Bret Easton Ellis on "The Informers" Movie
A Conflicted ReactionInterview by Dennis Widmyer
On April 24th, The Informers, the latest adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, hits select theaters. For Ellis, this is a particularly unique adaptation as this is the first time that he has a co-screenwriter credit on the finished product. In fact, Ellis was involved during every stage of production, from writing over seventeen drafts of the script, to being on set, to viewing tons of cuts in the editing studio. It is perhaps for this reason that it hits him harder than most that the end result of the film is something he has very conflicted feelings on.
With The Informers already screening at Sundance last year and advance reviews popping up all over the web, the film is already receiving a very mixed response. C.H.U.D., a movie review site, gave it a 0 out of 10 rating, saying it actually demanded a new classification of Fuck God. When I was invited to view the film by the wonderful people at Senator Distribution, I didn't know any of this. And perhaps that was for the best, as I carried no veiled biases in with me. For this reason and many others, I walked away from the movie actually liking what I had seen quite a lot. I won't go into an in-depth review, but I will frankly say that, some of the negative criticism The Informers is getting seems very unfounded to me. While the film is far from perfect, it captures an atmosphere and tone you see absent in many movies nowadays.
So when I was invited to Bret Easton Ellis' sleek, Patrick Bateman-esque apartment a few weeks ago to conduct this interview, I did not know that I'd be stepping into any potential 'controversy'. So I was happy to find that, in the end, I think it turned out great as Bret got to air a lot of his grievances over the film and I got to meet the man for the first time. Bret and I had such a fun time with the interview, that I was his guest for over two hours. He was nothing but a warm and gracious host and someone I'd be lucky to have the chance to interview again. I'll shut up now and let the piece speak for itself.
Dennis Widmyer: This is your first screenplay, right?
Bret Easton Ellis: It’s the first screenplay that’s been made into a movie. I’ve written other scripts but none of them have been made.
DW: But this is the only one of your books that you’ve adapted?
BEE: I did an adaptation of The Rules of Attraction when a young director named Breck Eisner was going to direct that picture. He ultimately decided to direct Sahara. I also did a draft of American Psycho for David Cronenberg when he was attached to direct the film. So I have done two adaptations. Neither scripts ultimately were used because the directors of those movies decided to write their own: Roger Avary with The Rules of Attraction and Mary Herron with American Psycho. So The Informers is the first one of mine that I’ve written that has actually been made.
DW: It’s a pretty inspiring story of how co-screenwriter, Nicholas Jarecki, a filmmaker from NYU, originally contacted you.
Nick Jarecki made a really wonderful documentary about James Toback, the filmmaker. And because of that, people were interested in him directing a feature. So that got him an agent at ICM. And they asked him what he wanted to do. Comedy? Horror? And he said that he actually wanted to make a movie out of a collection of short stories by Bret Easton Ellis. And then of course, everyone said forget about it. No. You’re gonna blow it.
So someone called me up and said, do you wanna meet this guy who wants to adapt your movie? I liked his Toback documentary a lot and so we met in LA and he started to talk about how he wanted to turn The Informers into a movie. And I had always fantasized about turning that book into a script. But I could never really figure out what stories to use and what stories to leave out. So it was surprising to find what stories Nick wanted to thread into a movie compared to the ones that I wanted to do. But there were about four of them that we overlapped on. And we also realized that there were only seven of them that would really work cinematically. So then it just became about finding the connections between them all.
Half of the writing process was really constructing the script. Which was quite long. We envisioned it as a two and a half hour movie. This epic movie about all these people in Los Angeles in 1983. We saw it as really a movie that was about the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. And we envisioned it to be really funny, sort of like a fast-paced, sped-up version of Robert Altman. Or more like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
So we wrote the script and our agents were horrified by it. (laughs) I mean, a three hour period piece where basically everyone dies from AIDS? Are you crazy?
