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American Psycho director Mary Harron: “We’ve never really left” the era of Patrick Bateman

<i>American Psycho </i>director Mary Harron: “We’ve never really left” the era of Patrick Bateman
Graphic: Allison Corr, Photo: Roy Rochlin (Getty Images), Screenshot: American Psycho
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Although the phrase “I have to return some videotapes” has since passed into digital-age incoherence, everything else about American Psycho is just as fresh 20 years on. After being passed on by everyone from Oliver Stone to Stuart Gordon, the task of adapting Bret Easton Ellis’ infamous 1991 novel eventually fell to Mary Harron, a longtime writer for Punk magazine who broke into filmmaking with 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol, and Guinevere Turner, an actress and screenwriter of the 1994 lesbian romantic comedy Go Fish. Together, they reframed the ultraviolent story of Wall Street psychopath Patrick Bateman as an absurdist comedy of manners, deftly underlining the both the ridiculousness and the cruelty of ’80s “greed is good” culture—and indeed, of masculinity itself.

In the decades since its release in theaters on April 14, 2000, American Psycho has become a cult classic, both misinterpreted as a glorification of its deranged protagonist and better understood as a feminist critique of the interwoven nature of misogyny, entitlement, and violence. The actor who played Patrick Bateman, Christian Bale, went on to lose the “e” as Christopher Nolan’s Batman before winning an Oscar for his role as real-life villain Dick Cheney in 2018’s Vice. Harron and Turner have continued to work together, collaborating on the biopic The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) and the Manson Family drama Charlie Says (2019). And the ’80s’ worst excesses have been eclipsed by a new, avaricious era of political piracy that even Patrick Bateman might have found just a tad excessive.

On the eve of the film’s anniversary, we asked Harron what American Psycho can tell us about the Trump era, as well as the controversy surrounding the novel, her approach to filming nudity and violence, and how much she enjoys memes based on the film.

The A.V. Club: Rewatching the film, I couldn’t help but think of Donald Trump’s comment that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.

Mary Harron: Yes, absolutely.

AVC: It does seem that we are living in a similar era to the ’80s in terms of sociopathic Wall Street greed.

MH: At the time [it came out], people who didn’t like the film or were dismissive of it were saying, “Oh, well, we knew all that about the ’80s.” But to me, it was never just about the ’80s. It was about American vulture capitalism—and not just American, really. Bateman is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with [this system], all the worst and craziest forces—obsession with surfaces, obsession with status, obsession with acquisition. And then the frustration and violence—all of those things.

So it might’ve seemed like that was a past era, but we’ve never really left that era. I think the only thing that happened is people got better at covering it up, paying lip service to feminism or whatever. My older daughter’s 22, and when she watched the movie, her favorite scene was when they’re all at dinner in the sushi restaurant and Bateman’s just blathering these liberal platitudes about what we have to do in society. She was like, “yes, that’s what people do. It means nothing.” Now, with people like Bateman, it’s more likely that you’ll get them paying lip service to ideas about gender equality or racial equality, but they won’t mean it. People cover things more now. It’s not as naked. The ’80s was a very naked time in terms of greed and exploitation.

And then I think the last two years have been even worse in a lot of ways. It’s a real gilded age, the stock market’s boomed so much and then politically things have shifted to the right. It’s been quite astonishing.

AVC: That’s something that I think has really come to light in the past few years—how many men say they’re feminists, but their personal behavior doesn’t reflect that at all.

MH: In the film and the book—in the style of the book—it’s part of his mask. It’s a part of the fact that he doesn’t have a core set of beliefs, really. He has impulses or desires, but he doesn’t have an ideology of what he wants. So he’s happy to adopt whatever as camouflage.

AVC: Did you read the book before you took on the project?

MH: Yes, I read the book whenever it came out in London, because I was working in London then—I believe it was 1991. And then in ’96, after [I Shot Andy Warhol] came out at Sundance, I got asked to do [the film]. They had a couple of scripts, but I said, “I can only do this if I write my own script.” I wanted to write with someone, and Guinevere [Turner] and I were already working on a couple of scripts, so I asked her to come join me.

AVC: What was your reaction to the book when you first read it? I know a lot of people were violently opposed to it.

MH: When I first started reading it, I thought, “Oh, this is funny. I mean, this is really funny. This is very dark satire.” And no one, in all the attacks or any of the coverage of it, said it was funny. That’s the best thing about it, the dark social stuff. The violence—I had to stop reading it for a month when it got to the terrible scene with Bethany, the really bad torture scene. I just thought, “I can’t read this.” And then after a month it was still there on my bedside table, so I went back to it, and then there was nothing as bad as that [in the rest of the book].

