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Bret Easton Ellis Talks “The Canyons” and the Death of Hollywood

To look through Bret Easton Ellis’ eyes is to see the darker side of life. The critically acclaimed author and screenwriter behind projects like American Psycho, Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction beholds the mundane and the ordinary elements of everyday life, then refracts them through a pitch black prism to create darkly comic worlds replete with lurid sex, violence, and a fixation on pop culture. Granted, these are funhouse mirror versions of ourselves, but it’s hard to watch a film based on one of Ellis’ works without seeing something familiar. His latest work, The Canyons, a microbudget Kickstarter-funded film directed by Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader, has been seemingly mired in controversy and journalistic piling-on from the get-go, thanks in part to Stephen Rodrick’s behind-the-scenes feature in The New York Times and its unconventional casting of troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan and boy-next-door porn star James Deen.

The film is less about the narrative than the themes it returns to time and time again – issues of dominance, control and isolation – but the sexually charged L.A. noir thriller is more than the sum of its parts, in particular because of its position as one of the leaders of the shift away from the studio system towards more direct-to-consumer release platforms like VOD and iTunes. After watching the film sprawled across my bed on a laptop, the manner in which I suspect many will consume it, I spoke with Ellis about the film’s unconventional nature, the slow death of the Hollywood studio system, and the changing ways in which we consume our culture, popular or otherwise.

Nerdist: As I understand it, The Canyons came out of the ashes of Bait, another project you and Paul Schrader had been working on that sort of didn’t come together at the last minute. Where did the impetus of this project come from? How did it come to be what we see today?

Bret Easton Ellis: Well, Paul said, “Why don’t we make a movie?” after some movies that we’d been involved in like, pre-production for a year on and it fell apart. So Paul said, “Okay, screw this. Let’s make a movie. We’ll pay for it and I’ll get the equipment and you’ll write it. And I’ll direct it and we’ll own it. We’ll put it on YouTube or whatever or iTunes, you know?” And I said, “Okay, cool.” That was the beginning of The Canyons and that was in January/February of 2012 and I gave Paul an outline for an idea, he liked it. Wrote the script, he liked it. And then we started casting. And that’s really how it happened. We used our own money and then we went to Kickstarter to get some more money and we shot for $250,000. That’s the story. The beginning of the story, actually. That’s how The Canyons came about. It was about our frustration about dealing with the development process in a town that was dying. You know, the town is dying. They’re not making these movies anymore. The only way to make movies now seems to be crowd-sourcing or getting someone like [Annapurna Pictures'] Megan Ellison to write you a check for a lot of money so you can produce a movie. This is the nature of the game. That’s how The Canyons came about.

N: Do you see this sort of release strategy, using things like Kickstarter and VOD and iTunes, as the sort of future the business is headed towards?

BEE: Definitely. The theatrical model for movies is, it might not look on a day-by-day basis to be dying, but it is. I do believe that the only movies that are going to be shown theatrically are going to be huge, new budget spectacles. And you’re gonna pay 80 bucks to see them in a giant stadium and you’ll get like a free DVD or whatever. You’ll get a gift or something. And then all the other movies you’ll basically watch on TV or on your computer, download them, or stream them, and that’s really what the theatrical experience is going to be. To an extent, to release a movie anymore, unless you have 70 to 80 million dollars to advertise them, it’s hard to build up awareness. There are always kind of, the indie hit that suggests this is not totally happening, or it’s happening at a much slower rate than I’m suggesting, but I do think it’s where the business will be ultimately heading.

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N: If that’s the case, what makes a film like The Canyons something you wouldn’t be able to make through traditional methods?

BEE: Well, first of all, it’s a very ugly story about sleazy people doing sleazy things with each other with no sense of redemption. Everyone is victimized, and it’s kind of an ugly look at life, but it’s a world view that Schrader and I are fascinated by. Yet, you’re not gonna get anyone- not even the mini-majors- funding something like The Canyons because of the rawness of the material. Because we want to make this movie, we have to crowd-source it, we have to put our own money in and take that risk. [The Canyons] doesn’t conform to the very narrow notion of Hollywood, even independent Hollywood. It’s really on the outskirts.

