METROGRAPH: Welcome to Metrograph, everybody. My name is Gabriel Jandali Appel. If you’re here, I assume you know who Bret Easton Ellis is, but just in case: Bret was 21 when he published Less Than Zero, his first novel, which became a bestseller. Both the book and Bret himself were immediately branded “controversial,” a label that was solidified when the publication of his third book, American Psycho, was cancelled. Luckily for all of us, American Psycho was picked up by a much better publishing house—thank you, Knopf—and became a global phenomenon.
In the 30 years since, Bret has published three books, a collection of short stories, an essay collection, and written several films, including The Canyons (2013) directed by American Gigolo’s Paul Schrader. In 2013, he started The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast on which he muses about culture, film, and occasionally politics through monologues and long-form interviews, assuming the position of perhaps our last public intellectual. Two books have come out of the podcast: the aforementioned essay collection White, in 2019, and the new book we’re discussing tonight, The Shards. Please join me in welcoming Bret Easton Ellis.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Hey! What’s going on?
M: When was the last time you were in New York City?
BEE: About four years ago, in 2019. I was here for literally 18 hours. I have not been back for any length of time since about 2016, for the ill-fated opening of American Psycho, the musical. Which I don’t know if anyone has seen—wasn’t that bad [laughs].
M: Does the city feel different?
BEE: It feels completely changed. I was driving last night through downtown—I still have an apartment here that I rent out. I did not recognize a lot of places and it just made me feel very, very old. Which I am, so it was appropriate.
American Gigolo (1980)
It is one of those movies that, because of my age, had this seismic impact on me. I was also just the right age to be struck by Richard Gere’s beauty.
M: Enough about New York, let’s talk about Los Angeles. Why did you choose American Gigolo (1980) for us to watch tonight?
BEE: Well, they asked me to choose a movie that had something to do with The Shards, which is set in 1980, and in Los Angeles, and American Gigolo is referenced in it. As are a couple of other movies from that era—The Shining (1980) plays a prominent plot point in the book; Chariots of Fire (1981), there’s a big scene in a theatre where Chariots of Fire is playing. I thought, “If I’m going to be promoting The Shards, there’s no better movie that I guess influenced me as much as American Gigolo did when I first saw it, when it opened in February of 1980, when I was 15, about to become 16.”
And it’s not a great movie, Paul Schrader would even agree with that. It’s his third movie, he was still learning his chops. But it is one of those movies that, because of my age, had this seismic impact on me. I was also just the right age to be struck by Richard Gere’s beauty. And I had never seen a man shot that way before in a film, where a man was fetishized to this degree—women have been throughout Hollywood history but American Gigolo was really the first movie I saw where the man was the desired love sex object. And the whole movie was about that. Richard Gere was also, I believe, the first actor in a big studio movie to go full-frontal, as he does in this movie.
M: Something to look forward to.
BEE: Well, I think you might be a little bit disappointed by what you do see. [Laughs] I mean, it’s, it’s there! You know, at the end he does an entire scene, where Schrader just keeps [the camera] on him, where he’s leaning against a wall, full frontal. It was something that was kind of shocking at the time. But Richard Gere’s beauty had an impact on me, as did the way LA was shot, which is done in a kind of sun-lit neo-noir mode, heavy on dread, heavy on menace. Still, it is one of the most beautiful movies ever made about the city.
But also—and this is for those of you who have seen the movie, I’ve seen it dozens of times—I now watch the movie as Richard Gere’s character Julian Kay. The plot of the movie, the kind of tired mechanics of it, is that early on he gets framed for murder in Palm Springs—that’s the engine of the film. For the rest of the movie he’s trying to find an alibi to prove that he didn’t do this murder, “the Rheiman killing.” And lately I have been watching it as thinking that he did do it. It’s interesting—you can watch the film as it’s presented where he’s innocent, but, as someone who’s seen American Gigolo 35, 40 times, I was obsessed with this film, I’ve been watching it lately as maybe Julian did do it. And there’s little hints, if you want to watch the movie that way.
