How American Psycho became a feminist statement

Screenwriter Guinevere Turner transformed one of the most controversial books of all time into an intentional declaration of feminism

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Guinevere Turner in American Psycho
Guinevere Turner in American Psycho

When Christian Bale peeled back his herb-mint face mask to reveal his chainsaw-wielding proclivities as a serial killer in Mary Harron's American Psycho, America froze. It certainly was not a feminist comedy that the naysayers and boycotters had expected. When the novel first came out in 1991, an endless torrent of death threats were sent to smite its author, Bret Easton Ellis. "Mr. Ellis is a confused, sick young man with a deep hatred of women who will do anything for a fast buck," said Tammy Bruce, then-president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Organizaton for Women.

Writer/actor/director Guinevere Turner had the formidable task of taking one of the most controversial novels of all time – replete with grisly scenes including one of a rat entering a woman's downstairs to eat out her insides ("I remember reading that and thinking, ‘Fuck you Bret Ellis, that’s never gonna get out of my vision!'") – and distilling it into a quasi-thriller-satire which traded stock in laughter rather than blood-letting. "It's just as well a woman directed American Psycho," wrote Roger Ebert of Harron in his review of the film. "She's transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men's vanity."

Buffing out the sharper edges for Turner's screenplay wasn't the only hurdle in getting American Psycho to the screen. Draft after draft of the screenplay was written – including an early draft by Ellis himself which ended in a musical number – before Lionsgate awarded the project to Mary Harron, all before being sniped away when it was surprisingly announced that Leonardo DiCaprio (fresh off the boat from Titanic) was set to star, Oliver Stone to direct. Ewan McGregor was also attached at one point to play Bateman, but all wrongs were eventually righted and this vehicle finally roared to life with Christian Bale in the lead as a sinister Wall Street banker slash serial killer.

After all this time, Guinevere Turner is fascinated by Psycho's lasting legacy. She still gets fans coming up to her to quote their favourite scene ("I’ve had men recite lots of things from that movie but they love to recite the beauty routine to me"). Here, Turner charts its marathon to the screen and looks back at how this murderous masterpiece found its legs in feminist territory.

THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

"American Psycho is the gift that keeps on giving. Literally, it’s been 14 years since that movie was in theatres and new generations are discovering it – Kanye did a video that was a spoof of it and Huey Lewis did a spoof of a scene. There’s a British jeans company that did this elaborate commercial that was a hilarious spoof of it; it’s kind of just amazing. But, anyway, I got into screen writing with my first film Go Fish, and it was really just because I wanted to make a lesbian movie."

NONSTOP NIGHTMARES

"I knew one thing I was getting myself into was having nightmares, and Mary (Harron) did too. We went away together to really focus on the book and just read passages to each other and decide what we thought should be in the movie and what sort of movie it should be, and we would just wake up every morning and say, ‘So what part of the book did you have a nightmare about?’ (laughs)."

SPRING BREAKERS

"We went to Rosarito Beach in Baja California – which we did not know was a total party town – the next town over from Tijuana, Mexico. So we thought we were going to some idyllic, quiet Mexican town but every time we went out there were these total frat boys and American college students partying. And we did a fun thing: we had actors that we know come down and visit us and read passages to us – because there’s just great dialogue in the book – so we could hear what that would sound like and what worked; that was a really fun part of the process.

Reg Rogers came down. He was in a bunch of movies in the 90s. I think Bill Sage came, and you know Bill was in the movie. It’s all a bunch of 80s film actors that had been in Mary’s previous films."

“We found out because it was announced in Variety that (Leonardo DiCaprio) had been offered like 25 million and I was like, ‘My god!’ Twenty five million dollars is about five times the budget of the entire movie itself as we imagined it” – Guinevere Turner

A TITANIC HOODWINK

"The biggest (upset) was that we already had cast Christian (Bale). We were so excited about how amazing he was because he wasn’t already super famous. It was important to have someone who really could blend in because of the way the story works. Then all of a sudden Leonardo DiCaprio was playing the role right after coming off Titanic. We found out because it was announced in Variety that he’d been offered like 25 million and I was like, 'My god!' Twenty five million dollars is about five times the budget of the entire movie itself as we imagined it.

