Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis: 1985-2010Interview by Joshua Chaplinsky
After six novels and one book of short stories, the career of Bret Easton Ellis, author, has come to an end. It is survived by a continued involvement in screenwriting and the film industry.
At least that was the rumor. I wasn't sure how trustworthy my source was, and I certainly hoped it wasn't true, but there were signs. The full circle nature of Imperial Bedrooms, for one, not to mention those pesky little dates at the end. It got me thinking- if this information was legit, I had quite the scoop on my hands. I had to know for sure, but didn't want to wait out the years in hopes of getting an answer. This desire was the motivating factor behind my interview.
So The Cult set it up. I had the pleasure of speaking with Bret not once, but twice regarding Imperial Bedrooms. The first attempt was a phoner, which went great, but thirty seconds after we hung up I realized I had been the victim of technology's caprice, as the recording had failed.
After Dennis talked me off a ledge, he convinced me to contact Bret's publicist and explain what happened. Fortunately, Bret was gracious enough to give me another chance, despite my seeming lack of computer proficiency. This time we sat down in the Knopf offices in New York, and I made sure I had multiple recording devices going, just to be safe.
Though the questions were the same, it was a completely different interview. I only had thirty minutes, which forced a more focused line of attack. Bret was very accommodating, and answered everything I asked with candor and honesty, but it also seemed he was careful not to sound as absolute on certain subjects. So as the clocked ticked we discussed new novel Imperial Bedrooms, his adventures in the screen-trade, and the reality of his current career crossroads.
Joshua Chaplinsky: I pretty much have the same questions as last time, but I have a feeling you're not going to give me the same exact answers, especially for the first one.
Bret Easton Ellis: That is correct.
JC: You're not going to give me the same answer?
BEE: I'm not.
JC: Alright, then. I had asked you, I had heard that Imperial Bedrooms was going to be your last novel.
JC: And you asked me if my source on that was reliable.
BEE: And was your source reliable?
JC: According to your answer, they were. You did verify.
BEE: But how can I say that? How can I actually say that anything is the last novel, especially with the way that I work? I've said that a lot during my career. I remember when I finished Glamorama that I wasn't going to write Lunar Park. Glamorama took so long to write and was really difficult; I was kind of depleted after. And then I did a long tour for it and I thought, you know what? I'm never gonna write another book again. But then what happens is you get these emotions, and you become interested in a book again, regardless of whether you thought you ever wanted to write it. And I remember very clearly standing in my kitchen about a month after Glamorama was completely done, and I thought, what am I gonna do now? I was scrambling some eggs and suddenly I realized, oh my God, Lunar Park is gonna be about this, this and this. Out of the blue. I remember turning the stove off and immediately sitting down at my desk and starting to make notes.
Then, after Lunar Park, I thought, am I really going to go there, this idea of going back to Clay? Because that's the idea I had in my head while I was doing the research for Lunar Park, which was re-reading Less Than Zero. And I thought, no- and then of course, Imperial Bedrooms happens. So I can say, I don't know if I'm ever going to write another novel again, but that's just not how it works. I might say that, but that might not be the case. I might be feeling very differently about it a month or a year from now- I don't know. I can't answer that conclusively. I don't want this to be my last novel, but I'm also thinking about the novel- what more can be done with it? I'm interested in television right now. Television seems to be, in a way, where I want to take the novel. I want to take the novel into television. But we'll see.
JC: Were the dates at the end of Imperial Bedrooms a hint, or indicative of your feeling that it was the end of your writing career?
BEE: I think it was indicative of a couple things. The most obvious one, of course, is the link between the publication of Less Than Zero and the publication of Imperial Bedrooms. And then, in a way, I feel that this was a certain cycle of books that I wrote during a certain time in my life, and that Imperial Bedrooms kind of signaled the end of that period. So I was thinking a little bit about that when I put those dates there. It meant something to me, and I should have known that of course it was going to mean something to other people as well. I thought about taking them off, but it just felt good to have them there.
JC: Last time we spoke you said you regretted that decision.
