Interview: Paul Schrader Talks ‘The Canyons,’ How The Kickstarter Bubble Might Burst & Why “It’s Not Lindsay’s Porn Film”

Interview: Paul Schrader Talks 'The Canyons,' How The Kickstarter Bubble Might Burst & Why "It's Not Lindsay's Porn Film"

A crowd-sourced project, from an acclaimed writer/director, with a script from one of literature’s enfant terribles, and a cast led by a tabloid headlining actress and an adult film star, perhaps the buzz, press and hype around “The Canyons” was to be expected. But surely no one predicted a journey that saw a devastating behind-the-scenes piece from the New York Times, highly publicized “rejections” from Sundance and SXSW and more. Standing solidly at the centre of the storm and never wavering was helmer Paul Schrader, whose career has known no shortage of controversy. Throughout the entire pre-production, filming, post-production and publicity for the film, he has remained transparent about what happened on set, and more importantly, proud of the film he put together. And why not?

Where many filmmakers would look at $30,000 that Schrader, screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis and producer Braxton Pope each put into the movie as barely enough to cover catering, they combined it with the $170,000 that they got from Kickstarter, called in a few favors and shot a film that will make its international premiere later this month at the Venice Film Festival. But before it gets there, the film will unspool in North America starting this Friday in limited release and simultaneously on VOD. The erotic drama has already divided critics making it a must-watch on that level alone (you can read our take here), but it might hard for some folks to separate the chatter from what the film actually is, but luckily Schrader is more than able to give a little guidance.

We got on the phone last month with the director for a lengthy discussion about the process of making film, what viewers can expect (“It’s not Linday’s porn film”), why the Kickstarter bubble might burst, his inspirations for the film, and so much more. A thoughtful conversationalist and an open book, Schrader had lots to say, so read on below and hit your local theater or turn on your TV on Friday to check out “The Canyons.”

First, congratulations on getting into Venice. I’m curious, though. Previously, you had said you weren’t keen on doing festivals for “The Canyons.” What makes Venice a good fit for your film?

Well, it has to do with foreign films and we had been offered both Locarno and Venice, but Brett and James wanted to go to Venice. Locarno would have been in competition. Also, after the stupidity with SXSW, it became a sort of point of honor that this is a festival-worthy film. It’s so interesting this new configuration. I mean normally you got to festivals to establish a profile. Well, we don’t need to do that. We established our own profile, you know, without festivals. So what do we get out of festivals? IFC is not concerned with us going to festivals. And we want to be able to monetize this because as soon as this is shown publicly, there’s going to be a whole buzz, a whole blowback because of the Lindsay thing and there’s a whole army of people just waiting to say something bad because they love to say something bad about Lindsay [Lohan]. And there’s another army that wants to say something bad about Bret [Easton Ellis] (laughs). And then below they want to put down James [Deen] because he’s from the adult industry. 

When we show the film, we want to be able to sell it and have people see it. On August 2nd, it opens in New York and on all of the VOD platforms and in 50 million cable homes. And so that when people see the film, they can see for themselves. You know, they don’t have to listen to some gossip blog that Lindsay looks old or that Bret Easton Ellis is an asshole. They can just click and watch. In a way, we didn’t want to have a festival until we could monetize it. After that Sundance thing, we said no more. We didn’t even submit to Cannes or anything. And so these festivals, Locarno and Venice, are both after we monetized, that’s why it’s not in competition at Venice because it’s not a world premiere.

It sounds like you’re a bit on the defensive, not about the film, but perhaps people’s knee-jerk reaction without having seen the picture. Was that something you anticipated from the start or is that something that you had to adapt to?
It’s beyond something we created. We stirred the pot. Simply with the casting of Lindsay and James and then Lindsay brings with her, her drama. And then Bret, he has a very promiscuous Twitter finger and he can always be relied on to upset somebody with some tweet. So we kind of stirred our own pot and the New York Times piece… it was going to be a new media piece and then we cast Lindsay, so the Times angle switched to a piece about the new Lindsay Lohan while the new Lindsay never showed up (laughs). And it became a piece about the old Lindsay Lohan. So part of it was managing it, but part of it was creating it. 

And it got a little out of hand because of that jerk Janet Pierson violating the number rule about festival submissions and so once that happened, I felt that another storyline was developing, that people confusing a troubled production with a troubled film. People do this all the time where as in fact there is very little in common. Some of the smoothest shoots in the world make terrible movies and vice versa. Because there was that Times article, people said, “Oh, it must be a bomb because it had all this trouble when they were shooting it.” Well, those two things aren’t really related. That’s why we decided to sell the movie and bring in IFC to change the storylines, because a storyline was developing that this film was unreleasable.

