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.
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.”
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.
“Everyone at Lions Gate thought that I was crazy,” Harron says. “I had a real fear that if I say no, everyone’s going to say there’s something wrong with me. That I’m just this erratic person who’s self-destructive, doesn’t know what they’re doing, is a nightmare to deal with. Friends in L.A. were having to defend me because people were saying, ‘Has Mary gone crazy? What’s wrong with her?’”
In April 1998, almost a year after Harron had found Christian Bale, Michael Paseornek, president of film production at Lions Gate, sent Harron and Turner’s script of American Psycho to Rick Yorn, the manager for Leonardo DiCaprio, who was then riding out the Titanic tsunami. Explains Paseornek: “Rick said, ‘Jeez, Leo has like a gazillion offers here, all at a huge amount of money, I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ And then he called me up and said, ‘We have a problem here. Leo likes the script. He picked it off the top of the pile and read it.’ Mary said that she didn’t want to do the film with Leo, and, showing great integrity and foresight, said, ‘I will quit the project before’ — it wasn’t that she didn’t want to do it with Leo, I should take that back, she wanted to do it with Christian. Back up here a second — Mary wanted to do the film with Christian and said if we went to Leo and made an offer she was going to back off the project. And that’s what happened.”
Harron, who’d given birth to her first child by that point, is extraordinarily pacific when describing what happened during this period, a stretch of time during which news outlets around the world were filled with will-he-or-won’t-he reports about DiCaprio. (“Murder, Mutilation and a Heartthrob With No Morality” — The London Daily Mail.) “There was one element of calculation when I said I would walk,” Harron admits. “I mean, I did it because I was really angry, because I didn’t think it was going to work and all the rest of it. I thought it was an untenable position and it would ruin me more than anyone. But I also thought, well, Leonardo has so many other offers, and they don’t have a director, it’s less likely to come off. They are going to have to find somebody. And who’s really going to want to take it on?” Harron and Bale dug in, refusing to believe the film was gone for good. “Christian’s family felt that he was deluded,” says Harron, “and John was worried that I was deluded. Christian and I kept talking on the phone about how we were going to get it back, and they thought, ‘Oh dear, they just can’t let go.’”
“I’m sure I harassed her at times,” says Bale, “because I would lose my temper and give her a call, not mad at her in the slightest, but mad at the situation — how dare they? And Mary would say, ‘Now, Christian, I know, I know, but I’m right in the middle of dinner. I’ve got friends around. Please, can we do this another day?’ ‘All right, Mary, but for God’s sake, we can’t just take this lying down.’ ‘I know, Christian, but another time.’”
Remarkably — remarkable in particular in the movie business — Harron went public with her belief that DiCaprio wasn’t right for the role. Still, for all her candor and her calm, she worried, as Ellis had once worried years earlier, that American Psycho would be her ruin. “I had the feeling, well, that’s it for me,” she says, “because to go against any kind of money or fame in Hollywood is seen as just psychotic. It was really, genuinely scary, and I felt very isolated. Guinevere [Turner] was in town, and Gideon Ponte, my production designer and one of my best friends, and we all went to the Miracle Grill and sat in the garden. Even though I was nursing, I had two margaritas. The baby was there, and John, and it felt like these were the only people, you know, who I had.
“Then the next day — I was incredibly, fantastically lucky — Variety published a piece that Lions Gate had issued a press release saying I had walked off the movie. I had a call from my lawyer from the beach at Cannes, saying, ‘What is this? They said you’ve walked because you didn’t want to make a big-budget movie.’ Which I thought was libelous. If they’d been smarter they probably could have gotten rid of me. I would have been toast, and no one would have had any sympathy for me. I was so lucky they didn’t know how to handle it.”
After Cannes, everything either fell apart or came together, depending on whose story you’re telling. DiCaprio’s handlers announced that he was doing The Beach with director Danny Boyle, and quickly began putting distance between the star and American Psycho. Harron went off with Walsh to get married in a fishing launch in Maine. While there, she learned of the Stone-DiCaprio reading. (“And Oliver’s so good at satire, as we know from Natural Born Killers,” Harron says dryly. “That light touch.”) After months of being treated as persona non grata on the film she was still contracted to direct, Harron was angry and humiliated enough to call her agent and say, Get the money. (She had a play-or-pay deal.) A couple of weeks after Harron decided to get out, though, she was back in, permanently.
“Just recently,” says Harron, “John and I were talking, and in the course of this conversation we sort of realized that if the whole Leonardo thing hadn’t happened, the movie would have fallen apart and never have gotten made, because I wasn’t able to get the big stars around Christian. I mean, the only reason Leonardo wanted to do it was the crazy place he was in. My instinct is that Lions Gate was going to let it go. Once the Leonardo thing happened, there was so much publicity they could not not make it. It’s actually very funny how things happen.”
Michael Paseornek doesn’t necessarily disagree. “I’ve been accused in the independent film world of having orchestrated this whole thing,” he says. “I think it did help [get the film made], but I can assure you that we did not do this for that reason.”
During the four years it has taken Mary Harron to make her second film, she has given birth to one child, gotten married, and started on another baby as well as another feature. Along with Guinevere Turner, she is furiously trying to finish a script about ’50s cult pinup Betty Page before going into labor. Harron hopes that by next spring she’ll be ready to go into production on it. Talking by phone a few weeks ago, though, she sounded exhausted.
“You know, I’m just so overwhelmed. I’m having a baby. I’m so tired, and then I’ve been doing press. I don’t know, as glorious as [pregnancy] is, the domestic responsibilities have to be met. It’s just a movie, and I haven’t got enough little T-shirts for the new baby.” Being a woman right now is making it hard for Harron to be a director. A lot of women directors and would-be women directors would say that it’s almost always hard. There’s no small irony, and perhaps even a lesson, therefore, in the fact that on this film, based on a book that many women still consider irredeemably misogynist, being a woman actually may have given the director an edge.
“I think being a woman helped me, has helped me quite a bit in the aftermath,” Harron says. “Heaven forbid if a man had made this movie. I think a man would have made a different film. But say it was a man with a very kind of female, sensitive take on things — he still would have been given a harder time, because I think it just stops people a bit in their tracks. Anyway, it is a little harder for women to make their second movies. And if you’re a woman, you have to be on best behavior all the time. You just can’t seem to be hysterical, you can’t show too much temperament. You have to be firm.”
She’s tired, but hanging tough. “Either people like it or have a problem with it,” Harron says of her film. “But I’m unrepentant.”
For Ella Taylor’s review of American Psycho, see the Film section.