Before its release on April 14, 2000, "American Psycho" was attacked as excessively violent and misogynistic. When a book that had been reviewed as ”a how-to manual on the torture and dismemberment of women” was being taken to screen, the backlash that had met Bret Easton Ellis' novel flared up all over again. Given its current place in pop culture, it's hard to imagine Christian Bale's breakout as a once underrated film that entered the mainstream by way of scandal.
Writer and director Mary Harron attached herself to the adaptation with a clear vision of how to undermine that misogynistic understanding and give clarity to a clear satirical reading. But soon after she finished her script and cast Bale, the studio signed Leonardo DiCaprio to the part of Patrick Bateman and kicked her out of the director's chair. The cult hit you know it to be today could have looked entirely different.
"It seemed to me very clear that there’s a difference between a description of misogyny and being misogynist," Harron said of her first impression of Ellis' dark comedy. "It seemed to me like he was making fun, like it was an attack on these Wall Street guys. It wasn’t endorsing their behavior as great stuff, you know?"
That's what she wanted to translate to screen when she was approached to lead the adaptation in 1996. Harron thought it might be a risky move, and she was exactly right. "I was attacked a great deal over this, which is funny to look back on now that everyone seems to like it," she said. "There was a time when people would look at you strangely if they saw you reading the book on the subway."
After finishing what casting director Kerry Barden called a "near-perfect script" and getting the green light from Mike Paseornek from Lionsgate, Harron set out to cast her Patrick Bateman. "It was a tough one to audition, because we used the scene where Christian’s character [Patrick Bateman] chops Jared Leto’s character [Paul Allen] up into pieces," said Barden, also known for his work on "Se7en" and "Good Will Hunting." "That is a hard one to sit through every time an actor comes in. You kind of can’t pull back if you’re auditioning with a scene like that."
Initially, Billy Crudup was attached to the role, but he pulled out once he saw the content of the script. "I think after reading it out loud, Billy shied away from it a bit," Barden said. "It wasn’t that we didn’t want him. It’s that he didn’t want to engage after that."
A number of big names were in talks for the part. Ewan McGregor and Edward Norton were both considered. Leto auditioned for Patrick, but settled for the role of Paul Allen when he was turned down for the lead, something Barden noted was rare to see in casting.
As soon as Bale came in, they knew they had their Patrick Bateman. "When Christian got into the picture there was no one else," Barden said. "Mary decided on him and that never wavered."
There was something about Bale at that point in his career that made him particularly well-suited for the role. Harron was impressed with the way he understood the subtle humor of the character. He picked up on notes in Ellis' dark comedy that took her masterful script to the next level. He also had the hunger and ambition that the character needed embedded in his fledgling career.
Patrick Bateman is not just smug, but thirsty, desperate and vulnerable -- qualities Bale identified with as a budding actor in the 1990s. "Whoever was going to do this role had to be totally fearless about it," Harron said. "In a way, they had to have nothing to lose. And Christian had nothing to lose."
Harron was on track to create the "American Psycho" we have today, when Lionsgate (who now owned the script) used the 1998 Cannes Film Festival to announce DiCaprio as the lead. Harron said she wanted Bale as her Bateman, and was met with a press release that she was no longer attached to the film.
"It felt like being in a car crash, really," she said of discovering the news. "I think I didn’t realize that I was expendable in the eyes of the studio."
Harron had expressed doubts over casting DiCaprio and asserted her faith in Bale as the lead. She never formally quit, though rumors quickly spread that she was difficult to work with. "One of the things they said was that I didn’t want to deal with a big budget movie," she said. "That was crazy. Who doesn’t want a bigger budget?"
Lionsgate insisted Bale wasn't famous enough, and that they needed DiCaprio to carry the film. Harron never doubted him as an actor (or saw the studio's goals as anything more devious than wanting to make a successful film). She was simply wary about how the film would play with a breakout heartthrob as a sociopathic serial killer. In the late '90s, DiCaprio was arguably the biggest young star in Hollywood and had teenage girls on the verge of hyperventilation from the post-"Titanic" screaming of his name.
"It was just inappropriate," she said. "To cast someone with a huge fan base among 15-year-old girls felt wrong on many, many levels to me."
Beyond that, Harron had a very specific vision for her script. She knew once a name like DiCaprio was on board, the studio would meddle with her plans, altering the comedic take on misogyny and shifting it into a generic horror film with a glamorized protagonist that would end up perpetuating ideas "American Psycho" was meant to dismantle.
"In order to bring off a movie of this highly controversial project, I would really have to have full control over the tone," she said. "This was going to put intolerable pressure on the film that it would undoubtedly lead to them trying to change the script."
Once Harron was cut and DiCaprio was cast, a lot of major directors expressed interest, including Tim Burton. (Please take a second to listen to some Danny Elfman and envision Tim Burton's "American Psycho" starring Leonardo DiCaprio.)
"I spent a couple years looking for someone with a sense of 'cosmic irony,' that was our phrase that we used in looking for a director," producer Edward Pressman said. "Our epitome of that was Stanley Kubrick, that sensibility that brought us 'Dr. Strangelove' and 'Clockwork Orange.'"
Pressman praised Harron for her patience during the turnover and acknowledged how different "American Psycho" could have been in the hands of a different director.
