Novelist Bret Easton Ellis (“Less Than Zero,” “American Psycho”) has a lot to say about a lot of issues. Sure, it’s true that sometimes his comments are considered by many to be tactless, but when Ellis speaks (or Tweets), he gets peoples’ attention. Whether it’s getting banned from the GLAAD Media Awards earlier this year for his insensitive Tweets about gay characters on “Glee” (Ellis is gay himself), or his sexist messages the year before about Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Ellis is rarely subtle in his approach.
The same could be said this year when Ellis, 49, tried something he had never done in his career before by writing his first screenplay that was not adapted from one of his novels. In “The Canyons,” which was directed by Paul Schrader (“American Gigolo”), Ellis tells the story of Christian (adult film star James Deen), a young Hollywood producer, who learns his girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan) is having an affair with one of his actors.
Recently released on DVD Nov. 26, “The Canyons” was not well received by critics when it was released on a limited platform this past summer. But don’t bore Ellis with any of those piddly details. He couldn’t give a shit what you think anyway. During my interview with Ellis, he talked about his preference to work outside the Hollywood sphere and why he thought a film as critically-acclaimed at “Fruitvale Station” was just plain terrible.
Did it feel liberating as a writer to work on a project where you could start from scratch?
It felt liberating as a writer to write a script the studio was not going to fuck up or that development executives were not giving you any notes on and where you’re only collaborator was the director, who actually liked the script. So, in fact, I was actually writing the script for a filmmaker whose work I was very well versed in and kind of shaping it for his sensibility. It was the first time where I felt unburdened by anyone else’s opinion. The only opinion I had to worry about was my partner, which was my director.
You definitely seem like the kind of writer that would flip out if someone was looking over his shoulder all the time.
I would say 90 percent of the time, if someone did that, the script would become worse. The script is usually best when it’s turned in the first time. The development process is really dangerous because more often than not, it ruins the movie. That’s slowly moving away though because the only way people are getting movies made these days is by making them themselves. The studios are becoming obsolete because they have the same 30 writers working on all the movies. It’s different now in terms of how movies are made.
I know you consider yourself an outsider from the Hollywood industry. You make smaller movies. As you look in on what’s happening in Hollywood, are you relived that you‘re not part of it? Disappointed?
I think it’s twofold: I’m disappointed in the fact that the Hollywood I grew up with is gone because they’re not making those kinds of movies anymore. Most of the people my age feel the same way. Even younger people feel the same way. I have filmmaker friends in their early 30s, late 20s who wish that the great auteur-driven movies of the 70s could still be made by studios today. But that is so gone and never coming back. I never wanted to get into that system anyway. I grew up knowing how terrible the studio system could be. So, I’m disappointed on that level. On another level, I’m really relieved that we’re in this transitional phase. We’re learning how to start over again. There are tools, cameras, lenses and ways to make really good-looking movies for almost nothing. What’s going to happen next is the question. Everyone is going to be making movies, but are any of them going to be any good?
That means a lot more independent films in the future. Do you think mainstream audiences are going to be receptive to that?
I think there’s going to be a point where there will be a lot of independent films, but there’s still going to be “Man of Steel 2” and “Jurassic Park 6.” You’re probably going to end up going to a movie theater and spend $75 to see a movie in a giant IMAX and get a gift bag with it. Then you’ll have the other movies that you just download and watch on your computer or TV. I think that’s really where we’re heading.
Which is something you were OK with in terms of having people see “The Canyons,” correct? You were open to them seeing the film at home, which is why it’s one of those movies that opened at limited theaters but also on VOD the same day.
I’ve seen “The Canyons” in many variations from the first rough cut all the way to the final color-corrected print and every time I have watched it on a computer screen. “The Canyons” was not built for theatrical distribution. There was never going to be enough money to promote it that way. It was always going to be something you could download and watch on a device.
As an author first, where do you see the original storyteller’s place in cinema today? Are you a movie fan yourself, or do you find movies one of those necessary evils that sort of complements the written text?
I love movies, but I’ve been very disappointed with them in the last couple of years. I think American movies are kind of at an all-time low. The conversation has shifted over to television. I don’t necessarily think the content is more interesting. I’ll watch shows that catch my interest, but it’s very, very different than the movie-going experience. I go to a lot of movies. I still have that habit entrenched in me since I was a kid. I really can’t get rid of that. I just love the fact that you can drive to the theater during a lunch break and just watch a wall of images. That relaxes me somehow. I feel refreshed after that. But it’s been a rough year in terms of American films. I don’t know where they’re going. Some people say we get all the good movies in 8-weeks in November and December. So, that’s kind of depressing, too.
So, who do you like? I’m a big Paul Thomas Anderson fan. Is he someone you can get behind?
Look, I’m not a fan of “The Master” and I think “There Will Be Blood” was maybe overrated, but we need people like P.T. Anderson who are true artists in American cinema. We have to have those voices out there. Even though I didn’t like “The Master” and I was bored with it and found it confusing, I was so glad it existed because he is a great filmmaker. But that kind of movie can only be made if you have a patron like [Annapurna Pictures founder and producer] Megan Ellison writing you a check. There’s no other way that movie can be made. The idea of the “auteur” or the “author of the film” who makes a series of movies that have a distinct sensibility to them, I don’t know if I see that or if those movies are that good anymore. I really can’t name any filmmaker right now that I find interesting enough based on a series of films he’s made. I guess I like David O. Russell. I guess I kind of respond to his movies. I mean, you can throw out some names if you want, but I think everyone’s work has been very erratic over the last decade or so.
Well, what about up-and-coming directors like Ryan Coogler? You didn’t have a lot of nice things to say on your Twitter account about his movie “Fruitvale Station,” which has been critically loved all year. What was it about that movie that you didn’t like?
Well, “Fruitvale Station” isn’t really a movie. I just didn’t feel like it was an experience. I didn’t really know how to process it. It’s about victims for an hour and a half and then it’s over. Oscar (the main character in the film) wants us to feel badly for him and he supposed to be a symbol for something, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t think the movie was dramatically interesting. I just didn’t know what that movie was supposed to be about. Also, just aesthetically, there were so many terribly written scenes that always double backed on each other. We’re always trying to find the best in Oscar. Ugh, and don’t get me started on they symbolism behind the dead dog Oscar befriends. Those things just literally drive me crazy. I just think it was a terrible film across the board. I think it’s interesting how a lot of white critics in this country have tiptoed around this movie and say they found it to be this powerful experience. To me it was just pure victimization cinema. I didn’t see any meaning in it.
So, at the end of the year, when “Fruitvale Station” is nominated for a couple of Oscars, do you take a step back and say, “What the hell are people thinking?” or do you think, “What the hell did I miss?”
No, because usually the Oscars are not good. Ironically, I saw that movie at the Academy and I didn’t think the response was that great. I know a lot of people here in Hollywood that didn’t like the movie, not because of race or politics, but for aesthetic reasons. I hate to get down on “Fruitvale Station,” but when something like that is so overrated, I sometimes feel that need. I don’t know if I’m ready to go there on Twitter. But, honestly, I’m very hard to please. I don’t like a lot of things.
So, how do you handle criticism of movies you’re involved with? “The Canyons” didn’t make the cut for the Sundance Film Festival or for South by Southwest. It’s not getting very good reviews from critics either.
Well, I didn’t care about Sundance or South by Southwest. I didn’t think those movies should go to those festivals. I don’t know if we would’ve gotten a distributor then because it’s not a festival-friendly movie. I knew it was going to be divisive and polarizing. Look, I’ve been getting terrible reviews since I was 21. People tend to think that “Less Than Zero” is some kind of prize-winning classic. No. About 60 percent of the reviews were terrible. They took my publisher to task for publishing the diary of a 20-year-old boy. The publishing industry is collapsing! And with “American Psycho,” the book was 100 percent panned when it was first published. So, my armor is thick. I also think everyone’s opinion are fine. If you have a negative opinion on a movie, that’s totally cool. I slam movies, too. It doesn’t mean I don’t like the people involved. It’s not personal. It’s just an aesthetic. So, I’m totally cool with negative reviews.
Can you explain what a “humanist film critic” is? You used that term on Twitter when “The Canyons” was getting some negative feedback from critics.
It’s someone who mistakenly likes “Fruitvale Station.” A humanist film critic is a critic who is not looking at a film with an aesthetic gaze, but is looking at it based on how they feel about the subject. For them to like a movie, it has to be about a noble endeavor or it has to be about the human spirit. That’s the only art that matters to them. If you don’t have art that’s redemptive then what you’re doing is not for them. That, to me, is a very narrow way to look at movies. But I do think that is the way a majority of American film critics experience film. It is dismaying to me. I used the term “humanist film critic” because the hatred for “The Canyons” is so disproportionate to how small the movie is and how we made it for zero money. It just seems like there is a lot of anger with the ugliness of the subject matter. Critics said the movie really doesn’t care about the audience. I just think a lot of people want movies to comfort them in a way. They want to be soothed by movies. But “The Canyons” is life. It might suck, but it’s life.