When you first read Bret Easton Ellis' novel, what did you make of the controversy?
I read it in 1991, when it first came out, and I really didn't understand all the scandal. I kept wondering, why isn't anybody saying this is a satire? It was almost willful, I thought, the misinterpretation of the book. I also think the outrage was mostly about certain scenes, like the grisly torture scenes, that were taken out of context. Obviously, a lot of people hadn't read the book. On the other hand, I knew people who actually did read the book and didn't find it funny, which was inconceivable to me.
Are people curious how the same person who made "I Shot Andy Warhol" could be interested in "American Psycho"?
When I started working on "American Psycho," they seemed like very different films. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized they're not that different at all. Both are about a disconnected, alienated, mad person, set against a very distinct social landscape. I do think Valerie Solanas is a much more sympathetic character than Patrick Bateman and is also more a victim of her society. And in that sense, she comes across more realistically. Bateman, on the other hand, had no background or history for me to work with, which, in a way, I preferred.
I see "American Psycho" operating much like a fable. It's a fairy tale in which the characters aren't quite real but are sort of emblems for different things. Not knowing Bateman's background makes him a powerful symbol for a society that's gone wrong.
What do you think went wrong with Patrick Bateman?
He is spritually empty. Bateman is this totally blank and empty person, at the center of a terrifying void, and he attempts and fails to fill his emptiness with an obsessive attention to surface things.
I take it you weren't concerned about the story seeming any less relevant today.
Oh, I think the territory is very much the same today. Except that what was a specific yuppie culture in the '80s, consisting of a few very highly paid, privileged urban people, is much more widespread today. We're in the midst of an even greater boom, so more people, of all different groups, are caught up in this gold-rush mentality and an obsession to spend, spend, spend.
What was the biggest challenge to adapting the book?
Trying to maintain the narrative drive without having much of a plot. The book is deliberately just a series of incidents. For example, the detective who questions Bateman sort of appears and disappears, so I had to build up his character a bit. But I didn't want it to be a conventional narrative because then it would become "Silence of the Lambs" or something. So I tried to make the changes necessary to really hold a moviegoer's interest but without changing it so much that it became conventional.
You didn't want a huge star to play Patrick Bateman. Why?
I definitely think the part is better for someone who's less well-known, who doesn't carry much baggage. Also, the second I saw Christian Bale's audition tape, I knew he was perfect for it.
For a while, the papers were saying Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh off "Titanic"'s success, was attempting to muscle his way into the role. And I kept imagining his 12-year-old fan base turning out to watch their Leo chase a prostitute with a chainsaw.
Well, that really did concern me, and it was one of my chief objections. It's crazy to think we could have cast someone whose fans are way too young to see the movie, and who shouldn't see the movie.
How did you approach the violence in the book?
I didn't want to include much. I wanted only one really explosive, violent scene, which is when Bateman murders two girls--a prostitute and a society girl. Otherwise, I preferred to hint at the violence because I really didn't care for the torture scenes in the novel. And they didn't interest me as a director, either. The psychological horror--that's what I wanted to explore, and it doesn't require much violence to do that. Plus, if I'd made it more graphic, it would've been considered a slasher film, which no one would have interpreted properly.
You had to make some cuts to earn an R rating. What hit the floor?
About 20 seconds of sex stuff--pelvic grinding, basically, what it always comes down to with the MPAA! But it never was an erotic scene. It was actually more emotionally disturbing than sexual, because it involves Bateman and two prostitutes, and everyone looks so disconnected.
Yes, and the women are just going through the motions, doing what they have to do to get paid. Now, in the book the sex is hot and heavy. It reads like it's some kind of pornographic fantasy. That's how Bateman, as the book's narrator, describes it, but he's very likely embellishing it. But in the movie, of course, you have to show the scene the way it probably would have happened.
Any surprises now that the movie's out?
I'm surprised so many women critics have liked it. If anything, it's been attacked for being anti-male. Maybe that's because I'm critiquing this elitist male culture, Wall Street, I don't know. But the movie certainly doesn't attack all men, just a certain very privileged, powerful group of guys. It's much more about class than gender.
What if anything do you hope viewers will "take away" from the film?
Well, I've never been a moralist. But I do hope it makes people look at the world differently, at our consumer culture differently, or even to be able to just laugh at the total ridiculousness of it more! I mean, I'm not trying to say, "Consumerism is bad." We know that. But I do want to say something about our crazy obsessiveness and materialism, which really is a form of madness. I think that where it leads us is fairly bleak, as you see at the end of the movie. Patrick Bateman may be free, in a sense, but he is very much trapped in a hell of his own making.