“There’s no question that this is an important piece in the future of filmmaking,” says The Canyons producer Braxton Pope. This is probably the first time a filmmaker has ever said that about a film that includes a four way sex scene where lasers play over the bodies of the parties involved. Hollywood is a weird place. So weird, in fact, it’s the kind of place where the writer of Taxi Driver – Paul Schrader – the novelist behind American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis – and an up and coming producer – Pope – find themselves working together on a shark thriller called Bait. No, not that Bait. This one didn’t involve a tsunami and a supermarket. And (thankfully) it fell through after funding from South America disappeared. What was left were three very interesting Hollywood personalities looking for their next project. The result was The Canyons.
“We wanted to put together a movie that we could self-finance and take control of ourselves,” says Pope, speaking over the phone from Los Angeles. “I’m a big fan of Bret’s writing and his novels and the three of us share a lot of things thematically. He had an original idea and this project was something that made a lot of sense to us. We wanted the freedom of not having a studio looking over our shoulders.”
So off Ellis went, penning The Canyons script in six weeks. It includes many of what have become Ellis trademarks at this point: good-looking white people, homosexual fancies, heavy doses of sex and violence, plus his token sociopathic trust fund kid. Pope loved it, Shraeder loved it, their mutual friend Gus Van Sant loved it and agreed to appear in a cameo role. Even Hollywood train wreck Lindsay Lohan loved it, demanding the role of the female lead Tara instead of the smaller part of Cynthia that she had been offered. With understandable trepidation, Shraeder and Pope signed off on Lohan. They also signed off Ellis’ pet favourite, porn star James Deen, who they were equally wary about.
“We had concerns,” explains Pope. “We felt like we were taking a little bit of a risk – we all thought he was excellent but in the back of your head this is a completely different kind of artistic animal to porn. Interestingly enough James was very professional: he’s always on time and always a pro. It occured to me later in the production that I should have been nervous about James, but I had completely forgotten any nerves whatsoever.” Lohan was another story. Journalist Stephen Rodrick detailed some of the behind-the-scenes drama that occurred on The Canyons set in a now infamous piece of entertainment writing that appeared in the New York Times. From arriving on set drunk and leaving the set drunk, to shutting herself in a closet and refusing to come out for the four-way sex scene, Pope admits there were “challenges”.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for The Canyons was the money (as it is with most films). Although they may have had creative freedom by deciding to finance it themselves, there was added pressure and restrictions. Pope was the driving force behind getting the movie on Kickstarter – one of the first flicks to do so – and building one of the most inclusive social media campaigns seen in recent pop culture. “When movie sales started to crater, studios became very wary of doing certain types of films. They were interested in tentpoles and blockbuesters, which left a void for arthouse and indie films,” he says. “Crowdfunding has poured a lot of money into this sphere. In the age of social media it’s critically important to establish and build your community early. You need to take advantage of those tools – you don’t have what the studios have. You don’t have $50 to $100M to spend in marketing.”
The Canyons also doesn’t have a family friendly rating, making it a tough sell for distributors and theatres, but an interest gatherer for the more artistic communities. The NC-17 rating in the US was something they were prepared for, says Pope, and something crucial to the telling of the complicated love triangle between three vapid LA types in the movie. “It’s a consideration. ITunes wanted us to cut one particular scene, curtail it, and it’s definitely due to the amount of sexual content. It works on different platforms, but you do have to consider what impact that has on the consumer.”
Maria Lewis - follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz