He only meant it to be a reflection of the society he witnessed in 1980s New York, and the experience as an outsider in that setting.
But then again, artists unfortunately never choose how their creations will manifest over time. Society took Bateman’s bloodied face and ran with it, with the help of Christian Bale’s iconic portrayal.
Since then Bret Easton Ellis has gone on to pen successful books such as Glamorama and the mock memoir Lunar Park. He has also made a name for himself in the film industry, authoring works such as The Canyons with the help of Kanye West. A professional provocateur and a liberal fence-sitter, he uses his notoriety to comment not only on social trends but the widening political disillusion we’re all experiencing. His latest venture is a podcast he started back in 2013 and what may sound like rants at times, has become more of an intellectual expressive mouth piece (which has lately put him in the hot seat). We begin our chat by asking why the liberal movement offends him so much?
As someone who still reads the New York Times and finds it as almost being written in a code. The question becomes whether it is the institution itself or if it is part of the culture and this catastrophic view of the world that doesn’t really exist. It’s just indicative of this ‘I’m a victim’ attitude, and I don’t know where it really started, obviously the Internet has a lot to do with it, but it also has to do with identity politics and what has been going on with academia in the US in the last 10/12 years where people have been defining themselves by this really small percentage of who they are, like ‘I am a vagina’, ‘ I am a black person’, instead of just dealing with everyone as an individual, not a set of marginalised people and encouraging you to define yourself that way. If you start doing that, yes you can become a very sensitive, over-reactive person and I think that turned into this kind of warped moral superiority, and that is really the link to all these op-ed pages that are virtue signalling, saying ‘look at me, look at my outrage’. There is a huge disconnect between what is happening on the ground and what people are screaming about.
“I find all this hysteria a bit unseemly.” – Bret Easton Ellis
So in that liberal authoritarian vacuum, how do we find some kind of equilibrium?
I don’t know. I think part of the problem is, with a lot of the Lefts here including Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, there is a kind of conspiracy searching, that I believe is playing to the crowd. Bill Maher used to be very easy to watch because he would criticise both the Left and the Right; he was an equal opportunity critic. Now he is impossible to watch because he asks leading questions, picks easy targets, brings on Conservatives and ridicules them… it’s unbearable. But how to solve it? I don’t know. I didn’t vote for Trump, it’s not who I am, but I do think this hysteria is unseemly. When an election doesn’t go the way you want, I can understand some protests, the way the media is destroying this administration is a shocking thing that we are witnessing. I know Trump is a radical and the birthing pains of this administration are tough to deal with, but I think the best way to deal with it is to get on his level.
But you have to admit though that, underneath the veneer, Trump is somewhat unwell no?
To a degree I guess, but you can also say the same thing about Hillary Clinton, and there are many people here who would sit down and discuss that with you, in terms of defending a broken bureaucracy. If we are just talking about the 70 year old man who suffers from a terrible narcissistic tendency, yeah you could say that.
How do you think we will look back on one of the most bizarre periods in American history? Do you think we will look back on it much like the Vietnam/Civil rights/Watergate era?
Certainly. I think that we have to see where this is going. Part of the problem I have with the resistance is that it really denigrates the Americans who voted him in. If the American people voted in a purple and green otter, what are you gonna do? They elected him. And when Bono says this is the most disgusting thing to ever happen in America, I think what are you fucking talking about? 63 million people voted for him Bono, what the fuck? It goes back to the moral superiority thing where people think they are better than others, and certainly when Clinton talked about this ‘basket of deplorables’ and Michelle Obama said ‘when they go low we go high’, it really is indicative of this type of elitism that really sank the party.
You created this character decades ago, Patrick Bateman, and to me he feels more relevant than ever. Everything that is playing out in America right now feels like art manifesting into reality. Do you have any comment on this relevancy?
Patrick Bateman was a reaction to what I was witnessing in New York at that time. There was also a part of me in that character as well, as someone who wanted to fit into this culture that he found deplorable.
I’ve always been very amused that this character at the heart of what was for me an experimental novel has become this big cultural thing, and admittedly Christian Bale played a big part of how Bateman blew up in popular culture. I also think people got carried away with him as the face of contemporary evil, as the manifestation of the people voting for Trump right now. There is a film maker who is making a documentary, without my blessing, about how the guys who found Trump an aspirational figure, the Batemans of the 80s, have warped into the men now in the Trump administration and the bankers who helped destroy the economy in 2008. That’s a lot of weight to place on the shoulders of an imaginary character, so I’m quite bemused by that.