BEE: Yeah, I did, and I still do regret it, to a certain degree. There are days when I think it's cool, and there are other days I regret it. I go back and forth.
JC: Has anyone else asked about that or brought it up?
BEE: Yes, people have asked me that. And those are the days when I regret it.
JC: So I'm making you regret it?
BEE: Whatever, I'm regretting a lot of things, but I'm also letting a lot of things go. So everything's cool.
JC: Because I've been reading the interviews and the reviews and I haven't really seen that mentioned anywhere. So I kind of selfishly thought, I've got a bit of a scoop here. Someone tells me, oh, you know this is Ellis' last book, so I thought I had this secret piece of information.
BEE: Well, you did for a while, because I probably did tell that to someone. I did see it appear in a British magazine, but I was really good friends with that reporter and we were talking with a kind of drunken honesty late at night, and he transcribed the drunken honesty into his piece, so...
JC: Last night at the reading (Barnes and Noble, Union Square) you joked that you contemplated writing a pornographic gay novel starring Sean Bateman.
BEE: I did.
JC: Is there any seriousness in that?
JC: None at all?
BEE: It was something I was joking about with a couple of friends one weekend. Everyone kept bugging me, what's your next book going to be? And I asked them, what character do you think I should go back to? And somebody mentioned Sean Bateman, and I said, if I went back to Sean Bateman, he'd be doing this, this and this. He'd be living in West Hollywood, sucking a lot of dick, being a total male whore... So we started riffing on it a little bit and it became very funny, that this guy who positions himself as a certain person in Rules of Attraction might not be that person. But I talked to a gay friend of mine, and I said look, I can't write that book, because no matter what my sexuality is, I don't know anything about gay culture and I'm not particularly interested in gay culture. How do I write this book about gay culture if I don't know that much about it? And my gay friend said, that will make it even more interesting. And I thought, yeah, I guess I kind of get that. But honestly, at the moment, that isn't really at the forefront of my mind.
JC: So nothing on the horizon as far as novels? Nothing percolating?
BEE: Nothing on the horizon as far as novels.
JC: You've been concentrating on film, doing a lot of screenwriting. Do you think that screenplays and film have the same power as the novel, or are they different arenas for exploring different ideas?
BEE: Screenwriting is a social thing, and it's not that personal in a lot of ways. It's a collaborative thing. You meet with a lot of people while you're working on a script, and it's the blueprint for a much larger thing that's not about yourself. Movie-making is not a screenwriter's medium, it's a director's medium, it's an actors medium. So yes, screenwriting is incredibly different than working on a novel, which is very personal. A novel comes from a very emotional place. You spend many, many years working on it, and you have final say on how it appears. It's all yours. A screenplay is nothing like that.
I am not a screenwriter for hire, I am not a screenwriter who works with the big studios and I don't do script polishing. I have some personal projects that I am very interested in that I want to see through and I think these would not be books, but should be movies. That's mostly what I'm doing out in LA. It's frustrating because it is all about money, you know? It's about finding the money to make the film, whereas a book isn't anything like that. And stylistically, a screenplay doesn't have to have a style. You follow a story logically for a number of pages and make sure there is a resolution to it. It's almost a formula, whereas a novel is not a formula at all. A novel can go anywhere it wants to go. A movie kind of has to stay within the confines of what is expected of it.
JC: When you decided to write a sequel to Less Than Zero, were you afraid of people's reaction, or that you might ruin its legacy?
BEE: I look at Less Than Zero much differently than an audience looks at it. I spent many years working on that book, and it means something to me that it doesn't mean to a larger audience. I don't see it as having a legacy. Writing a novel doesn't involve audience testing, and if I ever decided to write a novel based on the needs of the audience, then I would rather be in advertising. Immediately after I thought, if I go with this idea of where Clay is now, that's going to upset some people, I thought, Fuck it, who cares? I got over that in about five seconds. I also think that Less Than Zero's legacy, whatever that means- and I know what it means, but to me, it's like, whatever. I know it exists and I know that people feel a certain way about Less Than Zero, but if I let the audience's feelings get in the way of what I want to do, then I'm fucked as an artist. So I've got to let go of that and I've just got to follow what I want to do, and I wanted to write Imperial Bedrooms. I also think Less Than Zero's legacy is pretty strong. I don't think this book is going to necessarily be popular enough to re-write it. Less than Zero can pretty much stand on its own.
