Celebrated novelist Bret Easton Ellis is no stranger to Hollywood; two of his best-known tales of glamour and alienation — Less Than Zero and American Psycho — have been adapted to the big screen. In his latest cinematic endeavor, Ellis wrote the script for The Canyons, a micro-budgeted thriller starring Lindsay Lohan as a washed-up actress and adult-film star James Deen as a smalltime movie producer who’s obsessed with controlling the people around him. In an interview with RT, Ellis discussed his favorite films, as well as his love for 1970s cinema and his fascination with characters whose true nature is elusive.
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958; 98% Tomatometer)
I’m a little ambivalent about my five favorite films — or talking to you about them — because they are so boring.
It is not impossible. It is so typical. Also, by the way, it changes constantly. Not changes constantly but, depending on the mood I’m in, I could shift two or three out and then decide to sneak one in there that might not normally be there, know what I mean? And so I looked at some of your other ones and saw what people chose and, you know, I really hate to be defined by those five that I chose [right now], talking to Rotten Tomatoes or whatever. How do you do it? Do you just like… Somebody says, “OK, this is number five,” and then you talk about it?
Yeah, pretty much. I think some readers think, “Oh, you tell them to pick a comedy, right?” No, absolutely not. I’m not going to tell somebody what their favorite movies are.
Yeah, but if I have, like Vertigo, or Citizen Kane, or Godfather 1 and 2, which is one movie for me… You see where I’m going? It’s kind of dull. I’ll probably put Barry Lyndon and I’ll probably put… maybe Carrie. I dunno. So how do you want to start this?
Well, what do you like about Vertigo?
Oh good, you’re gonna lead me on this. Good. You know what I love about Vertigo? I love that it’s a movie about movies. That’s what’s so fascinating about Vertigo. And it’s also the most crushing movie ever made about romantic obsession, and how we constantly relive our obsessions over and over and we’re hopeless in the face of them. Also, just what it does with color, how it’s a movie about watching things. I do think it’s Hitchcock’s greatest achievement, [followed by] Psycho and The Birds. And I might put The Birds ahead of Psycho, in terms of how that movie ages. It’s so painterly, so beautiful. But, you know, I think Vertigo is the kind of movie really doesn’t make that much sense on a first viewing. Like, you haven’t really seen the movie until the second time. I also think that, if you’re young… I’m a big moviegoer and I did not get Vertigo at 18. It didn’t mean anything to me. And then I saw it [again, and] it must have been the 1990s when they did the proper revival of it. I think in 1983 Universal released something that wasn’t color-corrected or something; it didn’t look like how it should look. When I saw it in my 30s, after I’d been through various disappointments and love and romance, then it hit me like a ton of bricks. It just became this overwhelming experience. This hypnotic, overwhelming experience. You bring your experience to Vertigo. You don’t have to do that with Citizen Kane, but with Vertigo, you do.
There are some similarities between Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo and James Deen in The Canyons in that they both have controlling personalities. The difference seems to be that Jimmy Stewart has a certain decency, and James Deen is a sociopath.
OK, so this is the difference between the conception of Jimmy Stewart’s character and the conception of Christian in The Canyons. I think by the very nature of Vertigo, you need Jimmy Stewart. And you need somebody who can play that character in all of his desperation. Christian is conceived as very cold very controlling, a douchebag, yes, and ultimately malevolent.I wrote the part for James Deen. I’d seen his work. I’d seen the porn work and I’d seen the non-porn work, within the porn work, and he had something that I found very unsettling. He had a kid of goofy boy-next-door quality, and then in the BDSM scenes, some of the rougher porn scenes, there was this kind of very dark guy that seemed to emerge. And I found it fascinating. Also, I just love stuff like his eyes. He can really shut them down in a way, and they can be very cold and icy blue. I didn’t want an actor for that role, I wanted someone who wasn’t an actor, who hadn’t been trained, because all the actors that we saw in the auditions really overdid the douchiness, overdid the malevolence, and brought the wrong tonal thing to that character. James played it without any of those constraints that I thought an actor would bring to it. That’s kind of the difference.
Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975; 94% Tomatometer)
I think [Barry Lyndon is] the ultimate movie for men. I think it’s a classic story of how you go through life, and also, for me, it’s Kubrick’s most emotional film. I know everyone accused him of being very cold, but the last movement of that movie is, I think, piercing and just beautifully told. There’s kind of this inevitability of incident that starts happening at about an hour before Barry Lyndon ends. It’s breathtaking in terms of the narrative control along with the visual control of that movie. Even though it’s very different from the [William Makepeace] Thackeray novel it’s based on — the Thackeray book is actually funnier and kinda faster, [while] Kubrick makes it a little more glacial and stately — but it still is a phenomenally beautiful movie made at the height of the great American studio era. It’s really a pinnacle of 1970s American moviemaking. And I think Ryan O’Neal was incredibly poignant in that film. And the music? The sensory experience of seeing Barry Lyndon, you can’t really make those movies anymore. It’s not even in our DNA anymore. I don’t think the sensibility even exists to build movies like Barry Lyndon. And that’s just a huge loss.
