“It’s not The Godfather or The Conformist,” says Bret Easton Ellis of his screenplay for the upcoming film The Canyons, a noirish thriller that follows a movie industry love triangle down the rabbit hole in present-day Los Angeles. “It’s a small movie about some young people, and this little thing happens. Then it gets a bit darker. Then there’s a murder.” Everyone has a lot of sex and most or all of them smoke cigarettes. If any of that contains a spoiler, so does the name Bret Easton Ellis, author of seven best-selling books including American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction, and Less Than Zero.
Directed by Paul Schrader, the auteur behind American Gigolo, Auto Focus, and the woefully underrated thriller Light Sleeper, The Canyons stars Lindsay Lohan (Mean Girls, A Prairie Home Companion), Nolan Funk (Glee, Riddick), and James Deen (Missionary: Impossible, Pump My Ass Full of Cum 3). “I’d be hardpressed to say it’s the next Great American Movie,” Ellis says, “but I think we succeeded at what we set out to do.”
Ellis sits poolside in multi-gated Laughlin Park, the languorous, eucalyptus-shaded private community in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood where DeMille, Chaplin, and W.C. Fields built sprawling estates during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Paparazzi loiter outside the huge iron gates. Inside there are laser tripwires, armed patrols, and conspicuous motion-activated cameras. “Everyone I know is scared,” says Ellis, sipping a four-dollar iced tea. “Especially people who are very successful in the movie industry. The reality is, studios don’t make movies anymore—unless you get in on some kind of Marvel franchise, unless you’re Robert Downey Jr. and willing to have your identity subsumed by Tony Stark.” At the moment, Hollywood (the film industry, not the garbage-strewn zip code) trades almost exclusively in sure-thing blockbuster franchises with billion-dollar payouts, one computer-generated explosion tailing the next. Following the Great Recession in 2008, studios have rebounded with a vengeance: Iron Man 3, The Amazing Spider-Man, the sixth installment of the endless Fast & Furious franchise.
“You could make the argument that The Avengers felt like a Joss Whedon movie. Or that, even though I didn’t like it, Shane Black put his stamp on Iron Man 3. But the fact is we’re moving into the realm where directors who have a lot of intelligence and talent are being groomed by the studios to make these movies,” Ellis says. Not surprisingly, Steven Soderbergh, one of the most employable directors in the industry, announced he’s taking a “sabbatical” to “reevaluate his relationship to film,” as if he intends to be holed up in a cabin somewhere, jabbing forks into his eyes. “An American movie for adults is just not feasible when China is the second biggest market in the world. That’s why you have something like The Great Gatsby, an international production with a rap soundtrack,” he says. “It’s like a crazy Bollywood mishmash and most of its money will be made in non-English-speaking countries. This is the reality. It’s a dead end. Maybe it’s not depressing to someone who’s 20 and doesn’t give a shit.”
Behind Ellis, in a California Modern ranch, musician Todd Michael Schultz, known to Ellis’ 400,000-some Twitter followers as “the 26 year old,” is playing the grand piano and singing—recording for immediate upload to YouTube. “He and I watched George Cukor’s A Star Is Born the other night, and we were both floored,” Ellis says. “It’s like a fucking painting. When we were first going out I showed him Dog Day Afternoon, which he loved, and he said, ‘I can’t believe they used to make movies like that.’ But it comes and goes, same with television. There are so many worthless sitcoms, and then Lena Dunham goes and makes Girls. So it can happen.”
Ellis has seen four of his books adapted (changed, more accurately) into films. Most recently, it was in 2008 with The Informers, his collection of short stories featuring reoccurring characters fighting monotony with depravity. “The Informers was a $20-million movie I wrote with my best friend Nicholas Jarecki, who went on to make Arbitrage. I saw firsthand how so many people involved with a movie can ultimately, by committee, destroy it. It took 10 months to cast that movie. Ten months.” He picks up a pack of cigarettes next to a dinner plate– sized ashtray mountainous with butts, and finds it empty.
Last year, after a joint project called Bait was shelved due to an eleventh-hour financing snafu, Schrader gave Ellis some microbudget films to watch, saying, “We can do one of these.” Ellis was frustrated at the time. “I’d finished my last novel and had three or four films attracting directors and actors that kept falling apart. I was going to make a movie called The Frog King with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but that, like everything else, fell apart.”
