James Deen and Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons
  • IFC Films
  • James Deen and Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons

Paul Schrader is one of the more intense members of the New Hollywood generation that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He first attracted notice as a writer, producing the screenplays for Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). He moved quickly into directing, and became known for his gritty, uncompromising films. Even as filmmaking fashions came and went, and fundraising became ever more of a struggle, Schrader kept finding the means to make difficult films. In 2008, he made Adam Resurrected, a film about an asylum for Holocaust survivors, and the circus performer who entertains them. You may have missed this one, but it featured Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe and Derek Jacobi, a good example of the esteem in which Schrader is held.

But few were prepared for Schrader’s next venture,

, an erotic thriller from a script by Bret Easton Ellis and starring porn actor James Deen and uninsurable trainwreck Lindsay Lohan. The quarter-million dollar production was crowdfunded, and the entire guerrilla filmmaking ordeal was recounted in a memorable New York Times Magazine feature

The Canyons has received poor reviews, but its notoriety seems to ensure that it will find an audience. The film is available on iTunes beginning today.

When INDY Week was offered a telephone interview with Schrader, we decided to ask Jay O’Berski, artistic director of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, to talk to him. O’Berski is a longtime Durham theater director and Duke University theater instructor who’s no stranger to difficult working conditions and challenging subject matter. Here’s their conversation, which occurred Thursday, Aug. 1.

JAY O’BERSKI: I know that you’ve traditionally worked with actors that might be considered difficult—and obviously most recently, Lindsay Lohan—but also including Richard Pryor in Blue Collar

PAUL SCHRADER: Well, he was also extremely angry.

[laughs] Yes, well that too. And George T. Scott on Hardcore, who was an alcoholic. I’m just wondering about your philosophy on dealing with difficult actors and how you can get a performance out of them.

Well, usually the reason you work with a difficult actor is because they’re worth it. You know, if you have a difficult actor who’s not worth it, you fire them. Or you decide not to hire them. So, you know going in that this person has a reputation, but you’ve decided that it’s going to be worth it, and you just try to be as tolerant and patient as—you know some days you have to be kind of stern, and some days you have to be devious, or some days you have to back down—you know, you just sort of smell your way through it. And sometimes you can help improve a performance, and sometimes you can’t. You know, directors don’t really make performances. You know, they watch, and they advise, and they reject. But you know, it’s the individual actor who’s going to bring it to the table.

Right, so when you have an actor like Lindsay Lohan, you know, who’s notoriously difficult, do you feel like audiences are watching this film like it’s a circus or a—

I would imagine that there is an element out there that can’t help but do that. You know I have to believe that if a movie has any… interest, once it gets going, you’re now into the characters and you’re not saying, “There’s Denzel Washington or Mark Wahlberg.”

Now as far as large thematics in your work, a lot of your films, you speak of the fact that we are all actors, basically—that we wear masks, that we hustle all the time. That it’s really about, I believe the term you used was “fucking up” to get to the top.

You’re mixing some of my dialogue with some of Bret’s… You know, I personally think that the film is more Bret than me, and of course Bret says it’s more me than him. But, Bret’s world is a colder world than mine, but, you know, I was trying to be faithful to it.

What about the erotic nature of the film and some of your other work? Do you find that the marketplace accepts it? Do you find that the actors you work with are accepting?

Well, you don’t deceive anyone. Even though Lindsay started to get cold feet about doing the sex scene, it was something you had to discuss many, many times before, and had been agreed to many times before. But, you know, when it comes to the day, she kept trying to… dim the lighting. But you—you never deceive them. And you know, actors on the whole are a pretty brave lot. They’re used to embarrassing themselves and making fools of themselves for money, and when you have actors who are doing that, who are getting naked emotionally, you are going to have times when those emotions get out of control. Words are said, and doors are slammed, and tears are shed and you have to clear the set and pull everything back together again, but that’s part and parcel of doing this kind of work.

Did I hear that you got naked in order to coax her to, um…?

Um…yeah. [laughs]

Did you find that that worked?

It was basically just to call her bluff, because she was saying that everybody had to get naked and we were running out of light and I just called her bluff and, you know, it ended up that 45 seconds later we were shooting.

I’ve got to remember that one. Definitely. [laughs] How was it to return to a very small-budget, sort of hardscrabble production after—

I didn’t “return to.” I had never done anything even remotely—

Really? Not even starting out?

Not even starting out. I’ve never worked at this budget level before in my life. [laughs]

How did that feel?

It felt like a film school co-op [laughs]… But it was an experiment on my part in trying to use the new media paradigm. So this movie was conceived and cast, financed and made and promoted and now distributed in the social medium. And, you know, we got lucky on it. You know, we’re already out of the woods financially. And a lot of things should have gone wrong during the making of it, and they did not go wrong. And I’m not entirely sure I would do it again, but I had a great time doing this because it was like exploring an unknown land; you’re just trying to figure out, you know, what’s out there. “Is this possible?” you know. Can you make a film without permits and without paying for people’s houses and stuff?

And final question: I was very intrigued by the sort of empty, broken, dead movie theaters that you framed the film in and that you keep returning to, and I’m wondering if that’s a reflection of the emptiness, the “canyons,” in the souls of the characters, or whether it was a separate image for you.

No…it was…when we first conceived of the film, it was intended for—I call it “cinema for the post-theatrical era.” And it was conceived of as a film that would go out on the Internet, after the theaters have closed. And I also felt that…this was just a way of saying this is a post-theatrical film. And I also thought it was reflective of these characters in that they’re making a movie, but they don’t really seem to care about making a movie. I described the characters to my cast as saying “This is a story about 20-something Angelenos who went to a movie, and the movie theater closed, but they stayed in line because they had nowhere else to go.”

And do you see that as the state of Hollywood right now?

It’s not so much about Hollywood as the state of the whole general kind of zeitgeist. But you know, the motion picture industry, that whole idea of a projected image in a dark room in front of an audience is becoming more and more 20th century as we speak. We’re going someplace else. And the idea of what a movie “is” is changing. How long it is, you know, everything about it… it’s all changing. So, it’s not the artist’s job to protest technology, but to try to figure out how to use it.

(Interview transcribed by Mary Alta Feddeman.)

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