I first met Bret Ellis three of four years ago at Ammo on North Highland and we got along. When he came to Australia I organised a local dinner for him and put on a retrospective of the cinema adaptations of his books at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival.
Last year, I suggested the possibility of doing an interview apropos The Canyons and where he is at Right Now.
We conducted the interview by skype from Australia to LA a few months back...
Richard Wolstencroft: Tell us a bit about the whole Hollywood thing; moving back to LA becoming more involved in making films and things. I mean has it always been something you wanted to do?
The Canyons is not a pornographic movie.
Bret Easton Ellis: There was never any plan to move to LA and become a screenwriter. That idea is anathema to me. I grew up out here, I know what that entails. I think a lot of people are assuming I came out here to try get studio gigs - and look to be the 6th re-writer on The Amazing Spiderman, when in fact there were always movies that are personal and movies that I wanted to do with friends, and that has stayed the course.
RW: Tell us a bit about the The Canyons. How did that one come about? How did you end up working with Schrader?
BEE: [Paul] Schrader and I were working on a movie [Bait] for Lionsgate, the studio…[which fell through about a week before Christmas of 2011 - Ed.]. Schrader contacted me and said you know I want you to make a micro budget film, I think we can do one. We will own it, we won't have to deal with studio politics and so I watched a couple micro budget feature films and kinda got the idea of how to do it. I wrote a script and Schrader signed off on it – and that was less than a year ago.
RW: That's very productive, to make a whole film in a year. Any normal process normally takes 3 – 4 years. Was there something liberating about that?
BEE: I found it completely liberating and I can't imagine going back to ever working within the studio format.
RW: Where you on set? Collaborating with Schrader?
BEE: Not a single re-write. There was a very extensive outline the Schrader signed off on. We all knew that the script I was going to write was going to be the shooting script. This was not The Godfather…
RW: This seems like a liberating process, in fact I know it is as I've made feature films this way. The fact you made a feature starring Lindsay Lohan and James Deen for $250,000. This is a positive thing. There is a backlash on it, I've noticed in the media - as this seems to be the new model and it's threatening to the status quo.
BEE: I think a huge part of the problem is that Lindsay Lohan got cast in it, and to a minor degree, James Deen getting cast in it. Also, you have people like Paul Schrader and myself who the public have a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with, and people [are] rooting for it to be a train wreck. I think that is the more fun narrative. The dry boring narrative is that we made a decent micro budget movie and we proved you can make a $250,000 movie look good in the right hands, with the right cameras, the right lenses, etc and make it look like a $10 million movie.
RW: Did you or Schrader have to be strict to get [Lohan] in line?
BEE: She has her own hours, her own rules basically she follows them most of the time and The New York Times make it sound like it was a nightmare for 100 percent of the shot. No it was about 20 percent of the shot that it was difficult and the rest of the time it was fine.
RW: One aspect of The Canyons is the presence of James Deen. I think I remember reading something that one of the original parts or one of the original ambitions of the project was to have full-on hardcore sex scenes or at least very explicit sex scenes. Can you speak to the world of pornography and how that relates to The Canyons?
BEE: The Canyons is not a pornographic movie and it's not meant to be titillating. The sex in The Canyons is explicit and there is a lot of simulated sex scenes and nudity. It's to move the story forward. The sex scenes are dramatic scenes; a lot of information is revealed there, not there purely for titillation. They involve a control freak played by James Deen who enjoys having people over to screw around with his girlfriend and him, and it becomes this dramatic thing between the girlfriend and him.
I have always been interested in pornography but not to the degree to writing a movie or novel about pornography. I am intrigued to how far we can push the sex scenes in The Canyons without getting a NC-17, without being full blown pornographic.
RW: I've seen some of James Deen's work online and read interviews with him and he seems like a character of yours, in real life - a little bit, anyway.
BEE: He is nice and he is polite and is a good Jewish boy from Pasadena who just happened to be doing porn from when he was 18.
I'd read a couple articles about him that had been forwarded to me by a producer, and I just found him extremely interesting.There was something about him that just began to drive this character I was thinking about in The Canyons and I ended up writing the part of Christian for James Deen.
RW: There has always been in American Psycho and Glamorama a lot of almost pornographic writing in that - and its not often discussed in relation to your work. At least the violence is concentrated on but I think the sex stuff is just as important. Why do you think everyone focuses on the violence, and not the sexual material?
BEE: That's a good question, I've never been asked that question before…
I think that is what most people found disturbing, that the sex was pushed up to against the violence; in American Psycho where there was no preparation for the sex to suddenly turn very violent and I think that was the main outcry about the novel. If the Violence and the Sex have been separated to a degree the novel would not have become as notorious as it did for some people as it did become. I think having them overlap often in the book is what upset people so many people.
