It’s no surprise to anyone familiar with Bret Easton Ellis’ work that he’s a half-empty kind of guy. On the cusp of 50, Ellis finds himself circling the fringes of Hollywood, while a new novel seems to be pulling further out of his sight. In the tabloid-riddled The Canyons, Ellis spares no one: His screenplay chronicles the disaffection and moral vacuum at the heart of Hollywood and its players and the devolution of human relationships through technology. Throughout his career, critics have taken savage pleasure attacking Ellis, and even people unfamiliar with his work seem eager to pounce on The Canyons. Ellis remains centered, and in the end, doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
The A.V. Club: When did the first spark of inspiration hit for The Canyons? Was the impetus the epidemic technological addiction?
Bret Easton Ellis: Actually no, it wasn’t. Literally, the impetus to write it was that a movie that Paul [Schrader] and I were going to do, the funding dried up a month before shooting. This was December of 2011, and I had been developing this movie for five years at Lionsgate. Paul was the last in a series of directors to sign on to direct the film. We had cast it, and a month before shooting, the money fell apart. The economy tanked in Spain. Half the money was coming from Spain, and the other half was Lionsgate. It was really frustrating. Over Christmas break, Paul said, “Let’s make a movie this year. The technology is there, the cameras, the lenses—you can make movies really cheaply. Check out some of these micro-budget movies, and write a script for me. You write it, I’ll direct it, we’ll finance it ourselves, and we’ll own it and put it on iTunes.” That was the plan and the impetus to write The Canyons. In terms of the material, I watched the micro-budget movies, and it’s like six people in a house complaining about their relationships most of the time. We thought about making a genre movie, like a kind of L.A. noir and companion piece to American Gigolo, The Comfort Of Strangers, or something else that Paul had already made. I wanted a lot of exteriors and locations, and no handheld cameras, or very little. I wanted it to be a real movie, and that was the mission—to prove to people that you can make a movie like this for 250 grand. This is the only way that movies like The Canyons—or even something as benign as Zack Braff’s latest—are going to be funded, by crowdsourcing and Kickstarter. The studio system has been dead for a long time. Even with the mini-majors, their slates are so tiny and their interests are so narrow that an adult drama is not on anybody’s list of things to make.
With that in mind, I began to write about the things that were interesting to me, and put them into this noir. I was thinking a lot about surveillance and transparency right now. No one can have secrets. How does that affect the noir template? Everyone can find out everything about everyone, and you can’t have those slow-burning secrets that are revealed throughout a noir. So I was thinking a lot about that, and thinking a lot about James Deen, and how fascinated I was by him, and he became the guy I was thinking about when writing the script. I was thinking about my relationship with Hollywood. I’m on the fringes. I never was a guy who was writing scripts for the studio system. I was always writing independent movies that I really wanted to make. My passion project for about four years was The Informers, which really started out with the best intentions and the best script, and it became a mess, and I was still kind of recovering from that. I was thinking about actors in this town and how they’re treated. I was thinking about my phone apps, where you can hook up. My trainer was really fascinated with this thing called Blendr, and he was meeting girls every night, and then telling me about it the next day. All these things that were going on in January and February of 2012 got folded into the script. But really, the impetus was the breakup of that movie that I had been involved with for so long that never got made.
AVC: Was it Bait that didn’t work out?
BEE: Yes, that was Bait.
AVC: Your voice really shines through in Lindsay Lohan’s monologue about “being over movies.” That felt autobiographical, but you actively love movies, right?
BEE: I’m still a believer—well, I was a believer. I have to admit that I might have been faking it for the last two or three years in terms of not accepting the fact that American film, as an art form, is nowhere near the place it once was, and that people have drifted over toward television and content on the Internet. Basically, film and serious, auteur-driven movies… no one’s interested. I experienced the disconnect really powerfully for the first time this year. I do go to movies, and I still have that habit from when I was young: I want to drive to the theater, and I want the movie to control me. I don’t want to sit in my bedroom able to control the movie, and turn it off whenever I want. I like the fact that the movie demands things of you, and that’s what was always exciting about the movie-going experience. I think for younger people, that just doesn’t hold an appeal. I’ve seen a lot of movies this year, and nothing’s good. I was really kind of depressed by it, but this idea that movies were no longer at the center of the culture definitely was announcing itself to me within the last three years. Sometimes an art form can lose popularity, and it’s not speaking to the masses in the way that it once was. This has been going on for a long time in American film, and yeah, it’s mildly depressing.
