Bret Easton Ellis photographed at his home in LA by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
Bret Easton Ellis has only got to open his mouth for the cry-babies of the world to crawl out and start berating him for being a morally depraved chancer. Back in the 80s and 90s, you could sympathise with people getting offended by his books if they hadn’t spent much time around hedge-fund managers or fashion world dickheads. If they had, they’d realise that American Psycho and Glamorama are in essence works of journalism – dressed up in Valentino and splattered with blood, yes, but documentaries of a certain moment in history all the same. “The six or seven books add up as a sort of autobiography," he says. "When I look at them I think, 'Oh, that’s where I was in ’91. That’s where I was in ’88. Okay, I got it.'”
Now he has moved into film, as well as writing screenplays for TV and delivering his own weekly podcast. Which, among other highlights, has featured Kanye West and Marilyn Manson. Yet still he has repeatedly faced accusations of "douchery" from bloggers and a general outcry every time he criticises anything on Twitter.
When I called his house in LA last week, Bret talked passionately about his frustration with what he's dubbed "Generation Wuss" – you, me, everyone else who's young, hyper-sensitive and grown up with the internet, basically. Over the course of a few hours, I was genuinely impressed by the amount of interest he takes in the lives of people who've grown up reading his books, the technology they use and the way they consume culture. His annoyance seems to come from a place of concern rather than misanthropy.
So, why all the pant-wetting?
VICE: Why have you termed me and my contemporaries "Generation Wuss"?
Bret Easton Ellis: You have to understand that I’m coming to these things as a member of the most pessimistic and ironic generation that has ever roamed the earth. When I hear millennials getting hurt by "cyber bullying", or it being a gateway to suicide, it’s difficult for me to process. A little less so for my boyfriend, who happens to be a millennial of that age, but even he somewhat agrees with the sensitivity of Generation Wuss. It’s very difficult for them to take criticism, and because of that a lot of the content produced is kind of shitty. And when someone is criticised for their content, they seem to collapse, or the person criticising them is called a hater, a contrarian, a troll.
In a way it’s down to the generation that raised them, who cocooned them in praise – four stars for showing up, you know? But eventually everyone has to hit the dark side of life; someone doesn’t like you, someone doesn’t like your work, someone doesn’t love you back… people die. What we have is a generation who are super-confident and super-positive about things, but when the least bit of darkness enters their lives, they’re paralysed.
I realised the other day that I’m around the same age as Patrick Bateman. His existence was fairly typical of a 27-year-old living in New York at the time you wrote American Psycho, but it couldn’t be further away from my reality.
Not to reference the 27-year-old [Bret's boyfriend] too often, but he would completely agree with you. American Psycho is about a world that is as alien to him as Saturn.
I think it was a world we were promised, though.
There was a certain point where we realised the promises were lies and that we were going to be economically adrift. It’s the fault of the baby boomer generation for raising their kids at the highest peak of the empire, in a complete fantasy world. My generation, Gen X, realised that, like most fantasies, it was somewhat dissatisfying, and we rebelled with irony, negativity and attitude because we had the luxury to do that. Our reality wasn’t an economic hardship.
Right – which is what The Wolf of Wall Street is all about. Is that why you like it so much?
I never like a movie because of its subject matter. I liked it because it wasn’t an op-ed piece and it wasn’t concerned with another thing that so many movies are concerned with today, which is decency: decent people under stress or hardship.
To me, it’s a classic young man story, like Barry Lyndon. Nine times out of ten they blow it, they fuck up, they spend all the money, they let their id run wild, don’t check themselves, don’t look towards the future and… it crashes. Also, I just thought it was hilarious, and Leonardo delivered a transfixing performance. And the fact that he’s not going to win an Academy Award this year is a real bummer.
Seeing him in that film, do you wish he'd played Patrick Bateman?
I was really not involved in the making of that movie. All I know was that it was an offer made to Leo after Christian Bale. It would have been the start of erasing something that was probably quite embarrassing for him, being known for the rest of his life as Jack from Titanic. I don’t know exactly what happened. I also didn’t know how far along Christian was in preparing American Psycho, so my endorsing Leo might have looked insensitive. But yes – in answer to your question, I would have liked to see him in the role. But it was probably a lot better at that time and less distracting to have a relatively unknown actor.
You said Terrence Malick was a big inspiration.
One of the key moments in my young movie-going life was watching Days of Heaven and realising that film was an art form. I’d been leading up to that epiphany, growing up in LA and being very aware of the film industry. But in 1978, that’s when I got it. That’s why I have such a tie to that film and why I watch it every two years. It takes me back.
Is it a style you’d like to recreate in your own films?
I don’t know about that. Part of the problem I had with The Canyons was that I would have directed it faster. I don’t have the Asian mindset that Paul Schrader does, which is steeped in [Yasujiro] Ozu and the great Japanese directors from the 50s and 60s. That’s his way of pacing a movie.
