Bret Easton Ellis’s novels have had an interesting path to the big screen: the only novel that fully captured his writing is The Rules of Attraction, a movie that divided audiences; American Psycho is a cult favorite that Ellis isn’t entirely pleased with; Less Than Zero, although featuring a great performance from Robert Downey Jr., is a terrible adaptation; and the less said about The Informers, well, the better.
However, The Canyons is a film Ellis had a very different relationship with. The LA noir is one of many original scripts he’s written, but it’s the only one that has made it to the screen with the help of Kickstarter, producer Braxton Pope, and director Paul Schrader.
The movie is as much a statement about filmmaking as it is anything else, and Ellis had his own statements to make about modern cinema culture and adapting the unadaptable.
Is pushing an audience deliberate or is it simply serving the material?
It’s always serving the material. I don’t understand where that impulse just to shock someone comes from. I think when you do that it often doesn’t work, because you can tell it’s fake.
It’s just the kind of material I’ve always been drawn to. I present it all very flatly: I don’t put quotation marks around it; the shocks are a part of the world I’m writing about; and it fits in with the characters I’m drawn to. I don’t know how Paul feels, but it just seems to fit these scenarios and characters.
Do you agree with Tara about movies? Are they relevant anymore?
I think we’re in a creative crisis when it comes to American movies. I think this has been a year of reckoning, like,”Oh, I get it, they aren’t at the center of culture anymore, like when I was a teenager or in my 20s or 30s.” The conversation has shifted over because there’s so much talk about television over movies now.
I also find myself mentioning a movie I like to a bunch of people and no one has seen it. I like the ritual and habit of going to the movies, but I feel pretty alienated. I’m a little depressed about it, but I should maybe move on. Maybe they’ll get better later this year, but I’ve just noticed in the last year or so it hasn’t been great.
Were you a Star Wars kid growing up or were you into other types of movies at that age?
Well, by that time, I was more The Close Encounters kid. I didn’t like Star Wars [Laughs]. I was 13 years old when that came out and I saw it when it was at the Chinese theater for that first week, because it had kind of a semi-platform release; it opened at the Chinese a week or two before it moved over to other places. I went to see it and just never got it. Also, strangely enough at 13, I was a Robert Altman kid. I liked Robert Altman movies, so you could not use me as the standard for a 13-year-old boy’s taste, but I was not a Star Wars fan. Even then, I was crossing my arms and shaking my head.
[Laughs] So you had a Robert Altman lunchbox instead?
I was that kid. I think Three Women opened around the same week Star Wars did and I dragged a couple of friends to it. Midway through they said, “Are you crazy?” I think I only got them to go see it because Sissy Spacek was in it and maybe they liked Carrie. That was a long time ago…
Obviously Paul Schrader was making great movies around that time. When you write for someone with a distinct voice such as his own, do you write with that sensibility in mind?
We worked on a movie I had not written for him. It made sense why he was attracted to it because there were Schrader-like scenes in it. The Canyons I did write for him and I did think about a bunch of his other movies: American Gigilo, Hardcore, Autofocus, Lightsleeper, and The Comfort of Sleepers. I wanted to make that kind of neo-noir set in LA.
I was conscious of certain thematics that run through Schrader’s movies, but at the same time, I had to write from my own life and what was going on in my own head. I was thinking a lot about James Deen and transparency. How does that impact a noir? If you can find out about anyone with a keystroke, how does that affect a noir? What would Chinatown be today? I was thinking of 50 Shades of Grey as well, because I was trying to get the screenwriting job on that. I was also thinking of my own relationship. Is it not an equal relationship because I kind of support us? He has his own work, but does that kind of relationship have an imbalance? All those things came to play and informed the screenplay.
Would you ever considering taking one of those unmade screenplays of yours, going out there with a digital camera, and making a movie for nothing?
Completely. I find myself doing it anyway, filming things on my iPhone or my iPad. Whether I’m walking through a park or at a shopping center and I see something visually interesting, yeah, I’ll film it. I couldn’t have directed The Canyons. I think you need a vet to do it who has a lot of experience. It was a tough shoot, because we had no money and a certain amount of time. I don’t know if I have the stamina to be a director, to actually direct a film. Who knows, though? Maybe.
When you guys got financing off Kickstarter, at the time, $250,000 dollars sounded like a lot of money. Now, there are established artists on there asking for millions.
I think people were also suspicious of us. Schrader, Braxton Pope, and I put in about as much as we could afford. I think people had this idea we had a lot more money, but we don’t. The movie ended up being more than $250,000, because there was some defer payments and Lindsay needed money.
Getting back to the idea of Kickstarter, we needed it to make this movie. I feel our prizes were really cool. There’s no other way to fund movies, unless you got Megan Ellison or someone like that on your side. In terms of making dark and adult movies like The Canyons, this is what you have to do. I’m all for it. In the future, I think we’re going to see $15–20M movies be funded like this. If the studios only keep making $300M movies, then this is how movies will be funded.
You’ve discussed before how a good book doesn’t always mean it’ll make for a good movie. Keeping that in mind, are you someone who believes in the idea of an “unadaptable” novel?
Yes. Well, you know, I was about to name a bunch of books, but maybe they would work as movies. Kubrick’s Lolita works on a certain level, but in a very different way from the book. I don’t think Kubrick’s Lolita is a masterpiece, but I think the novel is.
American Psycho I also don’t think really works as a film. The movie is fine, but I think that book is unadaptable because it’s about consciousness, and you can’t really shoot that sensibility. Also, you have to make a decision whether Patrick Bateman kills people or doesn’t. Regardless of how [director] Mary Harron wants to shoot that ending, we’ve already seen him kill people; it doesn’t matter if he has some crisis of memory at the end.
How do you adapt “The Iliad”? How do you have that experience be the same as an experience that was conceived as a book? You’re getting a watered down, secondhand version of it, in a way. If you’ve written a novel, you’ve written a novel because it is a novel.
The Canyons is now in limited release and available on VOD and iTunes.