N: Even in the film itself, there’s a lot of breaking of the fourth wall, looking in the camera, even with Lindsay Lohan’s monologue about being so over movies, it seems like we’re getting some of this editorializing, some of your voice coming through. Are you, in fact, over film? It sounds like it a little bit.

BEE: I will have to say that the only thing Paul added, that was it. So that was more Paul speaking than me. He added that little monologue into the movie, but I have to say I agree with him. I do feel that, as someone who goes to a lot of movies and sees at least 1 to 3 movies a week, that the conversation about American movies is not as loud as it once was, and it now seems to — the cultural conversation seems to have switched over to television, which I don’t find as interesting as the best movies. I guess the expense, the ideas, the theatrical experience… I don’t know, there’s an entire generation of people, and I live with someone who’s in their 20’s where they can watch something on an iPad and watch 15 minutes of it and then finish it the next day. I just can’t consume things that way. I mean, I’m really not there yet. I like the idea of going into a theater and having the movie control me. I’m just used to that. I don’t like controlling a movie. I don’t like having the power to sit in my bedroom and stop a movie when I’m bored or get up to make a sandwich or something. I like being in the grip of a movie in the theater, but I do know that other people are kind of indifferent to that. I do know that other people are kind of indifferent to that, so I don’t know, I do feel that American movies right now this year are a lot less interesting than I think maybe they’ve ever been. That’s just where I’m at, and that the studio system has been dead for decades and that the independent cinema is just as moribund.

N: I definitely have to agree with your point about the experience of going to the cinema simply because it’s a zero-sum game. You are there for the duration of the film. The sort of stopping and starting that comes with watching on an iPad dilutes the end product, because you’re not meant to have a choice in how long the film takes.

BEE: Right. Yeah, that’s what gives the whole moviegoing experience tension. You’ll see the movie on its terms. You don’t experience it on your own terms, and that, really, I don’t know if that focuses you in a way that it does when I’m watching a movie. Even a really good movie at home, you know?

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N: Speaking of control: Issues of control, domination, sexuality have definitely been prevalent in your works before. Especially in something like The Canyons, they’re couched in these material and technological obsessions that are driving our modern society. What is it about these issues in particular that speak to you, and why do you find them so compelling to write about?

BEE: Why am I drawn to these things? I don’t know. It’s just part of the texture of a lot of the things I write. For example, when I was first thinking about The Canyons, I was thinking about this one character Christian and what would his girlfriend be like and then I was also thinking about what happens to young actors in this town when they’re kind of inching up towards 30. What are your options? And then it all came together that they were all in the fringes of Hollywood. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about control at first, I was just thinking about what is the story of The Canyons. Then it became apparent to me that, okay, the center of it is this person who is a massive control freak. I guess on a certain level, it’s me, too. I mean, I’ve been a control freak at various times in my life. As a writer, I feel the need to control my world. The short answer is, it comes from me. It all comes from me. You can’t really fake it. I mean, all these things have to come from me to a degree. Now of course, you’re dramatizing them, so they’re much more violent and intense in the context of a novel or movie you’re watching. The Canyons is not like my life, but there are certain aspects of it that I can definitely say, “Oh, yeah.” Stuff that went on that influenced the coloring of certain aspects of the movie.

N: Another theme of the film I wanna touch on, and maybe I was reading into this too much, is that it seems like no one has a private life anymore. We’re so connected, so plugged in, through Facebook, social media, what have you, and we’re being conditioned to “check in” for even the simplest of tasks like going to the grocery store. You’re a fairly active social media user yourself. Do you think we’re too plugged in? Is that something you want us to take away from this?

