Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis, The Canyons
It began with a lucky calamity. Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis originally came together to work on Bait, a movie backed by Spanish money that was set up at Lionsgate. When that fell apart, the two creative forces got talking about making something else.
“It wouldn’t be that expensive,” says Schrader over the phone from Greece earlier this month. “Beautiful people, bad things in guys’ rooms. [Ellis] would write it. We’d set it in the homes of people we knew and it would be microbudget.”
Ellis was intrigued and wrote the draft in one month. Together with producer Braxton Pope, Ellis and Schrader each invested $30,000 of their own money and raised a further $170,000 on Kickstarter. Voltage Pictures chief Nicolas Chartier came on to handle international sales in March and is tempting buyers on the Croisette.
“We made the movie [in 2012] and broke even with the IFC deal,” says Schrader, referring to the distributor’s play for US rights in February. Schrader instructed Alexis Garcia at WME Global to press ahead with a sale after a catty piece ran in the New York Times in January that devoted most of its energies to the high-maintenance behavior of Lindsay Lohan.
They didn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea. Ellis, speaking on a separate call from Los Angeles, insists Lohan was not as disruptive as the article made her seem and maybe misbehaved “about six days out of a four-week shoot.”
Schrader says: “You ask ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’ and then you go to the dailies and remember why. You can shoot around bad behavior but you cannot shoot around mis-casting.”
Porn star James Deen impressed in the lead male role. “I wrote it with James Deen in mind,” says Ellis. “It happened to coincide with the fact that I had become aware of who James Deen was. I found him fascinating for what he symbolised at this moment in the culture. I thought he was very cute and capable of a darkness that lurked behind the smiling boy-next-door person of his [porn] movies.
“I tweeted about him. It took a lot of persuading to get Paul to see him. The guys we had lined up were actors and they projected a malice that you just couldn’t have for this character – he has to seem a little more interesting. He needed to have a normalcy about him and most of the guys would play it up a bit. James doesn’t have that in him – he is very plain-spoken, very neutral, great smile and then he can turn on a dime. He doesn’t have all this actory stuff to rely on that can mess you up.”
Schrader liked what he saw and Deen was in. The result is a sexually charged neo-noir set in Los Angeles about a sociopathic movie producer, his girlfriend and a young actor. “It was never going to be The Godfather, but an experiment,” says Ellis. “I like it. I am much happier with this than I am with some of the bigger movies where I thought I had power but didn’t.
“It was vital we have a veteran like Paul, someone who has been making movies for 40 years,” says Ellis. “With the limitations of making this, I don’t know if a novice could have pulled it off. We didn’t have permits and there were budget constraints and we were dealing with Lindsay and Paul himself is quite volatile but he kept the whole thing together… This was by far the best [filmmaking] experience I have had and I would do something else with Paul.”
The director feels the same way. “Three days into the shoot I told someone I was shooting American Gigolo again,” says Schrader, referring to his 1980 thriller. “It felt natural.”