COMBINE THE SUBVERSIVE BRILLIANCE OF BRET EASTON ELLIS AND PAUL SCHRADER, AN IT-BOY PORN STAR, LINDSAY LOHAN AND A SAVVY PRODUCER. WHAT HAVE YOU GOT? THE CANYONS
by Sharon Swart photography Andre Vippolis
“From the Twitter-obsessed pen of author Bret Easton Ellis...By the never-nominated director Paul Schrader...” a campy English-accented movie-trailer voice trumpets as black & white images, cut in the gleefully maudlin style of a ’50s melodrama, flicker onscreen. Cut to introductions of the film’s stars: tabloid-bait Lindsay Lohan and porn god James Deen, both of whom get naked in the film. The other actor of note: iconic filmmaker Gus van Sant, in a cameo as Deen’s therapist. One other thing: the film is not actually set in the ’50s nor filmed in black & white, just this trailer.
Welcome to The Canyons, the only yet-to-be-seen, ultra-low-budget film to register on the Hollywood radar this year. It’s also a massive career gamble for its writer and director, both living legends who, despite their maverick natures and penchant for outré material, have never gone all in quite like this before.
The trailer is actually the second genre-inspired Canyons promo to hit the web this fall (following a “grindhouse” version evoking ʼ70s horror in early October), and it's the latest unconventional marketing ploy that the film’s creative team — including Ellis, Schrader and producer Braxton Pope — has unleashed on the Web. The gambit worked, although it’s stoked as much intrigue as venom: Bloggers branded the contemporary noir about 20-something Angelenos as everything from “schlocky” to “trashtastic” to “terrible.” (Schrader dismisses the critics as unimaginative literalists, while Pope explains that the clips are “intentional misdirections” intended to stir up trouble and attention online. Mission accomplished.)
But controversy is nothing new for practiced provocateurs Schrader (whose credits include writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and writing and directing American Gigolo and Hardcore) and Ellis (whose eight novels include the epoch-defining American Psycho and Less Than Zero). Like with everything else about The Canyons, the filmmakers’ approach to PR has been governed by a different set of principles. This is a film for a time that Ellis famously branded in a 2011 essay he wrote for Newsweek as “post-Empire” — or what comes after the accepted media and entertainment constructs of the past century. (The tagline for The Canyons: “Itʼs not The Hills.”)
It all began after Schrader, Ellis and Pope saw their last collaboration, a shark thriller called Bait, crater last year due to shaky financing. Schrader emailed Ellis in January, suggesting that they do something else together — something that could be done on a very low budget and without financier or studio interference.
“With the new economics of filmmaking, we could just do this ourselves,” insists Schrader. “The kind of stuff that Bret writes is not that expensive — you know, beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms. I said to Bret, ʻWhen youʼre talking about a micro-budget film, youʼre talking about dialogue — thatʼs the thing you can afford. You can afford people sitting in a restaurant and talking, and thatʼs what you do best.ʼ”
“I didn't come to L.A. to become a studio writer and do another draft of 'The Amazing Spiderman.' I came here to make movies that I really wanted to make.”
Despite the budgetary constraints, the filmmakers didnʼt want the film to feel too small. “I had to make something that was more open than your usual micro-budget movies, to take it out of interiors and give it some movement,” says Ellis. “Not six people sitting around in a loft somewhere complaining about their relationships.” What Ellis came up with is “a classic noir,” he says. “Itʼs a cat and mouse movie about two guys interested in the same girl and playing increasingly dangerous mind games over her.”
The creative inspiration for the screenplay was Ellis’s obsession with Deen, an unwitting muse long before the two actually met. A “nice Jewish boy” from Pasadena, Dean is porn’s most visible male star: a real-life Dirk Diggler with more than 1,000 hardcore scenes and multiple AVN and XRCO awards (the Oscars and Golden Globes of hardcore) on his résumé. With his scruffy, hipster good looks, wiry frame, prodigious endowment and hyper-intense performing style, the 26-year-old is the closest the adult industry has come in the past 30 years to recreating the star power and crossover appeal of the iconic John Holmes. And like “Johnny Wadd,” Deen is unique in that he’s a straight male performer with a sizable and vocal fanbase, made up almost entirely of young women and gay men, including Ellis.
“In a lot of his porn work, James can switch on and off quickly — he's very tender one minute and this very intense, sexually brutal dude the next minute, and that was really interesting to me,” explains Ellis, who says the story’s protagonist, Christian, a “neurotic control freak and sexual libertine,” is based on his fantasy of what Deen’s personal life might be like. “I also thought James was really sexy,” he adds. “It wasn't necessarily that I wanted to bang him, but if you have a muse, there’s certainly going to be some kind of sexual-attraction component to that. While I was writing this stuff I was picturing no other actor but James.”
As soon as Ellis finished a detailed treatment for the film, he fired off a tweet about Deen being the inspiration for one of the characters. Deen sent a tweet in reply and eventually got in the mix for the role.
Less than two months after deciding to make the low-budget indie, Ellis had cranked out an original script that Schrader and Pope signed off on immediately. They each put in about $25,000 of their own cash and raised additional financing through online crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Their goal to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter eventually yielded around $160,000 from 1,000-plus backers. (A $10,000 Kickstarter bidder will be rewarded with an autographed money clip that Schrader received from Robert De Niro on the set of Taxi Driver.) Even with the extra cash, it remained a super-tight budget. (Schrader says the out-of-pocket spend so far is $75,000. Finishing the film plus deferred payments for cast and crew will escalate the budget from there.)
