Paul Schrader has had a long and often tumultuous career in movies. The 67-year-old Michigan native began his obsession with cinema as a critic in the early 1970s, one of the most creatively fertile periods in American movie history.
It wasn’t long before he began working on his own scripts, including one called Taxi Driver for then-little-known filmmaker Martin Scorsese and a burgeoning actor named Robert DeNiro. It was — somewhat surprisingly given its tough, subversive nature — nominated for Best Picture and would go on to become a classic of the American New Wave, confirming Schrader as a unique voice whose preoccupation with the alienation and self-loathing of characters enmeshed in the underbelly of American life would become a recurring interest in his work.
He’s made 18 movies as a director with varying degrees of success, including such intriguing efforts as Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, Affliction and Auto Focus, most of which are touched by a Bressonian languor. Recent years have been tough, but, after false starts on numerous projects, Schrader has finally resurfaced with The Canyons, a micro-budgeted, L.A.-set erotic thriller of sorts written by notorious novelist Bret Easton Ellis and starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen.
CityBeat recently connected with Schrader via phone to discuss the changing nature of cinema, curious casting choices and sex on screen.
CityBeat: Hello, Paul. How are you?
Paul Schrader: I’m fine.
CB: Where are you right now?
PS: I’m in New York.
CB: I’m actually in Cincinnati.
PS: Yeah, that’s what I heard. How is it in Cincinnati?
CB: Not bad. (Schrader laughs.) The first and most obvious question is why were you interested in making this particular film in this particular way?
PS: I was supposed to do a script that Bret (Easton Ellis) had written a year and a half ago, and it fell out over financing just before we were shooting. I had to write an email explaining what had happened, and I said to him, “You know, enough of this. The economics of making movies is changing. You write it, I’ll direct it and we’ll pay for it ourselves. Let’s just do it. We won’t have to ask anybody’s permission.” That’s how it all sort of started.
It’s partially because I liked his voice (as a writer), but also because I wanted to try out this new paradigm of filmmaking, whereby this idea is conceived and cast and financed and made and promoted and distributed via social media. It’s going to open in 80 million homes, and that’s what it was designed to do. In that same first email to Bret I described this film as cinema for the post-theatrical era. Those are the things that really excited me about this.
CB: Lindsay (Lohan) and James (Deen) are interesting and provocative choices as the leads. Can you talk a little bit about why you cast them?
PS: James was Bret Easton Ellis’ idea. While he was writing the script he tweeted that, “I’m creating a character now who reminds me of James Deen the porn actor.” And James Deen tweeted him back and said, “I can’t wait to read it.” They had lunch and they hit it off and he promised James that I’d screen-test him. He was my partner (on the movie), so of course I did. For Bret, James was the embodiment of that character. I still didn’t think I would cast him. It just seemed too implausible to me. But the closer I got (to making the film) the more I was attracted to the idea.
When Lindsay came on — we had asked her to do a cameo and she said, “No, I want to do the lead” — then this notion of having these two bold-faced figures from outré cultures — one from the adult film world and the other from celebrity culture — and putting them together in a kind of intellectual Ellis/Schrader enterprise became almost irresistible to me, because I knew that when you’re making a micro-budget film you have to have to let the film draw attention to itself, to make some noise so it can be heard above the din of all the other films. If you don’t have a big advertising budget, you have to build that into the DNA of the project so that people will get interested in it through social media.
CB: So how much did you consider how the casting, especially of these two, would color the audience’s expectations? Were you concerned that the noise behind the scenes would impact the audience’s ability to immerse itself in the story?
PS: Well, there are certain people who have such animosity toward Lindsay that they can’t even see this. It’s like Obama Derangement Syndrome — people who hate Obama so much that they can’t hear what he’s saying. There are people out there who live to hate Lindsay, and there are a lot of people out there who don’t think porn stars should be in mainstream movies. You’re not going to win those people over. You have to sort of believe in the film and that the film is interesting enough on its own that it will stand on its own.
CB: I actually saw the film on my computer. They sent me a link a couple days ago and I watched it on my laptop, which is not the most ideal format…
PS: Well, I don’t know, when you’re making cinema for the post-theatrical era, where are you going to see it? Hopefully on a big flatscreen TV, but maybe you’re going to see it on your phone.
CB: So you’re OK with that? Are you essentially resigned to the fact that that’s the way of the world at this point?
PS: I watch stuff on my phone. The last two movies I watched were on-demand: Nic Rfen’s film and one with Frank Langella. I don’t think it’s the artist’s job to resist technology; it’s just the artist’s job to use it. Things are changing. Our definition of cinema is changing. The whole infrastructure is going through a systemic change.