It’s very interesting, because it’s very existential. It’s such a lost, bleak character that reflects New York in a lot of ways. And it’s almost an experimental work of fiction, because it changes from first person to third person. It’s very abstract. Sometimes it’s a comedy. I mean, it’s just a strange book. The violence was not my favorite aspect of it at all. That wasn’t what I thought was interesting about it.

And when we went to adapt it, [Guinevere and I] saw the book in the same way in that we found a lot of funny. It was considered this terrible misogynist work, but I thought that Bret [Easton Ellis] had a gay man’s analysis of straight male behavior. He saw the absurdity of these straight male Wall Street rituals, and that was very much a kind of subversion to me and Guinevere.

AVC: You referenced Bret Easton Ellis having a gay man’s perspective on the material—did you think was important to have your perspective on it? Is that why you wanted to write your own script?

MH: I mean, the scripts they had were funny, and kind of interesting, but it wasn’t right. It wasn’t what I wanted to do with it. The tone is so important, and I wanted to be in control of that. And I didn’t think that anybody else had really gotten the comedy right. That was so important to me. It had to be very subtle. In fact, it’s so subtle that I think the first time around, a lot of people didn’t realize it was supposed to be funny. I often have this problem. I’m like, “I think it’s funny,” and everyone else is like “Ehhhh...” [Laughs.]

And it had to be kind of delicate, you know? That is, except for the more obviously funny things, like the Paul Allen murder scene that’s always on the internet. Those are more clearly absurdist set pieces.

AVC: How do you feel when you see those kinds of things online?

MH: It’s a great compliment. Some of them are really good. There was just one about toilet paper that’s was really fun, since it’s at such a premium with the Corona virus. That one’s extremely well done, I don’t know how they did Christian’s voice so well. And there was a wonderful Dutch jeans commercial that was all about denim and coffee. It was hipster, it was hilarious. So I say, great! Thank you. You’ve made the world a better place.

AVC: You have asserted, and I agree, that this is a feminist film. Was that something that you were actively trying to do in the adaptation, or did it flow naturally from your point of view?

MH: I think it just flowed from our point of view. I don’t think in Guinevere’s or my work, we don’t ever try to teach moral lessons, or even political ones, particularly—at least, not in an overt way. I think it’s more just the attitude you take. If you’re a woman, you have certain attitudes. And if you just do what you find interesting and don’t bow to anyone else’s view of how you should do it, [your work] will probably have a feminist character. But in this case, I knew that I was taking on something very difficult, very controversial.

I had just come off of I Shot Andy Warhol, which is about a radical feminist, and Guinevere had just done Go Fish, the lesbian romantic comedy. So we were like, “No one can tell us what’s feminist and not feminist. We’ll make up our own minds.” We didn’t feel like we had to worry or be timid about it, because our position was strong. I think that if a guy had done it, he would’ve been in a much more difficult position that way.

The other thing that Guinevere and I brought that isn’t always noticed is that we didn’t think Bateman was cool, and we didn’t think the sex scenes were sexy. They weren’t erotic in any way. They were, to us, ridiculous, and that was something that Christian shared. He also found Bateman ridiculous, and he brought this third aspect to the character, a dorky aspect that all three of us were working towards. Bateman isn’t someone that you would want to be—don’t ask me why the movie is so popular among Wall Street guys. It’s like, “Really? Okay...”

AVC: Lack of self-awareness, maybe.

MH: Yeah, or maybe they have a sense of humor. My brother-in-law was working on Wall Street [at one point], and he loved it, because he said, “Oh, I know so many of those guys. I recognize those guys.” Maybe they think it’s funny, because they’re close to that world.

One thing I loved was that these [Wall Street executives] have this competitiveness. In the SCUM Manifesto, Valerie Solanas has a whole section on how a lot of the qualities that men negatively associate with women—vanity, competitiveness, gossip—are really male. [Laughs.] And these men are behaving like a stereotype of teenage girls. They’re so competitive, and they’re obsessed with their appearance and status.

AVC: You mentioned the sex scenes in the movie, and we talked earlier about the violence in the book. The film is very judicious about when it shows nudity or violence, and when it doesn’t. How did you decide what to show and when?

MH: Some of that you just decide on set. But I decided early on that there should actually be quite little overt violence, that it should be suggested—until the very end, when there should be a big explosion of violence. That’s when Bateman murders Christy the society girl, the character played by Guinevere. I felt like you can’t keep teasing. You can’t keep pulling punches all the time. You have to have an explosion of violence at the end, because that’s what it’s all leading up to.

I know you’re not supposed to mention him [positively] anymore, but I was very influenced by Roman Polanski. Polanski’s the master of suggested violence and the buildup of tension. And Alfred Hitchcock—another person with unfortunate attitudes towards women and personal behavior. But as a kid, I was very, very taken with Hitchcock and the way he pulled back. I have no objection to horror at all, but I’m not really a horror person. Psychological thrillers are more what I go for, and I’ve always loved films where things were frightening because they were suggested. Peeping Tom, that’s another great one.

