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'The Canyons': Bret Easton Ellis Talks Lindsay Lohan, Millennial Sociopathy

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Aug 05, 2013 | 10:06am EDT
Credit: Facebook

Bret Easton Ellis certainly has a type. The American Psycho author has dug deep into the soul of trust fund brats all throughout his career. Now he's served up another character worthy of Patrick Bateman: James Deen's Christian in The Canyons, a smug Hollywood aspirant who torments Lindsay Lohan. We caught up with Ellis to talk The Canyons, Lohan's wild behavior on set, and whether privacy is something that's obtainable — or even desired — in today's world.

I just watched The Canyons online. IFC sent me a link that expires in approximately three days.

So you were watching it in the way it was intended to be watched. That's how we built the movie. That we knew that this was going to be watched that way.

Can you tell me more about that?

It was just the idea that for a certain kind of movie, getting people into the theaters is very difficult and it's very expensive. And so when we first started thinking about The Canyons, we realized that we were making this for VOD, and we were making this for people who are probably going to watch it on their computer screen or on demand. And it was never really intended for a theatrical release. Even we we were shooting it, we didn't think we were going to have one. Even when we made the deal with IFC to distribute the movie, we thought "okay yeah a theater in LA, a theater in New York" We really doubted that it was going to be any wider than that. So most of it has to do with expense. I mean, we put our money into it, we funded the bulk of the movie on Kickstarter. We own the movie, so to speak, so it kind of is like, we don't have the money to do a full-on ad campaign because it's just too expensive, so this is just the new reality of the economics of making a movie like The Canyons. So yeah that's the way to see it. That's the only way i've seen it so far — I haven't seen it in a theater. I've only seen it on my computer.

Well, backing up a little bit, I'd love to hear from you about your influences for writing the screenplay and what made you decide to go straight to a screenplay and not write a book first.

Well, it never felt like a novel to me. It never announced itself like a novel to me. And I write a lot of scripts and the scripts that I write should be filmed content — they should be a TV series or a film or a video or whatever I'm working on. The novel is trickier. The novel is kind of about consciousness and sensibility and writing style and not about the story so much but how the story is told, and it's much more unconventional in certain regards. And with The Canyons, The Canyons came about because Paul and I had been working on a movie that got shut down a month before it was about to be shot, and it was a $15 million thriller and it starred Anton Yelchin and Emmy Rossum and it was going to be shot in Costa Rica and suddenly half of the money fell apart-- it just disappeared. half the money was gone in an afternoon, and we got the phone call-- and I had been working on this project for six or seven years. Paul had just come on for about a year, and he did all the location scouting, got all the special effects ready. And then we were both really frustrated, it was like "Why are we doing this? Why are we working for a studio or production people who are kind of lying to us about what kind of money they have and then when it comes time to write a check, they don't have the money," so he said, "Why don't you write a micro budget movie, a really inexpensive movie set in LA, and I'll shoot it, I'll direct it, and then we'll own it." And that's how it happened, and so I started thinking about "Okay, who do I want to write about now? What am I thinking about now?" and I was kind of thinking about the fringes of Hollywood. Who are these people? They're rich people with money? They're kind of like a Christian character, and then I was thinking a lot about actors in Hollywood and what their trajectory is, young actors who move here and they don't make it and their struggles. and I've known a lot of them, and I wanted to write about that character, and then it all started to fall into place. We also wanted it to be kind of neo noir, like people having secrets in a time of transparency, like, how can you have secrets really anymore? People find out about everything. So all of these things came together, and I wrote the script really quickly and Paul said "great, let's cast this and shoot it" but between the time that I first started writing the canyons and Paul had the first cut of the movie, that was January to August 2012. And so instead of 7 years of trying to get a movie off the ground, we, from conception to a final cut, is more or less 8 months, 9 months. And that was a great way to work.

Of course, something that's made the film buzzy, as I'm sure you're well aware by now, is the casting of Lindsay Lohan and James Deen. And I'm wondering how each of them came to the story and how you came to work with them.