Making movies on the cheap outside the studio machine is nothing new. At this point, Joe Swanberg can probably sneeze a relationship talkie into any art-house cinema he’s passing by, and for years Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School has emphasized lock-picking skills and permit forgery. But “micro-budget,” like “unscripted television” before it, is a buzzword, and the new game in Ho-Town is frenetic one-downmanship. Take the Polish brothers (Twin Falls Idaho, Northfork), who screamed from the rooftops that their 2011 production of For Lovers Only was shot in two weeks in numerous locations around France, including Paris, for “$0!”—a flatly dishonest claim. Legendary Pictures, the $7-billion production company out of Burbank, flush with cash from The Dark Knight Rises and The Hangover Part III, just announced that their new “micro-budget” thriller As Above, So Below will be created in partnership with a fictional-sounding creative unit called the Brothers Dowdle at a cost “in the $5-10 million range.”
All that bears mentioning because, among the many big-name companies scrambling, and faking, cheap productions, The Canyons’ micro-budget is straightforward. Ellis, Schrader, and producer Braxton Pope raised most of the film’s $250,000 budget on Kickstarter and financed the rest themselves. “About 30 grand each,” says Ellis, “just to get the absolute minimum of post-production.”
The production wasn’t just low on budget, but also on bullshit. “There’s this impression that the shoot was a nightmare and that’s just not true,” Ellis says, referring to an oft-cited feature in The New York Times Magazine that went to dubious lengths to hammer home that Lohan, pretty much world famous for showing up late to things, was, at least on several occasions, late. “There were five or six bad days,” Ellis concedes. “Sure, Lindsay could be problematic. Paul could be problematic, too, but he really did keep the whole thing together. Whatever, it’s a movie. There are always… things.”
Ellis wrote the script with porn star James Deen in mind as his male lead. “I find what he represents fascinating,” Ellis says. “James is almost like your typical gay porn star—nothing like the boring straight performers from the ’90s, which was the last time I looked at that kind of porn. You watch his darker stuff—BDSM, whatever—and you go, Oh, the trust fund–looking boy next door who can snap on a dime. James has something very neutral and non-actor-y about him, which is what I thought that role demanded.”
It was the “non-actor-y” bit that was a hard sell to Schrader, Pope, and Lohan, who walked out of an early table read. Nolan Funk, 26, who plays Ryan, the “other man” to Deen’s Christian, says, “At the end of the day, I admire Bret’s commitment to having an opinion in a town where everyone’s afraid to have one. He’s fearless that way.” After watching the film, Ellis admits that maybe Deen couldn’t always “calibrate” some of the film’s interpersonal subtleties. Nevertheless, “I was shocked by how well he got through some of those scenes,” he says. “And Schrader shot him like a movie star. I thought he delivered.”
Casting a porn star as a lead in one’s feature film isn’t the most conventional move, but it’s low on the scandal scale for Ellis. His 1991 novel American Psycho, about a fantastically sadistic, brand-obsessed serial killer, ignited a firestorm of controversy before the galleys even went to print. His publisher quickly dropped him, and Ellis received hyper-graphic death threats and a fatwa from the National Organization for Women. These days, people are on him about his tweets. His most recent sub–140 character smashhits include: disparaging the quality of Breaking Bad even if he does want to “bang the kid with cerebral palsy,” equating watching Glee with “stepping in a puddle of HIV,” and accidentally tweeting a text message soliciting cocaine. “The Twitter thing has gotten me into a lot of trouble because I’ve said shit that’s not PC or whatever,” say Ellis, although he’s not particularly apologetic.
Nor is he losing much sleep over The Canyons’ critical reception. “The reactions, though important, are beside the point,” he says of what he calls the “best experience I’ve ever had with a movie project.” Is it perfect? “No.” Is he happy with it? “… Yes,” he says, full-stopping the hesitation. “I mean, look—it’s not as if I was writing one of those great scripts. It’s not Back to the Future.”
Photography by Kurt Iswarienko. Styling by Sara Paulsen.
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