At the same time, because it is [a movie] about violence and it is about a mass murderer, you have certain expectations. But even in that final scene, it doesn’t show that much.

AVC: There are lots of movies, particularly horror movies, where the gore is the centerpiece. Not to put a value judgement on it, but this movie isn’t really like that.

MH: No. I’ve done a bit more of that in my more recent stuff, and it’s fine, but it’s a lot of prosthetics and special effects. We didn’t have much of that on this film. There was almost nothing in terms of creating wounds, or anything like that.

The biggest fight I had—people thought this was a crazy idea—was that I said, “I want [Cara Seymour’s character] at the bottom of the staircase, and the chainsaw to spin down and pierce her body.” And everyone said, “well, it wouldn’t happen like that. That’s not realistic.” The DP said it would look terrible, and I said, “no, that’s what we should do.” Even though it wasn’t realistic, even though it wouldn’t have happened like that in real life, sometimes that doesn’t matter if it’s the right image.

AVC: Well, there’s a lot open to interpretation. I’ve heard some people argue that there’s ambiguity as to whether the murders even happen. Do you agree with that?

MH: We never thought that none of the murders happened. I don’t think that everything happened, but that’s for people to decide for themselves.

I didn’t write the book, so I feel like I was interpreting it as much as anyone else. If somebody says that it’s all in his head, and that makes the movie for them, that’s fine. And I don’t think Bret would ever say one way or the other.

AVC: When this film came out, it was was unusual for a male actor to do the kind of nude scenes Christian Bale does in American Psycho. How do you feel about the concept of equalizing nudity, so it’s both men and women?

MH: I thought that was important. And I liked the idea that that Bateman would be nude, and the girls would not be in their underwear. I thought that was a nice reversal. And also it’s really funny, because in the big climax, you say Christian’s nude, but he’s wearing sneakers. [Laughs.]

AVC: Yeah, that’s true!

MH: So is that entirely nude, then? We all thought that was hilarious. And Christian was very casually hanging around the monitor, looking at it wearing just his sock, covered in blood. I have a photograph somewhere, a Polaroid somebody took. But we were all pretty relaxed about that stuff [on set].

AVC: You mentioned the Paul Allen murder scene—the way that it’s staged is so fun. Is there anything in particular you remember about shooting it?

MH: When we were rehearsing that scene, I remember Christian saying to me, “I think I want to moonwalk.” And then when he did it, I just fell off my chair laughing, I thought it was so funny and absurd. So that was something he came up with, to walk out like that.

Visually, there were a couple of things that really came together. One is that the script had a screen direction to cover the floor with newspaper, and when I got there, the art department had set down this unbelievably elaborate, fetishistic sort of jigsaw puzzle made out of newspaper. I thought it was perfect, because Bateman was very OCD and he would do this to be excessively neat.

I remember shooting certain things from Jared Leto’s [who played Paul Allen] point of view, shooting from where he’s sitting and you look back. There are some shots Jared can’t see, because he’s got his back to Christian. But you see from his point of view Christian walking through the kitchen with this axe and the crazy see-through raincoat that the costume designer had come up with at the very last minute. That apartment was very good to shoot in, it had great angles. It felt good. It just came together.

AVC: You talked about shooting the murders from the victims’ point of view. That reminds me of your film Charlie Says, which reframes an infamous real-life crime, the Manson murders, from the point of view of the women involved. Would you say that’s a theme in your work?

MH: With American Psycho in particular, it was very important to look at it from the victims’ point of view, because I didn’t want the murders to be exciting or thrilling in a traditional kind of way, which is very easy to do. Because if the camera is from the murderer’s point of view, then in a way you want them to be killed, you can’t help it. You’re taking on the mindset of the pursuer, and I wanted to take on the mindset of the hunted, the victim. We’re trying to get away from him. That was very important.

In Charlie Says, I was going back and back and forth, because, again, that is also a movie where it just has a climactic explosion of violence at the very end. And then with the LaBicana murder, I wanted very much to be in Leslie Van Houten’s head, and go step by step with her to see what happened for her to commit this [crime]. She’s the observer of this violence, and then she tbecomes a perpetrator. But I wanted to make the victims real. So we added a little scene where you see Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca just hanging out, just nice people in their house. I wanted to give them a reality.

I want the victims to have some reality, even when, as in Charlie Says, you’re mainly staying with the perpetrator. You don’t want them to be faceless, or to have no impact.

American Psycho is currently streaming on Cinemax, and is available as a digital rental from major online retailers.