AVC: Is it hard to switch into screenplay mode? Are you able to lose yourself, like when you’re deep into a novel?
BEE: They’re totally different, because a novel takes a very long time to write, and is really about consciousness. It’s about sensibility and style. A screenplay doesn’t need to be well written or stylistically interesting. When you’re writing a book, part of the thing you’re doing is expressing yourself in the prose. That’s why I read a novel: I don’t read a novel necessarily for the story. I read it for the sensibility of the author, what his obsessions are, what he’s fantasizing about, why this character speaks to him, why he devotes a novel to this character… all these things are in my head when I’m reading a novel. A screenplay is very utilitarian. It’s a blueprint for the movie, which is a collaborative thing. Your job is to give everyone the idea for the movie, hopefully have all the scenes in order, and have dialogue that moves the story forward. That’s bare-bones. Of course, then you can write a good script with good dialogue—it doesn’t all have to be expository. That really is your job as the screenwriter. I would never write a screenplay the way that I write a novel. It’s pretty simple, because it really is all about structure. The director is going to interpret it in a certain way, and the actors are vital collaborators, because they will bring their own essence to each role. The editor will change things, and you might not get that location, so that changes the feel for the scene you wrote that took place in an exterior but because of budget restraints in now an interior.
That said, The Canyons did not change that much at all. When Paul and I talked about doing this, I said, “I’m going to give you an outline, and it’s going to be extremely detailed. You’re going to have to sign off on it, and then I’m going to write the script and this will be what you shoot.” There was no time for rewrites, and we were going to shoot it in four months. It is what it is. It’s a neo-noir, this is the situation, and it was set up in such a simple way that one thing led to another thing and another thing, and it all just kind of flowed. That’s the difference: I’ll tinker with a book for years. Screenplays, there’s no need to do that. You have the story, you have the idea, you have the scenes, and you write it.
AVC: James Deen is a really fun bad boy. Did he have fun on set, developing his character, or was he nervous?
BEE: He was nervous. I had talked him into it, He was excited to do it, and really wanted to do it. I think he was a little intimidated by Schrader, who didn’t want him in the movie and made him audition. That audition changed Schrader’s mind. He realized that, out of all the auditions we got from real actors, James was the best. He wasn’t hampered, and had no acting experience to fall back on. He just had the porn stuff, and I had seen a lot of the porn stuff—well, actually the non-porn stuff in the porn stuff—and I thought he was pretty good. I thought he was a natural. Then in the porn scenes, he’s very dark and intense, and I liked the contrast between the goofiness and this intensely sexual, voracious dude. I thought that would be perfect for Christian, but Paul didn’t. The actors overplayed everything. The actors who auditioned foreshadowed the malevolence too much. They overdid the douchiness. They were encumbered by too much acting experience in a way.
For this particular character, it needed to be blanker and more neutral. A little softer. Deen was thrilled he got the role, and when we did the initial reading, we were in a room full of actors, and everyone kind of turned on the minute we did the first reading. Deen had never done that before, and his voice got smaller and smaller and he pulled his hoodie over his head and was just mumbling. We took a break, and he was much stronger on the second reading. It was a weird position for him to be in, and he knew he was going get a lot of shit for this, and people weren’t going to take him seriously. But he delivered a really good performance, and everyone on the set really liked him. He’s very polite and very nice. He might be addicted to porn, but, you know, who isn’t?
AVC: The Canyons has been an open book from start to finish. As the release date approaches, are you nervous, exhausted, or excited?
BEE: Basically kind of neutral. Sure, there’s some excitement, but I feel like we’ve done what we set out to do, regardless if it makes any money or not. From the beginning, it was this kind of mission, to see if we could actually make this kind of movie. The fact that we did it is almost enough for me, on a certain level. Of course I want it to do well, and it would be nice if people liked it. I feel complicated in a way because I’m not super excited. It’s just going to come out, and we’ll see how it does. We’ll see how people respond to it. It could be negative, and it could be not so negative. I don’t know.
AVC: In comparison to literary criticism, did you take it harder when the film was rejected by SXSW?
BEE: First of all, I didn’t care at all. I think it meant more to the producer, Braxton Pope, and probably to Paul, too. I didn’t think it needed to go to any film festivals at all. I didn’t see the purpose of it. So, that went over my head. I thought the person who talked about rejecting the film—they had every right to reject it. The protocol is that you really can’t say that about a movie that you’ve rejected—I guess that’s kind of the unspoken etiquette. I do think there is a kind of coldness to the movie that was in its DNA, and you either like it or you don’t. Obviously they did not like it, but it literally didn’t bother me one way or another. I just didn’t care.
AVC: It seems like a lot of people have already made up their minds about the movie.
BEE: It happens all the time. Very rarely, a movie comes out that surprises people and changes everyone’s mind about it. Wasn’t everyone really excited for Man Of Steel? What the hell happened? But that did really well. We can make fun of the content, but it ultimately succeeded. This is just my feeling, but the press has been so bad and so negative for the year leading up to this movie’s release, that I really do think that people will be either surprised that it’s not as bad as they all thought it was going to be and that might be such a surprise that they might like it, or, as you said, that they’ve already set their minds that it’s a campy, trashy movie and they’re going to think it sucks. Or they might be bored. They might be expecting something a lot more lascivious, and dare I say, a lot more fun. Paul did it seriously, I did it seriously, and hopefully it’s an entertaining movie. You don’t want to make a boring film. Again—this is so strange to say—but I really don’t care what people think of the movie. There, I said it. I don’t really care what anyone says about any movie or book I write. On a certain dopey level, you hope people like stuff, I guess. You don’t want people to dislike it. I think the movie is well done enough that if you don’t like it, it’s just not your cup of tea. I just don’t think that watching the movie and knowing how this movie was made, that you can really slam it. I’m kind of confident on that level. But, you never know. It could come out August 2nd and be a disaster.
AVC: How is the new book coming? Did the passion come back, or did it ever really go away?
BEE: The passion doesn’t really go away. It just lands in different places. There was a lot of passion to make The Canyons. There’s a lot of passion in the development of this TV show I’ve been connected to for almost six years now, and has been moved from network to network. Now we’re at Showtime, so we’ll see what happens. That has been a long-form passion project, and I just feel it’s all about content. Not necessarily a film or a novel, but just content—telling stories and creating content that I find interesting. It’s now landed on the side of a television series or another independent movie. I’m going make another one of these kinds of films in the fall, which is a low-budget horror movie that I wrote. That’s really interesting to me, and I find the content of that horror movie really interesting.
I just don’t know about holding up the novel as this kind of thing that is so revered. It’s kind of like, “Yeah, sure, if you’re into writing the novel, that’s cool, but does it make you smarter?” I really don’t know. I have a kind of conflicted relationship with the novel now. I like reading novels, and I get pleasure from reading novels. But I do find that my attention span for them has maybe been halved. I used to be able to read a novel 100 pages at a time. I don’t have that kind of concentration for fiction in the way that I once did. That has to go to however my mind has been affected by sensory overload with Internet and whatever. I was really feeling a novel in January. It had announced itself to me, and I started making notes and wrote a couple pages and then got distracted by something else. I really don’t know where the novel is now. It’s depressing to me, in a way, that I’m not fully engaged with the novel right now. You can’t force the novel. It either needs to be written or it doesn’t. Sometime in the last six or seven months, for a week or so, this novel wanted to be explored. I would make a lot of notes and go over the notes and spend a day rewriting the first 10 pages, and then something else captured my attention. So honestly, that’s where I’m at. For example, today I barely thought about it.
AVC: Has novel-writing ever been a pleasurable experience, or is it always born out of pain and a need to get it out there?
