Bret Easton Ellis
Mr Porter, Nov 2013
“You’re told to look this way, to have this car and these clothes, but it doesn’t fulfill you – it doesn’t fill that fucking hole that you feel!”
Photo by Blair Getz Mezibov / Article also at Mr Porter
“Look, they’re turning Carrie into a musical, and Big Fish, so why not American Psycho?”
Bret Easton Ellis walks me into his office, a small minimalist room in his 11th floor apartment on Doheny Drive, the street that separates West Hollywood from Beverly Hills. He settles behind his desk, the view of the city to his left, rapidly darkening as the sun falls behind the hills.
“I haven’t seen the rehearsals, I have no idea how it’s going to turn out,” he says. “But isn’t that always the way? The book was licensed to Lionsgate years ago so I gave up control then. I don’t own those characters anymore than Peter Benchley did with Jaws.” He shrugs. “I’m just watching all this, somewhat amused.”
He’s amused because when it was written, American Psycho was so controversial it was almost not even published, let alone adapted into a hit movie and a musical. The original publishers, Simon & Schuster, dropped him when the hate mail began in earnest, regarding the book’s sexual violence.
Needless to say, the hiatus was brief. At 25, Ellis was about as successful as an author can be at that age, having written two bestsellers – Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction, both of which would become movies. He was hailed as part of a “bratpack” of young American authors who were the voice of their generation, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz among them. He had money, fame and all that came with it. And he hated it.
It was classic second album syndrome in which the young artist is disillusioned by “success”, particularly the kind portrayed in aspirational lifestyle magazines like GQ. So he wrote American Psycho in a rage, ensuring that his protagonist Patrick Bateman listed all the designers, brands and celebrities that obsessed him even as he chopped people to pieces. It was Ellis’s way of attacking 80’s consumerism with a hatchet.
“I was in a lot of pain back then,” he says. “I was about to be a man, I wanted to fit in, but I found the values and hypocrisies of society horrendous. I think that’s what men have connected with. There’s a theory of male dissatisfaction in the book, and in Fight Club too. You’re told to look this way, to have this car and these clothes, but it doesn’t fulfill you – it doesn’t fill that fucking hole that you feel!”
No one would accuse Ellis of being overly chirpy. He’s a terrific conversationalist, superbly frank and erudite and generous with his intelligence. But full of the joys of spring, he is not, as he readily admits. “I might seem chipper today, but mostly I’m, you know – glum!” He gets a text and starts typing eagerly. “But then I’ll go out and have a drink and feel better again!”
He says that he writes to alleviate pain. And that the pain changes as he gets older, he draws from different wells. American Psycho was about becoming a man, but Glamorama was more “about losing myself to celebrity, and confusion in my 30s.” Lunar Park, his mock memoir, was about “exorcising the ghost of my father.” And his most recent novel, Imperial Bedrooms – a sequel to Less Than Zero – was about the bruising experience of turning his collection of short stories, The Informers into a movie. It was a four year effort which he wrote and co-produced, but which still tanked horribly for the oldest reason in the book. “The money men took over the creative decisions,” he says. “I know! But until you go through it yourself, you think, ‘I’m in control, I trust these people…’”
I ask him if there’s any relief to be had in just reminding himself, “I’m Bret Easton Ellis!” Perhaps, top it off with a “bitch” for extra effect.
“I wish I had that confidence,” he smiles. “I have friends who tell me that I should say that to myself every day. I find men who had a good relationship with their father have that kind of confidence. Men who are neurotic didn’t. It colors you for a long time.”
Ellis didn’t. His father, who died in 1992, had been a realtor who drank and would hit him as a small boy. “He never had faith in me as a writer, even after Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction,” he says. “He only wanted to get back into my life because I was successful, but he thought they were terrible books, dirty books. That does a number on you.”
These days, Ellis is more absorbed in movies than in books. It was partly why he returned to LA in 2005, after 18 years in New York. “The idea of the novel has become much less important in society,” he says. “But also, the party was over in New York. It was getting too expensive, people were drifting away. And a couple of bad things happened to me, personal stuff.” He lost his boyfriend the sculptor Michael Wade Kaplan to a heart attack. It was time to come home.
So his days are spent largely with scripts now. Not big studio pictures – “I’m hardly the guy they’re going to call to do Spiderman!” – but a handful of indie projects and TV work. It’s by no means a smooth ride. His latest script, The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan, flopped horribly. But still, he’s busy working on a mini-series set in LA in 1969, about some characters with vague connections to the Manson family.
Then there’s also a project for Kanye West. “It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever written, and I initially said no to, three or four times. But he met with me a couple of times, and completely persuaded me.”
It makes sense that Kanye would call Bret – both extraordinarily successful in their fields, and yet with an outsider’s edge. While many authors graduate into professorships at Creative Writing programs, or judging panels for prizes, Ellis does no such thing. “I’m not turning it stuff down,” he laughs. “No one offers me that stuff. There’s this idea that I’m just too out there. I’ve never won a literary prize. I’m still the enfant terrible. And that’s fine until you’re about 37 or so. After that, it just becomes embarrassing.”
Ellis is 49. So fifty looms, not the cheeriest of birthdays you’d have thought, but this, of all things, makes him happy.
“Look, your 40s are terrible, but I hear that your 50s are really good.” He grins. “And then your 60s start sucking, and it’s all downhill from there!”