Mary Harron was 42 when she got the green light to direct her first film, I Shot Andy Warhol. Pitching it hadn’t been easy. When producers heard she wanted to make a movie about Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who shot Warhol, they were disturbed. In her infamous SCUM Manifesto, Solanas had advocated killing all men. “People were like, ‘This is crazy,’” Harron recalled. “‘Not just crazy — but bad, evil.’” The film turned out to be a hit at Sundance, but making movies never got easier for Harron. Every project was a struggle, perhaps because Harron was only interested in telling stories about psychopaths and outcasts and never tried to explain, justify, or condemn their behavior.
Her second film, American Psycho, was greeted with a mix of admiration and scorn. Some critics got it. They understood that Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s shocking 1991 novel of manners and murders was meant to be a nasty comedy about the narcissistic rage lurking beneath the shiny façade of American capitalism. But most reviewers failed to find it funny. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called it a “stillborn, pointless piece of work” and took offense at what he perceived as its ethos of “man-hating misandry.” Twenty years on, the culture has finally caught up to Harron and to her complicated form of feminism, which refuses to fit into a tidy ideological framework. A few years ago, American Psycho became a Broadway musical; today, the film is talked about as one of the greatest horror movies of the century. Harron doesn’t mind that she’s never been worshipped as a genius. “Women directors don’t have the danger of going mad with power,” she told Vulture. “I actually think that’s an advantage. It’s better to live in the real world.”
We were in her apartment in Washington Heights, in her bright living room decorated with paintings by friends and mementos of her work — a Warhol print of blue and white flowers, a black-and-white shot of Bettie Page kneeling and twisting away from the camera. It was a week or so before the city began to shut down. She wore red plaid pants and a thick black cardigan, her silver hair swept back from her face as she cradled a mug of green tea.
It’s the 20th anniversary of American Psycho, as I’m sure you’re aware.
Yes, I am aware. I’ll try to say something interesting about it.
Do you feel burnt out talking about it?
A little bit. But I also have to be grateful for it. It’s sort of like hitting the lottery, if you make a film that has some cultural significance outside of being a film, that somehow people will take an interest in it and you’re not quite sure why. It’s bizarre.
What do you make of the interest?
This is true of a lot of what I do: The films come out and they get very mixed reviews. American Psycho — I remember the New York Post describing it as the biggest bomb of Sundance — although there was a lot of interest in it at Sundance, where it premiered. There were people lining up around the block. And then the audience sat there in stunned silence.
Did anyone laugh?
No. Except for our little group. I was there and Christian [Bale] was there and Andy Marcus, the editor. We were the only people laughing in the theater. And now I think people know to laugh. People know that a lot of it is satirical.
It’s interesting because I think it was ahead of its time, and all of these trends have become so important in the years since it came out: our obsession with male anti-heroes and toxic masculinity.
Yeah, it’s very interesting. I love Joker. I was on the jury at Venice [Film Festival], the jury that awarded it the [2019 Golden Lion] prize. And I was amazed at the reviews of Joker.
Why did you like it?
Apart from that it was a brilliant piece of filmmaking, I thought it was a great portrait of madness. It had a class theme you very rarely find in American films.
What did you make of the conversation around it?
It was so ludicrous. I was so familiar with that conversation because that conversation has happened around me, because it happened around American Psycho, and it’s always the same conversation. These attacks always focus on some kind of art movie. They never focus on the extreme violence in mainstream entertainment. I love John Wick, but it’s far more violent and has far more mayhem than Joker or American Psycho. Actually, both of them have a small amount of violence. It’s just that that violence is disturbing.
That reminds me of something you said in an interview about the ratings controversy around American Pyscho, about how the issue wasn’t that the sex in the film was too provocative or explicit, but that the women in a particular sex scene seemed so bored and that that affect was the thing that was so upsetting to people.
Yes, it was disturbing to sit through. It wasn’t a fun sex scene — it’s about prostitution, it’s a transaction. People don’t have the fun element to make the violence okay. The moral panic is about quite serious films. Invariably.
What’s your theory on that?
