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.
To keep crew costs down, Schrader said he ran a sort of film class on the set of the “The Canyons.” He had a dozen interns offering free labor in exchange for a hands on learning experience making a real movie with a real director. The film was shot with a couple of Arri Alexa cameras using mostly natural or existing lighting. The actors were paid $100 a day and offered deferments for future compensation once the movie generates revenue.
A Sundance or SXSW film festival launch for a new American indie film is de rigeur. Filmmakers set their post-production schedules to coincide with festival submission deadlines. Yet, with the proliferation of digital outlets enabling filmmakers to sell directly to an audience on multiple platforms simultaneously, some have started to wonder how long the traditional sequence will remain a tried and true path.
As they carve out their approach, Schrader and Pope are currently frustrated by negative buzz fueled by widely reported comments attributed to an unnamed SXSW programmer who surprisingly told The Hollywood Reporter that the festival had rejected the film.
Word that “The Canyons” wouldn’t be screening at either Sundance or SXSW was reported on websites hungry for snarky celebrity soaked content that could stoke page views, even though no one had actually seen the movie. In the wake of the recent New York Times Magazine cover story that depicted a film set troubled by an erratic leading lady, some declared the movie dead. Buzz that “The Canyons” wouldn’t have an early 2013 festival bow fueled speculation that the new film was stopped before entering the starting gate.
“People infer that we have a damaged product just because it was a difficult shoot,” Paul Schrader told me on Sunday as we chatted inside a Manhattan restaurant, “Every shoot is difficult.”
Having shown “The Canyons” to a few supportive friends who are film critics, as well as filmmakers including Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, Schrader and Pope are confident that the film will resonate once people see it for themselves. Indeed, “The Canyons” is compelling, despite its cold as ice characters. When Deen and Lohan are on screen, it’s particularly hard to look away.
“I thought it was a fascinating meeting of the minds between Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis,” said Scott Foundas, lead critic at the Village Voice, who watched the movie with Schrader and some friends last month. “You could almost describe it as as cross between ‘American Psycho’ and ‘American Gigolo’. These are minor characters on the fringe of the Hollywood scene, all equally desperate and engaging in various forms of psychological and sexual manipulation.”
“The movie itself, from my perspective as someone who doesn’t live there, is a really accurate portrait of a certain stratum of life in Los Angeles,” agreed Kent Jones, a colleague at the Film Society of Lincoln Center who is the Director of Programming for the New York Film Festival. Jones was particularly struck by Lohan’s lead performance, likening it to Ann-Margaret in ‘Carnal Knowledge’. “It’s a reminder of what a great actress she is. She’s fantastic.”
Even with the compliments, Schrader and Pope realize that snarky observers have knives out for their lead actress.
“For all the folks who are eager to critique Lindsay, I take satisfaction in seeing her deliver a strong performance in a mature film helmed by a director, in Schrader, who is a deep thinker about film and a writer, in Bret Easton Ellis, who has been a great collaborator and who has seized the culture twice (with ‘Less Than Zero’ and ‘American Psycho’),” defended producer Braxton Pope. “And I like the transparency of our process. You get a lot of bombs thrown your way, but all those explosions keep things interesting.”
Schrader and Pope hope that things go well with buyers this week at a series of New York and Los Angeles screenings orchestrated by Alexis Garcia at WME. As for Sundance and SXSW, though, Schrader isn’t looking back.
“As much as you like to be invited to the party, it probably would not have been good for us to to be in Sundance or South by Southwest,” Schrader elaborated, “We would have had an explosion of reaction out of Park City and a lot of it would have been very, very snarky and then we’d have to wait four months to exploit that,” Schrader explained. “I think by the time we show it [to an audience] we should be able to say, you can see [it] for yourself.”
“We set out to make a kind of provocation,” Schrader added, “Bret’s a provocateur. I am. James by the nature of his profession, Lindsay by the nature of her public persona. If four provocateurs can’t provoke somebody, we’re not doing our job.”
Meanwhile, they aren’t phased by sniping that their film would go straight to video. In fact, Schrader actually embraces that notion.
“Let’s monetize this motherfucker,” he exclaimed, invoking the fictitious Jerry Maguire inside a pub on his New York City block. “We are in a very fluid exhibition world where there are so many platforms and so many price points that theatrical just has to be seen as part of a panoply of options,” he continued. “Straight to video isn’t even a relevant term anymore. [‘The Canyons’] was designed to go straight to video. There will be a limited theatrical, of course.”
Indeed, a late spring festival slot timed to a simultaneous premiere on both digital and theatrical platforms could be in the cards for Schrader & Co.
“I think the new trend will be toward lining up a deal and then capturing the press attention from a festival with a concurrent release or shortly thereafter,” explained producer Braxton Pope, “The festivals are still a great environment… but, for some films, I think they lose their momentum in the interim between festival sale and release.”
Schrader stopped to reflect on momentum in his own career. “I don’t think it is an old guy film,” he added, “This doesn’t feel like an out of gas movie. It feels very much to me in the style and mood of the people who are in it. Not some old fart looking at youth with a wistful eye.”
“In the end, the movie will stand for itself. Lindsay’s performance will stand for itself and the important thing is to make it available,” Schrader said, “I’m more or less at the end of my career and it’s just a gas to do this.”
Eugene Hernandez is a co-founder of Indiewire and the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Follow him on Twitter: @eug