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IN THE LIONS' DEN

by Scott Macaulay

Director Mary Harron. Photo by Eric Robert/Sygma.

I read American Psycho while the sky was red with fire above my house in the Hollywood Hills," says producer Ed Pressman. It was 1994, the L.A. riots were raging, and somehow, Ellis’ dark, violent satire of American society run amok seemed like an entirely appropriate basis for a movie. Says Pressman, "I was seeing these violent images on television, and the book fed my paranoia."

Stuart Gordon, the director of ’80s cult classics The Reanimator and From Beyond, had passed the book to Pressman, and indeed, Gordon’s mixture of warped humor and Grand Guignol would have definitely produced a movie. But what kind of movie? During American Psycho’s long odyssey to the screen, this was the question asked repeatedly by producers, distributors, screenwriters, directors, and actors, all of whom were searching for the right mixture of creative and business elements that would transform this highly controversial novel into something both relevant and profitable in the ’90s.

Of course, what has been unusual about the production of American Psycho is that this search, with all of its backstage dramas, conflicts and political calculations, was played out in the entertainment press, creating both Page-6 gossip fodder and, when director Mary Harron was temporarily displaced following Leonardo DiCaprio’s interest in the film, anger in the independent film community.

Says Mark Urman, president of Lions Gate Films, "Every film has its own karma, and this film has been beleaguered. However, the film has been beleaguered in the kind of way that it can now be championed as an underdog."

Indeed, the film’s history has been beleaguered. First, Pressman, one of the film world’s most powerful independent producers, spent years developing the project, trying to find the right combination of screenplay and director that would elevate the property above a tony slasher flick. Says Pressman, "The approach that Stuart wanted to take was extremely X-rated. It was very tough movie to imagine getting financed and distributed." He hired Brett Easton Ellis to write the first draft, and later turned to Dead Ringers scripter Norman Snider to do a draft for Cronenberg to direct. Later, Rob Weiss, the independent director of Amongst Friends, was attached. Finally, Pressman says, he happened to see Harron’s debut feature, I Shot Andy Warhol. "Mary had taken a very difficult character who was seemingly unsympathetic and had done a movie about her very effectively." Pressman hired Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner and took their draft to Lions Gate. Says Urman, "Mary nailed it"; the company agreed to make the film. Harron, meanwhile, had decided that Christian Bale, the British actor best known at the time for his role in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, should play the lead.

But, says Mike Paseornak, Lions Gate’s Head of Production, "When we agreed to make the movie, we set certain conditions. And at this point, we had not agreed that Christian Bale would be the lead. So, when the idea came up for Leonardo DiCaprio, it wasn’t as if we were dumping Christian. We hadn’t said ‘yes’ to Christian."

Much like a high-school senior who hopefully sends out an application to Harvard, Lions Gate decided to make an offer to DiCaprio. Following Titanic, he wanted $20 million a picture, and, sources say, Lions Gate stepped up to the plate with a one-line offer that indicated that Lions Gate was willing, if necessary, to pay that price. Referring to DiCaprio’s value in the foreign markets, Paseornak says, "At that moment in history, we could have made money if we offered Leo $40 million." He continues, "I got a call from Rick Yorn [at the time, head of Industry Entertainment and DiCaprio’s manager], who said, ‘We have a problem – Leo’s interested.’"

Suddenly, Pressman’s smart, satirical indie slasher flick was, most likely, a $40-million-plus movie starring the industry’s hottest star. However, Harron, declaring DiCaprio wrong for the part, didn’t want to meet the actor. Lions Gate decided to move on. Says Joe Drake, the company’s head of international sales, "If Mary had agreed to go to the meeting with Leo, she would have still been attached."

With DiCaprio on board, Oliver Stone, with whom Pressman had worked before, became interested. Suddenly, there were readings of the screenplay for Stone out in L.A. with DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz while Harron sat in New York. As Cannes was approaching, where Lions Gate would sell the film’s foreign territories, the company issued a joint press release confirming DiCaprio’s attachment to the project.

At this point, the whole thing fell apart as quickly as it came together. DiCaprio decided he’d rather not make American Psycho his first post-Titanic film, preferring to commit to doing it sometime in the future. Also, says Paseornak, "Leo was concerned that people would see him as a guy who was taking projects away from other actors, and he didn’t want to be seen like that."

Then, sources say, Lions Gate decided they’d rather not make an open-ended commitment to a higher-budget film and decided to go back to Harron and Bale. Harron put aside her hurt feelings to quickly jump back on board the project. The film would be protested by feminist groups during its production in Toronto, but the real fireworks were over.

Oddly, one would think that Lions Gate would prefer to forget about this whole messy backstory to the film’s development. However, in a tough marketplace where films battle one another for print editorial in magazines and newspapers, there is a certain currency to the American Psycho saga.

Comments Urman, who prior to heading distribution at Lion’s Gate was the New York president of publicity firm Dennis Davidson and Associates, "Anything that happened with Leonardo DiCaprio has added to the awareness of the title which will make it easier to bring it to the mainstream." In fact, Urman says, the wrangling and delays may even have been beneficial for the film. Speculating that audiences may be prepped for American Psycho’s tale of murderous identity-swapping by Anthony Minghella’s competitor, the even higher profile The Talented Mr. Ripley, Urman concludes, "All of the [film’s] problems needed to be there in order to create the delay for it to enter the marketplace at the optimal moment."

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