Because it doesn’t slide down as easily as, you know, Marvel. Marvel, you can blow up most of Manhattan and people love that. People are very uncomfortable with moral ambiguity. If that same violence had been perpetrated by a person [like John Wick] who was seeking noble revenge, they might feel differently. But when it’s someone who is like the Joker, who is deeply mentally disturbed, you’re put in an uncomfortable position. Even though I think the movie is pretty clear — this guy is psycho — you’ve followed him through his vulnerability and his being humiliated and neglected and used by the world and the people around him. And there’s an element where you’re identifying with him.
The same conversation happens over and over every so often with a film that is upsetting or disturbing, which is a part of what movies are and do. Then everything settles down. It’s crazy to me that everyone talks about American Psycho in such reverent terms.
Is it the culture that’s changed?
No, because look at Joker. I don’t think the culture’s changed. People just had time … no, that’s not true. The culture’s changed to a certain extent, because at the time [American Psycho came out], some people dismissed it. People dismiss films that are disturbing to them, saying, “Oh, it’s not doing anything new. Oh, we know all this. Oh, it’s boring.” People said that about American Psycho. “’Blah blah blah, it’s boring, so familiar.” It was seen very specifically as a film about the ’80s, and of course it’s a period film. But what happened in the 20 years since was late-20th-century capitalism — now 21st-century capitalism — got worse and worse, actually. Those guys didn’t go away.
Do you think there’s anything about your personality or your upbringing that allows you to see these aspects of American culture before other people do?
I was always moving around so much, at a very young age, changing schools and countries so many times, and that gave me a certain outsider quality that’s obviously part of my worldview. And there’s a dark sensibility I had from a young age. I’m sure my family life had something to do with it — seeing good times going bad. That gave me a feeling that things will always go dark at some point.
Where did you grow up?
I came from Toronto, from a generation that did not believe in helicopter parenting. There was a lot of adult drama in my life that my sister and I were just tagging along after.
My dad was an actor who eventually got a movie contract with Paramount that was arranged for him by Katherine Hepburn, who took a shine to him and arranged for him to have a screen test. We moved to a big house in Beverly Hills for two years. Then my parents’ marriage broke up. My father left my mother for this starlet, Virginia Leith. She just died recently. She was in Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire — she was a very wild person — an alcoholic. I always lived two different lives, split between a little of my mother and stepfather, and my father and my stepmother.
Did you meet Kubrick when you were a kid?
I never did, but my mother and step-father went to have dinner at his house in the countryside. They were big fans of Kubrick, and my mom said it was really weird because every time he said something, everyone would laugh or say, “That’s so great.” It was creepy. Women directors, that doesn’t happen — you don’t have the danger of being treated like a genius and going mad with power.
Do you appreciate that?
I do. I actually think that’s an advantage.
It’s good for maintaining a sense of reality?
It’s better to live in the real world.
So how did you first get into writing?
I did journalism at Oxford. I wrote film reviews and features. My third year, I was the editor of the university paper. I shared the editorship with Patrick Wintour, who was the younger brother of Anna Wintour. My last year of college, I published a bit professionally. After college, I ended up in New York for a bit, writing for Punk magazine.
What are your favorite memories of the punk scene?
I went to interview the Sex Pistols. Oh my God. New York punk was kind of humorous, ironic, and I got to London and there’s glasses flying everywhere. These little kids are nuts. They’re all like 16. I was 23 or something. I never found [punk] particularly decadent. I always feel like when people try to re-create these worlds, they get very heavy-handed and want to show dangerous punk stuff. But really, it’s a lot of people sitting around talking about what they saw on television. There was a certain amount of ordinariness about it that people never seem to capture.
How did you make the switch from music writing to TV and film?
I wasn’t connected to that world, really, but if your parents are in that world, then obviously it’s not an impossible world. Eventually, someone offered me a job as a researcher for a pop-music show. I researched stories and I wrote questions for all the top celebrity interviews — Boy George or Madonna. I would never ask them about their work. I would ask them things like: What do you think about death? How much is in your bank account?
