In the media, the road to The Canyons has been paved for many months, by everything from Stephen Rodrick’s epically odd New York Times piece, which chronicled the dirty details of Lindsay Lohan’s on-set drama, to Larry Gross’s ethically questionable Film Comment article, which all but lauded the L.A.-set treatise on youthful hollowness as a newfangled masterpiece. On the eve of the movie’s VOD release, as defenders and naysayers continue to step up and state their cases, the jury is still out on The Canyons, a film that’s exploited the powers of subversion from beginning to end—whatever that may be. Conceptually, the project is undeniably titillating, an ostensible bit of knowing, arty trash that mashes up the subcultural talents of Lohan, porn star James Deen, writer Bret Easton Ellis, and director Paul Schrader. But is the sum worth the parts? And does that even matter?
Not even Schrader can definitively declare whether the headline-grabbing buzz, or “noise,” as he calls it, can be set apart from whatever art has actually been made here. He knows full well that, with The Canyons, he was embarking on something provocative (and something all the more remarkable for its micro-budgeted, crowdfunded, of-the-moment financing), but he also contends that the collaboration of this motley crew was an “intellectual enterprise,” which may well be deserving of the serious critical kudos its detractors are railing against. At this point, after having The Canyons rocket him back into popular discussion, there are only so many things Schrader can say that he hasn’t already said about the project. Yes, he dropped trou to help make Lohan more comfortable. Yes, Lohan rallied against having Deen play Christian, the scummy, rich boyfriend of her vixen-ish character, Tara. But Schrader expresses zero fatigue in talking further about the movie, one he gleefully recognizes is unlike any he’s ever made before. Frank and forthcoming, the 67-year-old industry legend told me about being an art “leftover,” his fondness for T.S. Eliot, how exhibitionist porn stars got Lohan all shook up, and how, despite having introduced mainstream audiences to full-frontal male nudity in American Gigolo, and having directed Lohan in her first topless turn, he’s not much of a sexual being himself.
You open this film with a series of shots of run-down, abandoned movie theaters, which could lead some people to believe that you’re commenting on cinema’s demise. But, considering how The Canyons was made, it seems to register more as an acknowledgment of how the viewing experience has evolved.
That’s correct. We’re talking about cinema for the post-theatrical era. Not the end of cinema, but the end of the notion that it must be seen in a dark room, in front of a crowd, projected on a wall. And that was the concept from the very start, in my very first email to Bret, when I proposed this. I proposed it [in terms of] working that way. There was a time when the phrase “direct-to-video” was a disparaging term, but I think we’re emerging from that, and we have a chance to create must-see VOD that just bypasses theatrical. I showed the film to Steven Soderbergh, because he had done The Girlfriend Experience, and I wanted his opinion. He said, “I’ve already done that.” And I said, “Well, what would you do differently today?” And he said, “I probably wouldn’t show it in any theaters.”
In a way few recent movies have, The Canyons virtually achieved cult status without even being seen, developing this provocative, anticipatory, pre-release life, in large part because of who’s involved. What enticed you more: The movie you were making or who you were making it with?
[laughs] I don’t know if you could separate those. Lindsay creates her own cone of chaos, and the fact that she’s making a micro-budget movie is chaotic in and of itself. So it all merges into a kind of ad-hoc reality, where everything is changing as we’re doing it. One of the things that really attracted me about this was just the notion of it: Is it possible for someone, meaning me, to make a film in such a way? Nothing I did in making this film is how I’ve done it before. Not the inception, or the financing, or the casting, or the making, or the promotion, or the release. So that was a kind of a buzz, just sort of exploring new territory.
There’s been a great deal of press about Lindsay, but what about James? What was it like to shift from working with mainstream male stars like Richard Gere and Willem Dafoe to someone like him?
Well, in this case, James was a fucking saint. [laughs] You know, he’s been in front of the camera for a long time. There’s been a lot of film on this guy. And he’s worked with a lot of high-strung, temperamental women. And I thought that he put up with the environment remarkably well. I don’t think there’s another actor who would have been as patient as James was. Now, why did I cast him? I don’t know. It was surprising to me. It was Bret’s idea, and I never thought it would happen. But I tested him, and the more I thought about it, the more interesting it became. He was so much like a Bret character. And then Lindsay got involved, and this notion of using two icons of outré culture—James from the adult world and Lindsay from the celebrity world—and putting them together in an intellectual enterprise, by Bret, started to have a real appeal. And I thought, “Wait, this could make some noise.” It’s such a post-empire idea. Bret is a believer in post-empire art, meaning that America is now in its post-empire art phase, just like Britain was in the last century. We’re making art from the leftovers of our empire. And when you talk about leftovers, there’s Bret, there’s me, there’s Lindsay, and there’s James! [laughs] So we picked up the broken pieces and put them together.
Do you see James as getting a fruitful mainstream acting career out of this?
I don’t know. And I don’t think James knows. His acting career in porn is coming to an end because of his age, so he’s doing a lot of directing now. But he would run back to work as soon as we wrapped. I think he’s tempted by [mainstream acting], but on the other hand, I don’t think he’s gonna give up his day job.
I spoke to him recently, and when we discussed the filming of some of the sex scenes, he mentioned that you’re not a very sexual creature. Upon first hearing that, it seemed a little hard to believe.
Oh. I would say he’s probably right. I’m certainly not in relation to his world. I wouldn’t be comfortable shooting porn. It wouldn’t appeal to me. To me, it would be like shooting industrial videos.