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Bret Easton Ellis on Social Media Obsessions, Teen Sex Cults & Nash Grier

Bret Easton Ellis on Social Media Obsessions, Teen Sex Cults & Nash Grier

Bret Easton Ellis behind the scenes of 'The Deleted' on Fullscreen

The literary icon recently added "director" to his résumé.

More than 30 years have passed since Bret Easton Ellis's debut novel, Less Than Zero, was published, capturing the essence of a generation. His provocative work became known for exploring the decadent youth of Los Angeles through drugs and sex without apology.

A literary icon, Ellis has left an unmistakable mark on pop culture today, with projects spanning across print, film and stage. Whether sparking an entire franchise with a single psychotic character or reviving the LA noir genre with the help of Disney child actors and pornstars, his work pushes to make the taboo mainstream.

With the cultural torch being passed to the digital age, he has no intentions to slow down. His recent project is an eight-part web series featuring popular names from the Vine generation. A sexual thriller with Bret Easton Ellis' dark stylized touch, The Deleted follows a group of millennials as they hide out in the real world after escaping a cult.

We recently caught up with Ellis to talk about his foray into directing, his social media obsession, and what he really thought of American Psycho 2.

OUT: How did this transition to directing come about?

Bret Easton Ellis: Well I always wanted to do it. I grew up out in Los Angeles, and most of my friends, by the very nature of just being out here and what our parents did, wanted to make movies and move to Hollywood. And most of my friends ultimately did, whether it was producing, directing, being an agent, if you grew up in LA in a certain area, that's what you did. So I always thought I was gonna make movies but I was also writing books. So what happened was, the books took off. And I concentrated on writing books for many years, even though I didn't write that many. That kind of took up my time, and I became more interested in writing novels than making movies.

Then something happened. I made a couple of commercials. I directed a bunch of short films, which is what Fullscreen saw. They saw about 45 minutes of short films I directed and said, "Can you turn these into a series for us?" ... And I have to say, even though I thought I knew a lot about movies, and I'm a total cinephile, and have a podcast about movies, and I've been on many movie sets, and I directed two commercials, and I directed those eight shorts, this was really my first kinda film school, directing The Deleted. During preproduction, during shooting and postproduction, I learned a lot.

A lot of your books have been made into movies. Seeing all of that take place, did you ever wish you had a more behind-the-scenes role?

Yes, of course, to some degree or another. I was very young when Less Than Zero was made by a major studio. So I wasn't going to do that script necessarily. And I also never saw it as a movie. This is the thing with the three or four books of mine that have been made into movies. They were written as novels, and I never saw them as movies. They might have some kind of cinematic quality. I've written screenplays, written novels, produced movies. They're two very different things. I believe a novel is about consciousness, sensibilities, and movies are usually much more about story and character. So I write novels that I think should be novels. Then if I want a movie, I write a script that I think could be a movie. There's a very clear distinction for me between the two. So I'm always surprised when they turn into movies, and I never expected them to be turned into movies... The one time I did control something was with The Informers, and I say control to a degree because I wrote the script and helped produce the movie. But it was taken away from me ultimately by financiers. And that's just what happens. The people with the money do control it to a degree. And that movie got pretty messed up, and that was incredibly disappointing and very painful creative experience. And it's not like cancer, it's not like losing a friend or whatever, it's not like someone dying. It was just an incredibly painful process. I don't ever really wanna go through that again.


Left: Bret Easton Ellis directs Madeline Brewer on The Deleted. Right: Nash Grier portrays Ryder in The Deleted

Was it even more surprising seeing American Psycho made into a Broadway musical, as well?

It was surreal. It had been ten years in the making, to the decade. From the minute the idea was talked about to when it opened on Broadway was just about ten years. 2006 was when it was first being talked about. And it took about five years for the lawyers to figure out everyone's deals connected with Lionsgate and my deal. So it took a long time to sort out. Then it proceeded on. It always seemed like something that was never going to happen because that happens. You think you're going to make a movie; it doesn't happen. You think you're going to put on a show; it doesn't happen. So I just didn't really pay attention. I mean I was kept apprised of everything. Then it opened in London. Then in New York this past spring, I kind of reluctantly went do press for the show and to go to opening night and to weigh in on how it turned out. I was very pleasantly surprised. I liked the show a lot. I had problems with it, but I thought it worked. I thought it was pretty solid and much better than I thought it was going to turn out. But it was surreal. It was a very weird experience. It was like a dream.

How did you get the idea for The Deleted?

I sold a show to Fox about Charles Manson, and the year leading up to the murders in LA, the Manson murders. But that never happened; the deal fell through. While I was doing research on that, I was reintroduced to the idea of cults. Why do cults begin?

