In 1984, a Bennington College student named Bret Easton Ellis sold his first novel for $5000; it was called Less Than Zero, named after an Elvis Costello song. The story follows the exploits of Clay, an East Coast college student home in L.A. for Christmas break. He’s looking for his drug-addled childhood pal, Julian, who has fallen into a bad way. In 1985 Simon & Schuster published the book. It became a bestseller and anointed Ellis as a member of the “literary Brat Pack,” alongside Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, Donna Tartt, and Jill Eisenstadt.
Two years later, Fox produced a film version of the book, starring Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, James Spader, and Robert Downey Jr. The movie was not a faithful adaptation of the novel; in fact, McCarthy said, “I don’t think there’s a line of the book in the movie.” The movie grossed $12 million on an $8 million budget, which didn't exactly make it a hit. But in recent years, it’s been embraced by Ellis and has become revered for its soundtrack, Downey Jr.’s raw performance, and Edward Lachman’s stunning cinematography (the DP would go on to be nominated for Oscars for Far From Heaven in 2003 and Carol in 2016). Here are 12 facts about Less Than Zero, both the book and the film.
1. BRET EASTON ELLIS SWITCHED THE NOVEL FROM THIRD TO FIRST PERSON.
Bret Easton Ellis began working on Less Than Zero when he was a sophomore in high school. While attending Bennington College, Ellis’s professor, Joe McGinniss—who had showed the book to his own agent—suggested Ellis use first-person narration. “And then as I was going through it, all of the fat started dropping away, and it became this completely different thing,” Ellis told Vice in 2010. “It needed to be rewritten. Now, I wrote that terrible first draft in eight weeks and people think that’s what was published. But I worked on that book for like two years to get it to the place where I wanted it to be.”
2. THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT ADHERED TO THE NOVEL.
Producer Marvin Worth optioned Less Than Zero before it was even published and hired Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer to adapt the book for the big screen. In Cristofer’s script, like in Easton’s book, it’s mentioned that Clay is bisexual and a casual drug user. “I think the script was commercial,” Worth told The New York Times, “because it had something gripping to say about the dilemma of a generation to whom nothing matters. It wasn’t really a drug film. It was about people who were destroyed by having had everything.”
The studio, on the other hand, thought the material was too dark to be a commercial hit and had producer Jon Avnet take over. “I had no interest in the Cristofer script,” Avnet told The New York Times. “I felt it was so depressing and so degrading. A crucial element of the American dream had gone haywire, and you had to put it in recognizable form in a movie, not just shock people.” Thus, Harley Peyton came onboard to rewrite the script and made Clay the clean-cut moral center.
3. ELLIS SWEARS THE BOOK ISN'T AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
Though the novel was often described as being autobiographical, Ellis cleared those rumors up. “Yes, like Clay, I had two sisters, and my parents were divorced, and many of my friends were wealthy and did drugs and seemed promiscuous—or so I thought at the time,” Ellis told The Paris Review. “But I was a relatively well-adjusted kid. I mean, I wasn’t as severely alienated as Clay.”
Ellis explained to Vice that it was his friends' lives, more than his own, that influenced the story. “After being folded into that world when I was in fifth or sixth grade, when my parents moved me from a public school into a private school, I began to see this world that I really hadn’t seen before. I’d had a pretty middle-to-upper-class upbringing in the San Fernando Valley, until my father started to make more money. But he never made money on the level of my classmates. Their parents were mostly in the film industry, and that really became an influence for Less Than Zero, too.”
4. THE STUDIO MADE THE FILM MORE CONSERVATIVE.
Fox invited youngsters to see the film, but they did not like Robert Downey Jr.’s Julian character. “There has been a tremendous conservative change in young audiences since the book was written in 1984,” Scott Rudin, Fox’s then-president of production, said. “Their fantasy used to be great sexual experimentation. Now it is to live in a great apartment, have a great boyfriend, and wear great clothes.” The production filmed new scenes to make Julian and Blair (Gertz) “repentant,” such as Blair flushing nose candy down a sink. The test audience cheered the action. “We would have been booed for dumping the coke eight years ago,” Rudin said.
5. ELLIS STILL THOUGHT THE BOOK COULD’VE BEEN ADAPTED INTO A FILM.
The book does have a disturbing scene of child rape, but Ellis doesn’t think that should have deterred studio executives from making a more faithful adaptation of it. “Scott Rudin certainly had a vision that was very close to the book,” Ellis told Vice. “The first script was kind of hardcore. But then there was a regime change at the studio, and I think it was Leonard Goldberg who became head of production and, you know, he had kids.” Ellis said it came off as an “afterschool special” and was shocked a major studio distributed the film. If it were remade today, Ellis said it would be distributed by an indie company.