That sounds like a pretty massive disparity in your vision for the film.
It seems more massive than it really was. The Canyons was guerrilla film making. We were going to make it for no money and put it on iTunes. We didn’t think it was going to turn into this notorious, cultural event in the US.
Surely you knew that casting Lindsay Lohan would have that kind of effect?
No, but it was a $150,000 (€109,000) movie. We were sitting in friends’ bedrooms; we weren’t trying to create The Godfather. I wrote the script – I think it was one of only two scripts in Schrader’s career that he didn’t touch, the other being a script written by Harold Pinter for a film called The Comfort of Strangers, which is a movie that influenced The Canyons – and Schrader wanted it shot the way he shoots. And I thought, 'You know, this will be faster after we’ve edited it.' And it did [get faster], to a degree.
Look, 20 percent of people I know like the movie; 80 percent don’t like the movie. But the sketchiness of it – the sleazy, cold aspect of it – what can I say? It speaks to me.
The sinister portrait of LA that you paint in Less Than Zero – with howling coyotes and dead bodies littering alleyways – is that a realistic depiction of the place? Or has your view of it changed as you’ve grown older?
I think it’s a bit of both. I do think my southern California childhood was very idyllic. Yes, there was a bad marriage going down in the house and I suffered from a little bit of depression, but there was the beach, there were the malls, a lot of my friends drove around in convertibles. I mean, how bad is it?
I wasn’t an unpopular kid. I had a lot of friends, I threw parties, I had a… girlfriend. But writing all the time alienated me from the crowd slightly, and because of that I did tend to look at the world with a more jaundiced eye.
Okay. Is it true that you’re writing a TV series about the Manson murders?
Yes, although I wouldn’t say it’s about the Manson murders. It’s about the two years surrounding the Manson murders in LA. The show starts about a year before the Manson murders. I’m just beginning to plan it. It’s in the beginning stages.
And are you writing a new book?
Yes, but I wish it wasn’t important to people that I am. I had a bit of a breakdown in January of 2013. I did more writing in 2012 than I’d ever done in my life – a series of movies, two of which got made, and countless television pilots. By January of 2013 I was exhausted. I found myself hungry to write prose, so I started working on this book. Every now and then it comes alive and I work on it until I get distracted by something else. It’s on my desk, along with a play that I’m writing.
What made you want to do the podcast?
I published a very long, 4,000 word piece for Out Magazine. It got a lot of attention here in the US, and reading articles written in response to it, I realised people had stopped reading halfway through.
That’s the internet.
Well, there’s a positive myth that the internet is great for writing long-form pieces and you can publish 11,000 words, but it doesn’t mean people will necessarily read the whole thing. So I thought, if I had a podcast, I could have my say over it. I wasn’t into the idea of a talk radio show at first, but it’s been really interesting. I don’t understand this idea of the novelist being locked in the top of a tower. I’ve seen people respond negatively to the fact I’m on Twitter and have opinions about pop culture. I like it. It fucks with people’s idea of what I’m really like.
Is this one of the problems you had with David Foster Wallace – that he played up to the almighty author thing?
I think David Foster Wallace is a complete fraud. I’m really shocked that people take him seriously. People say the same thing about me of course, and I’ve been criticised for saying these things about Wallace due to the very sentimental narrative attached to him since he killed himself.
But it all ties into Generation Wuss and its wussy influence on social media to a degree; if you have a snarky opinion about anything, you’re a douche. To me, that’s problematic. It limits discourse. If you just like everything, what are we going to talk about? How great everything is? How often I’ve pushed the Like button on my Facebook page?
Is it BuzzFeed who said they’re not going to run any negative reviews any more? Really, guys? What’s going to happen to culture then? What’s going to happen to conversation? It’s going to die.
Yeah. But I suppose now, in place of money, we have a currency of popularity, and the main pay-off is thousands of people liking your shit on Facebook. In that climate, how do you create vital work?
I agree with you, and it’s kind of touching to me that there isn’t an economic way of elevating yourself, and the only way to do that is through your brand, your profile and your social media presence. I think I might be too old to consciously use Instagram or Tumblr to my advantage. I don’t even use Twitter correctly. But living with someone who’s 27, I think the way you described it is perfectly accurate: online presence is the currency.
While my boyfriend and his friends can be really quite biting and mean at times, overall they really do want to put out a more gentle, amiable persona.
But I wouldn’t say your work in the 80s and 90s was particularly amoral. American Psycho did carry a kind of moral message. It might not have been stated explicitly, but it was there.