I decided to start making some short films, and the short films I made were about people who had been in a cult. They were actors in their late 20s, mid 30s, probably early 40s. We piece together after seven short films, they were in a cult, they've escaped the cult, and now they're being rediscovered by the cult who I guess is hunting them down. They were up in Washington, and now they're down in LA. And the shorts I made were very David Lynchian. There was not a lot of exposition, not a lot of dialogue, just very moody atmospheric shorts. Some of it was shot at the beach. Some of it was shot downtown. It was also about Los Angeles and about how you can hide in the city very easily, and yet it's really wide open so there's kind of a disparity between how safe you feel and how safe you really are. So that was the idea. I shot these things, and I guess a year later, someone I had shot them with, the producer, knew someone at Fullscreen that wanted to know what we were up to. They saw them, and that's really how it happened.

Really with cults, they also start from one basic place, sex. They are all about sex. It's all about a man wanting to control a group of people and wanting sex from them. That was really how I started thinking about The Deleted and how there was this guy who probably started this thing ten years ago, 15 years ago, and it was about sex, and it was about control. And the door opened wider, and who knows what was allowed in after that?

Social media also plays a huge role in it. Is that something else you were trying to draw attention to?

It's interesting. You have to understand, when I originally did this, they were older characters. I was definitely thinking about the idea, and this carried over from the shorts into the Fullscreen show, the idea that even if you had to save your life, even if you had to truly protect yourself from horror and bad shit, could you stay off your phone? Could you not look at your iPhone for a month? Could you essentially get off the grid? That was interesting to me, and it became even more interesting when I aged it down... It's that notion that you shouldn't be using your phone, shouldn't be using those apps, that they can track you from that, which they do. I guess it wasn't just for a generation. I guess it was pretty much for everybody.

I remember a few years ago, seeing the Spike Jonze movie Her, thinking this dude falls in love with his iPhone, what the fuck? How seriously can I take this? I mean I like the first half of that movie very much but then I thought it just belabored the point the second hour. Well that movie was correct. Whatever the metaphor for that movie, it was correct. That has really caught up with me now because my iPhone is my best friend. It's really unfortunate. I mean I'm more concerned about it than I am my actual boyfriend. If my boyfriend's not home, I don't really worry. I know he's out with friends or something. But if I can't find my iPhone, I have these brief flashes of panic. It's the first thing I look at when I wake up, more than my boyfriend who's lying next to me. So there is that kind of love affair you have with your phone that I find very frustrating but it is what it is.

Your work has never shied away from topics like sexuality, even though the film versions of your work have watered that down. Would you say now that you have creative control, it's easier to bring it into the mainstream?

I would. I do think that there's such an engrained element of that in my work, that it's very hard to erase it.

Even in Less Than Zero, it's still there. It still has the Julian character, what he ends up doing. It's a studio movie; they're going to be very muted about it... And certainly, Roger Avary with Rules of Attraction did have a somewhat sympathetic, I thought somewhat cool gay character played by Ian Somerhalder at the center of that movie. I rarely see that. I rarely see that in American movies, especially in a high-end independent.

Look, it's true. For so many reasons, my work has been watered down when transferred to the screen. And I do think that when I'm on my own as I was with The Deleted, I was allowed to be more gay, I suppose, than I think another director would have wanted or would have gone for. I think the same thing is even true for The Canyons, which I saw as having gayish elements to it that I wanted to explore more strongly than even Paul Schrader, the director, ultimately did. I would have gone further with that as a director. So I think you're right in that sense.

And I think certainly the amount of male nudity in The Deleted is pretty much my aesthetic choice rather than what it would be to heterosexual producers that I was working with on it. So I think so. Now the other problem though is gay representation in American movies is gone. You don't see gay people in American movies anymore. I think there were two, last year. There was Other People and King Cobra of all things. And everything is an independent that was made for $20 thousand. The globalization, the democratization of the industry has decimated gay characters from American film.

Your work really defined your generation, and now you're working with people like Nash Grier who have defined their own generation. What was it like combining two such strong personalities like that?

I think content is content is content.

I mean I speak in terms of generation, and my boyfriend, who's a millennial, hates that. But I believe it's a fact that you are raised in a certain time with a certain set of values and morals, and it shapes you. It shapes who you are, whether you're a boomer, a gen X-er, or a millennial, whatever. But it does not mean that you can't work together and learn things from each other. And I know that sounds so hokey but it really is true.

And I think one of the reasons I liked Nash a lot for this role was that he didn't seem like he was too polished. We didn't cast that role until three days before shooting. We couldn't find anybody, and I saw brilliant actors, I mean really good actors come in and cry during their one-and-a-half-minute audition. I was like, "Dude, you're brilliant but you're gonna kill this show." This is not what that is. This is a kind of artificial, somewhat soapy conspiracy thriller. We're not going for realism here. Having said that, there was this authenticity to Nash that felt not actor-like at all. And I liked that in the audition tape he made for the movie, the confusion seemed genuine. He was improving in kind of a panicked way about the situation he was in, and sorry but it spoke to me more than actors who were a lot better. And of course Fullscreen liked the idea because he's Nash Grier, and he has whatever, 25 million likes on social media. And really, he wanted to do it. He wanted to, in a way, move toward something more adult.

