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Decade: Mary Harron on “American Psycho”

Decade: Mary Harron on "American Psycho"

EDITOR’S NOTE: Every day for the next month, indieWIRE will be republishing profiles and interviews from the past ten years (in their original, retro format) with some of the people that have defined independent cinema in the first decade of this century. Today, we’ll step back to 2000 with an interview indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman had with Mary Harron, who at nine months pregnant, faced the controversial release of her “American Psycho.”

INTERVIEW: 9-Months Pregnant and Delivering "American Psycho," Director Mary Harron

(indieWIRE/4.14.2000) — What a long haul for director Mary Harron — she gets hired to helm a movie, gets fired after Leonardo DiCaprio jumps on board, then gets rehired after Leo abandons ship. She begins shooting in Canada and is denied locations for fear the film will draw protests and bad publicity. Her movie is called “the most disgusting film of the year” before it’s even made and she becomes the brunt of anti-violence outrage and feminist fury. Then she premieres the film at Sundance (“the most anticipated film ever,” introduces Geoffrey Gilmore) and afterwards gets lambasted by the critics. Then she submits the film to the MPAA, gets smacked with an “NC17” rating and is forced to cut down a sex scene to garner an “R.” And on top of all of that, she’s pregnant. Today, the day of the film’s release, she is, in fact, about 2 weeks from her delivery date. Talk about stressful premieres. . . Harron’s takes the cake.

But the Canadian filmmaker does not fear controversial topics. She tackled “I Shot Andy Warhol” about the controversial feminist and author of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, Valerie Solanas, in 1996. With their latest film, “American Psycho” which drew the above wrath from all sides of every fence, Mary Harron has trumped herself — with a biting satirical take on the infamous Bret Easton Ellis novel — an admittedly “difficult” film that will have audiences alternately revolted and amused. Anthony Kaufman spoke to Harron earlier this week about press reactions, rescuing misunderstood subjects, the casting controversy and delivering a baby at the same time as her movie.

indieWIRE: In approaching this interview, I was trying to think if there’s anything that hasn’t been said yet about this movie. There’s been so much hype, so much press, how are you feeling, finally going into release this week?

Mary Harron: I’m actually feeling much, much better. After it premiered at Sundance, there was this really weird press reaction. There was so many people outside and there was so much hype, and then it’s quite a disturbing and bleak movie, and obviously, people didn’t stand up and cheer, but I felt like a lot of the audience got it. And obviously, a lot of other people didn’t like it. But then it appeared in the press as if it was a disastrous screening. By certain people. Roger Ebert wrote it was the most loathed film at Sundance. But on the whole, I didn’t feel like that at all. But since then, Ebert changed his mind about the film; now he’s given it a thumbs up. I don’t expect everybody to love this movie; but since then, the critical response has been very good, so I’m fine now.

iW: Is that where the main nervousness comes from before releasing a movie, how the press will react and in turn, how the audiences will react?

Harron: A little bit. It’s quite a difficult film and you’re not sure how it’s going to be taken. Obviously, there’s a certain part of the audience — the young male audience -who want to see a horror movie, and is disappointed because it’s not. Ain’t It Cool NewsHarry Knowles, he just hated it, and the people who e-mailed him were all “this sucks, I was expecting some kick-ass violence.”

iW: So that must have made you happy. . . ?

Harron: It does actually. Because there was so much pressure before the film was first seen — �how can you make this horrible, violent movie.’ And I always felt, it’s not that violent really compared to what gets shown in Hollywood movies now. So I feel like the way it’s been interpreted is good now.

iW: I have to ask, I’m phenomenally curious about what it’s like to be 9 months pregnant in the middle of all of this?

Harron: Tiring, actually. I’m so enormous. My husband had to help me on with my shoes; I can’t bend over anymore. It’s too much going on. I wish that I had more time to think about the pregnancy. A couple nights ago we were up to 2 in the morning trying to sort out old baby clothes — because we have one daughter already — trying to do piles of clothes for the new one. I really want to be doing more of this now, actually, because I’ve only got 2 weeks. If it comes early, I’m going to feel so unprepared. Obviously, we’ve got a premiere tonight and I’m really not in the best shape to enjoy it. I could go into labor at any time. As long as I can get through tonight, I’ll be fine.

“I’m so enormous. My husband had to help me on with my shoes. . . . We’ve got a premiere tonight and I’m really not in the best shape to enjoy it. I could go into labor at any time.”

iW:I was going to ask you if you think motherhood might change the kinds of movies you do, because you tackle these notorious characters and dark subjects, but since this is your second child. . . ?

Harron: It hasn’t so far. I started the script of “America Psycho” before I got pregnant with my daughter Ruby, but eventually I think it might change because your life changes when you have a family. But I think it would be a gradual process. I think it changes your personal life incalculably; my whole domestic life is enormously different and centered on the home. We moved out of the city, which I would never have done kicking and screaming, but there are obviously advantages to it. My life is much centered on family now, and actually very happy. When you’re younger, you explore things and maybe you draw on those experiences later, in a more tranquil way.

iW:What drew you to these sorts of characters initially, Valerie Solanas and Patrick Bateman?

Harron: I think they were different things. For Solanas, there was this fierce, outsider quality to her unhappiness and frustration. That was a time in my life when I was frustrated myself in my work. I wanted to direct. I had the idea years before I got to direct myself. So I think there were elements of my own frustration and elements of what it was like growing up with an unfair attitude towards women — and Valerie was an extreme example of that. There was also the intellectual interest of how someone can be so brilliant and her life goes so wrong, and also, that she was so forgotten and misunderstood. In both cases, I felt like Valerie had been consigned to history as this lunatic, almost nothing written about her. The case with “American Psycho” was about the novel itself. I felt like it was very unfairly treated. I hoped there was a way to do it in which all the great things about it could become clearer, for example, the many hilarious things there.

iW:And as far as stories percolating in your mind now, do you think you’ll be going in a different direction?

Harron: Eventually, I will. It just takes so long to do a movie; Guinevere Turner and I have been working on a project for ages about Betty Page, the early pin-up. We have a script, but we just need to rewrite it. I have been trying to devote more time to it, but when you have a movie nearing release, you have to spend an enormous about of time on it. I’m looking forward to everything settling down again. I guess the one good thing about doing so much press is you kind of get over your movie. You’ve talked about it enough; you can let go of it.

iW: Anything newer in your head than the Betty Page project, something that’s occurred to you more recently?

Harron: There’s all kinds of things I want to do, eventually. I might do a film about New York punk in the 70s. I’d like to do a real historical one, like some 19th Century French classic. So at some point, I’d like to do a period piece, because I spend so much time worrying about the art direction.

iW:Where do you think that interest in art direction comes from?

Harron: To me, it’s really about recreating period.

iW:Which you did in both of these movies.

Harron: It’s not done well that often. I saw “Topsy Turvy” a few days ago and I thought that was a masterpiece of a period film. So it reminded me how much I’d really like to go back farther in the past. Basically, I work on one thing at a time, so for now, I’d like to finish “Betty.”

“I think I was naive. I wasn’t prepared for it. It’s just undercutting you so badly, the thought of making a movie with a lead actor that you didn’t want is horrifying to me.”

iW:So what was it like working with Ed Pressman (“Badlands,” “Bad Lieutenant,” “Homicide“)? he has quite a track record.

Harron: Yeah, he does. Ed is not very hands on when you’re shooting, he doesn’t turn up on the set. He’s much more, I think, an old-time financier, I think he chooses interesting projects. “American Psycho” was a project that he had had for ages, he and this guy, Chris Hanley — who I think originally bought the rights — and there have been several — at least three — different scripts have been commissioned and several different directors, including David Cronenberg. So I was brought on to a project with a lot of history already. Everyone was getting a little concerned about it, because they had had it for years and years and they were trying to get it off the ground.

iW:So why do you think it finally happened with you?

Harron: I think there was some distance on it. I think it helped that it was a woman director. I think the script — not to blow my own trumpet — was the first one that really worked. Ed certainly says this. Because it did more of a satire than a violent horror movie.

iW:You said at Sundance that you wanted to thank Lions Gate for producing a film that nobody would. Was that really true?

Harron: Yeah. Fine Line got seriously interested at one point, but then backed out. I think Lions Gate was the only company that didn’t want to make me change the script.

iW:What sort of changes were other people saying?

Harron: Other people were very concerned about the hero being so unsympathetic. They were like, can’t you have more about his psychology, and more about his background? And I felt like no, it’s not about realistic psychology, it doesn’t matter what his parents were like. There was another company who were saying, we almost have a conventional detective story, can’t you build up the role of the detective? It’s like, no, if I wanted to do a conventional detective story, I would have. So there’s a chance with the bigger studio and the more money that you’re getting, to take the edges off it, I think.

iW:How independent was “Who Shot Andy Warhol” compared to “American Psycho?”

Harron: Very very very. It was shot for under 2 million dollars. And it was for American Playhouse just before they shut up shop. They had final cut, even though they had a relationship with Samuel Goldwyn who didn’t want me to cast Lili Taylor. But I wasn’t reporting to them, I was reporting to American Playhouse, so that was pretty good. Obviously, “Psycho” had all these casting dramas, but certainly on both my films, I felt like I virtually had final cut. That the cut that we agreed on was the cut that I wanted.

iW:We don’t need to go into the rating issue, and the whole casting thing you’ve gone through millions of times. . .

Harron: I would just say, in general terms, that it is a terrible situation right now, that the director has so little freedom in casting. People are so afraid of taking chances.

iW:How frustrating was that for you? Did it make you jaded?

Harron: It doesn’t make me jaded. I think I was naive, because I hadn’t those kinds of problems on my first film. I wasn’t prepared for it. Now, I’d be more looking out for it. It’s just undercutting you so badly, the thought of making a movie with a lead actor that you didn’t want is horrifying to me. So I’d rather work with a lower budget and have the actors I want, if that’s what it takes.

iW:Do you think you’ll stay in mid-range budgets — do you think you’d try a Hollywood project?

Harron: I don’t know. I’d try a Hollywood project if it was the right one, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. There are some films where a big star would be perfectly appropriate. I just didn’t think “American Psycho” was one of them.


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