Living Inside 'The Canyons'
No one has seen 'The Canyons' yet, but it's gotten a wave of bad publicity thanks to the involvement of Lindsay Lohan and a popular 'New York Times' magazine article about what a disaster the filming was. I talked to writer Bret Easton Ellis and...
For an unreleased, unseen film with a tiny budget,The Canyons has attracted an enormous amount of publicity. It's reportedly a sex-filled noirish melodrama set in LA, but that's about all we know, since it hasn't come out yet—in fact, it hasn't even been shown at any festivals. Sundance rejected it, and South by Southwest not only rejected it, but a "festival insider" told the Hollywood Reporter that the film had "an ugliness and a deadness to it." Ouch. I haven't seen it. You haven't seen it. So why has so much been written about it?
Well for one thing, The Canyons was directed by the legendary Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, co-wrote Raging Bull, and directed movies like American Gigolo and Affliciton, both of which he also wrote. The film also garnered headlines for being written by iconic American Psycho and Less than Zero author Bret Easton Ellis, known more recently as one of the most cantankerous bastards on Twitter. And Ellis took great pains to make sure the film featured pornographic movie star James Deen in his first "mainstream" (for lack of a better word) role.
Sick of dealing with Hollywood bullshit and wanting to make art without some ponytailed Blackberry addict dictating over their shoulders, Schrader and company scraped together a tiny $250,000 budget with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, and convinced the cast and crew to work for a paltry $100 a day. Additionally, they committed to transparent communication with fans through social media during all phases of production in order to generate interest in the film without resorting to a traditional (and expensive) advertising campaign.
In the end though, the reason the public has continued to care about The Canyons despite being totally ignorant of its actual content is its female lead: twenty-six-year-old redheaded lightning rod Lindsay Lohan. Lohan most recently starred in the controversial New York Times article about The Canyons,"This is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie"—possibly her most interesting performance since her teenage years. Immediately, every critic and writer fixated on her involvement in the movie to the exclusion of all the other aspects of the story.
The sanest seeming character in this whole saga has been former Lionsgate producer Braxton Pope, who brought this eclectic team together, convinced everyone to take the path less traveled, and championed Lohan for the film. Pope has produced everything from the Kevin Spacey movie Shrink to author Jonathan Ames's pre–Bored to Death Showtime pilot to a recent Passion Pit music video. He cares a great deal about cinema as art—a ridiculous ideal for a modern-day Hollywood producer.
In two separate phone interviews, I talked to Pope and Ellis about the Times article, as well as self-funding in Hollywood, the paparazzi, Kickstarter backers who opened themselves up to Ellis's criticism, and the recent deal they made with IFC to distribute the film.
VICE: Before working on The Canyons, you two had another project on deck, a shark thriller. I am a sucker for shark movies—even shitty ones—so a Bret Easton Ellis-penned shark flick sounds like a dream.
Braxton Pope: It was called Bait, and it was a revenge movie about a disaffected kid, a sociopath who endures a kind of humiliation on the beach and through a series of events, and in a very cunning way, he ends up on this charter boat with the kids who humiliated him. They're in the open water, and he pulls up the ladder and prevents them from coming back on the boat, and he chums the water. It was a Lionsgate movie and there was a Spanish financier. We were very close to shooting it, then the finances imploded at the last minute. It was an exercise in total frustration and wasted time. That's what sparked the idea to create something that we could self-finance.
Bret Easton Ellis: Part of the reason we made The Canyons was the frustration of working for a studio like Lionsgate and trying to get the shark movie made and having that fall through. Everyone from Ed Burns to the Polish brothers are rethinking the model these days.
Is that what Paul Schrader meant when he said, in the Times article, "The American market is just tapped out"?
Pope: The types of movie Schrader was known for in the 70s and 80s wouldn't get financed by the studios. Dramas or character pieces—those movies are nearly extinct at the studio level today. There's been a transition toward spectacle movies with budgets of $100 million-plus, Michael Bay and superhero movies, heavy CG movies. Lionsgate is looking for big franchise properties that will generate huge revenue, mass-market films. And typically the movies I put together tend to be smaller, with filmmakers like Schrader or Gaspar Noé.
So how are your snobby Hollywood peers reacting to your crowd funding and self-funding a movie?
Pope: Hollywood's not necessarily the most supportive community. There is a lot of schadenfreude and a lot of snark. So there was some trepidation because we didn't want to be perceived as not being able to get our project made so we had to go beg for donations. But among the writers and directors and artists and musicians I hang out with there has been no contempt whatsoever; they all get it. Ultimately Kickstarter as "production 2.0" has been incredibly important to independent filmmakers. There is no stigma when you see Kickstarter-funded films going to Sundance. Kickstarter also creates a community of people interested in what you're doing, and the community that's created is important.
One of the rewards you promised to Kickstarter backers was to tweet reviews of movies by unknown filmmakers. Without knowing you personally, Bret, I would be hesitant to have you publicly critique my work.
Ellis: In our Kickstarter doctrine, under that prize, we made it very clear that you would be running a risk [laughs]. It says: "Braxton and Bret are particularly honest about what they like and and what they dislike, so beware." We watched two of the films submitted, and there really wasn't anything good about either of them. It's just a fact, I'm sorry. And we debated about what to do. How do we approach this? So Braxton, being incredibly diplomatic, did reach out to both those filmmakers, and told them, "If we post our reviews they're going to be negative." He gave them the choice: I can just tweet about the availability of your film online, about where to find it, who's in it. Or we will post those reviews. Both of the filmmakers said they'd rather have me tweet about the availability and give them some exposure. Same with the novels [I agreed to review for some backers]: If I am going to post reviews, it's understood they might very well be negative. It was never going to be just jacking off whoever chipped in to the Kickstarter fund.