But it was very easy working with him. He was completely professional. And of course, both him and I got these raps, me for being a self-hating gay for hiring Nash because of the comment he had made, something about "fags" and "AIDS" or whatever, some straight kid comment he made that I should never have hired because of that. I just thought, if we really started whitewashing everyone over a dumb mistake they made four or five years ago, I can't live in that world. I can't live in a world that is unyieldingly strict and refuses to place things in context regarding age or whatever. Certainly I've made controversial comments as a gay man, myself. Half the people did not like the gay elf thing I wrote for OUT. I still have gay men come up to me and reference it all the time. Literally this week, I had a gay dude say, "That piece was great. Loved it. I wish more gay men would talk."

I like Nash. I like him.

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Daniel Zovatto plays Logan in The Deleted

LA has obviously been a huge part of your life and career. How would you say it's changed or your vision of it has changed?

Honestly, not a lot.

One of the things I've always liked about LA is the visual beauty. Certainly that's in the film Less Than Zero. Hopefully in the book, there is enough lyricism amid all the menace and rising paranoia. That's one thing I loved about the movie Less Than Zero, regardless of how little it really has to do with the meaning of the book. I loved the look of that film. Even though we had no budget for The Deleted, I really wanted to get that sense of LA as a beautiful place, and shoot it within our budget in a very lush, color-saturated way. So in that sense, that's why LA has always been a really great place for a setting of a film, because it's so photogenic.

But in terms of what's changed since the '80s, really there's a kind of timeless quality to LA. I actually think if anything, LA was really so much more provincial to people 30 years to people from New York. It's now flipped. I think that LA is by far the more forward-thinking city, and New York has become a gated community in a way. It's an island surrounded by this mote for tourists and rich people. And there was always an idea that New York was the place you'd go as a young person to kind of make it and become an adult. But that is over. That was over a long time ago because no one can afford to do that. LA still is pricey to a degree but I know a lot more young people who come here now and figure it out than going to New York. So in that sense, I do see LA in a very optimistic light. I guess that's changed because when I was younger, I did see a darker vision of LA, and now I see it as a more hopeful place.

Do you ever wonder what some of your characters from Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction would be up to today?

I don't. They're fictional characters of course, as we've laid out. Sometimes they're referenced in future books. When I was writing novels, I would keep tabs on a few people that would pop up. Certainly I think as a character name, Mitchell Allen was from Rules of Attraction. I was always really interested in him. He was one of the many students at Camden College, and I think he kind of had an affair with the Paul Denton character, and Paul was into him. Suddenly he shows up in Lunar Park as the neighbor of the Bret Ellis character. How did it happen? Was it in the outline? I don't know. Suddenly, it felt right. I can't explain. And certainly Patrick Bateman has popped up in a few books. But ultimately, no. I was asked by Town & Country last year to write an essay about where I thought Patrick Bateman was, and I didn't really want to do it. Then I thought, "Ok, give it a shot. You're gonna be asked this a lot with all the press you're gonna do for the Broadway show. So you might as well have some answers." And this would be a way to help me formulate them. So I did write the piece, and I felt kind of half-heated about it. I talked about how he'd be hanging out with Mark Zuckerberg and whatever. But I don't really think about my characters that way. I see them just in the book, and whatever life they have on their own, I'm not a part of it.

Just to feed my curiosity, what was your opinion on American Psycho 2 with Mila Kunis?

Well, I mean even Mila Kunis will say that it was a terrible experience, and the movie she signed on for wasn't American Psycho 2. At least this is what I've heard, that the producers just shot some extra footage and put it in the beginning. She thought she was just making a kind of satiric slasher movie set in a college. There were one or two references made to Patrick Bateman in the script but not the idea that her character was possessed by Patrick Bateman, whatever it was. I've never watched the whole thing. I've seen some of it. I didn't even know about it until a month before it was released on video. I guess in a way, it makes me sad. Of course, a part of me wishes it would have been better. A part of me is glad it's kind of not good as it is because it's only referenced in terms of kind of jokey interview questions. I don't know anybody who was involved with the movie. I've never met Mila Kunis before. I don't know anybody involved with that movie. And I'm kind of wondering what their intentions were, you know? I'm also kind of not.

Can we expect a season two of The Deleted or more directorial work? I know you said something about Lunar Park.

Well I'm in talks right now to direct a feature, and that might happen. It might not. You never know. But directing, that's something I really want to do a lot more of. Season two of The Deleted, I don't know. It is very different from most of the stuff that's on Fullscreen, very different in tone and sensibility. I'm not sure that audience has fully connected with it. We'll see. I know we're still doing press for it, still seeing what the numbers are, but I would totally be into it. But there would have to be a series of discussions on how to proceed.

Watch all episodes of The Deleted, now available on Fullscreen.

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