RW: Since you first wrote about Patrick Bateman in American Psycho there seems to have developed, over the past 20 years, a psychopath culture where you even see it on the main TV shows that are popular, almost all of the good main characters are psychopaths. How do think that psychopathic thing has become so prominent?
BEE: I was thinking when I was writing [American Psycho], I realised mid outline that he was either a serial killer or he thought he was one and I could never answer that myself, I could never land on an answer either way and that intrigued me even more. In fact it wasn't answered. It plays itself out and half the people that read it think he is a psychopath - and the other half think that these are the fantasies of a wimp. A very angry wimp.
[...] Presenting someone within the corporate workplace as being perhaps a bloodthirsty, horrific killer really could be a heavy handed metaphor left in the wrong hands. I think that was maybe what made me step back and not make a decision. I felt uneasy about that metaphor. Then I guess people responded to the idea of the boss as a psychopath on Boardwalk Empire or The Sopranos or if it's Walter White in Breaking Bad.
RW: I must bring this up, there was a spate of tweets last year where apparently Bateman seemed to be making a comeback on Twitter. Is he lurking in your house somewhere?
BEE: No, I was really bored that night, I was really bored and perhaps had had a bit to much to drink and I remember it was about before bedtime I saw a tweet saying “Hey, Bret where is Patrick Bateman now” what is going on and I don't usually reply to people on Twitter but I thought I am going to put this tweet out there and see what happens. I should have known, I should have known.
RW: It was a great series of tweets. You could almost publish a book of your tweets, is that ever been considered? It seems you have turned the tweet into an art form like these Bret Easton Ellis haiku statements about culture and movies and observations and things.
BEE: I never thought about doing that and I don't think of myself like that and I find it really amusing that people think like this about my tweets and that my tweets have gotten to the point of last year, a lot of coverage and outrage and I'm not tweeting at anybody. It's never at Glee or at Kathryn Bigelow or at anybody you know; it's just my comments that drift in me head before I tweet them that night and when I wake up in the morning there is a shit storm.
RW: The Kathryn Bigelow one seemed to blow up a bit. People really take it rather seriously, and can really begin to change their whole attitude towards you based on the fact you were drunk and said whatever the fuck on facebook or Twitter one night. People take it as some sort of sermon from the mount..
BEE: I think social media is a fun way to interact with people who follow you and it's a way to be authentic with people, I think, to a degree. I mean look; I am not the kinda of person to really answer people on Twitter there have been a few times I began doing it, it became overwhelming…
I have reacted horribly to the new sensitivity of 'Generation Wuss'. That appalls me this new – everyone has to post pictures of their cats – everyone has to like everything and the moment you are dissenting in this new world of social media they consider you a prick. Which is not how I am raised. I am raised to have opinions on things that are negative, to like things that a lot of people might not like.
RW: So you feel you're losing interest in Twitter?
BEE: …a little bit, not a lot but a little bit and it also stems from I kinda have be depressed this year since January.
RW: Why are you depressed Bret?
BEE: It's just one of those waves
RW: They come around every now and then don't they?
BEE: Yes they come around every now and then and I get them not to the point where I have to be put into a hospital or I have to take medication but its coming and I know it and I want to get into bed for a week. It's not been a great year. Nothing specific again it's just one of those waves. Male depression that comes over you and then you get out of it. I am getting out of it now.
RW: You have written about 'the fear', you have posted about 'the fear'. What does 'the fear' mean to you?
BEE: 'The fear' is just about the overwhelming despair of everyday existence, you know the adolescent, this adolescent notion, the notion about the futility of everything to a degree that can be overwhelming. You know, Why are we here? and Why am doing this? and Is this worth it” and every now and then, every two or three years, I get a big bout of depression. It's something I am used to and I work through. I am a lot less interested in everything the past couple of months, it's not just Twitter, it's just kinda everything and now I'm getting out of it.
I made friends with death a long time ago, so death is not what scares me, living is what scares me. … I think the reason you feel fear is, How I am going to make it through this month? How am I going to feel if this person and that person and this project and that project…? And it can cause at times discomfort, stress and anxiety. It's what everyone goes through, I am blowing it up in my case and turning it into some kind of tsunami of anxiety when in reality its just typical depression we all have. Mine instead of lasting four weeks has gone into its seventh week now. That's all…
Richard Wolstencroft is founder/director of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival. The Canyons screens at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival Saturday 7 September, and at the Sydney Underground Film Festival Sunday 8 September.