“I also think people got carried away with him as the face of contemporary evil.” – Bret Easton Ellis on Patrick Bateman
How would you sum up what happened in 2008, this epidemic of moral bankruptcy that took over in parts of America and eventually what happened to the common working person?
Well sheer humanity – that greed is in our biology. The economic collapse did not shock me, especially as someone who had been following it and investigated Wall Street in the 80s. That wasn’t necessarily a surprise, and neither is it really that the ‘working man’ as we call it has reacted in the way that he has in the last year, in terms of tying in the economic problems, rightly so, with Washington bureaucracy and corruption – where else were they supposed to go? Were they supposed to go with Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump? Those seemed to be the only two answers, I mean certainly Hillary Clinton was not the answer for fixing that; that was a continuation of it.
So when you are interviewing people what are you trying to get at with the podcast and writing?
First and foremost it is to understand the world, to give it some sort of meaning and coherency to chaos. It’s also usually as an expression of confusion and pain. But I don’t know, is it all just ego and a way of putting yourself out there?
Speaking about ego, what did you learn about Kanye West when you interviewed him? I know you were working on a film with him at some point?
Yeah we were working on a couple of projects together. I always liked him a lot and I do think there is a genius there. I like the way he is very transparent and doesn’t care what people think about him. I think that the podcast form can be a limitation for him, he wanted to come on and I said we were just gonna talk about movies, and of course he just starts trashing people. But I love that about Kanye and I found it very inspiring to work with him, even though we only did a couple of very minor things; he did a score for the trailer of The Canyons and I wrote a commercial for Yeezus.
I find that there is this juxtaposition in your work in the sense that you talk about this being a very ‘emotional moment’, which I totally agree with, but you’ve also said ‘I don’t want to live in a world where I am never offended’. A lot of your work is provocative, so you do tend to offend even if you don’t mean to. Ideally we would love to live in a world without violence and sadism.
But that’s never gonna happen – you are never going to have a world without violence and sadism as long as humanity populates the earth.
Alex Israel and Bret Easton Ellis, 50 Million People artwork (2016)
But we can move towards that.
Very good, but that is never going to be erased out of the human animal, just like craving or greed. We can certainly find ways of reining it in – we can’t have all-encompassing chaos. But I go back to Anthony Burgess and A Clockwork Orange, this notion that we can take man and make him into a non-violent creature, but ultimately what are you doing? You’re going against nature – you get a neutered Clockwork Orange. I don’t know if I wanna live in that world necessarily compared to whatever the world of nature is, horrible flaws and all. And that is a legitimate conversation to have.
So how do you balance the offence and the emotion?
You can take a deep breath, not read comment boards, have a couple of drinks and look back at everything with a neutrality. That’s what I think is really lacking; seeing both sides to a story. Feelings are not facts which is forgotten about a lot here. But there are different ways of dealing with it, and a large swathe of the American population just aren’t dealing with it at all, which is kind of the problem. We need more mischief – more Kanye’s and certainly more of the Milo Yiannopoulos’.
What do you think of Milo Yiannopoulos? He’s obviously very intelligent.
He is very intelligent. I kind of miss the Milo from 2013/2014, the Youtube clips that my boyfriend actually introduced me to, who is a hardcore liberal Democrat and thought they needed this kind of person on the Right to counteract Third Wave feminism, self-victimisation and Snowflakes. This is the problem with everyone saying Breitbart is so awful, I know so many young guys who found it hilarious, like Mad Magazine – they go to it for the shocking counter points, not necessarily taking it seriously. Like ‘Would you rather your daughter have cancer or feminism?’, you know it’s a hilarious line and it goes into what a lot of people thought was an overdone political correctness. We’ll see what happens with Milo, I mean I don’t think he is going to be able to jump back into the position that he once had. He’s a provocateur, which I like, and I think gay culture does need more people like him because they cannot all be Neil Patrick Harris.
Would it be safe to say that you are somewhat similar to Milo? A gay provocateur?
It’s interesting because I actually met Milo through the Out piece I wrote on the gay magical elves and how there doesn’t seem to be a representation of a different kind of gay that isn’t GLAAD-approved, that anyone who has a different opinion from the way the group think is described as this self-hating gay man. He reached out to me after that, and I didn’t know who he was at this point. I saw that he has written a couple of things about that piece but it was really my boyfriend who said I had to watch this guy because he was great in debates and really saying what we’d been talking about.
