Bret Easton Ellis made his name when his 1985 debut novel about drugged-up delinquent trust-fund kids in the Valley, written while he was still in college, established him as a member of New York’s literary ‘Brat Pack’. But it was American Psycho that secured – and sustained – his position in the cultural firmament. On its release in 1991 the book was hailed as a sensational, brutal polemic.
Nine years later it became a cult film starring Christian Bale and last year it enjoyed a sell-out run as – of all things – a musical in a small but trendy North London theatre. It’s expected to transfer to the West End and, eventually, Broadway.
But Easton Ellis had little to do with the production itself and didn’t come to London to watch it for fear that he wouldn’t like what he saw (“I am just a cranky guy”). Now 50, he hasn’t released or written a book for more than four years. He’s also suffered from depression and insomnia, and was the subject of criticism when The Canyons, the low-budget erotic thriller he wrote, starring Lindsay Lohan and the porn actor James Deen, was panned by American reviewers last year.
As the film was released to UK audiences this summer, we spoke to him about the death of Hollywood, Tinder-inspired narcissism and why he’s definitely not writing a role for Kim Kardashian.
Hi. Remind me why I’m talking to you again?
We’ve been put in touch by the PR people looking after The Canyons…
Is this really going to help that?
Well, they seem to think so.
I just think it’s a kind of naive optimism on their part that any type of press is going to make that movie palatable to people. I find something almost touching in their belief that my giving an interview is going to sway the masses into going to see a movie that I don’t think the masses will respond to. But I said yes, and I have time. So... what’s up?
It’s not a movie designed for the masses, though, is it?
It’s a movie that was designed to show people that you can shoot a feature film for $200,000. Paul Schrader [the director, and screenwriter of Taxi Driver] and I made the movie we wanted to make. We knew it wasn’t going to speak to a lot of people, but we thought it was going to speak to more people than it did. And that was kind of a surprise – that it was so blasted.
Why do you think that was?
I think a lot of the hatred for the movie is two-fold. Here in the States [Easton Ellis lives in LA] it has to do with an intense dislike of Lindsay Lohan; that we dared to cast an adult performer in one of the lead roles; that we were casting people off the internet. And it has to do with the fact that Paul Schrader and myself getting together to make something promised a lot more to people.
I think they expected something a lot bloodier, wilder, crazier. But that really wasn’t where we were at and it wasn’t what we could afford to do. We didn’t expect it to become this sort of notorious cultural ‘thing’.
You’re currently doing a series of podcasts, where you and some well-known guests riff on culture, the arts and other things. You’ve been quite critical of Hollywood...
There is no film industry. The film industry is dead. The film industry in Los Angeles is the studio system – and they don’t make movies, they make these franchise things. You know, The Amazing Spiderman 2. They make 3D Imax movies for children. So I have no interest in that.
But what about a novel? Is there one in the works?
There is a book lying around somewhere that I hope to get excited by and return to writing, but there are other things too. I’m working on a play, there’s TV, the podcast. I don’t feel confined to one thing. However, the thing I am best known for is the novels and it seems to be the thing I do best. So there is that notion that maybe I should go back to the novel, but I don’t really care about it. I would hate to write a novel just to write a novel.
There are also rumours about you making a film with Kanye West…
There’s all this fake information that it’s based on [Yeezus, the studio album Kanye released last year] and that I wrote a part for Kim Kardashian: Totally. Not. True. But [the film] is an idea that Kanye has had. He wants to oversee the making of this thing and he hired me as a writer. I’ve been working on an outline based on his idea, but it’s a slow process because Kanye is making records and Kanye is touring, so I don’t know when it’s going to happen.
Are you a fan of his music?
Before I even met him, I liked every single record he’s made. So I was a fan, but it was kind of daunting to meet him because I’d seen him in concert before and he does have this persona – I do think part of it is an act [he puts on] in public. So when I sat down in a three-hour meeting, I was totally taken aback by how gentle, funny and intelligent he was and how much he gets his image and what he’s about.
You satirised the shallowness of a certain type of young man in the early Nineties, particularly with American Psycho, but more recently you coined the term ‘Generation Wuss’ about your 27-year-old boyfriend, his friends and people who are in their twenties now. Are today’s twenty-somethings just as narcissistic?
More so. I think straight culture adopted gay culture – grooming, going to the gym, being super body-conscious. Every generation deals with their narcissism in a different way, but the oppressive need to be good looking is worse now than I think it ever was. With dating sites, stuff like Tinder, it makes my generation’s way of hooking up look chaste.
The narcissism is tied into the idea of image as everything right now – that makes you anxious, I would imagine. I’m too old to really care about it now, but I do see it in younger people. They’re much more anxious about how they look than we were.
So, now aged 50, are you different from how you were in your twenties?
Um... [Long pause]. Automatically I want to say not that different, but er... probably... less... I don’t know how to answer that. I think... beaten down. I don’t know. I always find that question hard to answer.
Oh just life, the reality of life. But that’s kind of a boring answer in a way. I guess ‘beaten down’ suggests that you’re not... y’know, moving around, and that’s just not the case right now.
But are you happy?
I don’t even know how to answer that question. I mean... sometimes, yeah. I don’t know.
The Canyons is available now, digitally and on DVD. Listen to the Bret Easton Ellis podcast here.
Let us know which is your favourite Ellis novel in the comments