L.A. Unplugged: Director Paul Schrader on The Canyons
Stunning black-and-white photos of movie theaters — old-style palaces and tacky multiplexes alike — sit underneath the credits of The Canyons, the 18th feature from veteran director and screenwriter Paul Schrader. Except rather than evoke the majesty of the 20th century’s dominant art form, they depict its collapse. These theaters are guttered, wrecked, their seats torn out, signage empty, neon fixtures torn and dangling from the ceilings. Some of these theaters — vintage single-screen Art Deco houses — are surely no longer viable in the modern era. The demise of the pictured strip-mall multiplexes, however, is most likely the product of something else — maybe the recent bust in commercial real estate but more likely the TV binge-watching, Internet-addicted habits of contemporary audiences. Regardless of the reasons, this credit montage plunges us into a world where movies just aren’t as important anymore. Indeed, during one scene shot in the DVD section of L.A.’s Amoeba Records, the typical fault of so many independent films — not enough extras — seemed more a sly commentary on the demise of physical media than a budgetary concern.
So successful is the film’s opening title sequence in imbuing The Canyons with a fin de siécle charge that I wondered if it was the masterstroke of a canny title designer. But no. “Are you on your computer?” Schrader asked during our phone interview. “Go on Facebook to our page. You see that photo of the old theater? That was the very first image we put up about the movie.”
This conception of itself — a film made for what Schrader dubs “the post-theatrical era” — plays out in The Canyons in various witty ways. The film can’t help but be informed by its backstory — Schrader, screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis and producer Braxton Pope turned to Kickstarter to fund a microbudget ($250,000, plus deferments) feature. For rewards, Ellis critiqued novels, and Schrader offered not only script coverage but mementos such as a silver money clip given to him by Robert De Niro after Taxi Driver. (It went for $10,000.) The film’s casting traded A-list movie star celebrity for another kind. Female lead Lindsay Lohan has always been a talented actress, but in recent years her unpredictable behavior and legal woes have meant that her star has shone most brightly on the Web pages of TMZ. Dubbed by none other than ABC’s Nightline as “Porn’s Boy Next Door,” male lead James Deen is the only new-era male adult star to cross over into mainstream culture. The two play a controlling, three-way addicted Hollywood film producer and his girlfriend, an actress who bows out of her boyfriend’s latest production when she learns that a secret ex is among the cast. What follows is a murderous tale of sex and revenge among characters whose of-the-moment amorality will be familiar to fans of Ellis’s oeuvre.
The combination of Schrader, Ellis, Lohan and Deen — to say nothing of a front-page New York Times article detailing the shoot’s various dramas, which included a naked Schrader beseeching a teary Lohan to come out from her trailer for the film’s pivotal group sex scene — have created what Schrader calls in our conversation “noise.” But if you’re expecting a fascinating cinematic car crash here, you’ll be surprised to discover that, for all its embrace of 21st-century DIY filmmaking techniques, this film by Schrader feels like, well, a Paul Schrader film. Whatever decomposition is suggested by that opening title montage is certainly not present in the film’s formal values or narrative strategies. The sinuous Deen projects an icy allure, and Lohan, despite odd styling choices in some scenes, rediscovers the immediacy and emotional vulnerability that made her a star in the first place.
The Canyons opens in August — day-and-date in theaters and, of course, on digital platforms — from IFC Films.
This is our 20th anniversary year, and back in our very first issue, I interviewed you about your film Light Sleeper. At the time, it represented a change in your method of financing and production. Now, we’re talking again on the eve of the release of a film that represents another shift in the way movies like yours are made and released. Well, I began in the studio system, and I did five or six films there. That [financing] went away for the type of films I was interested in; so then I got involved in the independent world. And now, the independent world seems to be coming apart at the seams. I think we got very lucky [with The Canyons]. I sort of feel like we went in the casino and put all our money on red and won. The scariest thing about that is you don’t know what to do next because nothing good is going to happen in that casino again. The longer you stay there, there’s less money you’re going to have.
