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Bret Easton Ellis: 'The Canyons' Is a 'Cold, Dead Movie'

'The mission to make this movie was almost as important as the movie itself,' he says

Bret Easton Ellis
Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
July 29, 2013 12:00 PM ET

After tons of rumors and hype over the past year, The Canyons will finally be released in select theaters and through video on demand this Friday. The Kickstarter-financed film co-stars troubled actress Lindsay Lohan (in her first leading role in six years), and adult film veteran James Deen (in his first mainstream role). It's an exploration of deceit and manipulation among wealthy and not-so-wealthy young people in Los Angeles, with some violence and graphic nudity thrown in. "When you're going out to dinner with people and they ask you, 'God, is that movie you made really as bad as everyone thinks it's going to be?' – that can be a little annoying," says Ellis, laughing over the phone from his Los Angeles office. "But you just gotta see the movie, and you'll see for yourself."

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What do you think of The Canyons as a finished product?
It's pretty good. And I think the fact that it even got made was kind of amazing. The mission to make this movie was almost as important as the movie itself. From the time that I wrote the first page of the script to when we had a cut of the movie was about seven months. And the fact that it looks much better than the quarter-million that it cost to make. It just felt like the whole process has been, despite what you've read, very positive. Everything that was talked about happened over a period of maybe five bad days of a schedule of 22 or 23. That New York Times Magazine piece made it seem like the entire movie was a train wreck, but in actuality, we came in on schedule and on budget. But that's not the perception that's out there. So, what's the better story? I read it, too. I was very disappointed in the piece. But, at the same time, Paul was really happy about it. He liked having it for the publicity. I mean, he thought it was great for the movie, and so I kind of changed my mind when I saw that Paul was completely fine with the piece. But it distorts the making of the movie.

Was Paul your first choice to direct?
Well, it wasn't a choice, really. What happened was we were working on another movie together, and it was, I think, a month away from being shot. It was cast and we had all the sets and locations, and the money fell through. Paul and I were just really bummed out, so he said, "Write an original script and I'll direct it, and we'll make it in two months. We'll put our money into it and let's just do it. I just want to make a movie." And that's how it happened.

The film was rejected by both Sundance and SXSW. Did that bother you?
I didn't care. I didn't think that we needed Sundance or SXSW. I thought there was a risk that we wouldn't get a distributor if we went to one of those festivals. I mean, the spirit of making The Canyons is a very Sundance thing, but the movie itself does not conform to the content of most Sundance movies, which have their whole host of indie clichés. They're about the resilience of the human spirit or whatever. The Canyons is a cold, "dead" movie, I guess, about cold, dead people. I like that about it – I think something about that coldness makes it fascinating. But that coldness doesn't really play well at Sundance or SXSW. So my argument was: we're going to get a distributor for this movie, and we might lose our chance if we go to either one of those festivals.

What's your least favorite part of the movie-making process?
My least favorite part is that you have people putting in their two cents. It's their job to do that, but it doesn't make movies better. It just flattens them out and waters them down. But that seems to be retreating now. It's going to go away because people have access to equipment – to cameras and to lenses and to making movies very cheaply.

There have been rumors that Lindsay Lohan had issues with Schrader and James Deen. Did you have any problems with her?
I was against her being cast at first because I heard she wasn't well and I thought she was going to bring a lot of baggage to the movie. But everything went away when we saw that she was playing the role this way. It really worked for the movie. She made the character much more combative and confrontational, whereas, in the script, the girl might have been less likely to act that way. She gave it a desperation that I really liked a lot.

Is it true French actress Leslie Coutterand was an understudy, just in case Lohan was fired or left?
Yes. That was in the first week. When it became apparent that Lindsay was going to finish the movie, I think Leslie was told, "No, it's okay." Lindsay was fired for being Late to the first rehearsal, and that was a very dramatic day. The New York Times got that totally right. It actually was much worse than how it was reported – it was much more emotional and draining. I know that Leslie was definitely in the wings that first week.

