Images of decaying suburban movie theaters frame scenes in "The Canyons," the new film by Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis. Cinemas have been destroyed and left for dead in the bleak stills that serve as interstitials for this movie about the movies. One year in the making, the high profile DIY film stars Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen and now a finished cut is ready for its close-up. While WME sales agents are showing it to industry acquisitions execs this week, general audiences will have to wait at least a few more months to see it for themselves.
Set in present day SoCal, the film depicts a dilapidated and disillusioned subculture inhabited by young folks aimlessly trying to make it in the movies. Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Los Angeles in one scene from "The Canyons," Lohan's character and a publicist friend exchange a few words that underscore their relationship to modern cinema in L.A.
"Do you really like movies? Maybe they're just not my thing anymore."
Unlike his characters, Paul Schrader still likes the movies but he seems to be trying to navigate a filmmaking landscape that's left him on rather uneasy footing. He thought he'd cap his career in the independent world but the bottom dropped out of the market for the eight to ten million dollar movies he imagined making. With "The Canyons" he's pinpointed what he calls, "Cinema for the post theatrical era."
Schrader and I first struck up a conversation about the "The Canyons" during a party just before Christmas. Within about an hour I was in the passenger seat of his car heading to his Manhattan apartment for an impromptu screening of a nearly final cut of the movie. Schrader was looking for some tips on digital strategy and weighing the pros and cons of a festival run. We stayed in touch over the holidays and then I read the already infamous New York Times article about the movie and pitched a piece to Indiewire.
The roots of "The Canyons" and the collaboration between Schrader, Ellis and Pope dates back to a year ago when the trio saw the financing fall through for a different project.
In an email to Bret Easton Ellis at the time, Paul Schrader outlined the approach the team would take with "The Canyons." "Given the new economics of filmmaking, I envision this as a relatively micro-budget production," Schrader wrote to Ellis (copying producer Braxton Pope). "To make that work the script has to be multi-charactered, relationship based, full of sharp dialogue, set in contemporary locations and have a certain outre value. In other words, very much like the stuff Bret Easton Ellis writes."
They were motivated by Ed Burns, who has re-booted his brand via a revitalized filmmaking career rooted in low budget work aimed squarely at digital platforms. In remarks that resonated with Schrader, Burns said plainly in a recent interview, "Twitter has fundamentally changed the way I make films."
"I had to figure out how to work with a new economic paradigm," Schrader explained the other day. For "The Canyons," he imagined a filmmaking framework fueled by its social media footprint.
This modern story about the dark side of Hollywood evokes the lurid tales depicted in "Hollywood Babylon," Kenneth Anger's infamous book about Tinseltown scandals. At the center of the "The Canyons" is boy next door adult actor Deen. Dubbed the "Ryan Gosling of porn," Deen portrays the cold, scheming movie producer Christian who - lest he lose his trust fund - is making movies to satisfy his father's demands that he maintain a viable career. Lindsay Lohan stars as Tara, his girlfriend who's hiding an affair with a guy from her past she's about to shoot a film with. Christian and Tara invite various sex partners to their luxurious Malibu Canyon lair in a story rooted in the power dynamics playing out among various characters. Gus Van Sant has a playful cameo near the end of the movie.
For Schrader and Ellis, "The Canyons" is about people with hollow Hollywood dreams.
"These people are all talking about making a movie but they don't really care about movies," Schrader emphasized. There's a lot of sadness and desperation woven into a film that, during production, actually served as a training ground for a new generation of moviemakers.