Eventually, I managed to get onto a big prestigious show called The South Bank Show, which did art documentaries. I knew a lot of people in TV because my friends from Oxford who were journalists had all gone to the BBC. I was renting a room in Adam Curtis’s house. We’d all been in the same generation at college, and he was at the BBC, and I was so jealous. But eventually, I got there. It took five years of working as a researcher before I got to direct anything. The stuff I was making for the BBC wasn’t straight documentary — some of it was satirical. I worked with James Wolcott and made a couple of films with him that I thought were very funny.
Were you in New York at this point?
I came to New York to work on [the BBC2 series] The Late Show. But I’d been spending a lot of time in New York before that. I did the research for a documentary on the Wooster Group. I really got along with [its co-founder] Elizabeth LeCompte. My next project was researching this big Pollock documentary, and Liz wanted to make a film about Jackson Pollock’s girlfriend, Ruth Kligman, the one who was in the car when he died. She said, “I want you to write a script with me.” That was huge for me.
So that was your first crack at a feature film?
In a way, yeah. I’d already been writing scripts with one of my best friends from the New York punk scene for several years. One of them was a satirical film about advertising. I’d been trying to sell them and got no interest. That was one reason Liz asked me — she knew I was writing scripts on my own. That film never happened because we lost the rights, but for the next three or four years, I spent all my money coming back to New York for vacations. I’d stay in Spalding Gray’s loft when he was away. He and Elizabeth used to be partners. And I’d work with Elizabeth. I learned a lot from her — she was fearless. The fact that neither of us knew how to write a script, or had any training in it, that was an advantage. We were just going to ignore rules, and I really got a lot from that.
What do you remember about the Factory in New York?
I went to the 1980s Factory, and I interviewed Andy Warhol there because I was writing a piece for an English music magazine about Warhol’s influence on pop culture and the Velvet Underground. It was all about Warhol’s sensibility. There was something mysterious and dangerous about the Factory. It’s quite a cruel place and had the dangers of celebrity and the dangers of being cool and fashionable, and yet at the same time, all of those people were kind of outcasts who had created their own glamour. And I loved that. I’ve always loved outcasts.
What did you think of Andy?
He was very sweet, actually — shy and vulnerable. After about 20 minutes, he made someone else do the interview. “Brigid. Hey, Brigid. Brigid wants to talk. Hey Brigid, come on over.” He’s brilliant. He made Brigid Berlin do the interview.
So you had heard about Valerie Solanas a little bit in that context?
Yes, and she seemed very funny. I had done a lot of interviewing with people from the Factory for that piece I wrote. And then about five, six years later, when I was working in television, I did the research on an Andy Warhol documentary [for The South Bank Show]. Anyway, one day I was walking to work and I saw the SCUM Manifesto in a store and I bought it and I read it on the tube. I already knew a great deal about the Factory and about Warhol. I’d read a thousand interviews. I’d seen all this footage. I met all these people. And the one person there’s almost nothing about was Valerie Solanas. When I read this manifesto, it was like bolts of lightning.
I showed a friend higher up at the BBC the SCUM Manifesto. He thought it was hilarious. He said, “I’ll give you £100,000 or £150,000. See what you can do with that.” I still needed to raise more money, of course. Soon after, I was at a dinner party and an old friend of mine said he’d introduce me to Christine Vachon. He said you should meet Christine, because she’s been getting a really hard time for making all these films for gay men and she’s a lesbian and she needs a female subject.
What was that meeting like?
The office was tiny, like a broom closet. [Producer] Tom Kalin was there too. And I sat down and explained my idea. I was used to peoples’ eyes glazing over. People would often get upset with me for showing them the SCUM Manifesto. But they loved it.
Why would people get upset?
Because she’s suggesting killing men.
And people didn’t like that?
People were like, This is crazy. Not just crazy — but bad, evil.
I do think we have so much more tolerance for men who do evil things.
That’s true. Nobody’s like, “Oh, you can’t do a film like Taxi Driver.” But yeah, you can imagine that a lot of people turned [I Shot Andy Warhol] down.
