'American Psycho' Screenwriter on Patrick Bateman’s Legacy and That Controversial Ending

Gwynne Watkins

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho,’ written by Guinevere Turner (Everett)

It’s been fifteen years since American Psycho opened in theaters, but screenwriter Guinevere Turner still finds herself talking about it all the time. “Dudes come up to me and say, ‘Oh man, you wrote that movie? I’m totally Patrick Bateman!’” she tells Yahoo Movies. “And I’m like, ‘Are you a serial killer or a dork? Because neither of those things should be aspirational for you.’”

Be that as it may, audiences are more in love with Patrick Bateman than ever. The status-obsessed Wall Street banker and serial killer — created by novelist Bret Easton Ellis and played in the movie by Christian Bale — has entered the pantheon of cinema’s great anti-heroes. Yet at first, Turner (who co-wrote the American Psycho screenplay with director Mary Harron) considered herself an unlikely candidate to bring Bateman to the masses.

“The thing about me is that I really, really don’t like scary stuff,” says Turner. When she started working on the film, the writer and actress (who has a small role in American Psycho as Elizabeth, one of Bateman’s dates-turned-victims) was best known for writing and starring in the independent lesbian romance Go Fish. She and Harron (who made her directorial debut with 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol) were working on the biopic The Notorious Bettie Page when Harron was approached to adapt Ellis’ controversial 1991 novel American Psycho. Though the book had drawn criticism for its extreme violence towards women, Turner and Harron saw in its pages a funny, feminist critique of hyper-masculine ‘80s yuppie culture. They put Bettie Page on hold, and started in on Patrick Bateman.

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Guinevere Turner (right) and Christian Bale in a scene from ‘American Psycho.’

From the start, the writers set a few ground rules for their film, which they saw very clearly as a satire. One was that Bateman, who works in finance, should never be seen actually working. Another was that the graphic violence should be implied, rather than shown, throughout most of the film.

There’s a really interesting thing that you do when you make the audience imagine what happened, which is that all of a sudden they’re sort of complicit – like, they’re thinking something grosser than what we actually think happened,” Turner observes. She and Harron made an exception for the scene in which Bateman goes after a prostitute with a chainsaw as she tries to run away, and stumbles upon several of his previous victims. “We thought, 'We should do one just [violent scene] to prove we’re not afraid to do this,’ ” says Turner. “And it’s sort of an homage to what this movie could have been.” (That idea of “what this movie could have been” was fresh in their minds, thanks to a brief period in which American Psycho was yanked from director Harron and offered to Oliver Stone, with a fresh-off-the-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio in talks to star.)

Another decision made early on by Turner and Harron was that all the violence in film should actually be happening, rather than taking place in Patrick Bateman’s head. “We failed on that one,” Turner says bluntly. “When I meet people who know that I wrote the movie, the first thing they ask is, ‘Was it real or not?’” That ambiguity, while unintentional, has turned out to be one of the movie’s most enduring talking points. “That people argue about the ending of the movie, that they still have that burning question – [thanks to that], we totally win,” says Turner. “We succeeded because they care, although we failed in our objective.”

During the writing process, Turner repeatedly heard the concern from Lionsgate that Bateman was “not sympathetic.” The irony wasn’t lost on her: “We were like, ‘Um, he’s a serial killer.’ And more importantly, he’s not a cool guy. He desperately wants to be cool and he’s just not, which is the most important layer.” Behind those perfect suits and chiseled abs, Bateman is a truly pathetic man. But that can be easy to forget at times, thanks to Christian Bale’s charismatic performance. Turner remembers vividly how Bale, who was not yet a huge star, committed to the role with Patrick Bateman-like intensity.

“Mary and I would laugh, because Christian really was working out four thousand times a day, renting the movies that Patrick Bateman would rent, speaking in Patrick Bateman’s accent which is not his real accent, and not socializing, and eating half a chicken breast,” Turner recalls. While shooting the business card scene, Turner watched in amazement as method actor Bale actually made himself sweat. “That is not fake sweat. The man can make himself sweat just a little!” Turner says admiringly.

Not only did she write Bale’s breakthrough role, but Turner shared the screen with him as Elizabeth, a friend whom Patrick ropes into a threesome with a prostitute, then kills in bed. While Bale’s commitment to staying in character between takes could be “scary,” Turner described him as a “very generous” scene partner.

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Christian Bale and Guinevere Turner in a scene from 'American Psycho.’

“We were actually laughing together, because it was so hard to get the logistics of the blood and all the stuff that we needed to do for camera,” she remembers. “Also, the funniest part of that day was that we wanted to look at playback so we could know what level of struggle we needed to do in that scene, and Christian gets up and walks over the monitor, just completely naked except for the modesty sock on his penis and those shoes. And I just see Mary’s eyes just go ‘Ooh!’”

In the years since American Psycho’s release, the movie’s fanbase has grown exponentially, and Turner’s talents as a feminist horror writer are still in demand. “I’m a woman who’s known for this kind of stuff, and so it puts me in a small pool,” she says with a laugh, “because when anyone wants to deal with tricky material around women and someone might call them a misogynist, they’re like ‘Go get that lady!’” After Psycho, Turner finished The Notorious Bettie Page, worked as a writer and actress on The L Word, and wrote the 2013 thriller Breaking the Girls, among other projects. She’s now writing a screenplay for the Charles Manson film The Family and developing a new movie in the horror/thriller vein with Harron.

But back to that ending. Here, in Turner’s own words, is her explanation of where Patrick Bateman breaks from reality. “Everything was really happening. But at some point, we’re starting to see things through Patrick’s eyes,” she says. “He’s losing his mind. So for example, in the scene where he gets the two hookers to come over, and he’s videotaping himself and looking at himself in the mirror – in real life, they probably they weren’t as attractive as they are, and it wasn’t all as Penthouse Letters as it is. So that’s where we start getting into Patrick’s head. And then by the time the ATM says ‘Feed me a stray cat’ – he’s there, he’s got the kitten, but the ATM doesn’t actually say that. He’s just going nuts. And then he’s unraveling from there."

“So by the end, the idea was that this man lives in this world where nobody can tell anyone apart — and obviously the whole movie is a hyper-reality — but he did do all this stuff and he still cannot stand out because nobody cares about anything and nobody’s paying attention to anyone. And they’re all interchangeable. And so he’s stuck. He’s practically begging, saying, ‘I kill people! I’m not like all of you, I have something special about me! And they’re like, ‘Wait, who are you?’ And that’s what we were going for, that big metaphor.”