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I Shot Patrick Bateman 

Mary Harron on her American Psycho

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000
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Photo by Robin HollandIt was sometime in April 1998 when Mary Harron first found out that the world’s biggest movie star was about to swallow her movie whole. Harron and her friend Guinevere Turner had written a script based on Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho, about a Wall Street yuppie who may or may not be a serial killer. Harron had been contracted to direct, and she and producer Ed Pressman, who owned the option on the book, had spent two years looking for money. Harron had also spent more than a year looking for someone to play the lead, finally finding the only actor she thought could play the part. Her choice was Christian Bale, a little-known British actor best known for having played J.G. Ballard as a child in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. Then the script found its way into Leonardo DiCaprio’s hands, and Leo liked what he read.

“One of my agents at William Morris called me up in a panic,” Harron recounts, “and said she had just had a furious phone call from Christian Bale’s agent — at the time he was at William Morris — saying that an offer for $21 million is going out to Leonardo. I can’t remember what I said, but I sent a message to Lions Gate that I would leave the film if this happened.”

Harron didn’t leave. She didn’t budge. She stuck to her guns, she stuck to Bale — her Patrick Bateman, her psycho killer — and, always, she stuck to her vision of Ellis’ deliriously loathed novel. Harron said no to Leo, and Hollywood called her crazy. She said no and the industry press repeatedly, and wrongly, reported that she’d “abandoned” the project. For four months, neither anyone at Lions Gate, the company funding the production, nor two of her producers returned Harron’s phone calls. Oliver Stone held a script reading with DiCaprio, along with Jared Leto and Reese Witherspoon, both of whom would end up in the movie. According to one source, William Morris, Harron’s own agency, submitted other directors as possible replacements. Someone with a sense of humor even sent the script to Adrian Lyne.

Two long years later, Harron’s version of the Ellis novel opens this weekend. Lions Gate, which is also releasing it, is now banking on the film enough to launch it on 1,200 screens. That’s an optimistic number for an art-house satire about a wealthy sociopath who stores female body parts in his gleaming Ultra Line refrigerator, and it’s impossible to know if the gamble will pay off in returns, protests or disinterest. Critically, however, the film is already a success, arguably because DiCaprio didn’t make it and Harron did, and undeniably because Harron is tougher than anyone imagined.

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The first thing you have to wonder is: Didn’t any of these people see Harron’s first feature, the independent film that got her to American Psycho in the first place? Didn’t they get it? I Shot Andy Warhol was an unapologetically feminist romp based on the life of Valerie Solanas, author of The SCUM Manifesto (short for “Society for Cutting Up Men”) and the woman who pumped two bullets into the pop artist in 1968. Solanas was brilliant, probably nuts, and righter about men and power than most women have the stomach to admit. “‘A man will walk through a river of snot to get to a waiting pussy,’” Harron had said back in 1996, quoting Solanas while publicizing the film. “I think purer words were never spoken.”

Sleekly dressed in black, with small, pixie features and close-cropped hair, Harron came across then as cool, remote, but she was a great talker, given to the sort of smart, unadorned pronouncement that a better-schooled professional would be hesitant to let slip, much less willingly offer up in an interview. Harron said she thought Solanas was insane, but wasn’t afraid to admit that she also admired her. “There’s an element of madness in the manifesto, but it has a lot of lucidity and deep truth.” She was talking about Solanas’ screed, but she could have been describing Ellis’. “I think you can also see it as a brilliant, satiric revenge fantasy, on which level it works sublimely, as a release of feeling. Male writing is filled with it — Henry Miller or Norman Mailer — and how many women write like that, still? When I read it I thought I have never had the courage even to think like this, much less express it publicly. It was an enormous joy to read something so unreasonable and so unfair.”

Born in Toronto, educated at Oxford, Harron left for New York City in the mid-1970s, becoming an accidental journalist when Legs McNeil told her he was starting a magazine. She was one of Punk’s feature writers, and is listed in the acknowledgments of McNeil’s riotous rock & roll annals Please Kill Me, just before Debbie Harry. Harron returned to the U.K. in time for Thatcher. “The thing about being a rock journalist is that you’re washed up in your late 20s, especially in England. I’d already had a career and it was over, so I thought I had totally fucked my life. I thought, ‘I’m in my 30s and it’s too late.’” Instead, she went into television and elbowed her way into yet another kind of club. “I was dealing with all the boy-genius directors and their entirely male crews, dealing with a male power structure that wasn’t at all closed to women. I was interested in how we handled authority, second-guessing ourselves. You know, it was that post-feminist world. I thought I could write, but I couldn’t possibly direct. Then in ’88, I started directing on BBC2’s The Late Show and did so many films. With this guy Paul Morley I made half-hour films on boredom, money, hotels, and a surreal variety show about dark entertainment. Of course people hated it.”

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