been very bad for Leonardo, and Leonardo would have been very bad for everyone involved. If you had made a $60 million or $80 million film of American Psycho there is no way that it would not be a disaster. And the level of interference that would have gone on would have been outrageous because everyone would have been so scared about it.
Filmmaker: Did you ever hear from Leonardo yourself?
Harron: No, I didn’t want to. I have to admit when they asked me if I wanted to meet with him, I didn’t want to let him persuade me. And then by the time I was ready to meet with him, I had made such a stand that he wouldn’t. Although I don’t think that they cared very much about keeping me on the project anyway. But Leonardo was like the 2,000-pound gorilla — he had so much baggage coming off Titanic, like this huge 12-year-old girl fan base. I felt he was too young for the role and would have been miscast. What people were not recognizing, and why those attempts to make it on a very big level did fall apart, was that it was a film that had to be carefully handled or it would become offensive. We wanted to make a disturbing film, not an offensive one.
Filmmaker: It seems like one of the ways you keep it tasteful is through the art direction, which captures so perfectly the sparseness of ’80s design.
Harron: The designer, Gideon Ponte, is a friend of mine from London who has since moved here and has been working in the art world. He decorates quite austere, because that’s I what I like. And his choice of art work and furniture was just brilliant.
Filmmaker: What designs do you feel worked really well in the film?
Harron: When he first described those Robert Longo paintings of the guy and girl, I was thinking, well, isn’t that a bit much? But when he took me to the set and I saw them, I was, “Yes, it’s brilliant.” Gideon was in New York in the art world in the late ’80s, and his brother was a stockbroker, so he really knew that world. The design had to be upscale, because Patrick would have had a decorator. And, of course, the art in the apartment is much hipper than Bateman. Ultimately, Bateman is a bit of a dork.
Filmmaker: The set design was sort of a material corollary to him — perfectly dressed but perfectly vacuous.
Harron: We knew that we wanted the room white, and stainless steel in the kitchen. And what he came up with is a set that is very tasteful and yet also a bit vulgar. The apartment is too perfect, everything is too expensive. It looks like a page in Architectural Digest. No personal artifacts, no personal photos, no history. Nobody really lives there.
Filmmaker: That mix of non-personality and fashion seems to reference other films, like American Gigolo. What sort of things were you looking at?
Harron: Much older films, like The Shining, and other Kubrick films for their use of deep focus and depth of field. Also Polanski, with films like The Tenant, even though it was a very different film. I was interested in films that dealt with people in spaces — spaces that become frightening.
Filmmaker: Obviously the most terrifying moment is when Paul Allen’s apartment is revealed to be this house of horrors.
Harron: I wanted to switch from mode to mode without any warning, so suddenly the film enters Roger Corman territory with the girl running through corridors. And I didn’t want it to be ironic, just scary. Gideon had this book of photographs by Jeff Wall. There is one picture of a horrible terror-room with everything decaying and bloody, and Gideon suggested that this should be the last door that is unlocked, and it would be the physical representation of Bateman’s mind and consciousness. We put out food, rotting items, and body parts, and we painted “Die Yuppie Scum” on the wall in this schizophrenic gesture. He would go there to be naked, a pig, this horrible animal, and leave the shell of the perfect hair and perfect clothes behind.
Filmmaker: Does the representation of these images serve as a fable? A moral? An illustration?
Harron: I think that it is a fable. I kept saying that to people, like the real estate woman, “Do not play this as psychological realism. This is a fable. You are just a character out of a myth.”