Who has a brighter mainstream future on screen: James Deen or Lindsay Lohan?
That's a good question. James doesn't want a mainstream career that badly. If it happens, great. But we approached James. He wasn't going out there before The Canyons trying to go on auditions. He was making a pretty good living in something that he liked to do, and he wasn't desperate for this role. He was always super casual about it. If he got it, great, if not, he still worked. He worked on porn during the shooting of The Canyons, so just because of that fact, I'd have to say Lindsay. I mean, I think if Lindsay stays clean and sober, she would be great. I don't think she has to be totally sober, but if she pulled it back a bit? [Laughs.] The thing that people forget is that she's actually a good screen actress. A very good screen actress. It's just been buried by the tabloid activity of the last four or five years, however long it's been going on. And so she obviously has a more viable future. But, you know, it depends on how she decides to approach her life.

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In your latest novel Imperial Bedrooms, a character mentions that "they made a movie" about Less Than Zero, Bedrooms' prequel of sorts. Do you think characters in your future novels will mention The Canyons?
That could happen. I just really don't know if there is a future novel right now, that's the only thing. I mean, there are notes for one, but I'm not sure. The Less Than Zero/Imperial Bedrooms scene was a very weird case. For some reason, I was going through this process where writing that down meant a lot to me. I was going through something really dark, and I wanted to revisit where Clay was at that point in his life, so I wanted to open the book that way. I don't know if I would repeat that again, where I would have a character commenting on the real Bret Easton Ellis' life.

So you're not writing a new novel?
Well, I have a lot of notes, and I'm moving them around, and I'm moving them around some more. Sometimes it speaks to me, and sometimes it doesn't. So I don't know what's going to happen. You really can't force it. You have to stick to it in a very pronounced way. It has to really say, "Okay, I'm ready to be written. You have to write me now." And, I don't know, there are places where I don't think I'm there yet.

Which of your books was adapted into the best movie?
I think by far it was The Rules of Attraction. For some reason, Roger Avary was able to find the visual equivalent of the book. I don't think Less Than Zero or American Psycho really did that. Maybe The Informers did a bit. Less Than Zero was very big budget, very over-lit. I mean, it looks gorgeous, but I don't know if that captured the visual equivalent of the novel. It's the same with American Psycho. Maybe American Psycho needed to be a bit more expensive to pull that off. But Roger was able to find the cinematic equivalent for a very difficult book to adapt. Since so many people were telling their own version of the same story, how do you pull that off in a movie? I think that movie's brilliant. I mean, I really do. I wasn't expecting much when I went to see it, but I really like it. Whenever it pops up on cable or something, I can still watch it and be happy with it.

You've described yourself as a very fearful person. What worries you the most?
Answering that question. I'm very worried about answering that question. You know, it's just a general outlook, that's what it is – a macro way of dealing with the world or reacting to the world. And I actually think that a lot of writers have this kind of relationship with the world, and that's why they can create drama, because they can find it in anything. It's a great way to work and to be inspired, but it's also a very difficult way to live. And that's why a lot of writers turn to drugs and alcohol – as a release from the act of creating drama all day.

You've had a lot of controversial tweets over the years – last December you tweeted, "come over at do bring coke now" after watching the Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane. Was it that bad? And did you score the coke?
I actually wanted to do T-shirts with that on it. People still bring it up. What was happening was that, after the Rolling Stones documentary, I did want some coke. But, quite honestly, I don't do coke. My coke days are over. But, for some reason, that night I wanted to do coke. And so I texted my friend who was out, and they weren't going to be around. I texted my boyfriend, but he was out with friends. And then I thought I was texting someone I knew who could get it, and I wasn't texting – I actually tweeted it instead. The next day, I actually laughed. I mean I was a bit mortified, but I actually thought it was funny. And I never deleted it.

That's hilarious.
I never got the coke. And I'm glad I didn't.

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