JC: Do you feel Imperial Bedrooms is a better book than Less Than Zero?
BEE: I don't look at the books as being better or worse than each other, and I don't rate them. They are each individual achievements. Each book was written because at a certain point in my life I wanted to write them. They came out how they came out and I was obviously fine with them when they were published. I just don't rate them that way. There are things about Less Than Zero that I like, and then there are things about Imperial Bedrooms that I like as well. Of course, right now, I'm going to say Imperial Bedrooms is the better novel, which of course would cause a huge uproar, but that's just where I am right now. You have to understand, I am the writer of the books, and the writer of the books has a very different relationship to the books than the audience does, and that's something that I don't think the audience understands. It's interesting, Faulkner's favorite book of his was a novel called The Hamlet. I don't think anyone's read it.
JC: I haven't.
BEE: Faulkner thought it was his greatest achievement. I often say that, if I had to chose a favorite book at gunpoint, it would be Glamorama. I think that's probably the book that I worked the hardest on, and it was the book that meant the most to me, during the eight years that I worked on it. Yet, you can tell that to a Bret Easton Ellis fan and they would slap you.
JC: It's funny, at the reading last night I heard a girl behind me talking, and she was like, oh, Glamorama is my least favorite of his novels.
BEE: That's interesting, because at the reading last night I saw three guys from Long Island who looked like they were mechanics. They were wearing overalls and they looked kind of hickey and I thought, okay, they're gonna pull out their tattered copies of American Psycho, but no- they were all about Glamorama. They knew it by heart. They knew all of its secrets; they knew the code of Glamorama. They knew the secret of Bruce Reinhart, which was something that blew me away. They wanted certain quotes scrawled into their copies, and that was one of the most memorable things about last night.
JC: While we're on the subject of criticism, are you familiar with Lionel Shriver, who wrote the book, We Need To Talk About Kevin?
BEE: Yes. I know who this woman is.
JC: Did you hear what she said about Imperial Bedrooms?
BEE: Yes, I did.
JC: In an interview with The Independent, she said, "There are a lot of books that end up selling that aren't very good. I've just read Bret Easton Ellis' new book and it's awful, but it's had a big publicity campaign. I'm writing a 1,500 word review of it. The book doesn't deserve the attention. It's ghastly. In the meantime, there are lots of books that will not be reviewed." That's less of a negative review and more of an attack. Do you have any feelings about that?
BEE: I do have feelings about that, and I think that she's probably right. My publisher is going to spend a lot of money promoting Imperial Bedrooms, and there are a lot of writers who are young and unknown, and money won't go towards promoting their books. I understand where she's coming from. It's basically an argument against corporate greed. What she's saying is that my book is no good, and not only is it no good, it's a book written by a popular writer and that a big company is going to make money by promoting it. In doing so, other books will be hurt, because they will not have that same kind of promotional budget. I get it, totally. She's got a point. I mean, I wish she liked my book more, and if she thought it was so awful, why's she gonna write a 1500 word review on it? What can you do with the Lionel Shriver's of the world? Honestly, I didn't even know who Lionel Shriver was before this.
JC: I just know of her because they just turned We Need To Talk About Kevin into a movie.
BEE: Who's in the movie?
JC: John C. Riley? Maybe Tilda Swinton. I forget.
BEE: It's not about a shooting, is it?
JC: Yeah, the school shooting, told through a mother's letters.
BEE: Talk about awful.
BEE: No, I heard the book is actually good. But it's a terrible idea for a movie.
JC: It's a downer.
BEE: Well not only a downer, but it's just like, really? Is that what you're gonna write about? A mother whose life is affected because her son committed a Columbine [type] massacre? I mean, jeez, lighten up!
JC: I know you've said in the past that you weren't happy with people assuming that Clay was completely based on you. Do you think the release of Imperial Bedrooms is going to perpetuate that myth, considering he's now a screenwriter also? Is that something that bothers you?