With the “old Lindsay Lohan” appearing on set and the outside noise going on around the movie, were you still able to make film that you wanted with all of that going on?
I got very lucky. This was a film where a number of things should have gone wrong and they didn’t. James was terrific. Lindsay was terrific. We made a film with a $90,000 outlay of money from our pockets. And it looks great. I obviously paid a lot for it and it’s in profit already. We got lucky. It’s like you go into the casino and you put all your money on red and you win. At that point, you’re kind of afraid to bet again.

One storyline people aren’t talking about is that this is truly an independently financed film. Until IFC came along, there was really no corporate money going into this.
Bret, Braxton and I each put in $30,000 and then we got another $170,000 from Kickstarter. And then a lot of deferments, all post-work, it was deferred. And we paid people $100 a day. Lindsay became a part owner of the film. In that way, we were able to do it without a huge outlay of cash. If the film had shut down, what we would have lost was the $90,000. And that’s not a whole lot, that’s $30,000 each. So yeah, I was trying to figure out if you could in fact use this new system to make a personal film that has professional quality. And there’s a lot of rules you have to obey. The script was expressly written to be made in this fashion. The locations were filmed in homes and restaurants of people we knew. We had that scene at the Chateau because they’re our friends and we could get it for free.

Now studios are cottoning to this idea of Kickstarting various feature films and there are actors and established directors going that route.
I think the bubble is going to burst. In fact, you’re already seeing the backlash of a number of Kickstarter things, like the thing of Zosia Mamet I was just reading about, and she didn’t get her money. And so, the system is due for corrections. It will be abused or wrongly used but it will correct itself. One way it will correct itself is they’ll probably come up with some way to enable people to be reimbursed. If they’re going to start acting like a studio, then they’re going to start reimbursing people. So I think that will start to happen and because this just can’t go on the way it’s working now. But it’s not going to go away, it’s going to always be there. I just don’t know. This whole thing with getting $4 million dollars, I don’t quite understand it. I don’t know who those people are and if they’ll keep doing that, by those people, I mean the people who are giving money. I understand Bret and I getting $170,000 and Bret has to read six novels as part of his thing and I have to give some lunches and stuff like that. And that all sort of makes sense, but the $4 million one, I just don’t understand at all. I don’t know why people are giving them [money].

I remember at one point it was reported that you were looking at Bollywood to do a film and I’m just wondering if you’re still looking at other avenues overseas or in other markets to get stories made.
Well, you never stop looking. I was going to do something with Shahrukh Khan and Shahrukh just decided not to leave the comfort zone of Bollywood and make an international film. But the independent filmmaker is the scavenger dog of the planet, wandering from country to country for scraps. I started making films in the studio system, the first five or six. Then that system stopped making the films that I was interested in. So then I became an independent filmmaker and that lasted another 20 years or so. And now it’s changing again.

Have you given up on the studio system?
I gave up on the studio system in the late ‘80s. And now I think everyone has given up on it. [Steven] Soderbergh is not alone when he says the studio system doesn’t make the movies we want to make anymore. 

But he’s moving into television for his next project. Do you think of that as an avenue for yourself?
Oh yeah. I’m negotiating a deal right now. It’s been a huge migration of talent over to TV, it’s almost like a land rush now. If Soderbergh doesn’t watch out, he’ll get trampled by 2000 other directors and actors trying to get into television because that’s where the interesting work lies. Because film, you’re either in the micro-budget world or you’re making films that don’t interest you. Now there will always be say 6-10 interesting films a year that have marquee value. The Spielberg-Daniel Day-Lewis film, they’re still going to make that film, but they’re also not going to make that many of them. And so now you have this huge burst of product at the micro-budget level, there’s probably 10,000 people making movies right now with their Canon-Ds and then you have the ultra-budget stuff which they’re making fewer and fewer of and making less and less for Americans. It’s not a very conducive atmosphere for a writer when your first market is China. They’re making movies for people who don’t speak English. And so in that sense, it doesn’t really excite you as a writer. 

You still have a few scripts. I remember reading recently that you were working on a script about a ballerina and you had “Dying of the Light” and nothing happened.
Yeah, nothing happened. Now, I’m going to make that this winter. We haven’t announced it yet, “Dying of the Light.” I think Nic Refn will be exec producer or something, but we have gotten a A actor for that [since revealed to be Nicolas Cage] and he’s agreed to the terms… I’ll do that film starting at the end of the year.

Is that going to be a studio picture or independent as well?
No, equity and pre-sales and the foreign county inducements… There’s a whole package of things you need to do and if you can make a film for say $5 or 6 million that you used to make for $20 million, you can still make that film.

