‘Why are you doing an interview at midnight? I can barely form a sentence at midnight… that sounds interesting…’
I admit it. I fudged my explanation, clearly omitting the fact that this was the only time we could work out. I didn’t expect his next question, which was ‘Do you drink?’ I do, but not much since I became a parent, ‘Well…that does happen I guess when you have kids, doesn’t it? You cut it out…’ he paused for just a moment, ‘or you have more of it.’
The Canyons is a film to drink to, not in the snarkful drinking game way but the arid burn of the sun-bleached Hollywood noir works better when there’s something kicking around inside you. Ellis is a smart man, this is obvious. The man who blasted off at the age of twenty-one with his zeitgeist walloping tales of teenage angst, strange stories propelled by a superabundance of drugs, sex and the rich has survived his masterpiece (American Psycho) and come home to The Canyons.
Ellis is candid about past and his work. There is a fine story to be written about the production of the film he created with director Paul Schrader, but Ellis isn’t one to dwell. He has a sharp, meandering tone to him, snapping back any daydreaming listener with an instructive ‘Look…’ every once in a while. I ask him how he got started on the road to The Canyons,
‘I don’t…I don’t think about my body of work. The books were done at a particular point of my life and they refelct who I was a at certain point in my life. The Canyons is a very modern film in terms of how it was made. That was our main goal with The Canyons: to see if you could make a movie for $150,000 and promote it using social media and bypass the way movies were conventionally made. Without the years in development and then waiting for that right actor and the sheer expense of making a movie.
‘We took our cues from a couple of independent filmmakers who have a camera and make their movies. It doesn’t cost much, shoot them on digital and then put them online. That is the future of a certain kind of movie. Especially since the theatrical experience is eroding for a lot of people and except for IMAX movies, 3D movies, kids movies, comic book movies – the idea of going to see an adult drama in a theatre is not an attractive proposition for a lot of people. And they can get some of that same material on television.
‘The problem is that TV and movies are very different things. TV is very insistent on story and not on mood or atmosphere, and I think the most successful movies are grounded within a particular mood that TV doesn’t call out for.’
As an author whose work has been adapted for the movie screen, and with varying degrees of success, there is a lament in all of this championing of the new way of filmmaking. Ellis is a man well placed to see the slow, uncertain change in the engine of Hollywood.
‘Something has changed in the industry. The availability of technology, of camera and lenses and so on. You can make your movie bypassing the consortium. Most Hollywood movies are made by a consortium and they get greenlit by the marketer division. The studio executive is bypassed by the marketing division. That’s something that has been happening for the last ten or fifteen years and are reacting against it. It’s not viable for 90% of the people making movies now, it took twenty years to get Dallas Buyers Club made. They got a millionaire to write them a cheque, make it a prestige movie and he gets to go to the Oscars. That’s attractive to some bored millionaires.’
The early shots in the film portray this new Hollywood as a collection of abandoned cinemas and dustbowl drive-ins, an unsubtle statement to welcome us to this new ground.
Ellis continues, ‘In that sense it was a modern reaction to an old system that is broken. Paul Schrader and I had a movie at a studio, a month before shooting began with a complete cast, and the foreign money fell apart. Paul was telling me, “I’m ready to make a movie. I’m ready to make a movie now. Just write a script – we can’t have special effects or car chases… Set a drama in LA and we’ll see what happens.”
While the Hollywood of The Canyons is distant and decaying, with the glamorous side kept firmly in the distance contrasting neatly with the intense relationships within the ghost town.
‘That’s just my vision of LA. I like here, but like everywhere there’s a darkness to it. A lot of the darkness and frustration with LA is that it promises them more than it can ever really give. If you’re that kind of dreamer then you can crash pretty hard.
‘It used to be that you came to LA, you audition and ultimately got a role and so on…now everyone’s an independent filmmaker. Everyone is on the fringes now, not like it was when everything was run by a handful of studios and networks. I’m on the fringes of the movie industry, Paul’s too – and these characters were making a movie that they didn’t really care about.
‘We knew weren’t making The Godfather, we were making a micro budget film with a small cast. I started writing and I looked back at Paul Schrader’s older films, American Gigolo and Auto Focus – two movies set in LA, and I started thinking of a Neo-Noir. Then I watched another of Paul’s films, The Company of Strangers, which is about two couples and then personal things going on in my life. I started to think about the dynamic in a relationship when one of them is the one who pays for everything – it raises anxiety and tension.
‘I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey at the time and trying to get the job for that. Parts of that book began to influence the script and I was thinking of actors out here with an expiration date. And I was thinking about James Deen…I became kind of obsessed by him, even before I was writing it, and I realised I was writing a character for him.’
If you don’t know James Deen’s name do me a favour and don’t google him in front of your family. Sasha Grey has paved the way for the modern adult entertainer to break through to mainstream Hollywood and Deen’s performance gives the film a strange charisma. He fits in well with the nebulous nature of script with its shifting focus and moving orbit of influence and power. He leads us through this world not exactly tongue-in-cheek but certainly wary of us. Then, of course, there is Lindsay Lohan.
‘It’s very strange – I went through the outline of the script very carefully with Paul before I wrote it and it was a very simple script, everything moves from one scene to the other like a chain. Paul has gone on record saying that he didn’t change a thing. But then the Tara character comes off, on the page, as a little bit less combative; a little less demure and softer. And Lindsay played it differently, almost as if she was chastising James’ character, she played it as if she was much more wary of him. In the script she goes along with things, she was much more submissive. Every scene Lindsay was in she brought a desperate, lunging quality to it. I liked it.’
Ellis is a frequent podcaster, appearing as a guest on many of the more established outlets as well as his own show, and recently talked about his love of the cinema experience. How he loved the dim of the light and the anticipation – the wooing of the film, ‘I don’t know if that excitement exists for younger people – when I was a child that was the only way to see movies. I don’t know if that holds the same appeal to this new generation.
The digital revolution has also turned to the medium with which Ellis is inextricably linked. We talked about the New York Times piece on binge-reading and the likelihood of a Netflix-type service for books. It seems now that the currency is attention rather than talent and the publishing industry it is causing seismic changes,
‘I tell aspiring writers that unless you’ve written a masterpiece it will be difficult for a publisher to publish your book. Really good books do get published but there is such an avalanche of content now. So you need to have a twitter account, you need to update your Facebook page and start blogging your fiction – then you have a package to show a publisher. That’s a fact of life right now. There are big books now and again, but the idea that everyone out there is reading adult, contemporary, literary fiction… my sense is that that is eroding too.
‘Childrens books are very popular but adult, literary fiction doesn’t have the cultural relevance it had twenty years ago, even ten years ago. The reason why the novel will always sell, and will not be affected like the album which was decimated by iTunes, is that people can’t buy a chapter of a novel.
‘I was talking to a friend about ten years and they felt that movies weren’t at the centre of cultural relevance any more, I debated it but his feeling was why should movies stick around forever, why shouldn’t it change? I still like the theatrical experience, it’s bred in me. But I find it increasingly hard to see a movie I want to see in theatres. I’m downloading a film, streaming it in my home because it doesn’t have a theatrical release. I still love the theatrical experience and I value it. The Canyons was a lament for the theatrical experience but we did build the movie for a post-theatrical experience.’
This is a transitional time for the novel, for the film. Each medium has to move through the digital age with us ushering in new tracks on which it continues to roll on. Turning Hollywood into a ghost town for The Canyons means it is the strangest zombie film ever made. It is utterly compelling and extraordinarily divisive. For good or ill opinions which spring from a watch of The Canyons are not tempered one bit. That is just as it should be.