Film: Mad, bad and too dangerous to release

As lawsuits over copycat homicides stack up against Hollywood, writers and directors are getting a bit nervous. By Roger Clarke
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The Independent Culture
Bret Easton Ellis had no idea, when he remarked at a Toronto book-reading back in March that a "creative chill" was descending over writers and filmmakers in the US, just how prophetic his words would prove to be.

With lawsuits stacking up against Hollywood claiming copycat motives for various homicides, and President Clinton announcing (on top of other new censorship legislation) that the Federal Trade Commission will have the power to subpoena "internal marketing records" from film studios - ie harass them - in his drive against the "dependable daily dose of violence" in the media, it is no wonder that the Directors' Guild of America is saying that the constitutional rights of filmmakers are being violated. Is it really true? Yes, says the DGA president Jack Shea. "We are looking at a new McCarthyite witch hunt," he says.

Ellis strode into Toronto in early spring to cast a fatherly eye over the start of American Psycho, the Mary Harron-directed film version of his seminal Eighties satire. You may recall the casting merry-go-round last year when Christian Bale managed to snatch back, from fickle Leonardo DiCaprio, the lead role as the Wall Street broker Bateman who moonlights as a serial killer. (DiCaprio must be breathing a sigh of relief in hindsight - this film would have eviscerated his career.)

The Toronto location in itself had already brought problems: the Canadian parents of two teenaged girls kidnapped, tortured and murdered by killer Paul Bernardo were claiming that an actual copy of Ellis's American Psycho was found in Bernardo's home - and indeed, formed a blueprint for the murders. They campaigned noisily against American Psycho being made in Canada at all.

Ellis detected the onset of this "creative chill" factor the day after a lawsuit was announced against Oliver Stone and Time Warner. The case, which is still unresolved, claimed that in 1995, a worker at a Louisiana convenience store was shot and wounded by a couple who - it is alleged - were copying violent scenes from Stone's movie Natural Born Killers. Ironically, it was Stone who was briefly slated as the director of American Psycho for the few months in 1998 when DiCaprio was attached to the project. Ellis has recently expressed his nervousness that he may himself be vulnerable to opportunistic lawsuits. But so far, these lawsuits have been aimed squarely at studios and directors.

Then in April, only three weeks after the Stone suit was initiated, the parents of students shot by another student on a killing spree in Kentucky's Heath High School announced a $130m lawsuit against Time Warner (and the DiCaprio vehicle The Basketball Diaries), Polygram, Nintendo and Sega (apparently, he had "honed his shooting skills" with the video games).

After that, came the event that was to turn the Ellis chill factor into deep freeze. The Columbine High School massacre took place in the late April weeks when American Psycho filming was in full swing. The producers, already hugely nervous of public reaction to the film's location around the city, had gone to great lengths to conceal the film's title, painting it out from the side of vans. There must have been some soul-searching on set as Christian Bale dabbled his hands in ketchup in downtown Toronto.

Politicians have it in their genes to shoot the messenger, and immediately the political establishment rounded on the entertainment industry and began to exact its revenge. The subject of The Basketball Diaries was again raised; videos of the movie were scooped from shelves. Spike Lee - who just so happened to have finished his serial-killer movie Summer of Sam - was furious when the board of censors awarded it an NC-17 certificate, spelling commercial death for the movie, owing to the limited amount of cinemas in the US that show such films (not even Pulp Fiction or Natural Born Killers got such a high rating).

And yet, in a fit of the most bizarre bloody-mindedness, it has become apparent that Buena Vista intends an entirely sensationalistic marketing of Spike Lee's prickliest movie to date - linking the film to local serial killers in the countries and cities where it is released. In LA, for example, the publicity will dwell on the real-life murders of the "Hillside Strangler". And Toronto? They'll tie it in with the Paul Bernardo killings. Yup - the same Paul Bernardo whose crime spree is menacing Bret Easton Ellis with an incitement-to-kill lawsuit. The lawyers representing Bernardo's victims have protested to Buena Vista, and Ellis, one would imagine, is none too pleased at this new stick-banging on the hornet's nest.

It's hard for those outside the US to quite fathom the extent of the cultural fall-out of the Columbine killings. Jowly Washington plutocrats have naturally blamed familiar targets like the Internet, Satanic-kitsch pop stars like Marilyn Manson, video games and movies. But, as with Jeffrey Dahmer's arcane promptings (genuine main influences: Star Wars and the Bible) the true Nazi-chic origins of the students was conveniently brushed aside as the morality bandwagon creaked down the old trail again. Students who feel remotely alienated or different in school are now routinely hauled up by jittery US school authorities demanding that they either accept psychiatric help or leave the school. That tranche of alienated youngsters who form the main theme of films like Scream will - ironically - see the jocks and prom queens triumph over them after all. As if to reinforce this new theme, two days ago an LA judge imposed a gag order on a controversial trial of two young men accused of murdering their mothers. Their defence? Scream 2 made me do it.

But according to Dennis Cooper, the brilliant LA writer whose cutting- edge novels are often compared to the gruesome oeuvre of Bret Easton Ellis, it's just the latest instalment of the never-ending cycle of American knee-jerk morality. "There have always been these pointless lawsuits going on - just look at all those ones that used to be aimed at Heavy Metal bands," he told me. "I can appreciate why Bret is spooked by the possibility of a lawsuit against his book, but these guys want big money and they're never going to go after a writer. Of course it's possible that one day a kid is going to do something weird, and maybe he read one of my books. But there's nothing I can do about it."

He predicts an impasse in Congress between the Republicans who want censorship and the Democrats who want gun control; stalemate will ensue, hot air will be exchanged, and it will all die down. So, is the Directors' Guild of America being a tad hysterical? Is this really the new McCarthyism?

Probably not. But whatever legislation Clinton manages to pass, there can be little doubt that a subliminal version of Ellis's "creative chill" is settling on the Land of the Free. Filmmakers and probably even writers are thinking twice before tackling violence as a theme. They may face lawsuits which the US Supreme Court is now no longer routinely quashing.

American Psycho's release has been pushed back till next year, if not later (Variety and the film's English distributors give conflicting accounts of the actual date). But even if it does comes out, what sort of state will it be in? Christian Bale has told friends he thinks American Psycho is among his best work. Ellis, when he first saw the shooting script, was pleased that it was "95 per cent true to the book", but it is increasingly clear that this percentage has fallen in the last month. Lion's Gate could not be reached for comment on stories that large parts of it had been re-edited. For "creative chill" see the metallic chill of cutting- room scissors.