CB: Well, it’s interesting, because in the opening of the film there’s that montage of old, rundown cinemas that have been closed. It almost immediately, to me, came off as a Last Picture Show homage of sorts. So the film is also literally commenting on the decaying of traditional cinema.
PS: Yeah. When I first sat down with the cast to do a read-through, I said to them, “This is a story about twentysomething Angelinos who went to a movie but then the theater closed, but they stayed in line because they had nowhere else to go. That’s kind of how I felt about the kids in Bret’s script. They’re sort of making a movie and they don’t really like movies much. And they’re hooking up, but they don’t seem to like hooking up so much, so that was part of the concept from the very get-go of post-theatrical cinema. People say Lindsay’s movie is going straight to video. Well, that’s where it was aimed to go. That was the plan.
CB: Can you talk a little about portraying sex in contemporary cinema? Is it harder or easier than it used to be?
PS: It’s harder, and fewer people do it. The Internet has finally put an end to the myth that there will ever be a crossover X-rated film. People who want to see explicit action know exactly what they want, where they can get it and they can get it right away. People who want to watch long narratives — that’s another mindset. The two things don’t really go together. A number of films have tried to combine explicit sex with long-form narration. It just has never worked, and I don’t think it ever will work. I think they pull your mind in different directions. Sexual images and narrative structure are almost at odds with each other.
CB: I was kind of surprised that the sex in the movie is pretty restrained given the cast and the freedom you seemingly had. There is nothing really explicit about it.
PS: Well, James (Deen) was cast because Bret felt that he was the embodiment of this character, and the fact that he had come from the adult world was just an added kind of buzzword because he had his own fan base. But, yes, it’s no more explicit than the average film. And even though the film is unrated, the Internet is still not all wide open. In order to get the film on iTunes, I had to cut one shot.
CB: Speaking of Bret, I was reading a piece in The New York Times recently about the various film adaptations of his work, and they reprinted a tweet that he sent out several months ago in which he essentially said American movies are dead as an art form at this point…
PS: They’re changing. The definition of a movie is changing. I wouldn’t agree with what he said, but I would agree that the whole concept of motion pictures is going through systemic change.
CB: Well, to me film is by far the hardest of all art forms to pull off given the amount of people and money involved. Your experience is a perfect example of how hard it is to get a film off the ground, so why did you feel like going through this gauntlet again at this point in your career?
PS: Oh, because it’s fun. Part of the fun for me in making this was just to see if I could do such a thing — make a film within the new model, get off the boat and head inland across the unknown land, forging your way to see how far you could get. That, as well as the script, was the excitement for me.
CB: I was reading actually today that you have another project in mind that might start shooting soon?
PS: By the end of the year.
CB: And that’s going to be more of a conventional production?
PS: More of a conventional independent film, yeah, because this model only works for a certain kind of film: It has to all be contemporary; the actors have to be able to wear their own clothes; do their own makeup; you have to have a lot dialogue; you have to shoot with the rooms of your friends. If you do a period film you can’t do it this way. Now, Spike Lee is trying to up it by going to a million and a half (budget), and you can get a little more out of it that way.
CB: Do you find it ironic that in many ways it’s easier than ever to create a well-made film, but it’s harder than ever to get anyone to see it, especially in a theater?
PS: Yeah. The digital era, having done away with records and newspapers and books, is now setting its sights on motion pictures. Movies are going to be something different. The idea of a two-hour experience in a dark room with a projected image and an audience, that idea is becoming a 20th-century idea. We’ve begun to have new definitions of movies, whether it’s Vimeo, or whether it’s 10 episodes of House of Cards. Is that a movie if you watch all 10 episodes? Well, it is, it’s a movie.
CB: As someone who has been a critic and continues to write about movies in a serious way, can you talk about the state of criticism and movie reviewing these days? At this point it seems like it doesn’t have much impact on a general audience.
PS: No, I mean it’s gotten so splintered and broken up just like everything else in this blog-driven world and sound-byte world. There are still a handful of good critics out there, but there’s not really going to be a handful of anything anymore. There’s never going to be another Walter Cronkite again, or Bruce Springsteen, or a Johnny Carson, or a Beatles. It’s all going to be completely broken up into a vast multiplicity of little pockets.
(Schrader’s publicist interrupts to say the allotted interview time is up.)
CB: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Paul.
PS: Sure. Goodbye, Cincinnati.
THE CANYONS is currently available via video on demand and iTunes.