Anyway, while we were trying to find financing, I still had to make a living, so I’d gone off to L.A. and got a job on this Fox News magazine show. I was working on the script in my spare time, but it felt like months went by without hearing anything. And then I was in our place in Los Angeles and I got a call from Tom Kalin saying, “Congratulations, you’re making a movie.” I had this moment of thinking, I showed them all.
And then I Shot Andy Warhol was a hit at Sundance.
The offer to do the script for American Psycho came in right after I got back from Sundance. That’s what happens if you have a first film that does well at Sundance.
Valerie Solanas is having a big moment now.
At the time, feminism was not cool. At all. Now everyone wants to say they’re a feminist. But at the time — I never denied it. I always said I was, because I felt like, without feminism, I would never be doing this.
Where do you think your feminism comes from?
It was pretty instinctive. My mother was very old school in a lot of ways. She believed men were superior to women with two exceptions — my sister and myself. She was very ambitious for me and wanted me to be an artist. She would’ve been horrified if I hadn’t. She was very upset that my sister married and had kids early. At the same time, we’d disagree. She thought feminism was silly. She ran a radio program, and on her show, they used to excerpt books, and she refused to do Simone de Beauvoir. Still, I always thought I was going to have a career. That’s how I thought about my future — my career, my work, my ambition.
But I always felt like people were saying “Are you a feminist?” back in the day because they wanted to pigeonhole you as an ideological filmmaker, which I’m not, I don’t believe.
What does that mean to you to not be an ideological filmmaker?
Everyone has an ideology, obviously, and it’s in some ways inescapable. But I’m not teaching moral lessons through my films. If there was a feminist ideology in my first film, it was wanting to bring hidden history to light. And upset the hierarchy. No one thought she was important. No one wrote about her at all, hardly.
Do you think if she had actually killed him, it would have changed the way people had viewed her or the film?
It might’ve. Look at the Unabomber manuscript, which also had some interesting things in it but is more obviously crazy, I think. It would have been a more tragic film. Anyway, I wasn’t making the film to say that everything she said is right and I want to see all men killed. I was saying, “Why do you only make films about good people?” This is an amazing story of a fascinating, tragic, brilliant woman and what happened to her when these two worlds collided — her and the Factory.
The same thing happened years later with American Psycho. I remember reading the first couple paragraphs and thinking, This is hilarious. No one else was saying that it’s funny, but to me, this had humor. That was obvious.
I remember I had this conversation with Ed Pressman. I said, “I don’t know if you can make a film about this book, but pay me some money and I’ll see what I can do.” I was already writing with Guinevere Turner by then. We’d already started working on [The Notorious] Bettie Page. So I told her, “Look, Guinevere, we’ve got some money. We can pay our rent.”
I find the film to be very funny at parts, but when I reread American Psycho last summer, I didn’t find the book to be funny. I found it to be a lot harder.
It is extremely, extraordinarily violent. And when I first started reading it, I was like “Lalalalala” for the first 30 pages. I hit this really horrible part, when he kills Bethany, and I had to stop reading it for a month. I could not read it. And then I thought, I’m going to go back in.
When I reread the book, the very first thing I thought was, Oh, just enough time has passed that you could make a period film about the 1980s. That interested me. They had a script, which I didn’t want to make, so I said I’d write my own from the book. I did feel like my first film had been quite challenging, and the scripts I was being sent [after] were very mainstream and boring. This seemed risky, and that made me feel like it was the right way to go.
You and Bret Easton Ellis have traveled different trajectories in the culture in terms of cultural esteem. What do you make of where he’s ended up?
I don’t know. I met him through American Psycho, and I really like Bret. After I started working on the film, we went out to dinner a couple times. I had him over. He was very hands off.
What was he like?
He was a sweetheart. I know he’s famously controversial now, but I saw him at the premiere of the musical and I still like Bret. His writing personality and who he is are different. He’s much friendlier and nicer when you meet him. He’s like a puppy. Even when he’s written kind of dismissive things about the movie, I forgive him because on the whole I think he likes me.
