Bret Easton Ellis: ‘Being cancelled has endeared me to part of the population’
Bret Easton Ellis: ‘Being cancelled has endeared me to part of the population’
ntil last year, Bret Easton Ellis had been drifting from the public eye. Thirty-four years had passed since the instant celebrity that followed Less Than Zero, a stylish, nihilistic vision of Los Angeles published in 1985 when its author was just 21. The furore over American Psycho, his third and most famous novel, had long since faded into literary history, even after a resurgence around the 2000 film that starred Christian Bale as its corporate psychopath antihero, Patrick Bateman.
Ellis was prone to the odd misjudged tweet, in particular during 2012, a bumper year in which he variously claimed the American actor Matt Bomer was “too gay” to play the lead in 50 Shades of Grey, said the director Kathryn Bigelow was overrated because “she’s a very hot woman” and, most memorably, invited his followers to “bring coke now” to a party he was at. But by last year he had gone quieter on social media, too. Sober after a lifetime of well-documented excess, Ellis seemed to be charting a quieter course, writing screenplays and making podcasts.
Then he published White, a collection of musings about, among other things, safe spaces, Twitter, liberal hysteria over Trump, #MeToo, the radical beauty of Richard Gere in American Gigolo, Black Lives Matter, the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, and snowflake millennials – “Generation Wuss”, whom he declared unable to handle criticism. The essays – and interviews promoting them – provoked a barrage of criticism. The Guardian called it a “nonsensical, vapid book, written by a man so furiously obsessed with his right to speak that he forgets to say anything”. In the London Review of Books, James Wolcott noted Ellis’s gift for “upsetting the maximum number of people with the minimum amount of effort”. Ellis was back in the news, portrayed more as a middle-aged crank than a bad boy.
Now, nearly two years since White’s release, Ellis claims to have been baffled by the reaction. “I was shocked,” he says. “It was an argument about aesthetics, and unfortunately the meaning got twisted. I never saw it as a proclamation or politics. I saw it more about cultural history. The reaction was politicised. It was terrible, because I really don’t feel that way at all. My boyfriend’s a millennial.” He often refers to his millennial boyfriend, Todd, a musician, in a way that reminds me of how Captain America uses his shield to block attacks but also as something to throw at his enemies. “Still, we were prepared,” he adds. “We knew it was going to freak the media out, and it did. It was nothing compared to American Psycho, when there were protests and people throwing blood on bookstores and telling me my career was over.”
The issues Ellis describes haven’t gone away. A few days before we speak, the writer David Sedaris has taken a pummelling on social media for reading a satirical passage in which he imagines being able to perform a “citizen’s dismissal” on people who give you bad service. Critics accused Sedaris of being insensitive to the plight of those who have lost their jobs.
“It’s scary,” Ellis says. “No-one’s seeing things as metaphor, as something other than they are. My millennial boyfriend found [the Sedaris incident] a breaking point. He was saying, ‘My generation is so f***ing dumb, I can’t believe it.’ We were having a conversation today with a 25-year-old friend of ours, commiserating about the usual bogeymen, the PC wokeness, the overreach of certain groups.”
By “certain groups”, I wonder whether he means Black Lives Matter. In White, he describes the movement as “a millennial mess with no sense at all of forming a coherent visual idea or style in presenting itself”. This year, their cause has become even more urgent, with protests against police racism springing up around the world after the killing of George Floyd in May, and attracting hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. If it was ever a “millennial mess”, it surely isn’t now. What does he make of Black Lives Matter’s actions this year?
“Do you really think I’m going to answer that?” He says. “Do you really think I’m going to tiptoe into Black Lives Matter and tell you what I really feel? No, I’m not going to talk about that. We’re here to talk about Smiley Face Killers, and I really don’t know if going into Black Lives Matter is going to help the cause.”
None of this is bad-humoured. Ellis is archly wary of the line of questioning, rather than exasperated by it. The problem is that there’s only so much to say about Smiley Face Killers, the new slasher-horror flick he is promoting. It’s based on an urban legend that a number of American college students who were found dead in the late Nineties and early Noughties did not accidentally drown, as official records have it, but were murdered by a serial killer. In the film, a handsome football star called Jake (Ronen Rubenstein) is pursued by a masked and hooded figure (Crispin Glover), while his girlfriend Keren (Mia Serafino) and best friend Adam (Garrett Coffey) wonder what’s wrong. Ellis wrote the screenplay.
“There was definitely a desire to invert the usual horror trope of a female in trouble being ogled by the male gaze,” he says. “[I wanted to] make Jake the object of desire and have the male gaze, or the gay male gaze, focused on him.” Given some of Ellis’s other recent proclamations about oversensitive liberal young people, could the film be seen as an allegory? “My millennial boyfriend picked up on that, too, but I wrote the screenplay 10 years ago and I really wasn’t thinking about millennials,” he says.
At the time of writing, the film holds an IMDb score of 3.7/10. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film – as with his earlier screenplays, most notably The Canyons (2013), an erotic thriller starring Lindsay Lohan and the porn star James Deen – is that a knowledgeable cineaste and stylish prose writer could be happy with dialogue that’s more reminiscent of a high-school soap. Even if you allow for the trials of film development, which can warp the best scripts, is it fair to say that Ellis’s screenplays – he didn’t adapt American Psycho himself – have so far failed to hit the heights of his best novels?
“I know what you’re getting at, and it’s not an atypical view,” he says. “But I have a high/low aesthetic. I like slasher movies and sex comedies. That’s what I’m attracted to, rather than family drama or political drama. I’m not out there writing, I don’t know, Chariots of Fire, films that extol the human spirit. I don’t know if I see the disconnect that you do between my love of film and what I’m interested in writing.”
Aside from the film, he has been focused on his podcast. The pandemic hasn’t made much difference to his professional life, he says, and not going out has given him more time to work. He has more than 4,000 paying subscribers on Patreon, who receive a mixture of interviews and monologues, some of which fed into the pieces in White. This summer he has been using the podcast to serialise a new book, a semi-autobiographical work about his time in high school, which he hopes will be finished early next year. The interviews can be entertaining, and he has previously bemoaned the reluctance of modern celebrities to say anything even vaguely contentious.
“It’s rare you get someone who’s outspoken and doesn’t want to protect themselves,” he says. “Growing up in a completely different culture [upper-middle-class Los Angeles in the Seventies], I never experienced that. I’ve been watching these Dick Cavett [the famous American talk-show host] interviews from the Seventies. People were so free. They’d talk about people they didn’t like, people they love. The transparency is breathtaking. It’s sad that we’re extolling this notion of ourselves in which we’re afraid to…” he trails off again. “I assume you’ll be running this with a big picture of Smiley Face Killers,” he says. Questions about Trump get a similarly clipped response. Ellis was one of the first writers to see Trump’s potency, and made him a hero to Patrick Bateman, an icon of capitalist excess. But he hasn’t voted in the past two elections, and says only that his millennial boyfriend, like many liberals, was shocked at how many votes Trump received this time around, too.
His reluctance to roam around is slightly surprising, I say. Does he not enjoy discussing all this other stuff? “I do,” he says. “I relish talking to my friends and boyfriend. And I do on my podcast, where there’s context, and you can take a deep dive into something and not get tripped up. But really in public, God no. It’s not worth it. There’s a point where you take a stand and fight the madness. I guess it depends on whether you can deal with the heat.”
Yet dealing with heat has always been one of his strong suits. One of the better passages in White, which is a more interesting book than its harsher critics make out, addresses Ellis’s own reputation. He suggests that to have a long career as a writer, you might need to be hated as well as loved. “Wanting to be loved is a giant problem for an artist,” he tells me. “You’re just there to express yourself. There are peers of mine who were more beloved than I was in the Eighties, who are not really around any more. I think the level of hostility towards me, and how many times I’ve been cancelled, has endeared me to part of the population.
“I feel passive about it. My boyfriend thinks I should be out there and share more, but I can’t be bothered. I’m 56! What do I want to do, be relevant on social media? Really, there comes a time when you are the old man on the porch.”
Whatever he says, he doesn’t seem quite ready for the rocking chair. Not while the millennials are still on his lawn.
Smiley Face Killers is out on digital on 14 December