At some point Nick left the agency and went on his own. He just started to find people that he could slip the script to, to try and raise the money. And he finally found this really great producer named Marco Weber who got the money. And after that it all came together very quickly.
DW: How long was the process from inception to greenlight?
BEE: Summer of ‘04 we started to write the script. And they started shooting in the Fall of ‘07. I felt that was pretty fast for an adaptation of this sort of material.
DW: So had you ever tried to get the film off the ground on your own?
BEE: No, not in any way. It was Nick’s project. He was going to direct it. He was passionate and he had a vision. It helped that he had made Toback already. It had sort of confirmed something about him. But yeah, he was smart, sophisticated and he saw how this could be turned into a movie.
DW: Was it difficult taking a short story collection and streamlining it into a screenplay?
BEE: No. The structure was tricky. But in terms of writing it, it wasn’t hard at all. It was actually really fun to write. I had a really good time writing the script and I enjoyed myself a lot, as I usually do. I think writing scripts is fun. I don’t see it as torture at all. Why do it then? Because the odds of anything happening are so low that you might as well enjoy yourself in the process.
DW: Do you enjoy it more than writing novels?
BEE: Yes and no. I like that it’s very quick and there’s a logic to it. There’s no logic to novels. They completely come from the unconscious. There’s an immense amount of freedom in writing a novel that there really isn’t within the format of a screenplay. There’s certain things within the medium of telling a story visually that are really just a given. That’s not true in a book. Anything can happen in a book. I’ve been working on a page in this novel that I’ve been ditzing around with for the last three or four years – it’s a very short book – but you know, I go back to this one page and I take out all the conjunctions. (laughs) And then I put all the conjunctions back in. And then I say, if that sentence was in past tense would it look better? Would he think it in past tense? Those are not questions you ask when you’re visualizing a scene in a movie. The questions are very logical.
DW: I think it’s all in the way you write it though. They tell you not to re-write as you’re writing your first draft. That’s easy to say, but I’m sure most novelists don’t do that. They can’t just pound out a first draft and go back and then start writing the second.
BEE: That’s correct. And that’s where I’m at with this book. I think I’ll be turning it in in a month, and I’m so bored of it.
DW: Can you tell me anything about it? You’ve got a pretty big fanbase on our site.
BEE: (slightly shocked) Really? That’s so funny.
DW: You kidding me?
BEE: (laughs) Well, it’s actually a sequel to Less Than Zero that takes place now.
DW: When do you think we’ll see that?
BEE: May of 2010. It was an interesting idea to do. I couldn’t let go of it. I had to know where these characters were. It kind of consumed me.
DW: The best stories usually do. It’s not a question of writing them. You have to get them out of your head and on the page or else they drive you nuts.
BEE: (laughs) And it has. I’m nuts right now.
DW: Well, you look mentally stable enough So let’s talk about the writing process. Did you and Nick write together in the same room?
BEE: We structured the script together in the same room. And that took about a month of sitting together with note cards, figuring out how we were going to do this script. How we’re gonna thread the stories into each other. And then after that, we gave each other scenes. Like, you write that storyline, I’m gonna go ahead and write this one. I’m gonna work on this part of the vampire section, you can write the other part. And then we’d trade and re-write each other’s stuff. But the vampires never made themselves into the movie. They were there and they served their purpose. But now they don’t.
Another thing about working with someone is that they sort of kick your ass, you know? They make you do it. I mean, they’re depending on you. But I think I would prefer to write alone.
Ultimately Nick left the project and I ended up working on about seventeen more drafts.
DW: Did Nick go onto something else?
BEE: Yeah, he was supposed to direct the film but when it became apparent to the producers that it was too big a movie to let a first-time writer/director take on, they wanted someone who had shot something big before.
DW: Was Nick a little bummed when this happened? Was he looking to sink his teeth into this?