So all of these are the reasons why I chose American Gigolo. It ties into the aesthetic of The Shards, which is very early ’80s. And it takes place in the same world: Westwood, Beverly Hills. There’s a scene in The Shards that takes place at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and there’s a classic scene in this movie that takes place in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And really, LA had rarely been shot as beautifully as it is in this movie.
Richard Gere, even though he’s unbelievably beautiful—John Travolta originally had this part. He dropped out two weeks before shooting started and Richard Gere stepped in; the studio wanted Christopher Reeve, but Paul Schrader really wanted Richard Gere. Richard Gere, by the way, also took over John Travolta’s part in Days of Heaven (1978). So I don’t know, it just all came together for me. It was Richard Gere, it was LA, and it was extremely impactful on me.
American Gigolo (1980)
M: Did that interpretation of the movie impact the writing of The Shards specifically?
BEE: No. Though I also write about American Gigolo in my nonfiction book White. In the second chapter, I go into a detailed history of the making of the film, all the casting problems and its reception, and also the effect it had on me. I mean, American Gigolo—what is it now, 43 years old? So it did not really affect The Shards. But it affected certainly Less Than Zero. I even took the name of the character, Julian Kay, and gave it to the one of the main characters in the book, who ultimately in the movie of that is played by Robert Downey Jr.
M: There’s a character in The Shards, Terry Schaffer, who reads as a quintessentially 1970s movie producer. And this film was produced by someone who is a quintessentially 1980s movie producer, then young up and coming, named Jerry Bruckheimer. Did these enormous shifts that were then taking place in Hollywood impact you, in 1980? Did they influence when you wanted to set this book, or the writing of it?
BEE: They had no impact in any of that. [Audience laughs] And that’s not to dismiss your question! But no. It is interesting that Jerry Bruckheimer, famously of Bruckheimer Simpson, produces Top Gun (1986), Flashdance (1983), all of these giant ’80s and ’90s movies—was the producer on American Gigolo. Bruckheimer was actually, I think, an ad man who then rose through the ranks as a producer. He produced a couple of interesting, small movies, and then American Gigolo, which has a very self-conscious artiness that you would be shocked to think could be the number-one movie in America in 1980, and that made Richard Gere a star. It is the only movie Paul Schrader wrote and directed that really made money—and he’s been making movies for four decades now. This is his only hit. And what a strange hit it was. It makes you think 1980 was still such a weird era, in terms of this minimalist, heavily European influenced movie, and being backed by a big studio—Paramount really wanted it made, and they were right to do it because when it opened, it was a thing. And of course, it has the famous anthem, “Call Me” by Blondie, opening the movie in a fantastic credit sequence.
There are some really awkward moments. One in particular is Richard Gere, with a client, an older woman, at Sotheby’s. She sees a friend who maybe suspects she is hiring Julian as a male whore to be, you know, and so Richard Gere says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got an idea.” He does this really gay German interior decorator thing that is so painful to watch, so unfunny. Humor eluded Richard Gere a lot of the time. And part of what gives this performance an effective chilliness is that he can’t tap into the humanity of Julian in a way that I think probably John Travolta could have done. Travolta would have made this a very different movie than the iciness of Richard Gere’s narcissism and beauty—which, at the same time, makes it a lot more interesting.
American Gigolo (1980)
M: You’ve mentioned the iciness of Gere’s performance, or sort of the remove, which is a way people have described some of your early work. I don’t know if you feel there’s a similarity there, but either way, that numbness is noticeably absent from The Shards.
BEE: Yeah, well, I’m different. I’m just different. I mean, Less Than Zero was written by a teenager, The Shards was written by a man in his mid- to late ’50s. I couldn’t write a lot of the books that I wrote now, they’re all reflections of where I was at a certain point in my life, whether it was in college for The Rules of Attraction, whether it was living in Manhattan when I was working on American Psycho, or when I had this weird burst of infamy with the publication of American Psycho and became, for a little bit, this sort of Prince of Darkness celebrity. And that was what Glamorama kind of ended up being about.
