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American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis talks “death of cinema” after Warner Bros’ HBO Max move: ‘It’s completely gone now’

Helen Daly speaks to literary Brat Pack member Bret Easton Ellis about the state of cinema, his new film Smiley Face Killers and whether American Psycho would be published today.

Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis’ reputation proceeds him; one of the founding fathers of the literary Brat Pack, the author of post-modern literature’s most revered (and controversial) novel American Psycho, and “that guy who often generates bad publicity around him”.

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In reality, a phone interview with Ellis reveals him to be a very charming, thoughtful and amiable man, one whose passion for the entertainment industry, the arts and the right to creative freedom is abundant.

I catch the author while he’s on the promo trail for his new movie, Smiley Face Killers, a post-modern slasher which sees the lead character of Jake (played by Ronen Rubinstein) tormented by a group of zealots who threaten him with “the water” and stalk him throughout his day.

Ellis – who wrote the script and was an executive producer of the film – based his tale off an urban myth, which details the disappearance of around 50 young men across the West Coast of the States, who all apparently died by drowning (in reality, their deaths remain unexplained, though two detectives, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duart, spotted graffitied smiley faces near the places they were discovered).

I ask him why now is the right time for this tale to be told, and Ellis reveals he actually wrote the script 10 years ago. “It was time in a way, because when my producing partner and I started our production company, which no longer exists, we were thinking of what’s the easiest way to get a production company off the ground and horror movies easily finance. ‘Let’s figure out an inexpensive horror movie and that’ll be our first project.’

“At that time, I had been noticing these articles about the ‘smiley face killers’ urban myth or whatever it was, and there was something that spoke to me. Something about the aesthetic – young, handsome, athletic men who are in college are suddenly drowning, or people haven’t noticed that they’re suddenly drowning, along the eastern seaboard of the California coast.”

The truth of the boys’ disappearances are shrouded in mystery, so Ellis and team (including director Tim Hunter) took the liberty of turning the story into a slasher movie, one which harks back to the likes of Psycho, Cabin Fever and Halloween. In true Ellis-ian fashion, Jake’s battles with mental health throw doubt on him as a reliable narrator of the piece leading to an all-round shocking, violent, yet thought-provoking ending. It’s hard not to slot Smiley Face Killers into Ellis’ oeuvre, sitting firmly alongside his roster of aesthetically similar troubled teens. Even the theatrical poster riffs off Less Than Zero’s 2011 Picador cover.

It seems morbidly apt to see a blockbuster, violent, slasher movie released at the same time as a second and much wider butchery exists; that of the cinema. The pandemic brought about new challenges for the entertainment industry, but one which is still paying the price even despite a vaccination roll-out and hope of restoring normality. Cinemas are struggling to keep their doors open. The uncertainty of whether they could actually show films, versus the fact that very few films released over 2020 – including surefire hits like James Bond’s No Time To Die – have one-by-one added another nail to theatres’ coffins.

It was to many a filmmaker’s horror, though, when Warner Bros announced they would be sending their 2021 movies to theatres and HBO Max for streaming at the same time, a move which has been heavily criticised by the likes of Christopher Nolan.

Smiley Face Killers
Smiley Face Killers (Signature Entertainment)

I ask Ellis – a famous lover of not just movies, but the notion of going to the cinema – what he makes of the move, whether it means the death of cinema or a new age of Hollywood, and I’m met with a firm answer.

“Death of cinema. I do [think], death of cinema. It’s been happening for a long time. The studios I think ultimately wanted this to a degree and they’re going to go through a period of where they’re kind of figuring it out a little bit better, but I think the idea… this has been going on, I think, for decades. I think studios don’t like splitting it 50/50 with theatre owners and always resented that when the studios could no longer own the theatres. That was when this started, and that was whatever, 15 years ago.”

He continues: “Look, I’m of a certain age, I do miss it. And this year was the longest I’ve gone without being in a cinema in my life since I was five or six. The last time I’ve been in the cinema was in March. And I missed it. I was always a big proponent of a movie-going experience and you know, but something happened this year… I guess you get used to anything – I mean, I’ve been perfectly content to stream.

“What’s happened is that TV is so much better than movies. I mean, all the good television I’ve watched this year surpasses the movies of this year, tenfold. So, this is just what we’ve done. Movies had a great run, 100 years, let’s say, 1920 to 2020. Great. We gave them awards, we waited in lines to see them, we saw them in giant palaces, that is completely, I think, gone now. Too bad.”

It’s clear from talking to Ellis there’s a weariness that surrounds his view of the entertainment and literary industry, perhaps from being stung by it numerous times. He’s tired of missing the cinema. Most TV? “Cr*p” and “s**t”. With that in mind, it seemed remiss to not ask him about his most discussed piece of work: American Psycho, which for better or for worse changed people’s perception of literature, and of Ellis. His controversial take on the great American novel sees misogynist, homophobic and racist Patrick Bateman (quite literally) tear up yuppie New York City while keeping his hair slicked and his face moisturised.

In the ’90s when the book was due to be published, reviews focused more on the horrific violence scenes, removing them from the context of the novel which acts as a critique of consumerist America. Bateman’s excessive, obsessive and entirely complex character was lost, outraged voices who demanded the book was cancelled took over. Ellis was piled upon. Bad review after bad review fell at his door.

Now, the novel is seen as a seminal piece of fiction, sitting among the post-modern greats. But he says that, without a doubt, it wouldn’t be published today.

“My gut feeling is no, it would not be published. They tried not to publish it in 1990, so… oh my God 1991 compared to 2020! I think, no, I think that any mainstream publisher would turn it down because they’d be too afraid of it. And too afraid of the backlash now.

“The problem of course is that American Psycho is a depiction of misogyny, racism, homophobia, whatever. But depiction is very different than, you know, being misogynistic or homophobic or whatever. I think people are much more literal minded now about how they consume content and how they identify with it and how it’s relatable. I think that’s part of the problem… metaphor. Not being able to see American Psycho perhaps as a metaphor now would probably doom it. But it came out thankfully when it did and of course the movie version helped people get on board with the book.”

With “the death of cinema” looming and the way in which we consume the arts ever-changing, it feels more important than ever that creatives can be free to explore. But can they?

“I don’t know if it’s important for the writer to take risks in terms of offending sensibilities,” Ellis reflects. “But I do think that it’s important to have the freedom to explore whatever topics you want. And I find that kind of disappearing within this current moment we’re in. I think cultural appropriation is kind of a horrible thing to be labelled with.

“You should be able to want to write about anything that you want to write about. And criticise anything that you want to write about – that freedom seems to be eroding in a way because there is an overreaction to self-expression. I don’t think that’s good for art, I don’t think that’s good for freedom of speech, or for any of that. So, I don’t know what are the risks a writer can take without having the mob, you know, crash down.”

Smiley Face Killers
Smiley Face Killers (Signature Entertainment)

While it may seem like a tough time for a creative like Ellis, his belief in the art form keeps him pushing on with new projects. Currently, he is streaming his new story, The Shards, via The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast. In a similar vein to Smiley Face Killers, Ellis is exploring another true crime story about LA kids who become intertwined with killer, The Trawler. It’s a personal project for Ellis as it’s actually based on something he and his friends lived through.

“I hope to have it published, but I haven’t sold it to anybody yet. And I haven’t made any deals, but I want to finish it first,” Ellis says of the project.

“I just thought, ‘You know, no one’s done this before’. No one has serialised a novel on a podcast, and it’s a very, very autobiographical one as well. So, I’m just going to give it a shot and see how it goes. I think we’re not even really halfway through it yet, and I don’t think it’s going to be finished until May or June.”

Perhaps in a sign of the times, Ellis is also in the early stages of a TV show production, alongside Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh. Originally, the piece was rumoured to tackle the press, but has since had a change of direction.

“We are working on something – it’s no longer about the press, we’re doing another show. That was the initial idea, we were going to do a show about the press, but then we were doing a show about something else, and that is in the early stages. So, we’ve been exchanging emails this weekend about how we’re gonna tie this whole thing up.”

And forever faithful to film, Ellis hopes to direct a new film from one of his scripts soon. For a creative like Ellis, a major obstacle – like cinemas closing down – won’t stop him doing what he loves. When has it ever?

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Signature Entertainment presents Smiley Face Killers on Digital HD 14th December. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.