Against a cool white background, drops of blood slowly fall through the film's opening credits. Or so it seems - until the camera pulls back to reveal that the bright red trickle is, in fact, raspberry coulis being drizzled over a breast of duck. With that delicate sleight of hand begins American Psycho, a dark comedy of manners and murder based on the notorious 1991 novel by American Bret Easton Ellis. The book, a satire that reads like a hellish marriage of Swift and de Sade, has been attacked as both shockingly pornographic and numbingly boring. It's the portrait of a Wall Street narcissist who is obsessed with fashion, status and sex - and who believes in butchery on the first date. No less an iconoclast than David Cronenberg tried to turn it into a movie. But the Canadian director, who had adapted such "unfilmable" novels as Naked Lunch and Crash, eventually gave up.
Then, along came Mary Harron. The Canadian-born filmmaker, daughter of veteran actor-broadcaster Don Harron and darling of the New York avant-garde, had made just one movie. With I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), she drew an empathetic portrait of Valerie Solanas, the frustrated artist who pulled a gun on the prince of Pop Art in 1968. Warhol was about a Sixties rebel who hates men; American Psycho is about an Eighties conformist who hates women. But both are stories of madness in Manhattan, tales of paranoid ambition unravelling in a culture of commodity fetishism. And in making American Psycho, it's remarkable that Harron did not become unravelled herself.
After she had spent two years developing the movie, her producers and Lions Gate Films went behind her back and offered Titanic superstar Leonardo DiCaprio the role she had already promised Christian Bale. Eventually, DiCaprio dropped out and Harron regained control of the film. Then, while shooting with Bale in Toronto last year, she had to fend off groundless allegations that murderer Paul Bernardo had used American Psycho as his bedside bible. And, more recently, she had to defend her film against censorship.
But Harron has stood up to the pressure. And her movie, the most controversial literary adaptation since Cronenberg's Crash (1996), strangely redeems the book on which it is based. Coolly eviscerating Ellis's bloated narrative, and leaving much of the brutality off-camera, Harron captures its satirical wit with a spare elegance. She also slyly inverts the novel's perspective, viewing its repellent protagonist, Patrick Bateman, from a feminist remove - as a fatuous supermodel of male vanity.
Meeting the maker of American Psycho is a little disarming. This woman, who grew up with New York's punk scene, who just said no to Leonardo and has established herself as the most fearless female director in America, now lives in the suburbs. Pregnant with her second child at the age of 47, and unable to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, she and her family recently moved to Irvington, a sleepy little town overlooking the Hudson River in New York's upscale Westchester County.
Forty-five minutes north of Grand Central Station, rolling past brick ruins of dead factories along the river's edge, the commuter train pulls into Irvington. Harron is waiting at the station. It's hard to miss her. Dressed in a fringed buckskin jacket, white T-shirt and blue jeans, she is eight months pregnant. She has striking blue-grey eyes and a pale freckled face that's beginning to show the fatigue of the third trimester.
Looking for a place to eat lunch, Harron leads her visitor up the main street, climbing a steep hill that has her stopping to catch her breath every couple of minutes. On this sunny spring day, Irvington looks like a piece of Norman Rockwell paradise. Ice cream is being scooped, strollers are being pushed and well-groomed children glide down driveways on skateboards - one of them almost knocks Harron over. "This place is very white," she says evenly, pointing to the mansions up the hill. "It's affluent enough that there are no Laundromats. We have to take our laundry to a neighbouring village."
Harron chooses a bistro with a clipper ship etched on the window. It's a far cry from the Manhattan restaurants parodied in her movie, places that serve "sea-urchin ceviche" and "swordfish meat loaf with onion marmalade." "I don't think anyone had caught the restaurant culture the way Bret did," says Harron. "It's so obsessive-compulsive - the complete insanity of the food. It was one of the funniest things he did."
Harron had less of an appetite for the violence. "All the way through shooting, we were dreading filming those scenes," she recalls. "They're hard to shoot and kind of depressing. Scary." She skirted around the brutality, she adds, because "if you're going to do bodily gore, you really need to be good at it and have a take on it. David Cronenberg can do horror because he has a whole vision. He's saying something with it."
Cronenberg was the first director approached by American Psycho's veteran producer, Edward R. Pressman. Ellis scripted two drafts for Cronenberg, and Norman Snider (Dead Ringers) wrote a third, but the director did not find what he was looking for. "I thought it was a fantastically good book," Cronenberg told Maclean's last week. "It put me in a strange space that I'd never been in before. In that way, it was a little like Crash, although it was funnier and a little more congenial. But I did find it frustrating to think I would never be able to convey the way Bret did the existential terror of a man who sees someone come into the room with a better haircut, and why it was a better haircut, and how much it cost, and how everybody in the room knew it was a better haircut."