Well actually, you know, look, I became fascinated by James Deen just at the time that I began writing The Canyons, I thought that he'd be perfect for Christian, and I started writing Christian for James. and then I met James, it was after I tweeted something about him, I didn't even think he was going to respond, I didn't even tweet it at him, I just said "writing a script where the main character is a lot like James Deen" or something like that and then he tweeted back and said "I can't wait to read it." And so we met and I was even more convinced after we met that he could pull it off. I'd watched a lot of his porn, and I thought that he had this really interesting quantity that i hadn't seen in porn before, like someone who was really committed and very expressive and then also in non-porn scenes, I thought he had this kind of casual, boy next door quality that I just really liked, and I thought that he'd be perfect for this role. So I wrote it for him and then it was trying to get Paul to even audition him. But since Paul and I were partners on this, he grudgingly agreed. And this is why James was cast: out of the hundreds of guys that auditioned for the movie, he was the best. He just brought something to it, and you know, the pool of actors was very large, but no one big because this is a micro budget movie where you're not being paid anything, and you have to be naked, and you have to simulate sex and you have to bring your own lunch and drive your own car to the set. We had a very democratic way of casting. We ended up casting on this thing called letitcast.com, where anyone could read the sides that were posted and then film your own audition. And we watched every audition from all over the world that came in through letitcast. James just happened to be the best. And the same with Lindsay. Paul then wanted Lindsay to come in, and I had the same reaction that Paul had with James. I was like "Are you kidding me? Lindsay has so much baggage right now and I know people who know her. I hear she's not really at a great place." And Paul said "No no no, see her, watch her audition" and so I did and she was the best, out of the hundreds of actresses that we saw. And so it came down not to stunt casting but personal preference. They were the best two people, and they embodied those characters. That is how it came about. I don't think Paul would really stand for stunt casting, he considers himself much more of an artist. And there wasn't that much at stake -- we were making a no budget movie, and you know, we could've just done it anyway and casted some unknowns, but they were the best.

How much pause did it give you knowing the place that Lindsay was in? It sounds like not very much, just that after you saw her, that was it. Was that the case?

The script was finished and we were already looking at tons of actresses for that role. She came in very very late to the game, about a month before we began shooting…ahh a little longer than that… and she said she got hold of the script and she wanted to the lead. And I think we were all skeptical and then she auditioned and she was really good. So everything else fell away. It was just "who is best for this movie?" and Lindsay was troubled, and she did have her problems with Paul. She was fired before shooting even began, and then she kind of got back into shape. There's all the gossip — which, it's not gossip, it is true. Everything you read about Lindsay's behavior on set is true-- but it also only makes up about 15 percent of her behavior. That New York Times piece had all the facts right, but they took place over about a four or five day period out of a 23-day shoot. So the rest of the time, she was on schedule, on time. We remained within budget. We remained with that schedule. She did not veer the movie off of its trajectory. But she was a troubled actress at that period of her life. Paul Schrader, though, that first movie he made was with Richard Pryor, a movie called Blue Collar. And Paul said that Richard Pryor tried to murder him constantly during the shooting of that movie, and that Paul wanted to commit suicide every night. The Canyons wasn't like that, at all.

Glad to hear it. Also, a theme that you already mentioned, that I think is so widespread in this movie, is the fact that no one has a private life. and I think that's interesting, especially considering the fact that you yourself are so vocal on twitter. What's kind of your stance on that? Can people have private lives anymore? 

I mean, if you want to hide in a cave, you can. If you just want to lock yourself in a room, you can. If you want to engage with the world, you can't. you just can't have it, and there's nothing wrong with that. I believe in total transparency, and you just need to be who you are. and there's no point in hiding things about yourself. We're not moving into that kind of world anymore. So I think that's just becoming the language that we speak.

So I was thinking about transparency a lot in January and February of 2012 and I've been thinking about it a lot anyway. And I know people who don't believe in it, but I also think that it's just where we are. And I don't know where it gets you if you aren't a real, authentic person. I know that in society, we seem to be hitting it everyday, where things are being revealed about people, and you just can't hide it anymore. You just have to roll with it. Though society does punish people for it, that's true. Society is in this mode of punishing people for just being who they are, and I hope that moves past that at some point. And also, just in the movie itself, how do you do a neo-noir film whose very existence depends on secrets? People having secrets and things being revealed in an era of transparency. And what do you do with a character like Christian who mouths off about how we're all transparent, but actually he's pretty hypocritical about it.

Another theme I saw in the film is this idea of having to act and be an actor in your everyday life. And Christian even says that line to his therapist at the end, that he feels like an actor. How much of this movie as a whole do you see as kind of a commentary on Hollywood and being in the industry?