Barry Lyndon is a fraud, and there’s a certain glibness and a huckster aspect to both James Deen’s character in The Canyons and the Patrick Bateman character in your novel American Psycho. Is that sort of Tom Ripley-esque persona appealing to you?
I think Tom Ripley and Barry Lyndon are universal characters. I think they are symbols of who we are or who we can be. I mean, yeah, to a degree, as Christian says none-too-subtly in The Canyons, “We’re all actors, aren’t we?” I think that is part of what makes Tom Ripley and Barry Lyndon fascinating. They are actors, but also, it’s part of their true nature, which is why those characters, I find, are so riveting. And I think it does tap into the fact that, yes, we are actors in a way. I mean, I’m on the phone with you right now, I’m trying to be as authentic as I can possibly be. But I also know that this is an interview, or a discussion about movies and that, when I go into the kitchen and, like, say hi to my boyfriend, it’s just gonna be a different vibe, you know? Tonight, when I have to go to this movie premiere, and I’m gonna be introduced to people, it’s a different vibe. It’s not that I’m not genuine, it’s just that circumstances shift how you behave.
[I love] Citizen Kane, but how many times can you go over that?
I think a lot of people who haven’t seen it think of it as an eat-your-veggies type of movie.
Right, which is crazy that people think that, because I think out of all the movies made during that era, I think Citizen Kane is the most entertaining. Flat out, the most entertaining. It’s such a rush. Even now, after being overloaded on the spectacle of modern moviemaking, that still holds up, in a way, as its own kind of spectacle, and it never becomes boring. It always moves so quickly and so assuredly, and it’s also very funny and spectacularly visual. I think it fits very well, for modern sensibilities, to watch that movie. It seems so not-dated.
There are certain old movies that feel like new movies. I think you could include some of Orson Welles’ other movies on that list, like Touch of Evil.
Yeah, I think The Magnificent Ambersons does as well. I think I’ve been thinking about Welles a lot because I just read the Peter Biskind book My Lunches with Orson, which is wildly entertaining and it made me love Orson Welles even more. Everyone likes to see [his] life as a tragedy, and probably Orson Welles himself did by the end. But I just don’t. I don’t see how your life can be a tragedy if you just made Touch of Evil, or if you just made Citizen Kane, or The Magnificent Ambersons or even the Shakespeare movies [Macbeth, Othello]. I think everyone’s lives have that kind of rise and fall. I mean, everyone kind of ends up in the same place to a degree, and there is the case that people saw Orson Welles as this kind of tragic figure and I just kind of reject that. I just don’t feel that way.
There’s nothing more to be said about the Godfather, movies. I mean, like, just leave a blank. I have nothing to say, except they’re probably my favorite movies. I mean, what do you say about that?
That they’re awesome?
Yeah. But it’s also, does it suggest the idea that American movies, in that space of, say, The Godfather, the mature-driven, adult movies of that era, that were also wildly popular with an audience… it’s just gone. I’m reminded of that a lot because I am of an age. I was actually too young for The Godfather, to see it theatrically. But, you know, just remembering that era… I mean,, my boyfriend is 26, and he doesn’t get why I’m, like, depressed about the state of current movies. Though every now and then… We were watching TV last night and suddenly came across Coming Home, which I never really liked that much; I thought it was kind of like a hazy, kind of dippy-ish Vietnam era [film]… you know. But watching it last night before going to bed, I was hypnotized by the craft of a big studio movie being made about that subject in an uncompromisingly adult way. And the movie looks gorgeous. It’s so well-made that my boyfriend turned to me and said, “Movies looked like that? Are you kidding me?” I said, “Yeah, they do look like that.” I think Haskell Wexler was the DP. Now you have qualms with the love triangle and the noble bent or whatever, but the craft and the score were just enveloping. It also was a reminder of what movies once were, they’re not [like] that now. But you have to just move on. And The Godfather, without really talking about it, The Godfather to me is the height of what movies for a mass audience were once.
Do you have any random wildcards?
Well, you know, I’m just not that kind of moviegoer. I really don’t have wildcards. I did a column for Film Comment about guilty pleasures this month, and I even have to quantify that: I don’t have guilty pleasures. I don’t believe in it. And I think one of the most “pleasurable” movies ever made is Carrie, which I was going to put on, and I’m dreading the remake because I have a terrible feeling that it’s going to be like a treatise on bullying, and that is going to kind of overwhelm the horror aspect of it. And of any movie that does not need to be remade because it wasn’t kind of good enough, it’s Carrie. Because there is about 45 minutes of the prom sequence that is spectacularly visual, and it cannot be bettered upon. I take kind of an affront that they’re even doing that. But I don’t have a wildcard. But Carrie was also for me, again, that kind of auteur-driven movie that was both personal and also could reach a mass audience.
The Canyons is currently in select theaters and is available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes.