Talk about "The Canyons," Paul Schrader's new film starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen, has been nearly unavoidable, even though you'd be hard pressed to find the movie on a big screen. (It debuted on VOD and in select theaters in New York last week, and opens in Los Angeles this weekend.) Almost as controversial as the sex and violence-filled unrated film itself is its screenwriter, Bret Easton Ellis.
Perhaps equally known for his writing ("American Psycho") and his penchant for inflammatory remarks (remember when he said that "Zero Dark Thirty" was receiving attention just because director Kathryn Bigelow was a "very hot woman"?), Ellis, 49, has staked out what seems to be a permanent corner of the spotlight on literary terrain.
NextMovie called up Ellis this week to talk about paranoia, Lindsay Lohan and whether "The Canyons" is feminist.
Hi, how's it going?
I'm sitting in my office just talking about myself all day. That's what I'm doing.
Do you like that? Is it weird for you?
It is weird for me, and what is even weirder is that you really get used to it. It becomes un-alarmingly easy to do, once you do enough, you know? I really haven't done anything like this for three or four years, done like a bunch of press for something. Strange. Anyway. Whatever!
What's the question that you've been asked most often today?
I wish I could come up with something funny, but it's really gonna be something boring, like, "What's Lindsay Lohan really like?" and "Why did you cast James Deen in the movie?" Those are probably the two questions that I get most asked.
Do you have a nice little script for each of those?
I don't. It's different every time.
Oh, okay. So...what's Lindsay Lohan really like?
Complicated, but sympathetic and nice, and she's really not like the narrative that everyone favors, that everyone likes to follow because that's just more fun than having to deal with a complicated kind of messed up twenty-something who's in the public eye. I mean, I guess I know a lot of twenty-somethings. I mean, I live with one. You know, I date one. And I know it can be problematic. (Laughs)
But she's Lindsay Lohan, so it's more fun, it seems, in this narrative, to hate her, rather than to kind of understand who this girl is. And it's kind of frustrating, because I do think it adversely affects how people react to this film. And I think it does shadow it in a big way, because I think the film itself – whether you like it or you don't like it – is pretty small potatoes in a way. It's our money, it cost nothing to make, very low budget, small movie that we scraped together. But yet, the outrage over it is so disproportionate to what the actual film is that it seems that this is also part of the narrative. Hating anything that Lindsay is in, and therefore, over-hating 'The Canyons'.
Though, you know, it is true, I think she is kind of undeniably – whatever you want to call her performance – undeniably interesting in the film. And even the people who really rag on the movie the most, there's a lot of grudging respect for that performance, whether it was Lindsay or whether it was what Paul got out of Lindsay. There's something about her performance that is kind of undeniable, no matter what you think of the movie. And I feel the same way about James, too.
I think that as a meta-narrative also, that Lindsay is interesting, and there's a certain fascination with her comeback.
Yeah, also there is that. That is also part of this new narrative that's coming out of this old narrative, that's kind of on a parallel track with it. But there's also people who really want that other narrative to continue, and they really are over-hating the movie because she's in it. I mean, I don't really follow the message boards and stuff like that, just follow other people's lives on the internet. But I have been following a lot about Lindsay in the last year or so. I have a pretty strong arm, you know, I really don't care what people say about me. I've had people disliking my work ever since I first published, so this is nothing. The reviews for "The Canyons" are whatever. Actually, they're better than my reviews for "American Psycho" were when I first published that, so.
But I have to say, you know, being lagged on about how you look, I really haven't gotten that. I mean, sure, people have made fun of the way I look sometimes or whatever, and said mean things, but nothing compared to what Lindsay gets. I just don't know how you process that. I mean, I don't know. It's just so personal! Everything about her anatomy? About her breasts? (Laughs) I mean, it's just like, "Whoa!" But that's who we are, so I think we just move forward into this world, and that's just the dialogue. That's just the conversation right now, you know?
If nothing else, the movie is getting talked about a lot, though not always in a positive way. Do you believe that any publicity is good publicity?
Uh, you know, I guess I've been convinced by Paul Schrader, in a way, that it is. And especially for a movie that is this low budget and was made under these circumstances, I guess it is. I mean, I really wasn't thinking about that. I was just thinking about making the movie. I really wanted to shoot a film, and I wanted to work with Paul, and we were putting our own money into this thing, and the mission was to make the movie. And whatever happened after that, you know, it wasn't going to kill us financially in any way. It was like, "We're gonna make this movie, we're gonna own it, and let's see what happens."
So, Paul does believe in that, in what you just said. And maybe on a level, he's right. I mean, I was the first one to read the New York Times Magazine piece, and I was kind of horrified, because I knew that writer for a year, and he'd been over to my house and we hung out, and we talked a lot, and I really assumed that it was a different article being written, I guess rather naively, in retrospect. So I read it, and I emailed Paul, and I said, "Oh god, you're not gonna believe what Stephen [Rodrick] wrote." And then I tweeted something about, "Ugh, I have no comment about this article." And then Paul called me and was so pissed. He was like, "What are you talking about? That was the greatest article in the world! I loved it! It was fantastic for the movie! Don't go around saying that article is bad! That article is great!" And then a light bulb went off in my head, I said, "Oh, that's how it's going to be played."
It definitely got people paying attention.
Yeah, it did. But it also began the really, you know, misreading the film's narrative, in a way. And, look, this is true. We did hire Lindsay. And she was the best actress that we saw for that role, and we all knew that this could be what happens, that her narrative takes over the whole story. But at the same time, you know, we looked at hundreds of actresses, and she was the best! And I think Paul's ego is big enough that he's not going to cast an actress that he does not believe can deliver his film. It's his movie, and he wants it to be perfect. And especially a film this small. So that's why Lindsay was cast. And the same things with James. We went through hundreds of guys, and James, simply, with that neutral, icy, un-actor-y performance, just, for this particular role, I thought it was just perfect. That's why they were cast.
A lot of the plot dealt with privacy. If this movie had a thesis, it would be that line, "Nobody has a private life anymore."
And then says her name. "Tara."
(Laughs) I love that line. You know, look. When I wrote the script in January and February of 2012, this wasn't an assignment. I wanted to write this script. And I like the script, I like the dialogue, I like the way the characters talk to each other, and I like this kind of cynical limpidity that hovers around this group of people. And I was thinking about James Deen, and I was thinking about transparency a lot, and I was thinking about, "How do you do a noir movie now that relies on secrets in this new world of transparency that's enveloping all of us?" And that became the basis for the movie.
Paul and I looked at it as kind of this tragedy. A girl does something nice for someone — and this is a typical Hollywood story — a girl does something nice for someone, and then someone gets murdered because of it. That's kind of how we looked at it. There was something about it that was just a perfect Hollywood metaphor, I don't know. So all of those things kind of came together in those months when I wrote the script, and those were a lot of things I was thinking about.
You're on Twitter, you're in the media, you live your life in the public eye. Were these your own worries about privacy invading the script? Do you ever think about taking a step back or being less public, or worry that someone's watching your cell phone or something?
Well, people are. So maybe that is a part of what went into the script, because I realized at a certain point that if I say what I want to say, I'm gonna get attacked, because there are so many people listening. When I was first tweeting, I just didn't… I really genuinely tweeted what I thought. And I have snarky comments on movies or filmmakers or the gay community, and I just thought, I'm not tweeting them at anyone, they're just showing up in this flow in my Twitter line, and then, suddenly – Boom! I'm attacked. Boom! I'm attacked. And I was kind of confused at first, and then someone said, "Well, you know, you've got a lot of followers, and this is gonna happen." And so, anyway, I don't know what I'm talking about.
But I also believe that's where we are right now, and that you have to just deal with it. And you also need to be authentic. You cannot shape your personality into this social media mannequin. And also I think if you do that, people will find out that you're not authentic and that you're disingenuous. I think you just need to be who you are and say what you feel, I think. As long as you're not like killing anybody. If you have an opinion, you have an opinion. It's an opinion, you know?
At another point in the film, Lindsay Lohan's character asks something I'd also like to ask you: "Do you like movies? What's the last movie you saw in a theater?"
The last movie I saw in a theater was "The Spectacular Now." I've seen a lot of the movies this year, but I really haven't liked a lot of them. I don't think there's one that really stands out, but I am kind of depressed by the current state of American movie making. But I do have that need, that habit, to go to the theater, and I do like to spend – I guess when everyone's at lunch or whatever – I take a break from my work, and I often find myself in a theater watching a movie. I like being controlled by a film. I like the film dictating what it wants from me – that I have to sit there, that I have to watch it at a certain time. If I get up, it's not gonna stop for me or anything. There's something about that that makes the whole experience much more tense and gripping and riveting. So yes, I am a believer in going to movies. But ironically, I've seen hundreds of cuts of "The Canyons" and have seen it many times, but I've only seen it on computer screens. But I haven't seen it in the theaters.
Yes, it is ironic. But it wasn't made to be seen on a huge screen, and it's really not for theatrical release. Ninety-five percent of the people who will watch this will watch it on download it on iTunes, or on-demand, VOD.
There are a lot of interesting dynamics in the movie, between Lindsay's character being totally dependent on James' character, but then there are other scenes where the power is in her hands. Do you think that this movie is feminist?
Well, you know, I'm always accused of being a misogynist. Like that's been the big thing from certain feminist groups, and I just don't feel that way. I feel that this is my take on human nature, and this is my take on a particular character. And if I was gonna follow the noir tropes of the femme fatale, you know, it was just a situation that was set up that I found interesting, mostly because I felt that I was kind of in that situation. My boyfriend and I have been together for four years, but obviously I take care of things, but we talk about the power balance in that relationship economically, we talk about it a lot. Not in a bad way, but it's just a reality. And I think that was also in my mind when I was writing the script. I really wasn't thinking of making any kind of feminist statement, though I do like the way that she turns the sex scene to her advantage, in a way, and undermines his comfort level, because he's always doing that to her.
But ultimately, everyone in it is kind of a victim, and that's just my worldview. No one really gets what they want. It's not just her – it's everybody gets somehow screwed, and that's just… I don't know, maybe I had a really rough childhood. Maybe that's how I see things.
Sounds sunny from here.
Well, you know, I think because I'm a writer, I make it more dramatic than it really is. I think the fact that I can talk about this and be okay is indicative that I'm, you know, not in a fetal position just sucking my thumb losing my spit… That's not me.