I guess it will be a comfort to have more money, and at least a bit more to play around with then you did on “The Canyons.”
Well, the amount of money you have always diminishes to fit the need. You never have enough. The beauty of having no money on “The Canyons” is that we simply said to people, “We don’t pay. I’m sorry.” And you didn’t do any negotiating. We didn’t have a casting director. We cast on the internet. And the more you say there is no money, then it’s kind of freeing in a way. When you have not quite enough, that’s when it gets difficult because now you’re negotiating and people are saying, “Why do I have to take $25,000 when I know you could pay me $35,000?” 

I spoke to an actor recently who said when you work on a smaller-budget film, your problem-solving becomes that much sharper.
Yes, and there’s a real freedom just to, you know, “dancing on the tightrope.” And I said early on in ‘Canyons’ — people were worried about doing a film with Lindsay without insurance and doing a film with James who’s never been in a straight feature — I said, “Look, if you can’t take a chance with your own money, when in God’s name when can you take a chance?”…And so we did it that way, because even if your so-called financiers are saying you are free, you’re really not because you feel that pressure, which we didn’t feel in making this film, there was no pressure.

You shot the film digitally. What was that experience like?
I loved it. The Electra is a great camera.

What did you like about it?
Well, the Alexa, Arri spent a long time developing that camera and they developed a camera that mimics film whereas the Canons are developed by still-camera filmmakers, but the Alexa was developed by motion picture people. And it really does mimic film. And of course, you can light out of a van. We did night-lighting basically out of a little box truck, without a Ginny because the film was so fast. 

I guess you were able to see the results of what you were doing almost instantaneously then?
Yes, but I don’t see why anybody would go back to film. In fact, they won’t. I mean there’s a few purists out there, but it gets harder and harder. I remember Marty [Scorsese] saying he wasn’t going to shoot digital. I said good luck with that one. He just made one shooting digital. 

I remember early on in the production of “The Canyons,” you posted that you were looking at Wong Kar-Wai’s “Fallen Angels” and Xavier Dolan’s “Heartbeats” originally to determine the visual palette of the film. Yeah, “Heartbeats” was a very useful film to me because I realized something while watching “Heartbeats” about the new style of filmmaking. Because in the old world, there was a visual continuity involved, that you were looking for a harmonious palette or style. But in looking at Xavier Dolan’s film, there’s a [John] Cassavetes scene followed by a [Bernardo] Bertolucci scene followed by a [Jean-Luc] Godard scene followed by a Sydney Pollack scene and it all works because the new audiences are so visually and stylistically flexible, but they don’t have the rules anymore. You can have black-and-white, you can intermix it with computer animation, whatever you want. And I said I don’t need to have a cohesive style. All I have to do is use the best style for each individual scene and it will find its own blue. First time I did that and it worked. And that’s what I saw in “Heartbeats.” 

I’m a big fan of his films too, so I was really excited that you’d seen “Heartbeats” and enjoyed it.
That freedom that a young filmmaker has to say, “Let’s shoot this scene all kind of hand-held and then the next scene, we’ll just lob off and do it as a tableau.” And all the old school people say, “You can’t do that.” All the film schoolteachers, “You can’t do that.” And you say, “Why can’t I do that?”

People have a lot of opinions about “The Canyons” even though they really haven’t seen it yet. What would you folks about the film and what they can expect?
Well, we did a lot of this misdirection ourselves. We did three crowdsource trailers, all of which are false. One in the style of the ‘60s and the ‘50s, one in the ‘30s and none of these represent the film, so we kind of brought this on ourselves by creating noise that made people say this was a real piece of crap, but it made noise and in this modern world, you got to get your head up above the crowd. And to do that, you do create a backlash. But now the film will be on its own. We kept our head down for a while, now we start to come up with a little classier kind of approach. Lincoln Center is going to do the premiere in New York. UCLA Film Archives is going to do the one in L.A. connected to a retrospective of all of my films. Film Comment, we’re going to be on the cover. So that’s started to create a new kind of thing. We became sort of known by D-scandals [not sure what he’s saying exactly here]. It’s time to correct our own approach. It’s a serious film. It’s also a plot film, but it’s the kind of thing Bret and I do and it always was. It’s not Lindsay’s porn film.

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Comments

SomeDude

I'm really sick of this "TV is where the talent is now" narrative. It's complete bullshit. It sucks that "there’s probably 10,000 people making movies right now with their Canon-Ds" but I feel everyone just gave up. The system will find itself. Cinema OWNS TV.

BEF

Great interview!

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