When people think of American Psycho, they may reflect on the film adaptation rather than director Mary Harron‘s contribution to making it. One reason for this could be the many images and gifs that began circulating due to the rise in internet meme culture, which is likely to have made its status as a cult movie more certain. However, it is very probable we would not have the adaptation from book to silver screen that we do have without Harron, and her most notable contributions took place even before principal photography began.
Perhaps a troubled pre-production phase was inevitable for the making of American Psycho because when the book was published, author Bret Easton Ellis received several death threats due to the violent content it contained, particularly against women. Ellis considered American Psycho unfilmable and that most would be reluctant to adapt his novel. However, in 1992, film producer Edward R. Pressman bought the film rights. David Cronenberg was initially attached to direct the film with Brad Pitt starring in the leading role of Patrick Bateman but considered some of the book’s content, aside from the violence, as boring and wanted these parts omitted. Ellis ignored these requests while writing the initial draft. Unsurprisingly, Cronenberg was dissatisfied with Ellis’s efforts and replaced him with Norman Snider. Cronenberg hated his draft even more, and by 1995 he had left the project. By then, Harron was in consideration to direct at the start of 1996, following the success of her film I Shot Andy Warhol. She had attempted to read the book when it was initially published but said it was too violent. However, upon rereading it, she decided enough time had passed from the previous decade of the 1980s, the period when Ellis’s novel takes place.
Harron’s impact upon making the film began from the start, when she only agreed to helm the project if she could write the screenplay as well, and Pressman agreed, as he was impressed by her craftiness in writing after reading the previous drafts. Harron initially had difficulty casting the role of Patrick Bateman and spoke with many actors. She eventually decided to coax Christian Bale to audition for the role, who initially had no interest in it, but once he read her script became intrigued. Bale became more passionate about taking on the role when there were objections to him playing the part, as people said it would be career suicide, but Bale even turned down other work because he had such faith in American Psycho and Harron. However, the struggles did not end there. When Lionsgate bought the rights, they told Harron that Leonardo DiCaprio was their preferred choice for the lead role. In May 1998, Lionsgate announced DiCaprio in the lead role, and Harron threatened to leave because she thought he looked too boyish and the film would harm his female fanbase, so Lionsgate fired her. DiCaprio wanted to change things, and Bale was so confident he would finally exit the project that when DiCaprio did, on the grounds of creative differences, Lionsgate rehired Harron and Bale.
Harron’s story of perseverance in wanting to make the film she wanted with the cast she wanted was arguably unheard of for a female filmmaker in Hollywood at the time. Unfortunately, the success of American Psycho did not increase the prominence of female directors working at the time, which is most likely because people remember the film for its graphic violence, explicit action and Bale’s performance. However, none of that would have been possible – or there might have been an inferior film – had Harron not been at the helm.