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Robert Downey Jr. stars in Less Than Zero (1987).
Robert Downey Jr. stars in Less Than Zero (1987).
20th Century Fox

12 Surprising Facts About Less Than Zero

Robert Downey Jr. stars in Less Than Zero (1987).
Robert Downey Jr. stars in Less Than Zero (1987).
20th Century Fox

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.


Robert Downey Jr., Jami Gertz, and Andrew McCarthy are BFFs in Less Than Zero (1987).

20th Century Fox

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.”

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Robert Downey Jr. stars in Less Than Zero (1987).
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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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iStock

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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Robert Downey Jr. stars in Less Than Zero (1987).
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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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