The idea of calling Bret Easton Ellis a puppy is so funny.
The person I see is not really like the person who does the podcast or the Twitter feed or whatever.
Did you collaborate with him at all on American Psycho? I know he had written his own script.
There were several scripts before I came on. I read Bret’s. I read them all, actually!
What did you think of them?
I didn’t think they were funny. What I loved when I read the book was I thought this was early Evelyn Waugh, like around Vile Bodies. It’s so precise on these privileged people — getting the way they speak. I thought about those earlier scripts, They’re missing this. I don’t think you can go into American Psycho and be super-moralistic about it.
Was Bret’s moralistic?
No, his wasn’t, but I thought a couple of the other scripts were. I kind of liked Bret’s script. It ended with Bateman tap dancing his way down Fifth Avenue, singing some song. It was funny, but to me, it wasn’t a movie.
Once you had the script finalized, how easy was it to get it made?
I found out I was pregnant pretty soon after [I agreed to write a new script], and I had to tell Pressman Films. At some point, I was thinking, Maybe I can film while I’m pregnant — that would have been a terrible idea. But fortunately we ran into the buzzsaw of casting. The film got turned down a lot. It was like I Shot Andy Warhol but even more so, because we were going to bigger companies. A lot of meetings, a lot of terrible script notes, a lot of people not liking the script.
Were there any particularly memorable rejections?
I remember someone objecting to the fact that Bateman was homophobic. Like, really? He’s just stabbed a homeless guy in the eye and he’s killed 30 people and you’re worried about him being homophobic?
There was one thing that happened that I’ve often encountered as an objection to the scripts I do: People want more psychology. But having a very clear psychological explanation isn’t of great interest to me.
Why is that?
It’s deterministic, it’s simplistic, and I don’t believe it’s necessarily true. I encountered this a lot with Bettie Page and Valerie Solanas. Valerie was abused by her father, Bettie Page was abused by her father. There’s a narrative thing that people do in Hollywood films, where they find a trauma and they bring it up as though it is the key that’s supposed to be the satisfying explanation for why everything happens.
And you didn’t want to give them that with Patrick Bateman.
Especially not with Patrick Bateman. I’d be having a meeting, and they’d want to know more about his childhood and his parents. It doesn’t matter if his mother was mean to him. I don’t care. He’s a monster.
When did the producers first tell you that they wanted to cast Leonardo DiCaprio?
That was spring of ‘98.
Had you already cast Christian Bale as Bateman?
I’d been [talking to] Christian [about it] for ages! We got on really well, we had very much the same take on it. I felt like he was a great actor who was going to be a star.
How did you end up casting Bale?
I met with a few people and nobody was quite right. Then I met Christian. He flew over to New York and auditioned in our living room. He was struggling with the accent because he’d just been doing this Manchester accent for Velvet Goldmine. But the way he talked about the role — he understood it. He did the murder scene in the audition, and he reminded me of Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol. There was something unfathomable about both of them. You would never get to the bottom of who they were.
I had at one point talked to Billy Crudup, but he was reluctant and backed out, and I thought that was right, because quite honestly if someone isn’t 100 percent on a role like that, you can’t cast them and they shouldn’t do it. And Christian was 100 percent, as well as being very funny and physically right.
Had he already done the bodywork?
No, no, no, he was this skinny English kid. I said, “Christian, have you ever been to a gym?” He said no. And I said, “Well maybe you should go to a gym, because Patrick Bateman works out, so just get a gym membership.” Two weeks later, he’s totally transformed. I had no idea how obsessive Christian was or what I was unleashing with this kind of casual comment.
But then your producers decided they wanted to cast Leonardo DiCaprio instead. Do you think there’s some sexism at play in how that all played out?
Yes. He was the biggest, youngest star in the world at that point, so obviously they would have still wanted to jettison Christian, but I don’t think I would have been treated so cavalierly that they felt they could just get rid of me.
How was this first relayed to you?