*At this point in the interview we shift tone and Ellis asks me my thoughts on the movie. I won’t go fully into my review, but I told him that I essentially liked the movie quite a lot. It didn’t resonate with me right away and initially left me very cold. But in the days that followed, I found myself haunted by some of its subtle themes and its overall mood and atmosphere. Bret seemed very interested in my reaction and it is at this point that he begins to speak openly about some of his feelings on the finished film.
BEE: It’s a book of mine. I adapted it. I adapted a book of mine. And it was a complete and total learning process. I thought I knew a lot about the movie business and how it works. But I had never gone through the process of writing a script and seeing it through towards completion… towards actually getting it made.
I was very close to Marco and Gregor (Gregor Jordan, the director) during this whole process. I was on the set even, writing stuff at times. I was even supposed to go to Uruguay at one point where they were shooting a lot of the exteriors. So yeah, it was a bit of a shock to see it. But you know, I’ve always believed this: that it’s a director’s medium.
DW: So in the editing process it became something different?
BEE: Yeah, it became different. But whatever rumors of my disappointment there have been are pretty standard. You know, it’s really not what I wrote. It’s really what Gregor built from my work. Because it’s really a director’s medium. Movies aren’t a screenwriters medium. The director shapes the movie. You could give that script… that same script… to a hundred different directors and it would be reinterpreted by all of them. So this is the version that Marco and Gregor landed on.
DW: Were there other cuts that were floating around at one point?
BEE: Yeah, many cuts. Even some that they showed. Personally, I prefer longer cuts. There’s about forty minutes that I think are missing from the movie. So it feels… (pauses)… I don’t know, it’s just that, there are endings to a lot of these stories that just aren’t in the movie now. There was like four or five more very long scenes…
DW: But important scenes?
BEE: I think very important scenes. Simply within the Chris Isaak / Lou Taylor Pucci father / son Hawaii scenes that comes to a head.
DW: I forgot how that storyline ended?
BEE: Because it doesn’t.
DW: How do you feel about the release the film is getting and how its being promoted?
BEE: I went and saw Duplicity in Century City recently with a friend of mine and -- I’ve just been unaware of a lot of stuff, because I’m finishing the book and I’m really lost in work -- and so a friend of mine and I decided to go see two movies over in Century City and we’re sitting down, just about to relax… lights go down… and the trailer for The Informers comes on the screen. And it was kind of like… well, I actually had to get up. I walked outside and I texted somebody from the lobby and said, I just saw it. This is actually happening? This is gonna be coming out!
DW: Were you happy?
BEE: I think the trailer looks really cool but I… (thinks)… I think the problem is just that I know what’s been lost. And …
DW: …You’re never gonna really be able to get over it?
BEE: And you have to get over it.
DW: What about DVD? Can they put all the scenes back on the DVD?
BEE: You know, we’ve talked about that before but you know what…. you just let it go. But the problem with letting it go this time around is that it is based on a book of mine. If this was just a job, and I had taken it, I’d be totally rallying for it. I would not have a complicated reaction to how this played itself out. And, you know, I have a bit of a complicated reaction. But at the same time, I agree with many of your assessments of the movie. I do. But then I also know what…
DW: …Could have been?
DW: But that’s irrelevant. You have to put that out of your mind.
BEE: It’s completely irrelevant.
DW: It’s tough to do, but you have to.
And it’s all about the ego.
DW: It’s all about what the audience sees. Not about what could have been. They’re never gonna know what could have been. So if what’s on the screen works… you did it.
BEE: But I’ve also seen this movie in like a hundred different cuts. I’ve seen a two hour and ten minute cut. I’ve seen a ninety minute cut. I’ve written scenes that were shot and added and then removed. I’ve seen it with a voice-over that I wrote. I mean, I’ve seen it in many, many, many different versions.
DW: Who did the voice-over?
BEE: It was actually little children. Like in Barry Lyndon. It was an ironic, distant narrator that was commenting on it all… but it didn’t work.
DW: This was sadly Brad Renfro’s last film. Did you see any indications of his addiction and what he was going through during the production?