6. IF THE BOOK WERE WRITTEN TODAY, ELLIS SAYS IT WOULD BE “20 PAGES LONG.”
Ellis thinks the advent of cell phones would make the book “20 pages long” today. “There’s a long stretch in the book where Clay is driving around looking for Julian, stopping off at friends’ houses to use their phones,” he said in an interview with The Paris Review. “He even stops in at a McDonald’s to use a pay phone. But people can find each other very easily now. A single text—‘Dude, where the f--k are you? I want my money’—would take care of three-fourths of the action in the book.”
7. MAKING THE FILM EXHAUSTED JAMI GERTZ.
Jami Gertz told The A.V. Club that she went through a tough audition to get the part in Less Than Zero and then had to film mainly at night. “I had done a ‘Just Say No’ campaign for the Reagan administration,” she said. “I was not a girl who partied. I just wasn’t. And I remember having to go out and party as part of what we were doing beforehand… We were going to go out to clubs, and I was just so tired. I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing? I don’t want to go out to clubs and this and that.’ So for me, it was very different and probably a little scary.”
She also felt like the movie should’ve performed better at the box office. “I just remember it not doing as well as expected, and I think it’s probably because of the subject matter,” she said. “I think people thought, ‘These kids are rich! They shouldn’t have problems!’ But the book was so iconic and so many people had read it that I thought it should’ve done better.”
8. PAUL SIMON WROTE “A HAZY SHADE OF WINTER.”
When Paul Simon was in Simon and Garfunkel, he wrote the folky song “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” which was released as a single in 1966. In 1982, Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles heard the song on the radio while toiling away at her day job in a ceramics factory. “When I heard that song, I thought, that’s so perfect for The Bangles,” she told the Independent. The group rockified the song and added it to their live set. In 1987 they recorded it for the Less Than Zero soundtrack, produced by Rick Rubin. (It plays over the opening credits of the film.) The song peaked at number two on the Billboard charts—making it a bigger hit than Simon’s version.
9. DOWNEY JR. FELL HARDER INTO DRUG ABUSE WHILE WORKING ON THE FILM.
In addition to playing a drug addict in Less Than Zero, Downey Jr. famously grappled with addiction in real life. “Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends,” Downey Jr. told The Guardian. “Maybe I’d turn up hungover on the set, but no more so than the stuntman. That changed on Less Than Zero … For me, the role was like the ghost of Christmas Future. The character was an exaggeration of myself. Then things changed and, in some ways, I became an exaggeration of the character. That lasted far longer than it needed to last.” Downey Jr. eventually managed to kick his demons and, with the help of blockbuster roles like Iron Man, went on to become the world’s highest paid actor.
10. THE STUDIO CUT OUT THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS.
Ed Lachman told AMC that he thinks the studio “took the film away from the director Marek Kanievska,” and forced the filmmakers to make the film less edgy. “The Red Hot Chili Peppers were in that film and the studio became very conservative and they said, ‘Oh the band, they’re sweaty and they don’t have their shirts on,’” Lachman said. “They destroyed an incredible Steadicam shot, all because they had to cut around them being bare-chested. I think nobody really read the script—they just knew it was a youth-oriented script with this British director. Then when they saw it was about their own neighborhoods and families living in Hollywood, there was a real reaction to it.” If it’s any consolation, the Peppers’ song, “Fight Like a Brave,” remained in the film.
11. IN 2010, ELLIS PUBLISHED A LOOSE SEQUEL TO LESS THAN ZERO.
Imperial Bedrooms takes place 25 years after the events in Less Than Zero, and with the same cast of characters. Ellis got the idea to revisit the past after he re-read Less Than Zero while working on his book Lunar Park. “I wanted to know where Clay was after I finished reading Less Than Zero,” he told NPR. I hadn’t read Less Than Zero since it was published in 1985—and this is about eight years ago, I think. This question dogged me; it haunted me. Where is Clay now? What is he doing? Is he married? Does he have kids? Is he in L.A.? Is he in New York? And it went on and on and on until I finally sat down, and I started making notes about who this guy would be, and where he would be in his mid-40s.” As it turned out, Clay is a screenwriter back in L.A., still haunted by his past.
12. ELLIS HAS WARMED UP TO THE MOVIE OVER THE YEARS.
Ellis initially didn’t like the adaptation of his novel—neither did the actors or director—but he told Movieline the movie has “aged well.” “I suppose that if there was no novel, we’d probably be even fonder of it, but there’s that novel that keeps messing everything up,” he said. “I think that movie is gorgeous, and the performances that I thought were shaky seem much better now. Like, Jami Gertz seems much better to me now than she did 20 years ago. It’s something I can watch.”