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.”

5 Clues Daenerys Targaryen Will Die in the Final Season of Game of Thrones

HBO
HBO

by Mason Segall

The final season of HBO's epic Game of Thrones is hovering on the horizon like a lazy sun and, at the end of the day, fans have only one real question about how it will end: Who will sit the Iron Throne? One of the major contenders is Daenerys of the thousand-and-one names, who not only has one of the most legitimate claims to the throne, but probably deserves it the most.

However, Game of Thrones has a habit of killing off main characters, particularly honorable ones, often in brutal and graphic ways. And unfortunately, there's already been some foreshadowing that writers will paint a target on Daenerys's back.

5. THE PROPHECIES

Carice van Houten in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan, HBO

What's a good fantasy story without a few prophecies hanging over people's heads? While the books the show is based on have a few more than usual, the main prophecy of Game of Thrones is Melisandre's rants about "the prince that was promised," basically her faith's version of a messiah.

Melisandre currently believes both Daenerys and Jon Snow somehow fulfill the prophecy, but her previous pick for the position died a grisly death, so maybe her endorsement isn't a good sign.

4. TYRION'S DEMANDS FOR A SUCCESSOR

Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke in a scene from 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

A particular scene in season seven saw Tyrion advising Daenerys to name a successor before she travels north to help Jon. She challenges him, "You want to know who sits on the Iron Throne after I'm dead. Is that it?" But that's exactly it. Tyrion is more than aware how mortal people are and wants to take precautions. He's seen enough monarchs die that he probably knows what warning signs to look for.

3. A FAMILY LEGACY

David Rintoul as the Mad King in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Daenerys is the daughter of the Mad King Aerys II, a paranoid pyromaniac of a monarch. More than once, Daenerys has been compared to her father, particularly in her more ruthless moments. Aerys was killed because of his insanity and arrogance. If Daenerys starts displaying more of his mental illness, she might follow in his footsteps to the grave.

2. HER DRAGONS AREN'T INVINCIBLE

Emilia Clarke in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

The fall and subsequent resurrection of the dragon Viserion was one of the biggest surprises of season seven. Not only did it destroy one of Daenerys's trump cards, but it proved that her other two dragons were vulnerable as well. Since the three-headed dragon is the sigil of her house, this might be an omen that Daenerys is next on the chopping block.

1. THAT VISION

Emilia Clarke in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

All the way back in season two, Daenerys received a vision in the House of the Undying of the great hall in King's Landing ransacked and covered in snow. Before she could even touch the iron throne, she was called away by her dragons and was confronted by her deceased husband and son. This is a clear indication that she might never sit the throne, something that would only happen if she were dead.

10 Surprising Facts About Peter Dinklage

Larry Busacca, Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival
Larry Busacca, Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

The modern man of Game of Thrones’s ancient world, the solitary railroad enthusiast of The Station Agent, the non-elf of Elf. Peter Dinklage is one of a kind. A leading man with strength, vulnerability, and a cartoonishly thick head of hair, he’s delivered a slew of memorable roles marked by a sardonic sense of humor.

He has also survived a seven-year bloodbath in Westeros. So far. We have to wait almost a year to learn his ultimate fate on Game of Thrones, but we can get to some facts about the Emmy and Golden Globe winner right now.

1. HIS FIRST TASTE OF ACTING CAME IN FIFTH GRADE.

Like more than a few of his colleagues, Peter Dinklage caught the acting bug as an adolescent, appearing in a lead role in a performance of The Velveteen Rabbit in fifth grade. “When you get your first solo bow, that feels pretty good,” Dinklage told People. Despite its lack of rabbits, he also credited watching Sam Shepard’s True West in 1984 as a major inspiration to pursue acting as a profession.

2. HE REFUSED TO PLAY STEREOTYPICAL ROLES—EVEN WHEN MONEY WAS TIGHT.

When Dinklage was surviving the salad days in a New York City apartment filled with rats, he had offers to play elves and leprechauns, but he turned down those paychecks out of principle. It created a short-term setback (at least when it came to paying rent), but his tenacity eventually paid off with roles like the one in Elf that challenged clichés. He was even careful when Game of Thrones came calling, recognizing the way dwarves normally look in fantasy projects. “[Tyrion Lannister’s] somebody who turned that on its head,” he told The New York Times. “No beard, no pointy shoes, a romantic, real human being."

3. HE WAS IN A PUNK-FUNK-RAP BAND.

What does that genre blend sound like? Hard to say, but the band was called Whizzy, and they played CBGB, where Dinklage got the notable scar along the side of his face. "I was jumping around onstage and got accidentally kneed in the temple," he told Playboy. "I was like Sid Vicious, just bleeding all over the stage. Blood was going everywhere. I just grabbed a dirty bar napkin and dabbed my head and went on with the show. We didn’t care much about personal safety."

4. HIS MOM TOLD HIM HE WAS GOING TO LOSE THE GOLDEN GLOBE TO GUY PEARCE.

Peter Dinklage in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Before Dinklage won the Golden Globe for Game of Thrones in 2012, he spoke with his mom back in New Jersey, who told him, “Have fun, but have you seen Mildred Pierce? Guy Pearce is so good. He’s gonna win.” He wryly noted how moms keep us all humble.

5. HE’S AN OUTSPOKEN VEGETARIAN.

Dinklage has been a vegetarian since childhood, and he has used his fame as a platform to speak out on animal rights issues. That includes telling Game of Thrones fans to stop adopting Huskies after the breed’s popularity (and abandonment rate) shot through the roof thanks to the show’s dire wolves.

6. HE STARRED IN THE SAME MOVIE TWICE.

In Death at a Funeral, Dinklage played Peter, the American man who surprises a family by showing up at the patriarch’s funeral claiming to be the old man’s lover. Directed by Frank Oz with a stellar British ensemble, the movie was popular enough to warrant an American remake, and Dinklage returned to play the same role with a completely different cast and Neil LaBute as director.

7. HE SAW A STRANGER DIE.

One morning in Los Angeles, Dinklage was walking down Melrose Avenue when he met eyes with a man on a motorcycle who pulled out into traffic, got hit by a car, and died. “It was in the morning, so there was no one around, you know?” he told Esquire. “It was empty, so there was this quiet moment where it was like I was the only person in the world who knew this guy was dead."

8. THE SWORD FIGHTS ON GAME OF THRONES DON’T MAKE HIM FEEL COOL.

Smiting foes on the field of battle would be enough to make a lot of actors feel powerful, but not Dinklage. “The fight scenes are all a big lie,” he told Playboy. “The whole time you’re trying not to get hit in the eye with a sword, and you wish you had on a welding helmet.” To drive the point home, he explained one shot where he cuts a knight’s leg off involved him swinging a blunt sword at a 70-year-old amputee.

9. HE GREW UP NEXT TO BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S MANAGER.

Dinklage's family’s next-door neighbor in Brookside, New Jersey, was The Boss’s manager, which meant Springsteen regularly played guitar just one house down. Dinklage’s parents also heard Springsteen play at a wedding in a surfboard factory but complained that he was “too loud.”

10. HE READS THE GAME OF THRONES SCRIPTS IN A SPECIAL WAY.

Actors Emilia Clarke, Sean Bean, and Peter Dinklage speak during the 'Game of Thrones' panel at the HBO portion of the 2011 Winter TCA press tour held at the Langham Hotel on January 7, 2011 in Pasadena, California
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Specifically, he reads them backwards. “The first thing I really do when I get the scripts is I go to the last page of the last episode and then look backward until I find my name to see if I survive,” he told Entertainment Weekly.

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