BEE: I actually don’t. I just think it’s where we’re at and it’s not a criticism at all. It’s just something that I was noticing. I guess, since because it’s a kind of noir movie that there’s kind of a “doominess” about the whole project. I feel the blackness of the noir. People have read into this movie that it is sort of a comment on technology and also/or on millenials and their way of dealing with whatever’s in Hollywood. I didn’t think of any of those things. I was just thinking about the story and certain aspects of my life that I was going to pop up and dramatize in this noir framework, but I don’t necessarily think we’re too plugged in. I think it’s just where we’re at and we’re at kind of where we wanna be. I don’t find it that troublesome at all. To be plugged in, I think it’s kind of good. It just depends on who you are and how you use it. I don’t feel overwhelmed by it at all, though I think there are some older people who ignore it but can’t and don’t want to deal with it. But life is overwhelming. Life is overwhelming.

N: Yeah, it can definitely get a little overwhelming, especially when you have this constant stream of information coming in at the same time.

BEE: I think it does fuck with your ability to concentrate for long periods of time on things. I know my attention span for like, fiction has been, like, halved. I used to be able to read fiction, give 70 pages at a time. I cannot do that now. I can’t. I can read like 10 pages, 15 pages. It’s just, there’s something about the way that my mind has been rewired that makes fiction reading difficult for me now. Even though I still enjoy it and I like to read novels, but they take a long time now.

N: It seems like we’re being hardwired for multitasking these days.

BEE: Yes, I totally agree. And also, on a certain level, that’s just where we’re going. I can’t put a negative or positive on it. It’s just who we are.

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N: Yeah, it’s just a fact of the matter. One thing I found interesting is that you’ve adapted a lot of your works into films. The Canyons did not come from a novel originally, but I wanted to talk about how does writing a screenplay compare to writing a novel for you? Do you find one more challenging? Do you prefer one more to the other?

BEE: Well, right now I kind of prefer writing scripts, though I am working on a novel sporadically in the background. A novel takes a long time to write and it’s about consciousness and style and sensibility. It’s not necessarily about a story being told. It really is about a character and it’s about a narrator and it’s about your obsessions at the time. Or else that’s what a novel should be. That’s what novels are for me. Screenplays are a little bit more utilitarian. There’s a story you wanna tell cinematically. It’s usually much shorter than a novel, and what you have to do is lay out the blueprint. You have this story, you have these characters, and you kind of set up the structure of the movie. Hopefully, the dialogue is decent and, you know, you go into it realizing that it will be directed by someone else. The actors will have a vital say in how the movie is translated in the next step. Everything from the cinematography to the editing, it’s just this huge, collaborative thing. Really, it’s the director’s medium. The director really puts a stamp on it. The screenwriter just supplies something for the director to kind of launch off from. One you do alone, one you work with other people on, and that does change the way you work.

N: Yeah, I can imagine that when you have more cooks in the kitchen, it’s definitely gonna have an impact there. Going back to the film for the moment, I wanted to ask you about this. A lot of your works have references and little Easter eggs and things like that to your other works. Are there any Easter eggs to the Bret Easton Ellis-verse in The Canyons that we can look for?

BEE: You know, it’s really interesting that you asked that because no, there actually isn’t. If you look at the novels, yeah there’s little links and things commenting on each other and other references to earlier works, but in The Canyons there aren’t any Easter eggs in that basket. [laughs] No. It’s a wholly originally script with wholly originally characters.

N: I just have one last question for you. What would be inside of your ideal burrito?

BEE: [Laughs] Okay. My ideal burrito. I don’t eat burritos. Chicken? [laughs] I guess rice, rice, salsa, guacamole, cheese, and some cilantro.

The Canyonsdirected by Paul Schrader and written by Bret Easton Ellis, is available now on VOD, iTunes and in select theaters now. Did you see the film? Let us know what you thought in the comments below, hit me up on Twitter and stay tuned for our forthcoming review.

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