It was a phone call from one of the producers saying, “Are you sitting down? Leonardo DiCaprio wants to play the part and they want to pay him $20 million, but your budget will still only be $6 million.” And I said, “That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard.” I felt like he was really not right for it. And also to have a young star who was the idol of millions of teenage girls? You’re just bringing down hell upon yourselves, and you’ll never be able to make the script the way it should be made because everyone will be terrified.
Because his people would be invested in protecting his brand?
Yes. I felt like it was a terrible idea for him, for the movie, for me.
And did you say all this in that first phone conversation?
I might have said a fair amount.
And what did the producers say?
Ed was like, “Please meet with him,” and I did not want to meet with him. I didn’t even realize at the time, in my naïveté, that the studio had already decided to get rid of me. Because DiCaprio wanted a big, famous director. He had a shortlist — like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese.
I think Ed wanted me to meet with DiCaprio because he thought maybe I could persuade him to have me as director, but I didn’t want to. I just knew that even if it happened, and I stayed on, it would be disastrous.
How were you feeling at this point?
This project has been around for years, and I felt like I’d brought this back from the dead. I wrote a script that everybody’s interested in. You can’t get rid of me! But of course they could. I almost grew up in that moment, because I had no idea what money and power can do. I don’t think you can understand that until you’ve got something that people think is really valuable and there’s real money and real celebrity at stake. I was expendable. And that’s a lesson I internalized: When there’s money at stake, you mean nothing.
Did this make you doubt the career path you’d chosen?
No. But John [C. Walsh, Harron’s husband] said that I was like someone who had just had a bereavement. I was very shellshocked and also kind of frightened. At first I felt like, Well, everybody’s going to think I have great integrity. Then I realized, No, people in Hollywood just think I’m crazy.
So what did you do then?
Christine Vachon was very supportive. She got on the phone with me and said, “You need to get a publicist, you need to get your own story out there.” So I talked to our publicist on I Shot Andy Warhol, and I said, “They have said that I’ve walked off the movie because I didn’t want to make a big-budget movie. And I thought that was so insulting and so damaging to me that I would be scared of making a big-budget movie.” So I got my point of view out there that, no, I had not quit. I had been fired.
So how did you get hired again? They had hired Oliver Stone to direct, right?
When Oliver Stone abandoned it, they came back to me.
Why did it fall apart?
Leo dropped out. They couldn’t come to terms on how they wanted to rewrite the script. They wanted to turn it into more of a Jekyll-Hyde story. So that Bateman would not just be bad, that he would have a good side and a bad side. But they couldn’t decide on how that script rewrite would go, and in the meantime Danny Boyle offered Leo The Beach and he decided to do that instead. So that plan fell apart, and they didn’t have the star anymore, and they decided, Oh, it’d be simpler to get Mary back in.
Did they apologize to you for how they handled the whole thing?
Not really. I said one thing though to my agent at the time this was all unfolding, which is, “If DiCaprio drops out, if this doesn’t work out for some reason, and there’s a chance this comes back to me, no hard feelings.” In fact, that wasn’t entirely true! But I felt like that was a very important thing to say: Don’t think you can’t come back to me. We’ll just move forward.
What was it like to get that call?
I thought they were going to discuss compensation, but then it’s like, “They want to give you the movie back, but you can’t cast Christian Bale.”
Lionsgate still wanted a big star. This started a whole campaign. So I went for five or six people that I was pretty sure would say no — Ben Affleck, Matt Damon. Matt and Ben said no pretty quickly. And then Ewan McGregor said no. And I was talking to Christian throughout this process, and he was getting upset that I was going out with these other people, and I was like, “No! They’re going to say no, you’ve got to be patient, this is a long game we’re playing.” And I would have been a bit screwed if they had said yes. With Ewan McGregor, Christian called him and said, “Please don’t do this if they call and offer it to you.” So that was three down. And then Ed Norton and Vince Vaughn.