BEE: It’s always a pleasurable experience because it takes you away from the pain. What you’re doing is channeling and reprocessing your pain. You’re using your pain in order to fill a novel. It’s why I wrote Imperial Bedrooms. I was going through a really bad stretch in my life, and going to Imperial Bedrooms was a way to alleviate the pain. That really is how it always was. Every novel I’ve written has been about that process. I was talking to Kanye West, of all people, the other day, and he was talking about how he’s in a lot of pain. As an artist, that’s what you use to create your art. That’s the release. The only time you don’t feel the pain is when you’re creating something. I believed it at 18, and I believe it now at 49. I’ve always believed that’s why an artist creates something, to explore whatever pain they’re going through.
AVC: Same-sex marriage is legal in California; you’ve got a movie coming out. Has 2013 been a good year so far?
BEE: [Laughs.] Actually, 2013 has not been a great year for me for a variety of reasons, and personal stuff that isn’t of interest to anybody. I’ve had my own problems in 2013, and 2013 has had its stumbling blocks for me. Look, I’m talking to you. I’m not in a major depression or anything. But things kind of happened this year that were problematic. I’ve had things happen that were really good. I don’t think my happiness is so dependent on how The Canyons is received, or same-sex marriage. With same-sex marriage, I find it frustrating that it took this long to happen. Sure, there should be celebrations and we’re moving forward, but it annoyed me to the point where it’s like, “Finally, let’s move on.” I don’t see it as this fantastic moment. But I’m a guy who looks at the glass as always half full. Or is it half empty? What am I? Because I’m kind of a pessimist.
AVC: You’re half empty.
BEE: Right! Half empty. I was relieved when it passed, but I was annoyed. That’s just how I am. I just wish that it happened a lot earlier. And that it’s still this thing, who you have sex with. It happened, it’s good, we can move on. But that did not necessarily make 2013 a better year for me. Sorry, it just didn’t happen.
AVC: What would be your dream screenplay adaptation, if you had access to any literary property?
BEE: Actually, it would not necessarily be a good book, because I don’t think good books make good movies. A really good novel was conceived as a novel, and not as a film. I don’t see any point in trying to remake, over and over, The Great Gatsby. The book is a book that obviously works. I think it’s interesting to take ideas and material from books that aren’t very good, pulpy books and genre books, and then elevate it into a really good movie. I think that happened a lot in the ’70s, and it even happens now to a degree. At one point, I was up for a remake of Pet Sematary, and I really wanted that, because I really like that book, and I thought there was a way to make it much scarier than the original movie, which was a little too jokey at times. There was some scary stuff in there, but I wanted to really go all out. That didn’t happen, and I was kind of disappointed.
If I could go back and do it over again, I would like someone to show a cut of The Informers that actually worked. It’s interesting. I rarely come across books that I want to adapt. I’ve done two or three in the last five or six years. One did get made this year called Downers Grove, but it turned out, for a variety of reasons, very different than what I intended. I’ve been circling around this book called The Delivery Man by Joe McGinniss Jr. that I really want to adapt. I know that another writer is doing it, but we’ll see what happens with that. But I can’t imagine a really good novel that I would want to adapt. On the other hand, now that you can do it as a miniseries, you could do it as a one-season thing for a network. You can do it, and you don’t have to conform to the one hour and 55-minute movie. Were you thinking of anything?
AVC: How about finally getting Confederacy Of Dunces made?
BEE: So that’s not happening? I thought someone was doing that.
AVC: It’s seems like it’s in turnaround forever.
BEE: See, again, I really like that book, but I don’t think it needs to be made into a film. It works so well as a book. I don’t want to see someone’s idea of what that guy looks like. I have it pictured in my head, and I don’t want to see an actor act that out. I really don’t. It would just annoy me.
AVC: What about Glamorama?
BEE: I was going to say that. I was going to say Glamorama. There was talk, a long time ago with Roger Avary, of us doing that as a 12-part miniseries, and maybe doing it with French money. But I think, well, it’s lying low right now. You’d probably have to update it now, and it’d be a tricky adaptation. I was going to say that Glamorama would actually be kind of a dream, to be able to do that book.