Mary still had the option to direct it but she said, ‘I don’t want to direct a movie that has the biggest movie star in the world. It just means that there’s going to be a team of people around telling me what I can and can’t do and that’s not the movie I want to make.' Then Oliver Stone was going to direct it starring Leonardo DiCaprio and we were bummed! We were working really hard on it and were really excited about how great it was going to be and it was going to be our script. Then, legend has it that Gloria Steinem – the mother of all feminism – talked Leonardo DiCaprio out of being in the movie. She said, ‘Please, please don’t do this to those girls. The eyes of all 13-year-old girls are upon you and you can’t play a guy that tortures and kills women.' So he backed out and then Oliver Stone backed out and it came back to Mary, ironically. Gloria ended up being Christian Bale’s stepmother – she married his father."

THE BRET PACK

"We were sure that Bret just wanted the movie to get made after years of trying. The fact that we were going to do it and do it well would make him happy, and we all hung out. We were friends back then, socialising together. Bret was my date for the premiere in New York. He was very much excited to be moving forward and to have this amazing actor playing the lead and Mary’s a talented director, so of late it seems he's been meaner about the movie. He’s said meaner things in the press about it but at the time I think he liked it. He wrote a review of it for Details magazine and he said the only thing he really didn’t like was that after Christian kills Paul Allen (Jared Leto) with an axe, he moonwalked. That wasn’t in the script but Christian did it on set and we thought it was funny and liked it, but Bret didn’t – he thought it was over the top. I think it’s hilarious."

WHY YOU GOTTA BE SO MEAN?

"He probably has heard one too many times that the movie is better than the book. That would piss me off because the movie and the book are two different things, so I think now – a little on the heels of his film The Canyons being so horribly reviewed in the press – he's just feeling like, ‘Why won’t this American Psycho thing die? Let’s all move on.’ I mean, can you imagine you write a book and then everybody keeps talking about how the movie is better?

The book was still huge at the time even though a lot of its hugeness was controversy. There’s probably a level of tension around if you did something in 1987 and people are still talking about it; that’s probably annoying if you’ve done a bunch of other stuff and other books and made a movie, you know what I mean? He’s probably just over the whole thing at this point."

THE BUSINESS CARD SCENE

"It’s the pinnacle of a scene in which you see that Patrick Bateman is upset while he’s killing people and mutilating them, what he really cares about is the font on a business card. Then it goes into him completely falling apart. What’s amazing on that scene too is there’s a line where the person next to him says, ‘Patrick, you’re sweating’. The thing is Christian Bale is such an amazing actor he really was sweating, he can make himself break into a tiny sweat. It’s just incredible."

REMOVE THE HOLE FOR AN 'R' RATING

"What I recall is that there’s a line that I wrote that says, ‘Don’t just stare at her asshole, eat it’ (laughs). The ratings board wanted me to take out the word 'hole' so it just says 'ass' and suddenly that made it better.

There’s a really funny process that happened where the distributor gives you every word that would make it not ready for television and then you have to give several options so, this is a bad example but instead of 'fuck' somebody would say 'fudge'. That part would just crack us up because the difference between 'fuck' and 'fudge' and 'hell' and 'heck' – it’s just ridiculous and makes it into a totally different comedy. Whatever, we got our 'R' rating."

FEMINISM FIRST

"I very much think it’s a feminist film. It’s a satire about how men compete with each other and how in this hyper-real universe we created, women are even less important than your tan or your suit or where you summer and to me, even though the women are all sort of tragic and killed, it’s about how men perceive them and treat them. It’s funny to me because so many women have not seen the film because they assume it’s a horrible slasher movie and that always hurts my feelings. Fourteen years later when someone finally says, ‘I’ve seen the movie it’s actually a really feminist film’, and I think, ‘Wow, so all this time you’ve been thinking that Mary and I just sold out in the 90s and decided to make a horror movie because we thought we were gonna get rich’.

To me it’s most definitely a feminist film. Bret really thought he was writing a feminist book. I remember seeing him speak and really talk about that and how he was actually hurt and shocked that feminists spoke out against his book because he thought he was writing a feminist book and that’s what we saw in it. It's just that he went all crazy with it so it's hard to get past that grusomeness. Another conversation we had all the time is at what point does it go from satire to exploitation and not the good kind of exploitation that everybody thinks is so cool but people getting off on how violent it is."

Guinevere Turner stars in Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf, released by Peccadillo Pictures on DVD and On-Demand from 29 September

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