BEE: No, not at all. It doesn't bother me when people assume anything about me. People assume many, many things about me, and none of it bothers me.
JC:You seem to like to play with people's perceptions of you.
BEE: If I'm doing that it's pretty unintentional. The only time that I'm doing that is with the author photos for my books. But even then, I think the book itself is sort of like this art object and the cover should be a certain way, and the author's photograph should be a certain way, and the whole design of the book should be a certain way. Other than that, people can think whatever they want about me. It's not going to bother me. People have many wide-ranging opinions about who they think I am or what they think I'm like- there's nothing I can do about it. I hear really negative stuff, I hear positive stuff. The truth is somewhere in the middle, if you really want to know.
JC: I just feel like sometimes you're pulling people's legs in interviews and stuff.
BEE: Yeah, but so what?
JC: I'm not saying it's a bad thing, it just seems like something you like to do.
BEE: Well, I've got to tell you. Talking about this now, I'm thinking, maybe I do do that. But I'm also thinking that I'm being totally authentic and real. I haven't said anything in this interview that's not true. I guess I just don't come off as sincere enough is the problem. And I like to make jokes.
JC: That's what it seems to me, more jokey than insincere.
BEE: Yeah, because how seriously can you take all this? If I started taking this all so seriously, I'd shoot myself in the head. I would be an abnormal person. If I took last night seriously, what an asshole I'd be. I mean, really, what a fucking asshole. I went out to diner with a couple of my friends afterwards and we all started laughing, like, this is ridiculous. Your life is ridiculous. How did it end up this way? And I said, I know, I know, it's crazy. It wasn't like I walked in and they all stood up and started applauding, and I bowed and said, I broke the house record for Barnes and Noble Union Square. It's just not part of who I am. If you start taking any of this too seriously- I don't want to meet that person.
JC: Well, for example, when we spoke last time, I asked you about who you would like to see direct an adaptation of Imperial Bedrooms, and I made a joke about Ben Stiller, because in an interview you said you had sued him because Zoolander was a rip-off of Glamorama. I've seen that in more than one place, and it came across as very serious, but you told me that it was a joke, a complete fabrication.
BEE: What have you found out about this? Have you found out whether it was true or not?
JC: You told me it that it wasn't true, that it was a lie.
BEE: Did I really tell you that?
JC: Yeah. And then I told you I was disappointed. Because it's funnier if it's true.
BEE: Well, I'm surprised that i told you that it didn't happen.
JC: Are you changing your tune?
BEE: I don't remember telling you that.
BEE: And plus you don't have it on tape.
JC: You bastard.
BEE: You can't even prove it.
JC: It's your word against mine.
BEE: I'm gonna skip that question. Let's go on to the next question.
JC: Alright. There are thinly veiled references to The Informers movie in Imperial Bedrooms, which you were a writer and producer on. A lot of Imperial Bedrooms deals with the darker side of Hollywood, casting couches and stuff like that. Has your real life Hollywood experience been that sordid?
BEE: No, it hasn't at all. And the casting couch, is that really the dark side of Hollywood? That seems to be the fun side of Hollywood. The casting couch is the light side. The dark part of Hollywood is when a movie completely falls apart or turns to shit. People trading sexual favors for stuff, that's nothing. That's a comedy.
I see Imperial Bedrooms as a Hollywood novel, and I see it as a dark novel, but I don't see it as a dark Hollywood novel. I think there is a darkness in any business, and I think that Imperial Bedrooms could have easily been reset in the corporate world. I think the main dynamics of Imperial Bedrooms are more universal. When someone wants a job somewhere in any kind of business, who knows. She's young, she's pretty, there's a boss, etc., etc.
