Bret Easton Ellis wrote the screenplay for “The Canyons.” | JEFF BURTON
Bret Easton Ellis, famous for creating wealthy, louche, and amoral characters, has created some fabulously reckless film industry folks in his smart screenplay for “The Canyons.” The writer described the film — which is both seductive and sinister — as a “neo-noir,” perhaps because it is a sordid tale of sex, betrayal, and violence set in Los Angeles, 2012.
Christian (adult film star James Deen), is a film producer romantically involved with Tara (Lindsay Lohan). This fun-loving couple frequently invites guys over for sexual activities that range from voyeuristic masturbation sessions to a fourgy. Despite this freewheeling arrangement, when Christian suspects Tara of cheating on him with Ryan (Nolan Funk) — an actor in his new movie whose girlfriend, Gina (Amanda Brooks), is Christian’s assistant — he becomes hellbent on revenge.
It’s possible to look at “The Canyons” not as a noir per se, but as a dark comedy of manners — one where anything is cool except for lying and betrayal.
“I was thinking about this notion of transparency,” Ellis said when asked about this interpretation. “There is this struggle between this old guard that thinks it’s dangerous and this new guard that thinks transparency is a good thing. You can’t get away with things you once got away with because of technology. And in Hollywood, with its anonymous sources and stars keeping their lives private and this dying of cinema… there’s no going back. There’s too much information out there, too many people wanting transparency.”
Screenwriter’s story of cinema’s death offers him new artistic hope
Tara and Ryan are strivers who have romantic feelings for each other and lie to their lovers, whom they use to better their lives. Christian, intriguing and flawed, may do unsavory things, but he is always honest. And he is never apologetic or ashamed.
Asked about the way he created the character of Christian, Ellis exclaimed, “That’s who James [Deen] is! That’s how I am. Why do I write these characters? I don’t know. They just resonate with me. I think for every script to work there has to be something personal in it, something you identify with. People talk about the surface amorality of my characters, but I do not approach them that way.”
Christian is not the audience pleaser, Ellis explained.
“I don’t think he has to be likable,” he said. “Christian does care about Tara. It is an important relationship, and I think he loves her.”
The couple’s escapades allow him to “do whatever he wants,” Ellis said, but when Tara steps out on him, “he feels deeply wounded and betrayed.”
Viewers, he continued, will identify with Ryan, “because he’s so trod upon. He has the least power in the film. I thought of actors I know and they do hit a level of desperation and get fucked over. A lot. And that’s based on someone I know well.”
Christian, already suspicious and untrusting, reaches his breaking point, Ellis explained, “after Tara has him make out with another dude.” The moment’s startling quality is true to the story, the screenwriter insisted. “I don’t believe you can force shock,” he said. “You have to be drawn to this material. I wasn’t thinking about being shocking — it was, this is what is going to happen. I don’t think you can effectively get to someone if you are faking it.”
Ellis elaborated on the film’s portrayal of bisexual behavior.
“That’s how I am and how I’ve always been,” he said. “I relate to that and I like it and I want to see it. It comes from an emotional place. You write the book you want to read. You write the movie you want to see. I’m not trying to make a statement about sexual fluidity.”
Explaining he likes to include queer sex in his work, he added, “I think it also brings a tension to things and complicates things. And I like to see if the actors go for it.”
Go for it they do, and audiences will be titillated by the result.
Dean, Ellis said, was ideally suited for the role of Christian. “I was thinking about Deen when I was writing this,” he explained. “I thought of this nice-looking guy being dark. I see that in his porn — a goofy guy next door in one film who shows a vastly different side in another.”
Dean delivers an incredibly magnetic performance that includes a full frontal scene that should remind viewers why he is successful in porn.
Though the character of Tara was not written for Lohan, Ellis said he did not specifically have another actress in mind.
James Deen and Lindsay Lohan in “The Canyons,” directed by Paul Schrader. | IFC FILMS
“Lindsay came in and changed the character,” he said. “The girl in the script was more vulnerable. I imagined Tara softer, not aggressive and challenging Christian. Lindsay gave it a spin and it worked.”
Countering press reports of Lohan being difficult during filming, Ellis praised her professionalism. It may be that rumors about the film’s problems are just one of the industry’s ways of cutting this micro-budget film down to size.
The screenwriter, in turn, views the movie business with a critical eye. The screenplay, he said, is “a summation of everything I’ve been through [in Hollywood]. Working on indie films — and they’ve more often than not gone off the rails — it’s been frustrating and exhilarating. ‘The Canyons’ became the expression of that.”
Ellis talked about a “moribund film industry,” and the brilliant opening and end credit sequences of “The Canyons” feature closed movie theaters in various stages of disrepair. “The Canyons” is as much a film about the decline of cinema as it is about the loss of love and trust.
“When is the last time you went to the movies and it mattered?,” Tara asks Gina, a question serious moviegoers will likely understand.
For all his criticism of the industry, however, Ellis is satisfied with what he was able to do on “The Canyons.”
“The studio system is dead, so now we have to move to this new way of — I can’t call it filmmaking — but content creation,” Ellis said. “It’s devised to be watched on your laptop. We’re selling the film by tweeting about it. In the end, it was a great experience. And it does reflect everything I felt about Hollywood — my switch from entering into the high-end indie world, which is dying, to this new world of do-it-yourself. It’s been the best experience that I’ve had after projects not happening or happening and going badly. I never wrote a script so fast — and writing it knowing it won’t change gave me freedom. I realize I can never do this any other way.”
THE CANYONS | Directed by Paul Schrader | IFC Films | Opens Aug. 2 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com