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Interview: Paul Schrader Talks 'The Canyons,' How The Kickstarter Bubble Might Burst & Why "It's Not Lindsay's Porn Film"

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist August 1, 2013 at 11:56AM

A crowd-sourced project, from an acclaimed writer/director, with a script from one of literature's enfant terribles, and a cast led by a tabloid headlining actress and an adult film star, perhaps the buzz, press and hype around "The Canyons" was to be expected. But surely no one predicted a journey that saw a devastating behind-the-scenes piece from the New York Times, highly publicized "rejections" from Sundance and SXSW and more. But standing solidly at the centre of the storm and never wavering was helmer Paul Schrader, whose career has known no shortage of controversy. Throughout the entire pre-production, filming, post-production and publicity for the film, he has remained transparent about what happened on set, and more importantly, proud of the film he put together. And why not?
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Deen Lohan Canyons

You still have a few scripts. I remember reading recently that you were working on a script about a ballerina and you had "Dying of the Light" and nothing happened.
Yeah, nothing happened. Now, I’m going to make that this winter. We haven’t announced it yet, "Dying of the Light." I think Nic Refn will be exec producer or something, but we have gotten a A actor for that [since revealed to be Nicolas Cage] and he’s agreed to the terms... I’ll do that film starting at the end of the year.

Is that going to be a studio picture or independent as well?
No, equity and pre-sales and the foreign county inducements… There’s a whole package of things you need to do and if you can make a film for say $5 or 6 million that you used to make for $20 million, you can still make that film.

I guess it will be a comfort to have more money, and at least a bit more to play around with then you did on "The Canyons."
Well, the amount of money you have always diminishes to fit the need. You never have enough. The beauty of having no money on “The Canyons” is that we simply said to people, “We don’t pay. I’m sorry.” And you didn’t do any negotiating. We didn’t have a casting director. We cast on the internet. And the more you say there is no money, then it’s kind of freeing in a way. When you have not quite enough, that’s when it gets difficult because now you’re negotiating and people are saying, “Why do I have to take $25,000 when I know you could pay me $35,000?” 

"I don’t see why anybody would go back to film. In fact, they won’t. I mean there’s a few purists out there, but it gets harder and harder."

I spoke to an actor recently who said when you work on a smaller-budget film, your problem-solving becomes that much sharper.
Yes, and there’s a real freedom just to, you know, “dancing on the tightrope.” And I said early on in ‘Canyons’ — people were worried about doing a film with Lindsay without insurance and doing a film with James who’s never been in a straight feature — I said, “Look, if you can’t take a chance with your own money, when in God’s name when can you take a chance?”...And so we did it that way, because even if your so-called financiers are saying you are free, you’re really not because you feel that pressure, which we didn’t feel in making this film, there was no pressure.

You shot the film digitally. What was that experience like?
I loved it. The Electra is a great camera.

What did you like about it?
Well, the Alexa, Arri spent a long time developing that camera and they developed a camera that mimics film whereas the Canons are developed by still-camera filmmakers, but the Alexa was developed by motion picture people. And it really does mimic film. And of course, you can light out of a van. We did night-lighting basically out of a little box truck, without a Ginny because the film was so fast. 

I guess you were able to see the results of what you were doing almost instantaneously then?
Yes, but I don’t see why anybody would go back to film. In fact, they won’t. I mean there’s a few purists out there, but it gets harder and harder. I remember Marty [Scorsese] saying he wasn’t going to shoot digital. I said good luck with that one. He just made one shooting digital. 

I remember early on in the production of “The Canyons,” you posted that you were looking at Wong Kar-Wai's “Fallen Angels” and Xavier Dolan's “Heartbeats” originally to determine the visual palette of the film. Yeah, “Heartbeats” was a very useful film to me because I realized something while watching “Heartbeats” about the new style of filmmaking. Because in the old world, there was a visual continuity involved, that you were looking for a harmonious palette or style. But in looking at Xavier Dolan’s film, there’s a [John] Cassavetes scene followed by a [Bernardo] Bertolucci scene followed by a [Jean-Luc] Godard scene followed by a Sydney Pollack scene and it all works because the new audiences are so visually and stylistically flexible, but they don’t have the rules anymore. You can have black-and-white, you can intermix it with computer animation, whatever you want. And I said I don’t need to have a cohesive style. All I have to do is use the best style for each individual scene and it will find its own blue. First time I did that and it worked. And that’s what I saw in “Heartbeats.” 

The Canyons, trailer, Lohan

I’m a big fan of his films too, so I was really excited that you’d seen "Heartbeats" and enjoyed it.
That freedom that a young filmmaker has to say, “Let’s shoot this scene all kind of hand-held and then the next scene, we’ll just lob off and do it as a tableau.” And all the old school people say, “You can’t do that.” All the film schoolteachers, “You can’t do that.” And you say, “Why can’t I do that?”

People have a lot of opinions about “The Canyons” even though they really haven’t seen it yet. What would you folks about the film and what they can expect?
Well, we did a lot of this misdirection ourselves. We did three crowdsource trailers, all of which are false. One in the style of the ‘60s and the ‘50s, one in the ‘30s and none of these represent the film, so we kind of brought this on ourselves by creating noise that made people say this was a real piece of crap, but it made noise and in this modern world, you got to get your head up above the crowd. And to do that, you do create a backlash. But now the film will be on its own. We kept our head down for a while, now we start to come up with a little classier kind of approach. Lincoln Center is going to do the premiere in New York. UCLA Film Archives is going to do the one in L.A. connected to a retrospective of all of my films. Film Comment, we’re going to be on the cover. So that’s started to create a new kind of thing. We became sort of known by D-scandals [not sure what he’s saying exactly here]. It’s time to correct our own approach. It’s a serious film. It’s also a plot film, but it’s the kind of thing Bret and I do and it always was. It’s not Lindsay’s porn film.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews, Paul Schrader, The Canyons, The Dying Of The Light


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