By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Directing for television gave Harron the confidence to think she could make feature films, but she couldn’t figure out how to make the transition from one medium to another. The first half of the answer came when she received funding from the BBC to make a drama-documentary about Valerie Solanas, the second half when, while researching the project in New York, she met with producers Christine Vachon and Tom Kalin, who asked, Why not go all the way? Harron did, and in January of 1996 I Shot Andy Warhol, which she wrote with her friend, filmmaker Daniel Minihan, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to an enthusiastic reception. Word got to producer Ed Pressman that Harron might be the director to turn American Psycho into a movie.
“I read the book during the L.A. riots,” says Pressman. “The city was burning in front of me, so I was very impressionable. I optioned it shortly thereafter. It was a puzzle and a challenge. I thought that there were things about the book that were very strong and potentially cinematic, but there was certainly not a clear solution. I started exploring the script with Bret. [His script] was interesting. It was very close in tone to the book, but it was sort of impossible to really be made, and it ended with a big musical number at the Statue of Liberty.” (“I did not know how to end the script,” says Ellis, whose request for a screenwriting credit on the final film was turned down by the Writers Guild. “And the rumors are right, I did end it with a musical number where all the Wall Street guys are, you know, you know, whatever.”)
Directors came and went, including David Cronenberg, who brought in Norman Snider, the screenwriter on Dead Ringers. Pressman’s search took him from the sublime to the ridiculous: Even Rob Weiss, director of an idiot gloss on Mean Streets called Amongst Friends, had a deal. Then, after Sundance, Pressman approached Harron, who agreed to direct the film, but only if she could write her own screenplay. She had read American Psycho when it was â first published in England and had been taken with it immediately. “I liked the tone of voice and I thought it was very funny,” she says. “Then I hit the murder of Bethany and I had to stop reading it for a month.”
Although Harron still wears her hair short, eight months into her second pregnancy she no longer presents a sleek silhouette. Her belly riding low, as if there were a basketball rather than a baby tucked under her T-shirt, the 47-year-old, now married to filmmaker John Walsh, looks disarmingly girlish. There is something unsettling about a hugely pregnant woman casually discussing a book as repulsive as American Psycho, with its disemboweled women and ill-placed rats, but there is also something thrilling, because Harron is clearly talking as much about her American Psycho as Ellis’.
Even before it hit, the book was famously hated. Simon & Schuster, its original publisher, refused to release it. Vintage picked it up, only to be condemned by the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization of Women (chair Tammy Bruce called it a “snuff book”). Norman Mailer issued a defense, or at least an argument for Ellis’ right to his words. Years later the uproar might seem absurd, even amusing, if all too often outrage over controversial cultural production in this country didn’t devolve into calls for censorship. Although the protest died down almost immediately upon the novel’s release, the ripple effect ensured that turning the book into a movie wouldn’t be without risk. When Pressman approached Harron with American Psycho, she greeted the offer cautiously.
“I didn’t see a movie right here at all,” she says, with a laugh. “But it definitely intrigued me. I was at that point where if you have a film at Sundance, you get some good reviews, you get the agent, people start sending you these really bad scripts, or sappy, sentimental things which seemed so compromised. And I guess I was having those worries that anybody does when they’ve spent a long time on their first film and it means a lot to them and suddenly they have a career. I felt like I was in danger of losing my way, you know? I had already been working on this Betty Page project for ages, but American Psycho was the first thing that anybody called me about that I thought was very interesting, and sort of dangerous.”
Dangerous isn’t a word that generally crops up in the trade papers, or comes up during routine conversations about the movie business. But Harron isn’t an industry insider, which, ironically, may be why she’s been able to become one of the most interesting women filmmakers working in America today. Harron was 42 when I Shot Andy Warhol premiered at Sundance, and she admitted to feeling as if she’d come late to the party. But, she said hotly, she had interviewed the Sex Pistols. Given how tough it is for women to make it as directors in this country, it may be a good thing that she didn’t go to film school, didn’t try to break into film in her 20s, didn’t learn to compromise her vision before she’d learned to trust it. Harron skipped all that, and made two movies. If it’s debatable that Harron’s being a woman had any bearing on what happened when DiCaprio’s name became linked to American Psycho, it’s disingenuous to insist that Harron’s being a woman didn’t mean anything at all. It is difficult, after all, to think of a man who would have been called crazy for being loyal to his star, for wanting to direct the movie he himself had written and seen in his head.
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