Nothing about making The Canyons was easy, and why should it have been? The micro-budget sex thriller was conceived by two consummate provocateurs — writer Bret Easton Ellis and director Paul Schrader — and two more notorious people were picked to topline the movie, troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen. The result was a production process so dramatic and juicy that it almost warrants its own movie (and produced, at the very least, one instant-classic New York Times Magazine article). In the meantime, you can satisfy yourself with the actual film, which was released in theaters and on VOD this past Friday. Yesterday, we called up Ellis to get his take on the movie’s wildly mixed reviews; we also discussed Lohan, Grindr, and Kanye West.
You’ve been tweeting a lot about the critical reaction to the movie. What has surprised you about that, and what did you see coming a mile away?
What we foresaw coming a mile away has pretty much happened. Look, we went with Lindsay because she was the best actress for the role. Paul has a big ego — he’s not going to cast someone who will fuck up his vision — and it’s true that out of the hundred girls we saw, Lindsay was the best. We had a long talk with each other about what casting her would mean for the quote-unquote “reputation” of the movie and we knew we would be severely attacked for that decision, but we wanted her in our movie, so we jumped off the cliff and now we’re dealing with the old Lindsay narrative, which is what is enveloping this film. I expected bad reviews, I’ve always gotten bad reviews. But what I’ve noticed is that we really are paying for [the choice to cast Lindsay] in terms of reviewers disliking the movie. I mean, this movie’s tiny. It’s our own money; it’s not like we spent $40 million of someone else’s money and then pushed this out into the world and said, “Love us, love us!” No, we own this movie, we’re putting it out there on iTunes, and the hatred for it is disproportionate to what it is. I believe that really does have a lot to do, at the top of the list, with the Lindsay problem. But I do think a new narrative is also emerging, because even if you intensely dislike this movie, you have to begrudgingly admit that at the very least, Lindsay is interesting in it. And at the very most, you might say, “I don’t know how, but she’s quite good.”
Paul Schrader can be a very serious director. Do you feel like your sense of humor remains in the final product?
When Paul came to me and said, “Let’s make a movie,” we became partners in this venture, and I really tried to tailor something for Paul’s sensibility. I mean, look, are there funny lines? I don’t know. Is “funny” the right word? I laughed in a couple of places. But no, you’re right, there are no jokes in the movie. If you’re looking to crack a few smiles and have a few giggles, I don’t think that’s really The Canyons. There’s not a lot of humor in any of Paul’s movies, really … and I don’t necessarily think that’s a limitation, it’s just an outlook. I am interested in the film’s worldview. It speaks to me and it speaks to Schrader, and no matter how sleazy it is, I’m drawn to it. I know many others aren’t and resent having to have The Canyons inflicted on them in some way.
I’ve heard that you think the film feels more like him than you. Schrader thinks the opposite.
That’s interesting. Look, for all of the limitations we had, and the budget, and this guerrilla style of filmmaking, I think he did a fantastic job. Visually, it looks so much better than I ever imagined. But would I have done it slightly more naturalistically? Maybe. Maybe I would have. I don’t know if I would have been so austere and formal, but again, that’s Schrader’s style — he has this almost Asian way of shooting things. I still say that it’s more Schrader than me, but I wrote it for him and he directed it. I was thinking of a Schrader film; I wasn’t particularly thinking of a Bret Easton Ellis thing, whatever that means.
James Deen’s character often uses a hook-up app that’s reminiscent of Grindr or Blendr. Have you used Grindr much in your own life?
During January and February of 2012, while I was writing the script, I was thinking about it a lot. My boyfriend and I were using it, but ultimately, like a lot of things, it just wasn’t fun anymore. There were crazy people on it! It was like, What are we doing? This is enticing, but ultimately not worth the hassle. And it just kind of faded out. Look, I have straight friends who are using Blendr, and in that moment, we were all kind of using it. For some reason, in that winter of 2012, it was being used a lot.
James Deen has this reputation in the mainstream media as a nice-guy porn star, but it seems like when you were conceiving his character, you were inspired by some of his rougher, meaner work on Kink.com. True?
What was it about those S&M videos that you sparked to?
It was the duality. It was the cute, Jewish, boy-next-door quality that I found really appealing; I thought he was attractive, and kind of sweet. And then the darker porn revealed a completely different aspect of James, and I thought, How interesting is it that we’re able to see this totally transparent person in play here? He’s showing us one side of himself, which is genuine, and he’s showing us another side that is also genuine. I just loved that duality and that he was so open to sharing that, and that’s what I thought was so perfect for Christian. And he has a big dick.
Which he shows off in the movie.
You said recently that you’re writing a script at Kanye West’s behest. Would this be a feature script for him to star in? What can you tell me about it?
All I can say is that it’s a feature script and that we just finished talking deal points, more or less. I can’t talk about it, but it’s based on an idea that he has, and I’ll be writing that soon.
You lobbied hard to write the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. What do you make of the recent choice of Sam Taylor-Johnson as the director? Why do you think they picked her?
When I talked to [author] E.L. James, she said, “Look, I should have contacted you earlier somehow and told you to stop tweeting, because we were always going to hire a woman to write the movie, and we were always going to hire a woman to direct it.” That’s how it was. I’m totally fine with it, but I wish I kind of knew before I went and made this Twitter fool of myself. [Laughs.] The director they picked has only made one movie, but I kind of liked it. It was okay, Nowhere Boy. And [her husband] Aaron Johnson is really hot.
Last month, you tweeted, “As someone who loved American movies: at some point in 2013 I realized that they were probably dead as an art form.” And yet you still see plenty of films, to judge by your Twitter account.
But it’s true, I did a hit a wall this year. I just saw too many bad movies, too many movies I felt indifferent about. Whether they’re independent movies or the big studio movies of the summer, there’s usually something interesting in them, and there just hasn’t been. I really limped along for a while, and it’s become apparent to me that so many of my friends have stopped going to movies. They just don’t like American movies anymore; everyone’s gravitated to television, which I think is insanely overrated. I think most of the shows that people like really don’t compare to the best movies, and aren’t as exciting as the best movies. So I’m kind of in this nowhere-land where I wonder, “Where do I get my fix?” and the answer is that I still get my fix by making this ritualized trek to a theater and hoping that when the lights go down, I’m gonna meet that special someone. That’s the romance of movies, and it’s just stopped happening with a kind of shocking regularity. Everything’s kind of a miss. I don’t know what’s going on.