The following is an excerpt from an interview with director Mary Harron that appears in this month’s film issue. The full piece is available to read on Believermag.com
THE BELIEVER: We should probably talk about American Psycho. It’s heralded as this great cult film, but that’s not the experience you had at the time, is it?
MARY HARRON: Five years after the film came out, I was shooting an episode of Six Feet Under and Susie Bright was on the set and she said she’d just seen American Psycho, and she asked me why it hadn’t gotten more attention. That was five years after it came out. It gets so much attention now that I’m bored with it, but it was only after five years that it got all this attention. There were a lot of YouTube parodies and Christian Bale became famous, which also helped.
BLVR: Many people say it would have been a much different film had it been shot by a man. You linger on the female faces, when a male director might not have. Were you conscious of that?
MH: It was a very conscious decision to play it off the faces of the women. That’s why I cast Cara Seymour, who is a great stage actress who could carry those scenes. Those scenes come through her face; most of the film focuses on him, but the perspective in those murder scenes wasn’t through Patrick Bateman but the women. That was a conscious choice.
BLVR: Were you nervous making that film, because the book was so controversial when it came out? What did you think it would do to your career?
MH: Yes, you can’t take on something like that without being a bit nervous. I’d already been through something like that. One of the things that allowed me to do it was having done I Shot Andy Warhol. I asked Guinevere Turner to come on—she had done the first big, successful lesbian film, Go Fish—so we knew that no one could lecture us about feminism. That gave us a lot of strength. We didn’t have to apologize or add some bullshit moral lesson to it. We felt we could trust our instincts and do what we thought was interesting.
BLVR: So many movies are so hypersexualized that even if the protagonist is a woman, the film is made from the male gaze. How did people react to American Psycho?
MH: Half the audience loved it. Half hated it. That, to me, was a good reaction, and an appropriate one.
BLVR: A lot of people talk about how with directing so much of the magic lies with casting. Leonardo DiCaprio was supposed to play the role of Patrick Bateman, is that right?
MH: I had already cast Christian Bale to play the role, and I was standing in my kitchen in the East Village, and I got a phone call saying, “You should sit down. Leonardo DiCaprio wants to be in your movie, and we’re going to pay him twenty million dollars.” I told them that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. He’s not right for the role, and he has a fifteen-year-old-girl fan base. You can’t cast him coming off Titanic. I think he’s a great actor, but he wasn’t right for it; Patrick Bateman is a very specific character. Christian Bale had something, an authority and a darkness, whereas DiCaprio is more of a poetic actor. Some actors can draw from their own darkness. Both Bale and Lili Taylor have this fathomless place in them; when you look at them you can go far into them. They can both play very saintly and very bad. I mean, Christian Bale played Jesus in something. Christian is also a great comic actor and he brought that to the role. We had a very similar take on the character. I think, being partly British, he thought the role of Bateman was funny and approached it with humor. He loved the patheticness of the character, how embarrassing Bateman was. Trying to be cool and failing so badly.