Eventually, the time comes for every brat to put away childish things.
Bret Easton Ellis, the unofficial class president of the late-1980s literary clique the “Brat Pack,” rose to fame with novels including “Less Than Zero” (1985) and “American Psycho” (1991), books that assayed the decaying soul of, respectively, rich-kid Los Angeles and go-go Wall Street. Dispassionate and violent, told from a chilly remove, Ellis’ novels defined a way of talking about late capitalism; his career progressed to the more personal and reflective “Lunar Park” (2005) before Ellis returned to his doomed Los Angeles characters in his most recent novel, “Imperial Bedrooms” (2010).
Not content with simply writing novels, though, Ellis has been cashing in on his fame with screen projects, some of which, like a New York-set drama starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, have yet to come to fruition. But Ellis’ worldview can’t be contained by the slow mechanisms of the studio system — his new film, “The Canyons,” is currently available on video-on-demand platforms and is playing in New York.
Though it’s impossible to watch the film without thinking of Lohan and Deen’s offscreen profiles — director Paul Schrader told Salon that they were inculcated into the film’s racy subject matter by having been born into the “post-porn generation. They grew up in the porn culture” — but, to Ellis, that’s part of the point. The director, who’s come in for serious criticism for his double-barreled attacks on everyone from Kathryn Bigelow to GLAAD on Twitter, tells Salon he doesn’t believe Lohan should have to explain her issues over the past several years — and that her performance makes the movie.
He also won’t apologize for his explosive public statements in the past. “This social media persona that people want to make more devilish than it really is — I just have to deal with it. I have to stay an authentic person.” Depending on whether you view the nihilism of “The Canyons” as a deep expression of the culture’s anomie or simply chic irony, he may or may not have succeeded.
With three years having elapsed since the release of your last book and so much energy invested into “The Canyons,” are you done with writing novels?
Um, you know, I — no, I’m not done with the novel. I don’t really look at creating content as either a novelistic thing or a screenwriting thing or a TV thing. It’s just about where you want to tell the stories.
For me, the last couple of years has been in screenplays, and it has been in television. The idea for the novel I’m thinking about right now, I don’t think lends itself to a film or a series. But — you know, “The Canyons,” it might seem like “The Canyons” has been something I’ve had to deal with a lot, but I haven’t had to do that much. It was done really quickly. It was guerrilla filmmaking — from the time I was done with the script to the time Schrader had a cut was seven months. I’ve had things in development for six years.
Did the degree to which your film was so low-budget and done under such hasty circumstances lead to any creative compromises?
I didn’t see any limitations. I saw total freedom. It was the best experience I’ve ever had on making a film. Granted, I haven’t made many. The horrible development processes, the compromises we would have had to make — all of that was gone. “The Canyons” is not for everyone; Schrader and I agree with its worldview and what it’s about. I don’t know if we had that much money it would’ve made a difference. The whole thing was great.
Lindsay Lohan and James Deen both have pretty outsize public profiles. Are you unhappy when people’s viewing of the film is colored by what they know of Lohan and Deen offscreen?
Of course. This was something we talked about a lot before casting Lindsay Lohan. Lindsay’s narrative has been fed by hate. That’s what’s fun about it for the vast majority of the public. How’s this going to affect our tiny movie we’re putting our money into and shooting for 20 days in July? How’s this going to change the movie we’re making? Paul is — his aesthetic was, I have to do it with the best actors. And out of the 100 auditions we saw, Lindsay’s was the best. Oh my God, she really gives the best performance. How’s this going to affect how the film is viewed?
And Paul and I don’t care. We want to make this movie the best we can. I had James Deen in mind for the role, before I started writing the script. When he auditioned, he was the best. He brought something neutral and empty to the role that we thought was perfect for it.
A lot of the dislike for the movie surrounds Lindsay, and the fact we cast a porn star as the male lead. You can just tell, the disproportionate hatred for this very, very small, micro-budget movie. When you read everything, it’s fueled by decisions we made that were basically aesthetic.
What do you make of the fact that, consenting to an interview with Oprah Winfrey and a recovery-themed reality show, Lindsay Lohan effectively has to apologize to America for her personal issues?
It is disheartening! I do think a lot of that conservatism is in the critical reaction to this film. I can’t believe you made this movie. Where’s the up-with-life message in it all? Where’s the pathos of the downtrodden? Or whatever. There does seem to be a narrow niche of what you can do in a movie and what’s acceptable to critics or not. That whole narrative where you have to bend down and apologize for being authentic is endemic in society. It angers me every week, some news story, a sex scandal. To be accepted, you have to apologize.
Like the ongoing Anthony Weiner scandal.
Sex scandals don’t mean anything to me. Sex scandals are ridiculous.
Did the negative reviews for “The Canyons” bother you?
None of it got under my skin. People tend to forget I got terrible reviews my whole career. “Less Than Zero” got half-terrible reviews. “American Psycho” got all-terrible reviews. The armor was built long ago.
The thing I noticed during this whole year and a half with Lindsay — in Lindsay World — and as I’ve been following her narrative, I was not shocked by the number of haters she has and how vitriolic they are, but really by her physicality. I can take anything in terms of people hating her work, but people tearing her up for the way she looks, I don’t know. I don’t know if I could move on from that. It’s so personal. It’s something you can’t do that much about.
It’s kind of like, just depressing, to see people attack this movie. The hatred for it is disproportionate to what it is. Especially reviewing it alongside movies like “Wolverine” or even semi-expensive indies. It is what it is, the movie’s going to be around on VOD for three months. There’s a long rollout for it. The premiere’s tonight [Aug. 6]. We’re doing this in a different way, showing it at Venice [Film Festival], with events for it in September. It’s a different way of promoting the movie. We have no money; we have to do it with social media. We’re not advertising on TV at all, really. It’s a different way of doing movies now.
It is different from how most movies are made. People over-hate it. I understand if you don’t like it and it’s not your worldview, but the over-hatred for it is indicative of a lot of things. One of them is the fact movies are changing and the way they’re made is going to change. This is basically the only way you can make a dark, adult indie lately. Has there been a dark, adult indie lately? Don’t tell me “Mud.”
“Silver Linings Playbook”?
That wasn’t really an indie.
It also wasn’t that dark; I was being sarcastic. But your movie is so dark that it has a fairly niche audience.
On the other hand, I don’t write things to please people. I find this world very interesting. I like the way the characters talk, I like the way Schrader shot it.
You yourself have come in for a fair bit of criticism for the way you behave on social media. When it’s criticism of you or your general mien, does that hurt more than criticism of your work?
A person is created by the audience. Your relationship with the audience — there’s a perception of you based on your work. You really don’t have a lot to do with. This social media persona that people want to make more devilish than it really is — I just have to deal with it. I have to stay an authentic person.
I don’t go out of my way to hate on things on Twitter. I just have opinions. And because I have so many followers, I’m supposed to be more careful, to shut up. I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel I should. I can express myself, I can have a snarky opinion — that’s my right. People who meet me say, I thought you were going to be a darker, angrier guy. Being as opinionated as I am turns some people off. They can’t deal with it. I have no problem with people having negative opinions of me. I’ve never said a critic can’t have their say over any books or any of my movies. It’s just an opinion.