So I think what American Gigolo did for me at that crucial age, where I was beginning to work on Less Than Zero—just about that time, late in my 15th year, and into my 16th and 17 year—American Gigolo crystallized a vision of LA that I wanted to portray in that book. And it has this glazed feeling. It’s not a particularly emotional movie at all. It’s very cool, very removed, and I was struck by that. Even though I also knew the movie itself doesn’t quite work. I don’t know why Schrader does them but there’s all these fade-outs near the end, they just keep going and going, why are you fading out? But anyway. I loved and I love this notion, which was very prominent when American Gigolo came out, that there was this gay aesthetic going on in the culture—whether it was Prince, whether it was with Calvin Klein advertising, the popularity of GQ magazine. The popularity of American Gigolo was at the height of this kind of gay awareness in mainstream media that was noticeable and accepted, in a way, before AIDS came and really closed the door on that, to a degree, in terms of a straight mainstream audience responding to it positively. Seeing those Calvin Klein ads, straight man were like, “I want to look like that, I want to wear those underwear,” and also feeling the same way, I think, about Richard Gere in this, “I want to be Julian Kay, I want to dress like him.” Armani did all the clothes for American Gigolo; before that, he was a kind of quasi-known Italian designer, and after the movie came out, he just blew up and he became super famous. The Armani story is really connected to American Gigolo… I mean, the suits look great.
The popularity of American Gigolo was at the height of this kind of gay awareness in mainstream media that was noticeable and accepted, before AIDS came and really closed the door on that, to a degree, in terms of a straight mainstream audience responding positively. Seeing those Calvin Klein ads, straight man were like, “I want to look like that.”
M: For those who don’t know, you debuted The Shards, one chapter at a time, on your podcast. What was that experience like?
BEE: What happened was I was writing The Shards and it was in the middle of lockdown so there were no guests. I had done three or four episodes on Covid and everything that was going on, but there were no guests. There was really nothing to talk about. So I told my producer, “I’m working on this book, and it’s about me, kind of. I think I could start doing monologues from the book, read these chapters—which really are about my life when I was a senior, the book gets much scarier and more outlandish as it goes on, but the opening is a 17-year-old guy in LA, doing whatever he does. So I started reading it as a memoir on my podcast. I said, “If it doesn’t work,” to my producer, “we won’t do it anymore. We’ll do one episode, fine.” [But] people were really involved in it. They thought it was absolutely real, that I was telling my life story, that I was going back to 17. We did a second episode. Again, same kind of thing. And then, as you read the book there’s a serial killer who is dropped in early on, and a lot of deaths and things occur, and a lot of dread, menace. People still thought I was telling this story, that it was all really happening to me, that I had a friend who was murdered, and—I mean, just a lot of dramatic things that happen in The Shards.
So that’s why we did it. We did it for over a year, 24 chapters, from September 2020 to September 2021. I thought that was it. I thought it was great, “This is an Audible book,” I realized—even though I wrote it as a novel, because I’ve been thinking about this novel for 40 years. I wanted to write it in 1982, I didn’t know how to do it then. I thought, “Okay, great; you can get all 33 hours of it for $6, and that’s your experience of The Shards, listening to it, listening to me recall my senior year in high school.” And that was something that no one else had done, no one had serialized a novel that way before. I thought it was an interesting way to release a novel. I really didn’t think I was going to actually edit it down and publish it in book-form. But it was just something I was feeling at the time, and I’m really glad I did do it.
And it’s still up there. The edited version is out from my publisher but there is an unedited version that is, I don’t know, 80,000 words longer, that is available on my Patreon account, if anyone is interested. But I’m not here to advertise my Patreon, I’m here really to introduce American Gigolo, which, regardless of its flaws, still remains a fascinating time capsule. Not only about movies, the end of the ’70s—I mean, this last kind of gasp of studio auteurism, when a studio allows a director to make this kind of European-influenced movie, that was ending—and just a time capsule of Richard Gere’s beauty, with a great store score by Giorgio Moroder, as well.
M: Thank you so much.
BEE: Enjoy the movie, everyone.
American Gigolo (1980)