When you say you won, what’s your definition of winning? Probably that the film is in profit. And I am very, very happy with the film. I think it’s as good a film as I’ve made. And even though it was done in this DIY manner, I have no apologies for how it looks and how it works and how it plays.
In terms of the making of the film, what changed for you as a result of this radically reduced budget? Well, we didn’t pay for anything. We didn’t have permits. We didn’t have insurance. We didn’t have transportation. We didn’t have trailers. We didn’t have wardrobe. We paid the minimum wage, but only during production. There were quite a few deferments, of course. Lindsay is a part owner of the film. We shot at places where we knew people. James drives his own car and Lindsay drives the gaffer’s car. But in some ways, when you stop paying, it becomes easier to negotiate than when you’re paying too little.
I was struck by the fact that it’s a very composed film. A lot of times when people go to a smaller, DIY level, it suddenly becomes all handheld and you can feel the budget shrinkage in the style of the film. The Canyons felt to me that you were still holding true to the stylistic qualities of your previous films. The Alexa has a lot to do with that. It’s quite a great camera, and it was designed to look and feel like film. And when you’re using digital, you have all that ASA to play with, so you don’t have to waste all that time lighting. About two or three days into [production], I said to the cinematographer, “I’m doing [American] Gigolo.” And that all had to do with that damn house. That was the luckiest thing that happened, that house in Malibu. We got that through Kickstarter, for free. There’s not a bad angle in that house. Maybe another director could find one, but I sure couldn’t. It was full of mid-century modern, museum-quality furniture so we didn’t have to do any set dressing either. Once we got that house, things just started falling into place. We shot the first eight days in that house, so it really defined everything.
How did you get the house through Kickstarter? A guy who had contributed to us read the script and said, “You should see my friend’s house. I think it’s perfect.” He sent photos. We went over there, and the house was really compelling. The owner agreed to move out with his wife and daughter for the period we were shooting. While shooting, I said, “We’ve gotta be real careful about everything in this house. It’s full of valuable stuff, and we’re getting it for free.” And someone said, “You know, I think the owner is getting some money.” I said, “No, we’re not giving him any money.” Well, it turned out the Kickstarter guy gave him $10,000 without telling us.
How did he wind up reading the script? Was that something you made available to all your backers? No, but he was the highest-level backer, and he wanted to read the script.Anybody who gives $6,000 bucks can read the script as far as I’m concerned. All he really wanted to do was be a part of the process from start to finish. There were no doors closed to him, except, of course, the [filming of the] nudity, which is understandable. We made him a producer, not because we needed to, but because that house was so critical to the pulling off of the film.
There’s talk now about Zach Braff’s Kickstarter campaign. I think everyone who contributed to his film gets to read the script too, but only after the movie comes out. I agree with you — if fans are asked to become financiers, I think at a certain level some of them should have the same rights as other financiers. I think there’s going to be some backlash over this sort of abuse of that system. I think there already is.
What do you think is different about Braff’s campaign and yours? Our film would not have been made were it not for Kickstarter. Or, it certainly would not have been the film it turned out to be. Originally, Bret, Braxton [Pope] and I were each going to put in $15,000 bucks and just shoot something on our own. Because we weren’t going to pay actors, and we didn’t have a casting director, we got involved in [the online casting service] Let It Cast. We got 650 auditions from them. And what Let It Cast said to us was, “Well, why don’t you also do Kickstarter? You can get at least $100,000 more.” We ended up getting $170,000. So we were able to make it at $250,000, plus deferments. And that [extra financing] made a great deal of difference. But some of these [Kickstarter] projects, you have a feeling that they could get made elsewhere.