Well, a lot, because of who the characters are. They're on the fringes of Hollywood, and honestly, so am I. I don't work on big studio projects. I work on independent projects that I'm interested in. I'm not really part of the system. I'm kind of an outsider, and so is Paul. Definitely James is and Lindsay is. So writing this movie about people on the fringes of the industry trying to put this horror movie together in New Mexico or wherever it is. I was just thinking about my place too. And I was thinking about, with transparency, comes the notion that you don't have to act anymore. You don't have to pose anymore. You can just be yourself. To have that transparency in that culture also interested me a lot. But I also believe that to a degree, also the very nature of society, we do play a variety of roles. I'm not who I am with my boyfriend as I am with my mom. There's a different set of things that are demanded in that dynamic. But at the same time, I do believe that there needs to be a kind of genuineness, a kind of authenticity to people. 

By the end of the film, Christian's character has become kind of a Patrick Bateman kind of character. His name is Christian, and Patrick Bateman was played by Christian Bale. Was that on purpose?

I didn't really think about that. I was thinking about… what was on at that time that I was watching where someone was named Christian? I don't know. I just wanted to use the name. I wasn't thinking of Christian Bale. I think I was just thinking of Christianity, to be pretentious. I really wrote the movie for Paul. I shaped it for him, because I'd seen all of his work, and I really wanted something that thematically was in tune with the rest of his work. So I think Christian came from Paul's own issues about religion. Honestly, I think that's where it came from. And then I have Christian Bale. Why didn't that land in front of me? But I wonder if it was from a movie or some TV show where the guy's name was Christian...

One of the moments in the movie that I thought was really interesting is when Christian ultimately decides that he believes that Tara is cheating on him and then he goes after Ryan's bank account. He's being wronged in a sexual realm and goes after him in the financial realm. I was wondering what your thoughts were about conflating the idea of money and sex. 

The movie is so much about that, because the entire relationship between Christian and Tara has an inequality to it because he has the money, and she doesn't. But I believe that also there was a point before we entered into this movie that they genuinely liked each other. I don't believe that she just hooked up with him because he had money. If you're a pretty girl in this town, you have your pick of who you want to end up getting into that kind of relationship with if you want to. So there had to be something else about the relationship before this, where he really cared about her and she liked him a lot. But yes, this notion of money playing a part in non-business relationships has always been on my mind and I think it's a theme that runs throughout my work. And I think that for this particular scenario, this particular movie, I think I worked on a lot of levels. It tells you a lot about Christian and what's on his mind, and how he feels he can torture Ryan. And the same way with Lindsay telling the Ryan character why she has really stuck with Christian. She does say she loves him over and over but she does not want to go back to what is for a lot of actors in this town, a kind of rough existence. So I'm sympathetic to all the characters to a degree. I'm sympathetic to a degree with christian. I don't think I could write a character where I thought they were just completely irredeemable -- there has to be something that I recognize, and there has to be some empathy for them, you know.

I'm curious on your thoughts on the Tara character. Because for so much of the movie, she seems not completely in control, but she has her faculties about her and she's pretty savvy. And then by the end of the movie, I feel like she becomes a total victim. And I was wondering, what was your intention in creating a character like that?

I think that ultimately everyone kind of loses. No one really gets what they want. And by the way Tara did put herself in this position, so I don't think she's unduly victimized in a way. She's part of her own victimization. I mean, she signed onto this. I think everyone to a degree becomes somewhat victimized. I do think, however, saying that, it seems much less apparent in the film than perhaps in the screenplay because of the way Lindsay plays Tara. She didn't change any of the dialogue, but she brought a much more combative, confrontational element of the character out into view. She plays scenes with James like she's very angry a lot of the time, and those scenes were written as more of conversations, and she gave them a deeper drama than as they were written in the script. And to me, personally, she doesn't come off as much of a victim — she made me realize how much a victim I had written Tara and so she just gave it a spin by giving the dialogue a different dynamic, but I do think that everyone kind of victimizes themselves in a way. The Cynthia character becomes the ultimate victim. Amanda becomes a victim. A victim is a strange word and I'm really interested in what it means and how people victimize themselves and who is a victim in who's mind. It's been on my mind a lot lately.

I'm curious to hear more about how you think the cast brought your script to life and if you were pleased by their performances.

I was very pleased with everybody's performances. And I think that if your performance in the first cut, before we did post and ADR, everyone's performance got better and everyone I thought was great. So I'm completely happy with all the leads. I think Nolan's great, James is great, Lindsay's great, all very unique actors. I couldn't be more pleased. It turned out so much better than I thought.

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