I also have to defend Hollywood because there's a side of it that' s incredibly creative. The fact that I get to hang out and discuss making a movie with Gus Van Zant [The Golden Suicides] is incredibly cool. The fact that I talk to talented directors on a weekly basis and meet really enthusiastic actors and people who want to make good movies, that is also part of Hollywood. It is not all studio junk. It isn't all bad. I think the dark side of Hollywood is the fact that it's a little bit like Vegas. It's a gambling town; it has no logic. If you come out here and are severely disappointed at what the odds are, then you're slightly retarded. You've got to go in with your eyes open and understand, this is how it works. And you learn along the way. My most sordid experiences have really been being disappointed and being stressed out by what's going on within a certain project.
JC: Where does a film adaptation of Imperial Bedrooms stand right now? Is that in the works?
BEE: No, it's not in the works. I haven't sold the rights and I have no idea how a movie of Imperial Bedrooms really works in this movie culture now. I guess it's an independent film. Is it not if Robert Downey Jr. decides to be involved in it? Does it become a movie for HBO, does it become something that happens at Fox Searchlight because 20th Century Fox owns the rights to the characters? It's a complicated thing, and there has been some very mild talk about it being a movie, but nothing has been on the table and there is no one attached to anything.
JC: I read somewhere that you liked the idea of making a sequel to Less Than Zero the film, as opposed to a faithful adaptation of Imperial Bedrooms the novel.
BEE: No, I would rather see a faithful adaptation of Imperial Bedrooms the novel than a sequel to Less Than Zero [the movie.] I'm not interested in whatever that sequel to Less Than Zero would be, but I'd be interested in seeing Imperial Bedrooms turned into a movie.
JC: Would you like to see a more faithful remake of Less Than Zero?
BEE: Well, a remake of Less Than Zero- that's something that's talked about all the time, and everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Gregg Araki have looked into the rights situation. I'm not really interested enough to get myself involved in that, but I've read scripts people have written that are very faithful to the novel and I think the time is probably right to do it. If people are interested in making a faithful adaptation of that book, I'm all for it. I just don't know if it's going to happen.
JC: Have you ever considered making the move to directing yourself? If so, do you think you could have done a better job with The Informers movie, for example?
BEE: I don't think I could have done a good job with The Informers adaptation. It was a very big project, it was expensive, it was a period piece, and it had too many actors in it. Visually it was a complicated movie to make. It needed someone who'd made big movies before. Co-writer Nick Jarecki was going to direct the film, but when the producers realized the scope of the project they wanted someone who'd made big movies before, and Gregor Jordan had made a couple of big movies. So after seeing that movie I thought, yeah, I want to direct, because this didn't work out the way I wanted it too. He kind of mis-read the script. At the same time, I'm going through something similar with The Golden Suicides, the Gus Van Zant thing. Gus isn't committing to directing the movie, he keeps flip flopping back and forth. We've even gone out to other directors, with Gus' blessing. Gus is like, I don't know if I want to make this depressing movie or not, and I'm telling him it's not depressing, and he's going, I think it might be. And I have actually thought about directing it, but again, it's a movie that takes place over the course of twelve years, it's a period movie. Visually, it is a little complicated. But I might bring that up if we can't find a director. If the producers would get behind me on that, I would not mind directing that film.
JC: Any other projects floating around? What about The Follower?
BEE: The Follower. That's the project that I'm most interested in right now. That is my novel right now. I was developing it at HBO, and then it was moved over to Starz, and that's where it's being developed. That is pretty much what I'm concentrating on full time right now. That is the most important project that I'm working on. It basically is about... I want to say it's about stalking, but in the end it's about love.
JC: It's a fine line.
BEE: It is a fine line, and that's what the show's about.
(At this point, Bret's publicist had returned and was hovering, which basically signaled the end of the interview. I was not able to get in a good closer, so I will leave you with my closer from the first interview. Despite the audio being lost, I remember it pretty vividly, so I take the liberty of reproducing it here.)
JC: I have one final question, but it might be kind of lame.
BEE: There are no lame questions.
JC: Okay, if you hadn't become a novelist, where would Bret Easton Ellis be today? What would he be doing right now?
BEE: Hm... (silence.)
JC: Is that a shitty question?
BEE: No, it's not a shitty question, it's just... (more silence.)
JC: You don't have to answer it if it sucks.
BEE: Alright, it's a shitty question.
JC: Well, on that note, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.