What do you credit with making it all work, the production? Well, we got lucky — there’s no two ways about it. Another thing — our first read-through, the whole crew was there. It was a kind of a group thing. I got this idea from Ed Burns, who works in that way too. You create a kind of group mentality, and then people don’t feel so bad about making sacrifices because they’re all doing it together. And also, this was written as a microbudget film. It wasn’t written as a large budget film and then shrunk down. What is a microbudget film? What’s the cheapest thing there is? Talk. Talk is cheap. So a microbudget film is mostly people sitting around talking. And if you have good dialogue and a good kind of story and interesting people, that can work. But it can start to feel like a stage play because you’re not spending money on action sequences. So in order to keep it from feeling like a stage play, you have to walk and talk, although not at the same time. So this film, it’s walk, walk, walk, talk, talk, talk, walk, walk, walk. That opens the structure up for music because you can just have these 50-second [music] cues [underneath] creating a mood. And then you get back into the talking again. Well, that’s that kind of the Gigolo thing, that riding around, walking around and then talking. In order to make a dialogue-driven microbudget film feel more kinetic, you have all these transportation scenes — how people are getting from one place to another — and those [require] big music cues. Bret and I had an argument about it afterward because he said, “What’s all this music?” And I said, “That’s what’s saving your dialogue!” It just opens it up and makes it feel not very rushed. It’s nice. I mean, these music passages are one thing you couldn’t do for television.
You mentioned American Gigolo. I thought of that film too, and not just because of the house, but because of James Deen’s particular physicality and the way he moved. Well, we definitely were playing that, yes.
What’s different about the era of American Gigolo and now, and how did this reflect itself in the film? Gigolo was at the cusp of a kind of materialism, a kind of belief in an America of excess. It was the beginning of an American Psycho-era of greed. Now, we’re on the backside of that era. When we had our first cast read-through, I said, “This is a story of a bunch of 20-somethings 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 that’s sort of how I thought about the film. [It’s about] these people who are in the movie business but really don’t like movies that much, and the theaters are all closed anyway. I said to Bret in the email on January 2 of this year that this would be cinema for a post-theatrical era. And so, it was sort of funny when people were badmouthing the film by describing it as straight-to-video. First of all, straight-to-video isn’t a derogatory term anymore. And that’s the film we were making — we were making a film for a post-theatrical era.
Tell me about the specific approach you took to directing James and Lindsay. The ironic thing is James has been in several thousand films and he’s directed maybe 500. It’s kind of strange to find someone at the age of 27 who is an unknown, yet is totally at ease in front of the camera. And he’s a real smart kid. Both his parents teach at Cal Tech. And he prepared. He studied. He does his work. And because I was getting the first kind of serious performance out of him, everything he did was fresh because nobody had seen it before. Now if he does another film, the director might say, “Oh, there’s those familiar mannerisms that we saw in your other work.” But here, no one has seen all these mannerisms before. Or, at least if they have, they weren’t paying that much attention. And then, you know, Lindsay is a natural. She has that thing. She is a high-maintenance person. She is exhausting to be around, and it must be exhausting to be her. I said to the cinematographer, “Look, every minute Lindsay is in front of the camera and in wardrobe is a gift from God. Let’s not waste any of these minutes. If she’s there and she’s ready, we’re going to shoot.” When she slips into the groove, she’s really good. It’s just a pity that her behavior has been so counterproductive to her career because she has that magic.
In terms of her conception of the character and your conception of the character, were you guys on the same page? Was there a difference? Pretty close. The character wasn’t that far from things she has known or experienced and people she has known. I didn’t sit down with her in that way and do a character breakdown because I think she understood this girl. James, I did a more conventional kind of rundown of the character. But I didn’t feel I needed to do it with Lindsay.
Regarding Lindsay, despite all of the tabloid stuff, and her styling in some of the scenes, I was struck that there still is a vulnerability to her. That is not gone. Some of it has gone and some of it has been replaced with something that’s also interesting, which is a kind of brassiness, a kind of Angie Dickinson/Ann-Margret kind of thing. She’s smart not to be still playing the ingénue.
