'American Psycho' Designer Gideon Ponte on Patrick Bateman's Killer Apartment
Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho’ (Everett)
The satirical horror film American Psycho, about a violent killer hiding in plain sight amid the testosterone-fueled decadence of ‘80s Wall Street, celebrates its 15th anniversary this week. Since the film’s 2000 premiere, certain scenes have become iconic: the axe murder committed by Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in his all-white apartment, for example, or the scene in which bankers brandish expensive business cards like weapons. These moments showcase the work of production designer Gideon Ponte, who broke into films thanks to American Psycho director Mary Harron. On the 15th anniversary of the cult classic, Ponte — who now works primarily in the fashion world — talked to Yahoo Movies about creating Patrick Bateman’s New York City.
The opening shot of Patrick Bateman’s iconic apartment.
“In fashion, it’s all about the language of aspiration. And [American Psycho] was trying to do something slightly more demented with that,’ says Ponte. Take Bateman’s New York City apartment, an immaculate white bachelor pad with black accents and steel appliances. It’s a vision of modernist ‘80s chic, but it was important to Ponte that everything seem vaguely “off” – starting with the wall color. “Bateman’s apartment was white, and typically in film, you never use white; you normally drop it down a couple of tones on the walls in order for the skin tones to read well,” Ponte explains. “So that’s why it was sort of jarring – it’s not easy on the eye.”
Patrick Bateman’s apartment. Note the telescope and the oversized artwork by Robert Longo.
Another of Ponte’s concerns for Bateman’s apartment was that nothing in it should seem lived-in or comfortable. Along with set designer Jeanne Develle, Ponte searched for decorations that “wouldn’t make it feel too homey. Because when you put stuff in, it kind of makes more sort of like ‘Oh, he’s got a nice apartment,’” says Ponte. The few knick-knacks are large, incongruous, and surrounded by empty space, including the white vase above Patrick’s bed and the decorative telescope in his living room (which was inspired by a tacky apartment in a “really bad” ‘80s movie, Ponte recalls).
Patrick Bateman’s all-white bedroom, with its giant vase.
The art in American Psycho was a particular focal point for Ponte, who had worked in art galleries in New York during the time period of the film. The drawings on opposite sides of Bateman’s stereo are from Robert Longo’s “Men in the Cities” series. “They were images of people that the artist had chucked tennis balls at, so they were all sort of slightly falling over,” Ponte explains.
A bloodied Christian Bale stands next to a Robert Longo drawing.
A careful look at Bateman’s walls will reveal an art collection that’s all about artificial identities, including a Cindy Sherman self-portrait in a mirror (from her Untitled Film Stills series); a Richard Prince photograph of a Marlboro Man advertisement; and reproductions of Allan McCollum’s “Plaster Surrogates” sculptures, which appear as blank-looking picture frames in the hallway. The only artist who refused to let his work be used in American Psycho was Julian Schnabel, whose disquieting paintings would have appeared in a restaurant scene. “He turned us down flat,” Ponte remembers.
Jared Leto, playing Bateman’s rival Paul Allen, awaits his murder. The Cindy Sherman photograph appears at right.
Ponte’s eye for detail is showcased in American Psycho’s “business card scene,” a bizarre ego battle in which Batman and his Wall Street colleagues compare business-card minutiae like ink and paper stock. “All I remember was just trying to find out what you would put on these cards, and how they were meant to look,” says Ponte. “So there was a lot of talking to bankers and trying to get a hold of cards. In the end, actually, the cards probably are – and this is my fault – more European than American.”
Business cards designed by Gideon Ponte for the film. Ponte, who is dyslexic, acknowledges that there’s a typo on the cards: “Acquisitions” is missing a “c.”
Not all of Ponte’s work on American Psycho was so highbrow. He also designed the nightmarish scenes in which the bodies of Bateman’s victims are revealed. “We didn’t have the money to design the corpses,” he explains. “We found one cut-up body that had been used in a horror movie, that we put in the room that said ‘Die Yuppie Scum’ on the wall. And then all the others were real people.” By “real people,” he means live actors; for example, models were hired to stand in the closet to play the dead victims hanging from dry cleaning bags. The victim lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom was screenwriter and actress Guinevere Turner. And for the shot of a woman’s severed head in Bateman’s freezer, Ponte helped design a wooden refrigerator that the actress could sit in.
Models were hired for one day to play the dead women hanging in Patrick Bateman’s closet.
“There was a lot of talk about how to get the plastic wrap over her face… But yeah, the refrigerator had a hole in it, for her head. She was sitting there, and I sprayed some frosting on her,” Ponte recalls with a laugh. “And we managed to get an ice cream company to let us put their ice cream next to a severed head. They were very friendly and thought it was a good idea.”