Later, Cronenberg read Harron's script and liked it. He also had a connection to the project through his 28-year-old daughter, Cassandra, who was Harron's third assistant director. And he has known Mary's father as "a friend of the family" for many years - ever since Don Harron, when he was between marriages, dated Cronenberg's sister, Denise. The cool direction that Mary brought to American Psycho, meanwhile, has a bit of the Cronenberg touch. "Certainly, his handling of tone, and how you go from comedy to horror, is one I admire," she says. "It's interesting about Canada. A lot of Canadian directors make weird films. Maybe because it's such a placid country, it tends to go inside."
Although Harron is based in New York, married to an American and has lived outside Canada most of her life, "I'm quite Canadian really," she maintains. "This film, more than my first one, is very much not an American film. It's a take on America, and I think America is where it's going to get the hardest reception."
Born on Jan. 12, 1953, in Gravenhurst, Ont., and raised in Toronto, Los Angeles, London and Rome, Harron has led an exceptionally cosmopolitan life. Her father was best known for his comic schtick as farmer Charlie Farquharson, but had a serious acting career. Her mother, Gloria Fisher, the first of Don's three wives, is a self-styled scholar who speaks four languages. "Art is my mom's religion," says Mary. "By the time she was 14, she'd read every book in the Gravenhurst library. She's a woman of the Fifties, determinedly unfeminist, but brilliant. She was very against pop culture of all kinds; she wanted me to be a novelist."
Mary's parents divorced when she was 6 and living in New York. She and her sister, Martha, then 8, spent two years with their grandparents in Gravenhurst. Then, in 1964, their mother got remarried, to a younger man, Hungarian-born novelist Stephen Vizinczey, and the Harron sisters struggled to adjust. "It was very disruptive for us," recalls Mary. "He was quite a volatile person." After the success of Vizinczey's In Praise of Older Women, in 1965, their stepfather moved the family to Europe - first to Rome, then London. "My sister and I were the observers of adult drama," says Mary. "We spent a lot of our time in hotel lobbies watching our parents fight."
But their travels offered a cultural immersion. Mary ended up at Oxford, where she obtained a BA in English, and then moved to New York, where she stumbled into the embryonic punk movement. She wrote about it as a rock journalist and became part of the scene. "It wasn't difficult to belong," she recalls. "You just had to turn up every few days. You could feel this cultural transformation going on, that something really amazing was happening. I think I'd been looking for that my whole life. You probably only find it once. It was about a secret world as much as anything."
In the 1980s, Harron began her filmmaking career directing short films and documentaries for BBC television. She finally made her late-blooming feature debut with I Shot Andy Warhol, which made a splash at Cannes in 1996. Two year later, she was the talk of Cannes once again, without even being there. When Lions Gate announced at the 1998 festival that it had offered Leonardo DiCaprio $21 million to star in American Psycho, Harron was furious. "As long as he was interested, they didn't care what I thought," she says. "I was basically off the project. They wanted me to meet with Leonardo, but I wouldn't. A lot of people thought I was crazy. I felt very isolated and wracked with self-doubt."
But Harron was convinced that paying DiCaprio $21 million to star in American Psycho "would ruin my career, and his - if you put the budget up that high, the film would fail, because it's not that kind of movie." After the actor lost interest and ended up getting himself miscast in The Beach, Harron finally got to shoot American Psycho her way, for $7.5 million. But it was not easy. In Toronto, skittish corporations withdrew offers to make their offices available as locations. And many companies, such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, would not allow Harron to show their brands onscreen (Remarkably, however, she did obtain rights to hits sung by Phil Collins and Huey Lewis, which Bateman pompously deconstructs while preparing to kill people.)
During the shoot, meanwhile, the local media drew an indelible link between Bernardo and Ellis's novel, although author Stephen Williams, who wrote a book on the Bernardo case, pointed out that the copy of American Psycho found in his house belonged to Karla Homolka, that Bernardo did not read, and there was no evidence it served as a blueprint for his crimes. No one ever showed up to protest on the set, says Harron, "but it upset me that the book was in the house at all."
After lunch, Harron climbs farther up the hill to her home, a modest two-bedroom apartment in an old white frame house. The decor is simple, with no avant-garde flourishes, except for some abstract paintings by a friend. Harron introduces her husband, director John C. Walsh, who is almost 10 years younger. They met at the 1996 Sundance festival, where they were both premièring their first features. "We make very different kinds of movies," says Walsh, who plans to follow up Ed's Next Move with another romantic comedy. Harron concedes that his chances of directing a box-office hit are better than hers. "I will never be very commercial," she sighs. "But your hip quotient is high," says her husband. "Yes," she agrees. "There's the hip quotient."
In some ways, Harron's life has echoed her mother's, who also married a younger man and had two daughters two years apart. Walsh points to a framed picture that hangs above the crib of their two-year-old, Ruby. It's a confident little watercolour of Florence that Mary painted when she was 13. Walsh discovered it in drawer - an early portrait by an artist who is still discovering the world on her own terms.
Maclean's April 10, 2000