I managed to get out of Vince because he was wrong for it — I said, “he’s just been the lead in Psycho, you can’t cast him.” Ed Norton was the only one I was worried about. I had already thought about Ed, because I’d gone for a meeting with October Films back at the beginning, before I found Christian, and they’d said they will finance this right now if you cast Ed Norton. I’d said, “No, he’s not right for this. He has to be GQ, he has to be model handsome.” And they said, “Oh well, that’s in the eye of the beholder.” If it was a woman, you wouldn’t say it was in the eye of the beholder. Finally after these five, Lionsgate dropped their opposition, grudgingly — and paid Christian like nothing, maybe $50,000. But at that point, we had Willem Defoe, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon — pre–Legally Blonde, but still Reese Witherspoon — Chloë Sevigny. At one point, Christian and I were trying to get Winona Ryder to play Evelyn, but she didn’t want to do it.
I enjoyed the game. [Laughs.] And victory was sweet.
And great news for Christian Bale, too, now one of the biggest stars in the world.
That’s what launched him as an American star. He did The Machinist before, and then he had a period where he wasn’t getting enough work. And then Batman. I don’t think he would have gotten Batman had he not done American Psycho.
I always thought Christian’s performance [in American Psycho] was fantastic. There was a piece on the film in Movie Maker magazine, where they talk to Christian, and he said that Josh Lucas, who’s in the film, said that when we were shooting, all the other actors thought Christian was terrible and were like, “Why did she fight so hard to cast this guy? He’s so awful.” I thought that was very funny.
So now you’ve finally been given the green light — and then there was all this talk of people organizing protests?
There weren’t actually protests. That was the funny thing: Everyone thinks there were, and that is how it was publicized. I learned a lot through the making of American Psycho about myth and media and power politics. It was the threat of protests, because with the threat of protests, we lost all of our corporate locations when we were shooting in Toronto. Like on one day, one morning on the bus, an article appeared in a Toronto paper saying there were going to be protests from a group called Canadians Against Violence in Entertainment (CAVE), and one by one, all the corporate locations canceled. But there were never any protests. I think CAVE was one woman with a fax machine.
Did the threat of protest affect the film at all?
It actually was very good for the film. Instead of using a corporate location, we had to build [a set]. They had to spend another $100,000.
After the Christian Bale casting decision was settled, did the studio leave you alone and let you do your thing?
Yes. I don’t think they had high hopes for the movie. They complained about how much I was shooting. When I was shooting Willem DaFoe and Christian Bale’s conversations, Willem said, “I don’t want us to stop. Do you mind keeping the camera rolling?” There was one point when he leaves the frame and comes back in, and they were like, “Ahhh, you’re wasting film!”
It’s wild they were willing to spend $20 million on Leo or Matt or Ben and yet —
And we had no money for a title sequence. They told me, “We’ll just put white letters on black.” It’s like, “No, this is a real movie.”
And the title sequence is so brilliant. It’s like the thesis for the entire film.
Bless their hearts, they backed down and gave me the money for the title sequence, because I had this idea that the title sequence would set up the whole movie and the humor of it — which is that you think it’s blood dripping and it’s raspberry sauce on rare duck breast.
So what happens to your career after American Psycho comes out?
It did well enough. It wasn’t a huge success, but it wasn’t a failure. It had some rave reviews. I remember Roger Ebert initially attacked it, dismissed it, and then he changed his mind and wrote a thing in support of it. We had an amazing review in the New York Times, and that was huge.
Do you think that review changed how people talked about the film?
Yes, I think so. But [the movie] didn’t get nominated for anything, obviously. It also didn’t make a single ten-best list, which is really funny now, because today it’s got this revered position. But at the time, even people who liked it wouldn’t have considered it an important film.
The movie had enough prestige that I was going to keep working. But it proved just as hard to get my next movie made, which was The Notorious Bettie Page.
Did you get the same kind of offers you got after I Shot Andy Warhol, where people are coming to you, offering projects that you’re not interested in?
All I got offered after American Psycho were really bad serial-killer movies that never got made. And it’s like, Really? Is that what you thought that movie was? A straight serial-killer genre thing? It’s so not.
What interested you about Bettie Paige?
