Exclusive Interview: Paul Schrader on The Canyons
Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. He directed American Gigolo and Affliction. To say I was nervous to talk to Paul Schrader is putting it somewhat mildly, but he was positively energized when discussing his latest film, The Canyons, starring professional porn star James Deen and Lindsay Lohan. The Canyons has taken something of a critical drubbing (full disclosure, from myself included), but Schrader can take it. He's happy to talk about a new kind of independent production, and a film that – from his perspective – is as much about the shifting attitudes of Hollywood that drives films like The Canyons onto VOD as it is about the characters inside populating Bret Easton Ellis's story.
We also talk about the unexpected casting of Gus Van Sant as a psychologist, shooting on location without a permit (a problem even for respected directors like Paul Schrader) and how porn star Lily LaBeau accidentally made Lindsay Lohan very uncomfortable while they were shooting a four-way sex scene. Sounds like it must have been quite a day on the production!
CraveOnline: The first I had heard of The Canyons it was actually a completely different movie called Bait.
Paul Schrader: There was a movie called Bait that Bret [Easton Ellis] had written that I was scheduled to direct. It was a shark. I had known Bret over the years and I had liked his writing a lot, and when that movie fell apart I proposed that we just do something else on our own. He’d write it, I’d direct it and we’d pay for it, and we don’t fool around in getting other people’s permission.
Was Bait more of a commercial enterprise? Because it “is” a killer shark movie.
Yeah, it was. It was. It had Anton Yelchin and Emmy Rossum. It was a shark movie. A lot of kids got eaten by sharks. It was a good thing we couldn’t make it because we didn’t have the budget to do it right anyway.
Do you think there’s ever any hope for that getting made?
Not by me!
When you decided to do The Canyons, what was your first conversation? Did you tell Bret, “Just write something we can do within a budget and I’ll do it,” or did you come up with the idea together?
I sent him an e-mail and I originally proposed that he rework some of his existing characters, but all his books were under option. Because I said that what he did best is not expensive. It’s beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms. That is not very expensive, and good talk is not expensive. So I just proposed that he write it and I direct it, and that we make cinema for the post-theatrical era. So it was conceived from moment one as a VOD concept, and something that we would do through the new mechanisms of social media. Nothing about this film was done in a way I had done before. It was conceived, it wasn’t cast, it wasn’t financed, it wasn’t made, it wasn’t promoted, and now it isn’t being distributed in a way I’ve done before.
You talk about the “post-theatrical era.” Is that why the film opens with a credit sequence of dilapidated movie theaters?
Yes, because people still use the phrase “straight to video” as a derogatory. But that’s changing. Video is now becoming a completely legitimate means of distribution. You can go to straight to pay-per-view. So I wanted to put those empty theaters up front so that every single viewer would know, hey, here’s the reason we’re VOD. The theaters are closed! [Laughs] So I felt that unless you just hammer that home, people would always assume “Oh, they went to video because the film wasn’t good enough for theaters.” I wanted to promote this notion that, particularly for young filmmakers and low-budget filmmakers, VOD is now becoming a genuine alternative.
It’s interesting that you would make your credits more about how the film was made than the specific context of the story.
Well, there’s another reason. The very first read-through I had with the actors, I said “This is a story of some twenty-something Angelenos who went to see a movie, but the theater had closed, but they stayed in line because they had nowhere else to go.” That’s how I thought of these characters. They’re in line for a movie, but the movie’s closed. They’re making a movie and they don’t really like movies.
That’s a very interesting metaphor, but it just seems like the characters are so disinterested in film that it’s strange they’d be in line for a movie at all.
Do they feel that they have to because they’re in Hollywood?
Yeah, I mean it all starts of course with Christian. Kids in Los Angeles, they get involved in movies almost by default because that’s what you’re sort of supposed to do.