Is doing stuff like that a sacrifice for you?
Ellis: It's easier than having to deal with the stress and ineptitude of executives who want to shape the movie themselves. It's a breeze compared to development hell. I think we sold six of those [novel critique rewards]. It did provide a big bulk of the budget, so we are thankful to those people.
Let's talk about that New York Times article. Whether you agree with everything in it or not, I thought it was a great, entertaining piece of writing.
Ellis: It was. If you were in it, though, you would feel differently. I didn't think it was going to be about the personalities on the set. I didn't think that would be something the New York Times would be interested in and that's not how the author, Steve Roderick—who hung out with us for a year—presented himself. So when we all saw the piece it was, "Oh my God. This is what they were interested in?" So it was a rude awakening. But Paul Schrader loved the piece. I thought he was going to be mortified but he thought it was good publicity for the movie. So I kind of realigned my feelings about it.
Pope: I am Zen about the article. We knew that our commitment to transparency and to not doing things by the rules was going to be clunky at times, and so you aren't always going to be cast in the best light, and you're going to submit yourself to someone else's interpretation and agenda. I think a lot of journalists are fabulists and storytellers, and he was telling a story. I would have preferred that he focused on the process and the new-media way in which we made the movie, and not on the Lindsay antics. But having the cover of the New York Times magazine and them covering your movie in that kind of depth and detail is still advantageous.
Bret, when South by Southwest gave that quote about the movie's "ugliness and deadness," I just figured that meant the film must have captured your words particularly well. The ugliness and deadness of your characters is sort of the point, isn't it?
Ellis: Obviously the person who said that didn't get the movie and wanted another experience. It was bad timing since we were looking for backing. I don't think it hurt the movie, though Braxton and Paul took it a little personally. But these characters in The Canyons are not nice people. It's a classic noir scenario updated with some modern touches, so there is a fatalism to it. If you consider the movie "dead" and "cold," well, I think some of the best noirs feel that way, and I think it's built into the material. I think these characters are in a lot of ways alive, it's just what they're alive to that bothers some people.
So was it then challenging to find a distributor after the South by Southwest debacle?
Pope: It certainly didn't help. But we had William Morris Endeavor sell the movie, and a number of distributors made offers, so it all worked out. We're extremely happy with Independent Film Channel. I was driving to the set of my recent Passion Pit music video, and I was listening to KROQ's Kevin and Bean morning show and they were talking about The Canyons and spending a lot of time discussing the South by Southwest comment. This very popular radio show is talking about this little indie movie that hasn't been released; it just isn't the type of thing that should be on their radar, really. They might talk about a little indie movie once it's released and done really well, but the fact that I had to spend 20 minutes listening to them recite this criticism from South by Southwest... It circulated so widely that it did make us concerned for the impact of this rogue comment.
How is IFC distributing the film?
Pope: We are working out the details so I can't speak to specifics, but I think the idea is to make it simultaneously available in theaters and rent and buy it on movies on demand. It's the emerging model for lower-budget independent films. IFC has the kind of taste and sensibility to market and distribute The Canyons in an effective way.
Braxton, according to the Times article you were the one who first wanted Lindsay Lohan to be involved. Were you worried about working with her or dealing with all of the publicity and baggage that follows her around?
Pope: Well, lots of things go through my mind when people ask me questions about Lindsay. But I am friends with her. I'd met her prior to the movie and she was someone that I had wanted to work with for years. Maybe part of that makes me kind of come across as considered or diplomatic, but part of it is simply wanting to be respectful to her first and foremost as a human. When you are with Lindsay you get a window into the hurricane of sensationalism and bad reporting and modern celebrity experience of her life, which is very distorting. It gives you an appreciation for some of the things she goes through on a personal basis. I think she is a terrifically gifted actress.
But didn't you worry that, because of her participation, no one would be able to see the movie for what it really is? And isn't that sort of coming true now?
Pope: Yeah, you don't have to be Nostradamus to see that coming, that [her participation would make it] like a fun-house mirror, warping the perception of the movie. We thought Lindsay was really talented, but can she apply herself and focus? Will she get through the shoot? That was really the question.
With no money in the budget for trailers even, it seems you'd also have a hard time keeping away the paparazzi, no?
Pope: That was a legit concern. But a lot of our locations were interior. And we were moving locations quite a bit so they had a hard time homing in on us. They did figure out when we were shooting at Café Med on Sunset Boulevard—we were kind of out in the open, and they did find us quite quickly there. They were disruptive during one outdoor mall sequence but we knew that guerrilla filmmaking in a public place with someone as big as Lindsay would be a roll of the dice. But even when we filmed at my house, we had paparazzi jumping up the high cinderblock wall in my yard; you would see their heads pop up. And when Lindsay left in her Porsche after she wrapped for the day, they were literally making these wild U-turns on a busy street and forcing cars to slam on their brakes or careen off into driveways. Right in front of my house there were almost three different accidents because they just have no regard.
Lastly, why do you think there's been so much bad publicity surrounding this film?
Ellis: Some people have an... aversion, let's say, to a lot of people involved in this movie. Lindsay can't be anything but honest. Even in her evasions [laughs] there's an honesty, an attitude that is very, very troubled, but it's authentic. James Deen is completely transparent, does exactly what he wants, and has built this "empire" without bowing down to anybody, and if you're offended he shrugs and says "tough shit." Schrader doesn't give a shit. I don't give a shit. Lindsay doesn't give a shit, nor does James. No one in that group is going to kowtow to what people want them to be. It's not gonna happen. And I think that's off-putting to some people. Which is why it's great we have Braxton on board, [laughs] because Braxton can keep it all together. He can be the one who goes out and makes sure not too many feathers are ruffled.
For updates on when/where you'll be able to see The Canyons, follow their Facebook page.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.