“I think gay culture does need more people like him because they cannot all be Neil Patrick Harris.” – Bret Easton Ellis on Milo Yiannopoulos
What was the last thing you were offended by?
It was recent, probably something in the media. There is a real hatred for the media here both on the Left and on the Right in terms of a bias in tone and lack of neutrality, and that is a very difficult thing to live with in the culture that you’re part of. My boyfriend, for example, he and his other millennial friends believe that they can navigate fake news and that it’s older people that are wringing their hands about it all – they think it’s a bogus, not a real thing. But I don’t know, I mean when we talk about fake news and I read the New York Times and see an alarming headline about treason in the White House and collusion with Russians, I have to read the whole article because I’m concerned and I find that there is absolutely nothing to back up that headline. Or when Rachel Maddow teases out Trump bash reports for over an hour, I’m kind of offended by that.
Are you sick of being the ‘American Psycho’ author? Is that a label that you’d like to move on from?
Well there’s nothing I can do about it, I am. It’s pretty much how I am always described to the initiated and the uninitiated. It happened the other day, I was at the ArcLight theatres here and there was a bunch of guys working on the concession stand, all in their twenties, and one of the guys kind of knows me so said hey and introduced me to the others like, ‘Guys this is Bret Easton Ellis, the guy who wrote American Psycho’. And they were like, ‘Oh yeah, I love that movie’. So he said ‘No he wrote the novel’ and two of the other guys said, ‘Wait there was a novel?’ So that’s what I’m up against.
The reason why I’m asking is because, for the longest time it was impossible to decouple the author from the story and so I was always scared of you, the fact that you inhabited Patrick Bateman. I think society did a job of making you into that character. Is that maybe just my projection of it?
No I think there is a truth in that, it just really depends on how much I care, and I think that is like 18th or 19th on the list of things I care about!
"I also think that if Trump wasn’t around in those few months, La La Land would have probably won over Moonlight."
Bret Easton Ellis on Hollywood
So did you ever have a moment in your career, post-American Pyscho or Less Than Zero where you felt like you might be falling off the wagon?
I don’t think so. I liked doing drugs but I was never really an addict. I had my youthful ennui, as I think we all do in our twenties to some degree, but work always saved me somehow you know; working on a novel can be a very immersive thing and you have to have this one thing that is anchoring you. Actually, I did have a place where I was falling off the wagon and that was in my mid forties when I did suffer a midlife crisis and was in an immense amount of emotional turmoil so I saw a psychiatrist to get through that. But that happens to a lot of men.
I hear you culturally reference a lot of films and analyse them a lot, so you clearly love them. What do you think of the film industry today?
The film industry is very different today, it doesn’t really exist like it did in terms of employing vast numbers of people to create a wide range of product. That’s gone. There is a 1% in Hollywood and that 1% is employed by studios, everyone else is figuring out what to do and how to get jobs. Marketing people make the decisions about the movies.
But when you see a film like Moonlight win Best Film at the Oscars on a $1 million budget, it’s pretty exceptional no?
I think Moonlight is part of the problem. You can look at it from both ways. You can look at it and say, cool, a movie like that was made and people watched it, or you can see Moonlight as part of this ideological movement. I did a long piece on Moonlight for the podcast and I talked about its importance and artistry being inflated through the prism of ideology. I also think that if Trump wasn’t around in those few months, La La Land would have probably won over Moonlight. Hollywood is a liberal dream factory and that is why I reject most liberal message movies because they are rigged experiences.
I just read this closely for the first time as opposed to when I was first introduced to it at a young age, which was an amazing experience at 51 because I could see the American poetry in it, how modern it is and could finally understand what Hemingway meant when he said that this is where all American fiction stems from.
I mention this band a lot on the podcast because Hotel California was really a seminal song for me when I was 12 or 13. It combined the highest kind of massive production scale to popular rock songs that were also commenting on this sense of disillusionment that was happening in the late 1970s culture. And I thought that was one of the great things about empire art, that you could make a record that big with a kind of negative message, and reach 20 million buyers.
This for me was the moment when movies entered into a kind of European maturity, and that combination of commercial aspects with the European art house sense of shooting really became the template for the great movies of the 1970s.