Ellis’s enthusiasm to actually cast his hardcore muse in the lead wasn’t shared by his partners. “Bret has a very promiscuous Twitter finger,” says Schrader. The director said heʼd consider Deen with a screen test, but still had reservations. “I said, ʻCome on, Bret, this guyʼs been in 3,000 porn films — thatʼs a lot of pool boys and a lot of pizza boys! How are you ever going to get that out of his system?’ Then I tested him, and he was really interesting and good, and original and unique, and fully formed as a screen personality — but youʼd never seen him in anything before.”
In the end, the final arbiter was Schraderʼs actress wife Mary Beth Hurt, whose initial skepticism vanished when she compared Deenʼs screen test with that of another finalist for the role: Deen, she said, was a star.
“The prep was a little more extensive than what I usually do,” Deen says, without irony, of his first non-porn experience. “We had a full week of rehearsal, and we had meetings to talk about character development and plot...” Once shooting started, Deen admits he was nervous that heʼd be the “weak link,” but the supportive crew put him at ease.
“James gives a completely magnetic performance in the movie,“ says Ellis. “He's a movie star. He’s incredibly charismatic.”
The casting of Lohan was a bit of a whim, says Schrader. There was a minor character in the script named Lindsay, and it made him think of Lohan. Pope, who knew Lindsay socially and was a longtime fan of her acting work, got her the script in the hope that she might make a cameo. Lohan read the script and agreed to do it, but only if she played the lead.
Both Pope and Schrader were totally on board with the idea, but this time it was Ellis’s turn to object. Ellis feared that working with the troubled but talented actress — whose professional reputation and box-office value have been in free-fall for years (she’s struggled with legal issues, substance abuse and embarrassing family dramas) — would be both a creative mistake and compromise the film’s integrity. "I was completely against the casting of Lindsay," he remembers. "There were passionate emails that I wrote to Paul and to Braxton voicing my concern.” This time, it was Schrader and Pope’s turn to convince their reluctant partner to let Lohan screen test before making a final decision.
And, like Deen, Lohan delivered in the audition room. “Afterwards it was like, Oh, well she can actually really play this role,” Ellis says. “The girl in the script was much more vulnerable than Lindsay, and she played it a little bit tougher than I first envisioned it. But, undeniably, she was very good.”
While Schrader says it was at times “exhausting” to work with the paparazzi-stalked starlet, he “more than” got what he had hoped for from her performance. “You canʼt take your eyes off her,” he says. “Sheʼs no longer an ingenue. Sheʼs moved into Ann-Margret territory — the husky voice, the brassy personality. Sheʼs not that cute girl, but sheʼs still always very, very interesting.”
“There are so many things that could have gone wrong. Lindsay is something that could have gone wrong.”
The decision to go with Lohan and Deen was very fittingly post-Empire for a team of filmmakers that from the very beginning insisted on going against the grain with The Canyons. “Like England in the 20th century, weʼre living off the ruins of our Empire artistically,” Schrader explains. “And what better post-Empire casting: One actor who comes from celebrity culture and one from adult-film culture. I was really excited by that pairing and how that would work in the world of new media.”
The rest of the cast was found online through Let It Cast. “We werenʼt really looking for established names and we certainly werenʼt willing to pay for them,” admits Schrader, who says the actors were paid $100 day and had to provide their own transportation and housing. “You donʼt go to agents with that kind of offer, particularly if it involves nudity and sexual simulation. We didnʼt even think about it. We cast right on the web, and we got 650 auditions from around the world.”
In that spirit, the filmmakers have kept their potential audience for The Canyons updated through social media. Since the filmʼs summer shoot, Schrader has contributed frequent, barefaced posts to The Canyons Facebook page, while Ellis has tweeted up an equally unedited storm.
For Schrader, who has almost exclusively worked on studio budget-level films during his career, the spartan shooting experience went surprisingly smoothly. “Iʼve always been a bit of a run-and-gun filmmaker — push, push, push — so that didnʼt change,” he says. “I thought I was going to have to make a lot of stylistic sacrifices, but once I got into it, I found that the technology allowed me a lot more freedom.”
Technology like the Arri Alexa camera, which Schrader notes didnʼt require a lot of time for lighting scenes, helped keep the shoot tight and flexible. “I thought the film was going to look like a student film, but then I started wanting to make those American Gigolo camera moves,” he says. “And, to my surprise, I was able to do it with this budget and technology.”
“We never had to compromise,” says Pope, noting the only difference between The Canyons set and a regular shoot was a lack of talent trailers.
“The prep was a little more extensive than what I usually do,” Deen says, without irony, of his first non-porn experience.
Ellis says the end result “looks like a $10 million movie. In a lot of ways, the movie looks so much better than I ever thought it could look. So much of that has to do with Paul, of course.”
Schrader still marvels that the film went off without a hitch. “There are so many things that could have gone wrong,” he says. “Lindsay is something that could have gone wrong; James is something that could have gone wrong. And when you donʼt pay for locations and permits, that could have gone wrong very easily.”
Lohan may have kept her act together during production, but the ensuing months have seen her fall back into the tabloid abyss. (When she missed an ADR session, Ellis called her out on Twitter.) But despite their decision to stoke at least some of the controversy, the filmmakers are hoping that audiences will be able to judge the film on its own merits when it’s ready to be shown.
“We have been completely trashed in the press, based on the fact that Lindsay is in it, that James is in it, that there was a very, very mixed response to those two trailers,” says Ellis. “But the film is actually good. How we made it is the real subject of The Canyons for me. I didn't come to L.A. to become a studio writer and do another draft of The Amazing Spiderman. I came here to make movies that I really wanted to make, and that's what makes The Canyons so gratifying.”
Pope, Ellis and Schrader are now exploring all distribution options for The Canyons. It will most likely have a simultaneous theatrical and VOD release next year.