Originally, she caught my attention when I was working on that TV show for Fox. A friend of mine, one of the researchers who later became a very famous documentary-maker, Sam Green, left a pile of magazines on my desk, these little Bettie Page fanzines, and a note saying, “I think you should maybe do an item about this.” I thought the pictures are so hilarious. There’s Bettie posing in bondage like she’s Bettie Crocker in these weird suburban living rooms. It was going to be a five-minute item or a ten-minute item and then it was going to be a 20-minute film, then a 40-minute film, and it just got longer and longer the more research we did. And there it was.
HBO was interested. They had started a short-lived film division, and they said they would finance it, but they didn’t want to cast Gretchen [Mol]. They said, “We don’t see what you see.” And I said, “Well that’s a shame, because if Gretchen Mol got run over by a bus, I would have no second option.” She had this innocence and playfulness. She was just completely natural in the role. I don’t know why — people, producers, studios — just have some ideas. Usually they want somebody more famous. And they’re not really thinking about what’s right for the role.
Did you feel on some level, like, God, I’ve made these two acclaimed films, I’m an auteur, I should be able to cast the star that I want?
I don’t get that now.
Do you think the way that American Psycho had ascended in pop culture has affected your career today?
It keeps my career going, probably. I’ve done other things that have done well. Alias Grace has done well.
How do you view your TV work overall? Was TV something you wanted? Was it something you felt you needed to do financially?
I came from TV, and in England, great actors would do theater or TV or film interchangeably. No one had those snobberies. The first shows I did were interesting. I did an episode of Homicide, then I did an episode of Oz, an episode of The L Word. But after doing one, I never felt like, “Let’s do another. I’m going to stay in TV.” I felt, This was great, I’m glad I did it, I learned something. Now I want to go back and do my own movie. And that’s always my metric: I want to do my own movie.
When in your career do you think it’s been easiest for you to make a movie?
Probably right after my first movie. But I think, every career you’ll rise and fall, and hopefully rise. I had a period where it felt like Oh boy … I did a film, The Moth Diaries. It didn’t do well. I’d really love to recut that film because it had interesting things in it. But we had terrible production problems. We didn’t shoot almost 30 percent of the script. There were problems in editing — I felt I cut too much out of it. People wanted it to be something else, and the bad luck was it came out during Twilight. People judged it as though it were a failed teen vampire movie.
I just watched it. It did feel like —
Yeah, how did it feel to you? You can be honest.
It did feel like it could have used more breathing room. Some of the shifts felt a bit abrupt. But I like the creepy atmosphere at the school, and the girls are all great.
Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot that’s interesting there and if I could just do a recut, I could make it better, even though I can’t get the scenes that weren’t [filmed]. A couple of times this has happened: the film I make and the way it gets reviewed, they’re talking about a completely different film. You make something and people think it should be something else, so they write the review as though it’s a failed attempt at making a conventional movie.
Do you think there’s a layer of sexism in the way your films have been reviewed? Like if you were a male director, there would be some kind of reverence for idiosyncratic vision that you haven’t been granted.
Yes. It’s funny about that, isn’t it?
There were so few women working when you started. I’m curious why you think that is.
There was Jane Campion. She was the only director of my generation at that point I really knew about. Nobody thought women could do it! No one thought I would make a feature film — even I didn’t think I would. It’s not an environment where you’re being encouraged. But now there are role models, so it’s going to be different.
Are there any female directors who are particularly interesting to you?
I like Jennifer Kent, and I like Sofia Coppola. I love the Italian director of Happy As Lazzaro, Alice Rohrwacher.
So your next project is a horror film on Quibi. What do you think of Quibi so far?
Who knows what will happen with it? If someone is going to pay me money, and I like the script, then I’ll do it. I enjoyed it. It was fun. Horror can be very fun, because horror is anarchic. You don’t have to have the kind of moralizing or happy endings you have to have in so many other kinds of Hollywood productions. You can really have things that are strange and out there. And it was very well paid. They’re saying now they’re going to release it around Halloween.
How well has it paid?
I can’t divulge that, but very well, which I’m grateful for because I’m obviously not going to work for a long time. It allows me to be quarantined with less financial anxiety than I would normally have. So thank you. Thank you, Quibi.