Paul Schrader on Purposefully Courting Controversy for ‘The Canyons’

By  · Published on July 31st, 2013

In The Canyons Schrader has the camera zero in on abandoned movie theaters while Bret Easton Ellis’s script has its characters discussing whether they actually “like movies” anymore. What all that has to do with the plot is up for interpretation, but it doesn’t take a genius to see Schrader and Ellis are talking about the emergence of VOD and new media amidst the piles of old curtains and velvet-backed chairs.

Schrader won’t let his camera show hopping movie theaters and audiences eating up popcorn, because that’s not the world Ellis’s characters see. They’re cold, monotone 20-somethings who could care less about today’s movies or movies in general (even as they make one). Maybe Schrader also feels that way about today’s major theatrical releases, but, one thing is for sure: The Canyons is a movie that wasn’t made for 2,000 screens.

It’s true low-budget, crowdsourced indie filmmaking, and because of that (and some other obvious reasons), it didn’t have the smoothest production. That chaotic frenzy was all fuel for the media, and Schrader was holding the match.

Looking at The Canyons and The Last Temptation of Christ, there was a notable amount of press leading up to their releases. Do you have to pay attention that?

You not only pay attention to it, you stir the pot. Not on The Last Temptation, but here, you’re making a micro-budget film. With other people making them too, how do you get your head above the crowd? Well, you have to sow the wind. When you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. All of this “controversy” around the film we’ve always had our hand in it. We made trailers mocking our own film before it even came out. People looked at the trailers and thought the film was going to be terrible, but they were still talking about it.

Do you consider the actual production controversial? Some of it is juicy gossip, but do you think it compares to movies going $100 million dollars over budget?

Yeah, in this case, controversial just means people are talking about it and they have differing opinions. We created a polarizing film with polarizing elements: Lindsay [Lohan] polarizes; the fact James [Deen] is from adult film polarizes; and I polarize some people. When you have all those elements together, you’re going to create some noise.

“Noise” is the new magical word. Everybody wants to be asked that question, “Will this film make some noise?” Otherwise, you’re not going to hear it among the racket of the 30 other films that weekend.

Do you intentionally polarize? Do you see it as a good thing?

Obviously you want them to talk about you. You just hope you do it in a way that won’t doom you, you know? You hope, in the end, the film can stand on its own two feet. We’re now working on our third storyline for this film: the first one was Bret and Paul make a movie; the second story was “Lindsay Lohan: The Horror Story”; and the third story is “Hey, it’s pretty good after all.”

You’ve said before how, in reference to The Last Temptation of Christ, that you want art to shock and upset people. Flash-forwarding to today, how can you still shock people?

I don’t know if “upset” or “shock” are quite the right words. I’d say, you want to upset in an intellectual way, and that’s really what art can do. You can’t control what those minds do once they’re in motion, even though movies are built on the predicate of the opposite: not making you think.

The Canyons feels tied to your film Autofocus, where that was about how celebrity ruined someone, while this new film deals with the pitfalls of chasing celebrity. Do you see them as being connected?

That’s just a glance over your shoulder [kind of connection]. I like Bret’s writing. I proposed this to him, saying, “In the new economics, we can do this. You can write it, I can direct it, you can pay for it, and we don’t need anyone’s permission. Let’s just do it.” A part of my interests in the film were not only the subject matter, but also the process of: is it possible to make a film in this way? That goes from the inception, the casting, the shooting, to the release, which was all done through social media and for nothing. This was exhilarating to see if it would work. Nothing I did on this film was what I had done before.

Would you prefer working that way?

No. I mean, it’s exhausting. It’s not necessarily fun to pay people $100 a day, not to get permits, and work without insurance [Laughs]. It is possible to do it, though. The total outlay for the film was $90,000 and the film is already out of the woods with the IFC deal. We’ll probably make additional money when we cross $600,000 or $700,000.

Does box office matter to you?

It should matter to me more, because that’s how you get films made. I once had a conversation with Sydney Pollack and he said, “I don’t see the difference between people of your generation and people like me.” I said, “Sydney, I’ve made two films where I knew the films would flop before I made them, but I made them because I thought they were worth doing. Would you ever do that?” He said, “No, I would never do that.” Before Patty Hearst and Mishima came out I knew they were doomed. In both cases, I thought, “This is a terrific way to make a movie.”

And I’m sure it helps that films like those maybe lead to more high-profile actors wanting to work with you, which can get more projects made.

Yes, yes, but, as you know, in this case, you have to cast outside of the normal circle. You’re looking for talented actors who will do nudity, not have trailers, do their own makeup, do sex simulation, and their own transportation for $100 a day. How do you cast that movie? You certainly don’t go to a talent agency with that pitch.

Was working with James Deen a different collaboration compared to other actors?

No. He’s been on camera for almost 10 years, so there’s more film of him than just about any other actor you can think of. He’s shot several hundred porns, so he’s no stranger to the process. He understands his own limits and charisma very, very well. You can’t make an actor. You either have it naturally or you don’t. In this case, he did. I was just as surprised as the next person that I cast him. It was Bret’s idea, but I just assumed it wouldn’t happen.

What made you get onboard with Deen’s casting?

I think it was when Lindsay came in. The idea of casting two iconic figures from different cultures. Seeing one person from celebrity culture and one from adult film culture and putting them into an intellectual exercise by Schrader and Ellis seemed like a cool idea. After Lindsay came onboard, I thought it would work with James. There’s a nice, Post-Empire feeling about their casting.

The name of our production company is “Post-Empire,” because Bret uses that term to describe American art now.

The Canyons opens in limited release and on VOD August 2nd.

Related Topics:

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.