Since its release, Mary Harron’s adaptation of 'American Psycho' has garnered a cult-status amongst both critics and audiences. Despite its relatively positive reception, the film didn’t exactly perform as successfully as other films released at the same time. However, in retrospect, the film has undergone constant reassessment due to its multi-layered narrative and underlying thematic elements. The epitome of genre fluidity, Harron’s film is drastically tamer than Bret Easton Ellis’ satirical novel of the same name, opting to focus less on the gratuity of Patrick Bateman’s murders and emphasize the narrative’s comedic facets whilst still incorporating the psychological side of the novel. In fact, Ellis has since agreed that although he wasn’t particularly interested in the film at first, he began to respect Harron’s decision to utilize the dark satirical register in order to clarify the themes of the novel. Christian Bale’s performance as Bateman cemented these intentions, creating a disturbing but hilarious character in the process, one whom the audience finds them selves laughing at rather than laughing alongside.
Before its eventual release in 2000, 'American Psycho' had endured almost a decade of pre-production hell which resulted in consistent postponements and delays, with Directors walking in and out of the chair before filming had even commenced. Primarily, concerns over the film’s casting were the biggest hinderance to the film’s production, especially in conjunction with the film’s relatively lower budget compared to other contemporary pieces of cinema. Before Christian Bale’s casting was confirmed and filming began, many other young actors were considered for the role. In some cases, these actors were so close to being casted as Bateman that Mary Harron ended up quitting the project out of discontent, only to finally regain control over the film when Bale was finalized as the definitive choice for Bateman.
Brad Pitt was originally the prime candidate for the role of Bateman however this had fallen through early on into pre-production due to creative differences amongst Ellis and the Director attached to the film.
Since Ellis’ novel was published in 1991, it seemed that a film adaptation was an inevitability. Notorious for the unrelenting wave of negative publicity it received, Ellis’ book was still widely read by both supporters and condemners of its content. Because of its controversial subject matter, Ellis claimed that production companies were clamouring for the rights to the book. In particular, 'American Psycho' had gained the attention of Director, David Cronenberg; a Director who had gained acclaim for being a key originator of the ‘body-horror’ genre. Since Ellis’ novel delves quite deep into the body-horror genre itself, with Bateman disfiguring his victims and manipulating their bodies into deformed monstrosities for his personal pleasure, Cronenberg was an ideal choice for an adaptation that emphasized the novel’s slasher and violent elements.
Cronenberg’s vision, however, was a different approach. Abandoning the classic elements of body-horror that he had garnered significant attention for, Cronenberg opted for a tamer adaptation with a young Brad Pitt taking the mantle as Bateman. Ellis began the process of writing the script, yet became dismayed at the unusual demands of Cronenberg, who refused to film footage in restaurants and nightclubs, forcing Ellis into a position in which he had to rewrite and readapt his novel heavily. Yet, Ellis fought back and decided against adhering to Cronenberg’s artistic vision, causing a rift between the two and resulting in Cronenberg’s abandonment of the project. Pitt’s chance at playing Bateman had fallen through.
Pitt was arguably an interesting choice for the role, as he had gained a decent amount of attention in the early nineties. Since, Ellis and Cronenberg had been involved in the project since the early nineties, its likely that 'American Psycho' could’ve been released with Pitt as the leading man before 1995. Instead, pre-production continued, with Ellis seeking a new Director and actor to lead the project. Despite this, Pitt would continue to rise in popularity, collaborating with Director David Fincher in 'Se7en' (1995) and then 'Fight Club' (1999).
Edward Norton originally overshadowed Christian Bale as the best choice for Bateman, driving a rift between the film’s new Director and Lion's Gate.
A significant amount of time has passed since Ellis and Cronenberg’s adaptation had been cancelled. Mary Harron had been working tirelessly alongside her screenwriter, Guinevere Turner to adapt American Psycho through a satirical lens as opposed to a psychological or slasher-esque approach. Additionally, she had also handpicked British actor Christian Bale for the role. Bale had been slowly rising to prominence with roles in 'Little Women' (1994) and 'Velvet Goldmine' (1997). Harron met with Bale and the two were evidently on the same page in regard to the film’s approach. Yet, Bale was relegated to the back bench for the role, with LionsGate campaigning for a wide range of more prominent actors to take the role into their hands. One such actor was Edward Norton.
Norton, despite being a newcomer, has gained critical acclaim for his supporting role in 'Primal Fear' (1996) in which he plays an altar boy with a personality disorder accused of murder, only for the character’s condition to be revealed as an act of manipulation to evade punishment. Following his Golden Globe win, Norton claimed to have been offered many different psychological-related roles although in order to deter himself from becoming type casted, he settled with a range of other projects instead.
As the decade continued, Bale and Harron became increasingly defensive over the project, with Harron walking away from the project after Bale was overshadowed by the likes of Norton and Leonardo DiCaprio. At the same time, the casting catastrophe was muddled up even further when Ewen McGregor was offered the role.
McGregor had become a household name in the United Kingdom after the release of Danny Boyle’s 'Trainspotting' (1996) which was adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel about friendship and drug addiction in working class Edinburgh. Bale had also worked alongside Ewen McGregor in 'Velvet Goldmine' (1997) too, indicating that the two were already well acquainted. This would explain how Bale was able to convince McGregor to refuse the project, indicating that he was willing to stand up for himself and fight for the role instead of letting bigger actors steal it away from him.
The biggest conflict would arise when Lion's Gate, without Harron’s knowledge, offered a young Leonardo DiCaprio the script and a sizeable pay check of $20 million to accept the role of Bateman. This decision sparked discontent between Bale, Harron and Lion's Gate with Harron eventually walking away from the project in protest, leaving Oliver Stone with the job of picking up the film’s fragmented pre-production.
DiCaprio was a desired choice early in the film’s production however he became the frontrunner after his performances in 'Romeo + Juliet' (1996) and 'Titanic' (1997). To make matters worse, Bale had actually auditioned for these roles too, only for it to be stolen from his grasp, making American Psycho the third role that he had missed because of DiCaprio. Yet, DiCaprio’s role in the production was short lived due to creative differences with Oliver Stone, who deterred away from Harron’s satirical script and focused on the psychological elements primarily. Stone was removed from the production, with DiCaprio suggesting alternative Directors, Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese as replacements however this never came to fruition and DiCaprio abandoned the project, leaving Lion's Gate to resort to Harron and Bale.
After leaving the project, DiCaprio starred in Danny Boyle’s film, 'The Beach' (2001) and would later star in 5 of Martin Scorsese’s films, starting with 'Gangs of New York' (2002).
With DiCaprio and Stone out, Bale and Harron re-entered. The film’s budget was lowered to accommodate for this, however Harron focused on her satirical script with Guinevere Turner and Bale dedicated himself to the role with a raging intensity. 'American Psycho' became a film that merged black comedy with psychological drama, with Harron and Turner crafting a scathing satire regarding the loss of individuality due to an overreliance on materialism and hedonism. Bale’s performance is niche and wholly original, encapsulating Ellis’ creation and projecting it onto screen with an unnerving disposition amalgamated with a hysterical persona. It’s difficult to picture anybody else in the role of Bateman other than Bale and its clear that he was the most viable choice despite the protests from Lion's Gate and their counter offers for more prominent actors of the time.
© 2021 Matthew Barratt