Does this film represent a one-off experiment for you, or is this a new direction in terms of how you think you’re going to be making your movies? Well, I mean, the pieces would have to come together. Bret and I just happened to be in a similar frame of mind after a project we had had fallen through. If the pieces lined up again like this, I would certainly do it. If they all wanted to do it again, I’m sure Bret and I would do “Tara’s revenge.” But it’s not something that you can really force. I mean, I could have done this on my own, but I wouldn’t have created the kind of heat that I did when I hooked up with Bret. Bret had this idea about James, and I said, “Wait a second. That’s kind of interesting. Somebody from the celebrity culture, somebody from the adult world, put them together with Bret and I.” You know this word, noise, that everybody uses now? When you go to pitch something and they say, “Is it going to make noise?” Meaning, will you get your head above the crowd, and will anybody notice you? You need these kinds of elements to make a little noise. And not only media noise but also kind of a creative noise too.
Was there a synchronicity between those two types of noise, the creative noise and the media noise, or did they work at cross-purposes? Well, I certainly would have preferred to have gone without the day-to-day drama that accompanies Lindsay. On the other hand, maybe that sense of constant crisis contributed to the creative thing in some way. It was not a smooth set. We were always on the verge of some kind of upsetting event. It wasn’t one of those movies where everybody says, “Oh, we had such a good time.” It was difficult emotionally for people in the film, crew included. But you know, maybe that helped.
What about after the film? You had that big New York Times piece, and the narrative it created is being replayed and replayed. Well, it’s also being replaced.
By people’s reactions to the film? We stirred that pot, you know? That guy from the Times, Steve Rodrick, was with us the whole time. And I knew that Lindsay was hijacking his story, but still, the cover of the New York Times for a little film like this is really something. It was a tradeoff. Once that article came out, the uninformed made a connection between a troubled production and a troubled film, but in fact, there often is very little connection. Some of the great films have been horrific productions, and some of the happiest productions have resulted in some of the most boring films. It was a troubled production, and that’s why it was a good article, but it doesn’t mean it was a troubled film. And so, as soon as that narrative started coming out, that’s when we sold it to IFC. We had to start creating another narrative, which was that this is a worthwhile film. And in fact, the old narrative plays into the new narrative because the old story was, “This is a disaster.” If it is a disaster, that’s not such a good story. But, if it’s not a disaster, it becomes a better story yet. So the narrative continues.
What advice would you give to a young filmmaker trying to make a career in this post-theatrical era? I really don’t know. We are undergoing a systemic change. There’s not going to be the money in the movies there used to be. The same thing that happened to the music business is happening. There’s just as much music, but there’s 60 percent less money. Well, that’s going to happen here too. So this is not a very terribly lucrative career any more than music is. Those days are over. Movies were born of a capitalist system, but now the capitalist paradigm has been destroyed by technology. Movies are much more like poetry or painting. You can make them without any regard to the capitalist imperative. Before, you could only make movies if people paid for them. Now you can make them for nobody.
As a creative artist, how does that make you feel? I don’t know. I mean, I was never in it just for the money anyway. But it is so much harder to do your work in this era. If I was starting out now, I don’t know if I would even be drawn into films. I have a feeling that I might be writing code. So there’s not a whole lot of encouragement I can give to people.
In the midst of this environment, what’s made you keep working and making films like this one? A lot of people of your generation would either spend many years still trying to do the kind of film they used to do or, frankly, would give up. Or would teach.
Yes. I just find it fun. I’ve always sort of been tickled by trying to figure out a new way to do something. So often I go to see a movie, and I look at the screen and I say, “How did they stay awake? They’ve all made this movie 10 times before.” Everything I’ve done, I’ve always thought, will this keep me awake? Will this really be interesting to do? Part of the fun of doing The Canyons wasn’t just telling a story and making a film, but it was seeing if you could actually make a film this way. Can we actually pull this off? So you know, that’s why I keep doing it — just because it’s interesting. Certainly a lot more interesting than the alternative.