Noir writer/director Paul Schrader dishes on ‘The Canyons,’ guerilla filmmaking and Lindsay Lohan

Is the low-budget neo-noir thriller “The Canyons,” starring Lindsay Lohan and James Deen, a cold, dead movie? Director Paul Schrader certainly hopes so.

“Well what did you expect?” said Schrader at a screening and Q&A Monday night at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood. “Brett [Easton Ellis] and I have track records. If we can’t make a cold, dead movie, who can?”

The film’s release (VOD and a smattering of theaters) has been preceded by bad publicity, stemming from the crazed production and the erratic Lohan. Schrader said the “cold, dead” epithet came from “the nincompoop that runs the South by Southwest Film Festival,” which rejected the film.

The Sundance festival also took a pass but “The Canyons” has been picked up out-of-competition at the Venice Film Festival. (According to several media sources, the S x SW quote was: “There’s an ugliness and a deadness” to “The Canyons.” Regardless of the exact wording, when a movie is rejected from a festival, staff typically refrain from making any public comment.)

That the film, which novelist Brett Easton Ellis wrote and Alexander Pope produced, was finished at all is a minor miracle. Schrader said the total budget was about $500,000 and was intended from the outset for VOD.

“I’ve always enjoyed pushing people’s buttons. The button I’m trying to push now is the on-demand button on your remote,” said Schrader in response to a comment during the Q&A from Robert Rosen, former dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and TV. Rosen lauded Schrader for “the pride we have in [Schrader] as a trouble-making filmmaker.”

Schrader calls his latest foray into “guerilla” filmmaking “an exhilarating experience.” As he put it: “It’s the mystery of could you do such a thing? Could I pull off such a thing?” Yes and yes. The film is already in profit, Schrader said, thanks to a distribution deal with IFC.

The movie came together through a combination of good luck and false starts, including online auditions via LetItCast, Ellis’ “promiscuous twitter finger” that lured porn star James Deen to the project, writer/novelist Kirsten Smith’s stunning Malibu Canyon home (aka the film’s third star) that fell into Schrader’s lap courtesy of Kickstarter, as well as his “high-maintenance” lead actress, who “lives in a cone of crisis.”

“If a crisis doesn’t exist, she makes one up,” Schrader said. “It’s exhausting. I told her, ‘It must be so exhausting to be you.’”

Schrader sums up the movie as “beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms.”

A case in point: Schrader said Lohan recently made a last-minute call to Deen (even though they didn’t get along on the set) and asked him to drop what he was doing (in the Valley) to join her on the set while she co-hosted “Chelsea Lately” with Chelsea Handler on the E! channel (taped on the west side, at Olympic and Bundy).

Schrader said: “She has the ability to make you care. She suckered me and I’m a big fan. But there are people who live to hate this girl. There’s an extraordinary predisposition in the media to say something negative about this girl or to satisfy a [need for] media cruelty which we in our culture now thrive on.”

During “The Canyons” shoot, Schrader reportedly stripped off his clothes to coax her to do a nude scene. He didn’t mention this Monday night. Nevertheless, it was a bare-bones operation, made without insurance or permits. Actors worked for $100/day (with Lohan getting a bigger cut of profits later on) and provided their own makeup, hair and transportation.

Paul Schrader (Image from Indiewire)

The filmmakers also decided to skip asking the MPAA for a rating because they knew the film would play in a few theaters only. Said Schrader: “The MPAA is just another one of the dinosaurs wandering around La Brea. They’re all going to the swamps.”

Set in Los Angeles, “The Canyons” examines the, um, complicated love lives of Christian (Deen), a sneering twentysomething with a trust-fund, and his trophy girlfriend Tara (Lohan), a once-aspiring actress now looking for men to take care of her in high style. A dilettante moviemaker, Christian casts a sweet and caring corn-fed actor named Ryan (Nolan Funk) in his upcoming sleazy flick.

Ryan is also Tara’s ex-boyfriend and he’s still hot for her, even though he now lives with Gina (Amanda Brooks), who is Christian’s assistant. Christian and Ryan form another lust triangle with Cynthia (Tenille Houston), an actress-turned-yoga-instructor. But Tara is the object of Christian’s obsession. At his whim, he and Tara indulge in threesomes and foursomes with partners culled from apps such as Blendr and Grindr. Christian records these trysts on his phone; later he turns to violence for kicks.

Schrader, who was a film student at UCLA in the late 1960s/early 70s, sums up the movie as “beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms. … This film is not about Hollywood or making movies, it’s about the hookup generation.”

Lindsay Lohan

To the extent that that generation is made up of grasping, one-note Angelenos, “The Canyons” feels chillingly, depressingly truthful. Your enjoyment of this movie will likely depend on your tolerance for seeing slick, superficial portraits of Hollywood pretty people who, for the most part, are soulless, self-serving and vacuous. “This is an art movie and doesn’t play the empathy card that strong,” Schrader says.

Fair enough. Yet it struck me as short on insight. Images of dilapidated theaters symbolize changes in the way we watch movies. Texting and apps and other tech-savvy ways of derailing human connection are second nature to the hookup generation. Right. And?

On the plus side, the performances are somewhat compelling because they are infused with so much stark reality. By the same token, the roles don’t exactly stretch the actors. Visually, to be sure, the movie delivers. Shot by John DeFazio, “The Canyons” looks pretty amazing, whether capturing Hollywood Boulevard by night or showing off the majestic Malibu hills bathed in white light. Overall, though, the film is at best uneven.

Would Schrader take another gamble on a low-budget project? “I made my money and I should probably leave the casino,” said Schrader. “But I probably won’t.”

“The Canyons” is available on VOD and is showing at select theaters.

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