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The Canyons Director Paul Schrader on Nudity, Hookup Culture, and Lindsay Lohan

Paul Schrader. Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty

Paul Schrader is no stranger to making headlines for his work; after all, the 67-year-old has written controversial films like Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, and as a director, he’s helmed sexually provocative films including American Gigolo, Hardcore, and Auto Focus. Still, nothing before in Schrader’s career has ever reached the notorious headline highs of his latest film, The Canyons. A tabloid staple since its inception, The Canyons pairs troubled actress Lindsay Lohan with porn star James Deen in a script penned by American Psycho provocateur Bret Easton Ellis; the actual plot of the movie (rich, empty Hollywood types engage in a game of sexual manipulation) is almost secondary to the larger narrative that surrounded its troubled making, a narrative immortalized in a hilarious, candid New York Times production diary last January. With The Canyons finally debuting this Friday, we got Schrader on the phone to discuss that Times article, the allure of sex on film, and his advice for Lindsay Lohan.

How is the Los Angeles of The Canyons different from the Los Angeles of American Gigolo?
Ha! It’s different in most every way, because this is the first post-porn generation. When we had our first rehearsal, I told the cast that this is a movie about twentysomethings in Los Angeles who got in line to see a movie and then the theater closed but they stayed in line because they had nowhere else to go, and you know that’s different than the materialistic culture of American Psycho and it’s different than the eighties swagger of American Gigolo.

What does it mean that 33 years after you had Richard Gere go full-frontal in American Gigolo, it’s still so rare when male actors take off all their clothes onscreen like they do in The Canyons?
Well, there used to be a notion that at the movies, there could be a combination of narrative film and hardcore action. I think it’s now been quite proven that those two genres will never, ever merge — they’re just too different — and that the people who are interested in seeing illicit sex are not really interested in narrative and vice versa. I don’t think there will ever be a film with graphic sexuality and narrative together that works. I mean, they’ve tried — Shortbus and Nine Songs and so forth — but they don’t work, and I’m sure Lars Von Trier’s next film won’t work. And so what that has done, more or less, is that it’s taken graphic sexuality out of the economic menu of movie attractions. You know, people used to go to movies to see naked women. It’s true! But now, everything that a person desires in terms of prurient viewership can instantly and specifically be found on their computer or on their phones. It doesn’t really matter what your specific wrinkle is — you can get it in a three-minute clip and you can get it within twenty seconds, and movies don’t do that anymore. You remember Playboy used to have “The Year in Film,” and you’d go out and buy it and you could see all these naked movie stars from around the world in their spreads? That seems like the nineteenth century now.

These characters are on their phones constantly. Have you, too, been seduced by smartphone culture?
Absolutely. The whole notion of Blendr, which Bret was turned on to — I never go on there, but the main character that James plays is on it all the time. You know what Blendr and Adult Friend Finder are?

Hookup apps, basically. And then there’s the gay app Grindr, which is sort of the juggernaut in that field.
Grindr, yeah, that’s also true. You know, within fifteen minutes of going on there, somebody within your immediate vicinity will be in touch with you and will be on their way over. You know that if you’re in Manhattan, say, somebody’s gonna respond. So that’s kind of an epochal change in the notion of dating, or courtship, or fucking. That’s what separates this world even more from American Gigolo, or from American Psycho.

What kind of working relationship did you have with Bret?
In this particular case, I think the film is more Bret than me and Bret thinks it’s more me than him, which I think is the definition of a good collaboration. We were partners; we paid for this film together. The goal wasn’t to fix Bret’s script, the goal was to film it. I think that this is probably the purest collaboration I’ve been involved with because it began at the idea level. Working with Russell Banks on Affliction was very harmonious, but Russell came first and I came second. On The Canyons, Bret and I basically came at this together.

According to that notorious New York Times article about the film’s making, you showed The Canyons to Steven Soderbergh and he offered to re-edit the film. How did you receive that offer?
I thought it was kind of a joke! He said he’d have to do it in 36 hours and also, he thought I had much more footage than I did. I mean, we shot this very tight. I was using every bit of good footage I had. So I just sort of thought it was a joke, and I ignored it. How it ended up in the New York Times is that I told this to the producer, Braxton Pope, as a kind of a joke, and Braxton thought it was a good idea. I was so damn furious that he thought it was a good idea that I should let another director edit my film! What would happen if someone said to Soderbergh, “Oh, we think Paul Schrader can come in and edit your film”? [Laughs.] And the New York Times writer heard this and it ended up in the article and Steven was very upset. I had to apologize to him, you know, because it made him look bad, like he was being meddlesome. Steven has consistently said very good things about the film, and he thought he was being helpful. He felt I did too much cutting, he wanted the takes to be longer. Well, I did too much cutting because that’s what I had in my hands!

What did you make of how that New York Times article turned out? It’s rare to see that level of access to a production in an age where everything is so managed by publicists.
Well, the writer came in before Lindsay was involved, and he was gonna do an article about new paradigms for filmmaking. After Lindsay got involved, his angle sort of switched to, “We’re gonna do a film about the new Lindsay.” I said to her. “It’s gonna be great for you! The New York Times is gonna be on set the whole day, and they’re gonna see how responsible you are, and we’ll put an end to all this talk about how you can’t be hired.” Well, the new Lindsay didn’t show up. The old Lindsay showed up. And the thing about the old Lindsay was that the film was effectively highjacked by her, but it was what it was. You know, the article is not entirely true, although it’s more true than not true. Anyway, so now this movie has had two story lines, we’re on our third storyline right now, and hopefully, we have a fourth one. The first one was “Paul and Bret make a movie,” the second one was “The Lindsay Lohan horror show,” the third one is “Hey, it’s pretty good after all,” and hopefully — fingers crossed — the fourth one will be “Lindsay has a career again.”

If she wants a career again, what advice would you give her when she comes out of rehab?
Stop the Adderall. I mean, that’s fucking speed, and she was taking it every day. And then when she gets too speedy, you have to cut it with some vodka. Great. That’s what we call a speedball. She’s not a drug addict in a conventional sense, I just think that with Adderall … well, I’ve been talking to people about it, and apparently it’s the most abused drug on college campuses by women.

Obviously it wasn’t an easy shoot, but you’ve written fondly about Lindsay since filming wrapped. What is your relationship like now?
We text about once a week, because she can’t speak on the phone. Usually I text with her on Sunday — that’s when she gets alone time to do that — and she’s coming to Venice with us, and you know, she’s gonna make a real go at it. I keep hearing good things, that she looks great and that she feels great, and so, you know, fingers crossed.

Canyons Director Paul Schrader on Lindsay Lohan