Indie scene turns ‘Psycho’

DiCaprio's $21 mil changes low budget to big pic

CANNES — “American Psycho” is turning American indie film types psychotic.

The pic, greenlit by Lions Gate Films, was planned as a low-budget indie satire about the soulless 1980s, based on Bret Easton Ellis’ book. Mary Harron, who made “I Shot Andy Warhol,” was supposed to direct from a script she wrote with Guinevere Turner. Christian Bale, who stars in the Cannes-buzz pic “Velvet Goldmine,” was supposed to topline as the yuppie stockbroker serial killer. The film was supposed to have a $6 million budget with an August start date.

That was before Lions Gate Films let out a roar.

The little indie turned behemoth with its Canadian financing, and decided to throw its newfound weight around with a $21 million offer in early April to Leonardo DiCaprio to star. Lions Gate execs thought DiCaprio was so popular after his romantic lead turn in “Titanic” that foreign pre-sales would be a cinch. “It was a no-lose situation,” said one source.

Suddenly, Bale was out and Harron, “after two years of development, planning and pitching the project with producer Ed Pressman to a plethora of studios and companies,” was being pushed out.

The budget was now in the $40 million area. And Lions Gate, despite Harron’s pay-or-play status, was looking for a “name” director like Curtis Hanson or Gus Van Sant.

So much for the camaraderie of the independent film world.

In Cannes, the news became the buzz on the Croisette, with industry players engaging in wide-eyed discussions.

Longtime indie producer Ben Barenholtz mused, “There’s dealmaking and there’s filmmaking. This is about dealmaking. Usually the independent world is supposed to be about filmmaking.”

Actor John Hurt, who last starred in the indie pic “Love and Death on Long Island” (which was distributed by Lions Gate), called the move “absolutely despicable” in the way it fosters betrayal. Hurt said it defies the norm of how people relate in the independent world.

One producer said that it raises the bar for major stars to do indie films: “If companies will be willing to pay those salaries, then it will be very hard to convince stars to take the scale-plus-10 salaries that so many have taken in the past.”

Lions Gate refused to comment.

Pressman, who is producing with Quadra Entertainment’s Christian Halsey Solomon and Muse Prods.’ Chris Hanley, said that the producers would still like to unite Harron with DiCaprio.

“That would be the best of all possible worlds,” he said. But insiders say that’s a disingenuous statement, with Lions Gate now thinking Harron’s vision is too small for the pic with a megastar like DiCaprio.

Harron counters: “I really feel that I know how to do this movie.”

“It was a very difficult project to get off the ground,” she recalled. Harron said she went to countless pitch meetings with Pressman. “I was a woman, in fact a woman who had made a feminist film. I put my credibility behind it. I became committed to the project. I thought it had something to say.”

Lions Gate contested her on the casting of Bale, an actor she chose more than a year ago. Bale studied the role intensely with Harron.

Regardless, Lions Gate said she could cast Bale as long as she included four supporting actors from a list approved by Lions Gate. Willem Dafoe and Jared Leto signed on. Liv Tyler was considered, but Parker Posey ultimately joined the fray.

Robert Downey’s name came up, but Lions Gate apparently nixed him; sources said the company feared an insurance risk. Downey had starred in Ellis’ last book to make the bigscreen when he played a Hollywood rich kid drug addict in “Less than Zero.”

As late as March 20, Bale, Dafoe, Leto and Posey flew to New York at their own expense to do a reading of the script for Lions Gate exec Mark Urman.

“We were all very excited,” Harron said. “Christian left for Italy to shoot ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and we talked about when we had to prep and what the start date would be.”

The next thing anybody knew, DiCaprio was a part of the mix. And no one was quite sure whether they were still included or if the film would even be made.

General consensus among the participants is that DiCaprio, eager to rid himself of the squeaky-clean romantic lead image he cultivated in “Titanic,” had no idea that he was displacing Harron or Bale.

But one source said DiCaprio had to be aware that others were attached to the pic and that his inclusion would cause a seismic shift to the independent venture.

Lions Gate is convinced that DiCaprio is invincible in the foreign markets and should translate into pre-sales that will automatically cover the $40 million-plus budget.

But others are less assured. One high-ranking studio international marketing executive said that DiCaprio is not a definite, no matter what “Titanic” grossed. “He’s not a shoo-in around the world. He’s a young-girls star. He better go out and do young-girls movies,” said the exec. “Be wary. Today, there are no guarantees.”