You need to feel that, though. I got shit for American Psycho, with people saying it was calculated to offend people. If that was true, I wouldn’t have spent three to four years on it, and I would have just filled every page with horrible descriptions. I was writing about my life. I was writing about being Patrick Bateman – a young man in New York during that era – and being lost in that yuppie culture, which is really just consumerist culture. Feeling that I had to have all of the things that a young man had at that time and hating myself for not having them and hating society and not wanting to grow up. That’s really what American Psycho was. It was a very personal novel.
Also, like a lot of men, I had a pretty tawdry fantasy world, and if any man really wants to admit that, they're going to be attacked for it.
When people accuse you of misogyny, I’m always like, 'Oh right, because the men come off so well in those books.'
Well, look. [Laughs] This is exactly the kind of thing a misogynist would say, but I’ve never felt like a misogynist. Yet, it has been interesting to look back at myself when I've been accused of that and to understand why someone would say it. For example, I don’t think American Psycho is a misogynist text at all; I think misogyny is part of the picture. But, like I said in the Wolf of Wall Street podcast, a depiction is not endorsement.
I was criticised for speaking about Kathryn Bigelow on Twitter [Ellis said that her being "a hot woman" had led to her being "overrated" as a director]. First of all, I thought that was an aesthetic thing and a comment about Hollywood and reverse sexism, but it came out in a way that annoyed people who are very sensitive about those things. I got it when I said Alice Munro was overrated, too, without people acknowledging that I’ve criticised a lot of male authors I don’t like, and I’ve celebrated a lot about female writers I love. My friend Donna Tartt, for instance – her new novel, The Goldfinch, is really good and I’m in awe of someone who can do that.
And you’ve made no secret of how much you love Joan Didion.
Well, every now and then someone comes along who changes your perception. Before Didion, it was Hemingway – that was when I was 12 or 13. Didion was later, in high school, and it was more personal because she was writing about southern California and referencing streets I had driven on. She was describing a sensibility about women that jibed with what I was noticing in my mum’s friends. I tried writing Less Than Zero maybe two times before what was ultimately published, and Joan Didion played a big part in shaping it.
Do you ever feel as though feminism is slipping into a blame culture?
Years ago, I found Jezebel.com very ominous and worrying. I mean, not that I care that much, but now it really has come full circle. I think the Lena Dunham bullying thing – and I don’t want to toe the party line and say, "Oh, it was so shitty of Jezebel to do that" – but it was indicative of where a kind of feminism is right now.
I keep thinking that feminism is getting to a place that’s cool, mostly because women that I know just want to be real and they want to be sexual and they want to be pretty. Meeting James Deen, being immersed in his world, meeting a lot of women who worked in porn and seeing how cool they were with it gave me a different view.
You don't think it's fucked them up?
No, they’re not fucked up by it. James Deen’s girlfriend [VICE columnist Stoya] is a huge performer and, like James, doesn’t look like a traditional pornstar. She also has a blog where she writes about feminist porn and how she’s in control.
Can you tell me about the Kanye film collaboration?
You know what, I can’t. It’s in Kanye-land and that’s subject to a whole other timeframe. He came and asked me to write the film. I didn’t want to at first. Then I listened to Yeezus. It was early summer last year and I was driving in my car. He’d given me an advance copy and I thought, regardless of whether I’m right for this project, I want to work with whoever made this. So fuck it, I said yes. And that’s how it happened. That was seven or eight months ago. We’ll see what happens.
I really like him as a person. I know he comes off in this performance art way in the press, but if you’re just alone with him in a room talking for three hours, it’s kind of mind-blowing.
I think he just broke the golden rule of admitting to being a narcissist, and that’s what people can’t handle.
Why is that rule there, though?
Right, because if you’re working in the media or entertainment industry, chances are, you’re a narcissist.
Yeah, you’re right. We all are. We’re all here. And he’s one of the few people who will admit it, and I like him for that and I wish more people would follow suit. I think that’s what makes Jennifer Lawrence so appealing. She’s the future of Hollywood personas. I don’t know where the “old rules” of the empire – about showing your best self on the red carpet – gets anyone. It suggests an unfree society.
Can you explain this empire and post-empire distinction? Because you refer to it a lot.
Empire is the US from roughly WWII to a little after 9/11. It was at the height of its power, its prestige and its economic worth. Then it lost a lot of those things. In the face of technology and social media, the mask of pride has been slowly eradicated. That empirical attitude of believing you’re better than everyone – that you’re above everything – and trying to give the impression that you have no problems. Post-empire is just about being yourself. It’s showing the reality rather than obscuring things in reams and reams of meaning.
But can you ever present a "real" version of yourself online?
Well, turning yourself into an avatar, at least, is post-empire. That’s a new kind of mask. It’s more playful than hiding your feelings, presenting your best self and lying if you have to. Unless, of course, you argue that that’s just a whole new form of empire in itself.
Download the Bret Easton Ellis podcast featuring Marilyn Manson, Kanye West and Judd Apatow here.
Bret is launching his own YouTube channel in the coming months.