BEE: Well, I didn’t see Brad on set. I only knew Brad after the movie was shot. And it was apparent that he was not well. I had heard that there were some problems on the set but that he was able to keep it together. But I was not there and I heard that people were concerned about him.
You know, it sounds so cliché to say it, but he was an incredible actor. And the times that I hung with him, he was just a very, very sweet guy.
DW: Whose idea was it to dedicate the film to him?
BEE: Gregor’s. And I thought that Brad and Mickey (Rourke) became very close on the set.
DW: Let’s talk about the mood of the film. The opening, especially, I loved. There’s almost no dialogue in the first seven or so minutes. And you don’t see that enough these days in cinema. Was that something that you had in the script that you pushed for during the production?
BEE: Definitely. Actually, the original opening of the film was originally much longer, but due to budgetary concerns I had to rewrite the scene. But it always started with the party. And actually, Graham (John Foster) and his friend had to originally drive out to Palms Springs… and that was taken from the book. And there’s a car accident. And they just couldn’t afford to do the car accident where the Porsche flips.
But again, everyone likes that opening scene but I have, you know, problems with the slow-mo, and you know… (thinks) I have issues with the movie. (laughs). You know, what can I do? You know, it’s just like… I can’t let it go.
The movie’s beautiful. I mean, look, if I had my own issues about the movie as a screenwriter I have no issues about it terms of much else. But again, this is the problem. (laughs). It’s a problem of what I know and what you don’t know. And it’s the problem of letting go of that. It’s an egocentric problem, really. It really is.
DW: Well, it’s your problem. Own it. You wrote seventeen drafts of the script. Nobody’s earned it more.
DW: I think I know your answer already, but how do you think The Informers compares and stacks up to other movie adaptations of yours?
BEE: Well, I’m friends with Roger Avary and that’s my favorite of the four that were made. And I like American Psycho as well. And because I’m working on a sequel to Less Than Zero… and the movie is so different from the novel, I think it’s engrained in a lot of people’s minds that they might be the same. That say for example, Julian – the Robert Downey Jr. character – dies in the book. But he doesn’t. And so I’ve had to watch the movie a couple times now to figure out what I can use for the sequel of the book I’m writing to explain why certain people are alive. And it’s complicated.
DW: Is the new book a sequel to the original movie or the original novel?
BEE: It’s based on the book but… I’m not gonna spoil it. But I’ll just say that since the movie exists, there’s certain things I’m gonna do that explain things to people that haven’t read the book.
So I’ve been looking at Less Than Zero (the movie) again and it’s very faraway from the book but it’s absolutely, stunningly, beautiful. Ed Lachman was the DP on it and it’s just great looking. It’s just… at it’s core it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. (laughs) It inverts the meaning of the book. It’s not at all what the book was about.
DW: So at the time, were you upset about that? Or were you just so young and so thrilled to have this adaptation made out of your first book?
BEE: I was pretty much so young and as someone who loved movies it was very exciting to think of yourself, in a way, as the writer of the movie. Because you wrote the novel… you sort of think of it as yours. But regardless of how flawed it is, you still get excited.
(grins) But that goes away.
(laughs) I have to say, I have very mixed feelings – and again, this may be my insecurities or whatever – but I’m just… You know, I didn’t go to Sundance. And that was the premiere.
I don’t know, it’s just, I’ve got my own issues to deal with about this movie but you had asked me about my favorite adaptations of my books. I can endlessly watch Rules of Attraction. I’m a fan of Roger Avary.
DW: Is he still attached to direct Glamorama?
BEE: He’s going to be shooting Silent Hill 2. As far as Glamorama, it’s just very hard to get the money to make it.
DW: But is he still the main name attached to it?
BEE: He owns the rights. It’s funny, his production office is just two blocks away and we hadn’t seen each other in a long time and we just recently got together and went out to dinner with James Van Der Beek. And the three of us are thinking of doing this webisode series. I like those two guys so much, so it’s enticing.