"The book was originally given to me by Stuart Gordon," Pressman said. "He was the filmmaker who did 'Re-Animator.' And his approach was to be very violent, black and white and X-rated. That would not have garnered a large audience." (And would have been precisely the misogynistic horror film Gloria Steinem and other protestors feared.)
Eventually, Oliver Stone signed on. He worked through a series of table reads with a number of cast members who ended up in the final cut (including Reese Witherspoon). Ultimately, Stone and DiCaprio clashed and DiCaprio left to film "The Beach," giving Harron the opportunity to return to the project.
Barden speculated that there wasn't much room for Stone as a creative force working with a script like Harron's. "It's hard to go from being as strong a director as Oliver is and having a perfect script and not being able to really change much about it," he said.
The outcry in response to the movie included warnings that Patrick Bateman would be career suicide for whoever took the role. Steinem led a campaign against the book and the film, urging DiCaprio not to sign on. (In a strange twist of fate, she would marry David Bale and become Christian Bale's stepmother the year of the film's release.)
"I love Gloria Steinem as a feminist and role model and all the rest. I just feel like there are times when a political agenda and an artistic agenda just don’t match," Harron said. "I don’t think people really read the book or the script. They knew there was violence against women, but this is not an attack on women. Politics can have a much more clear cut agenda than a creative process. They just don’t marry, really."
Harron herself is a feminist, though she distinguishes between her belief system and the use of her work to enact social change. "When people say, 'Oh, are you a feminist filmmaker?' I say I’m a feminist person, whose career has been made possible by feminism. But that doesn’t mean my films are in any way ideological. They’re not teaching lessons or trying to make anything happen in the world. That just isn’t the kind of filmmaker I am."
Pressman remains impressed that Harron still wanted in after Lionsgate unceremoniously cut her from the film. "A lot of filmmakers would have said, you know, 'Go jump in a lake,'" he said. "But she believed in what her vision was, believed in Christian and turned out to be right that Leo was not going to end up doing it."
Once she was reinstated as director, Harron set out to comb the comedy of the book with elements of fear that would undercut the glamorization of Bale's anti-hero.
She inserted jilting shifts in focal point to create a sense of uncertainty in her audience. For example, in the scene where Detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) interviews Patrick in regard to Paul Allen's disappearance, Harron shot three versions of the scene -- one where Kimball is certain Patrick is guilty, one where he thinks Patrick is innocent and one where he remains unsure -- and spliced them together so it was totally ambiguous. "They were kind of mad at me, because that took a lot of film," she joked.
Harron feels her most important addition to the book was the character of Christie, the blonde prostitute played by Cara Seymour. "I added a couple of scenes where you’re really experiencing the scene from her point of view," Harron said. "Most of the time it was Bateman’s point of view, but it was very important to switch perspective. You see it from Bateman’s eyes and then we’re doing the scary thing of when you’re seeing it not from the point of view of the hunter but from the point of view of the vulnerable victim. So, I think that’s quite important in the film."
Those sort of psychological tricks are part of what make the film so effective without much graphic violence (considering its subject matter, anyway). Harron saw the shifts from comedy to violence as a hugely important aspect of the book. She didn't want to cheat that element of the story, but knew she had to use a careful hand. As Barden noted, one of the most startling scenes comes when Patrick drops the chainsaw down the stairs. Without explicitly visualizing anything but a glimpse at the weapon in his victim's back, it offers up an adrenaline rush that rivals even the goriest horror films.
In retrospect, Pressman viewed Harron's mitigation of more extreme moments as crucial to the final product. "I think that’s what made Mary the ideal director," he said. "Because she’s a woman, she can push that stuff to its extreme and keep it with that sense of irony."
Harron agreed. "I always felt, especially with Guinevere writing the script, that we could be more fearless about it, because we were women," she said.
On his end, Ellis was pretty hands-off with "American Psycho" after dealing with the arduous process of working with the adaption of "Less Than Zero." Still, according to Harron, he would have liked "a more violent version."
"He said that he would have preferred more drugs, more sex, more violence," she remembered. "But he didn’t interfere while we were shooting it." (Twelve years after its release, Ellis, who declined to participate in this feature, tweeted that he had finally gotten around to seeing the film. "Just caught some of Mary Harron's 'American Psycho' and was surprised how good it is," he wrote. "I'd been lightly dissing it but I'm wrong.")
Despite the terror embedded in the satire and female perspectives inserted in the most upsetting scenes, Patrick Bateman has endured as an idol for young men -- an impact of the film which confounds Harron and Pressman.
"I think two films we've made that seem to connect with young males are 'American Psycho' and 'Wall Street,'" Pressman said. "You know this film has kind of an amusement with self-indulgence and the male ego. With 'Wall Street,' the young male audience revered Gordon Gekko. He was not supposed to be the hero, but they identified with him and decided to go into investment banking because of his inspiration, which is ironic because that was not the initial impulse at all."
That interpretation is part of what Harron was battling when she expressed hesitation over DiCaprio in the role. She has grappled with the diversion of audience readings and authorial intent over the course of her career, though it was a reality of filmmaking she most fully understood while watching the reception of "American Psycho" change over time.
"I never know what to make of the film’s culture or how people see it. Do they see it the way I do? Who knows? It’s funny. You can’t control it. When something means something in the culture like the book and the movie seem to, it’s kind of out of your hands," she said. "Any work, if people stay interested in it for more than a few years, then its meaning will change according to how the audience is receiving it. I mean, you can’t control it."