So yeah, Avary is attached to Glamorama and he’s written a very good script that has condensed a lot of the novel into a movie that is long, but makes sense. (thinks) I think, in a way, you could do sort of a lo-fi version of it. But, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s kind of frustrating. I’d like to see him do it.
DW: Would you say American Psycho is a lo-fi version of the book? Because they didn’t really have a huge budget on that.
BEE: No, they didn’t. But it looks like three times what it cost. It looked very good. It was made extremely inexpensively. And they really made the most out of what they had.
DW: What’s the biggest budget so far for one of you films?
BEE: The Informers. By far. I think the budget was about 18 million. Without Marco Weber there wouldn’t have been a movie. I mean, Marco was the one that brought all the elements together. And it’s really, in a lot of ways – I mean, I know Gregor is the director and, of course, did a beautiful job directing – but it is a Marco Weber production.
DW: What about Lunar Park? Is anyone attached to that?
BEE: People are trying to make that into a movie. I’m not involved. I’m friendly with the guys who have optioned it.
DW: I hear you’ve been working on an adaptation for The Frog King. What’s going on with that?
BEE: (grins) My god…. so – many – things. So many of them bad.
BEE: (groans) It’s gotten to be such a complicated thing.
DW: It’s based on a book…
DW: So what happened? You sat down, read the book and thought, I have to adapt this thing? Has that happened with other books?
BEE: Not to the degree that it happened with that book.
DW: Because it’s interesting for an author to read a book by another author and then, as a screenwriter, want to adapt said book.
BEE: I will admit that I was looking for a romantic comedy.
DW: Oh, it’s a romantic comedy?
BEE: Not really, but it could be sold as one. It’s really a character study about a guy that’s falling apart and he meets this girl and she kind of saves him in a way.
DW: Could it be sold as a romantic comedy the way Fight Club could be sold as a romantic comedy?
BEE: Well, it was on the verge of being made by Darren Star, so it was going to be a romantic comedy. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt was attached to star in it. And a lot of directors were attached to direct. And when Darren Star and Joseph signed on it all seemed to be moving toward getting made. [But there were] problems with the studio. Intermediary went bankrupt. It was an extremely complicated process. It was very frustrating for Joseph because he was going to option it out. Buy it out for himself. And it just hasn’t worked out. It was just one of those things. And you know, I would never have guessed that this would happen to this movie.
DW: You gave Chuck a quote once, am I right?
DW: So do you know Chuck then personally?
BEE: I had dinner with Chuck once in New York. I remember getting the galley to Fight Club and… it was a first novel from this guy. And I remember I had like a stack of galleys to read. I’m really bad at getting through them. I’ll give myself like a weekend and go Okay, start reading galleys. Because a lot of my friends are editors and…
DW: But do you have to read galleys?
BEE: You don’t have to but it’s courtesy. But they stack up and I have to get them down.
DW: Do you read quickly?
BEE: Yes, I read very quickly. So I picked up the book and thought, okay, five pages and then no way. And I remember I cancelled lunch. And then I cancelled something that afternoon. And I couldn’t put the book down. I think it’s a great book. And so, that is where that quote came from. And I think it was too late for the American edition so it went onto the British edition. And then I think they used it on some of the future American paperbacks.
I would love to be able to do what Chuck does. Or what some of my friends do, which is put out a book every two years basically.
DW: As a screenwriter, what sort of material would you like to do that was completely original?
BEE: A musical. Like a darker version of the High School musical. I’ve actually already written it. It takes place in the 80s and has music from the era.
DW: Really? Do you have a favorite musical?
BEE: (grins) Well, of course. Les Misérables. Patrick Bateman’s favorite.
DW: So is there anything I haven’t asked you? Or anything you wanted to say about the movie before we wrap?
BEE: Well, during our break I spoke with someone from Newsweek and she was saying how she liked the movie. So… I don’t really know what the reception is going to be for The Informers. I think it’s going to be really tough.