Have you seen The Canyons? The film that released back in 2013.
The movie has Lyndsay Lohan, pornstar James Deen acting, though I use the term loosely. Paul Schrader is the director. He wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and directed American Gigolo. The script was by Bret Easton Ellis, the novelist behind American Psycho.
I owe much to Bret Easton Ellis, his books sparked my interest in reading for pleasure. American Psycho is a shambling mess that is at times so extreme you can’t help but see it as a fever dream. It seems like you outgrow Bret Easton Ellis. When I was young, I devoured his books but gave up on Glamorama after the first hundred pages. I was done with Ellis.
For my money Rules of Attraction is his best work. The first half of Lunar Park is a hilarious fictionalised biography of the author. The book becomes a slog when the second part is a meta-remake/rewrite/riff on The Shining.
The purpose of this is to set up that I respect Bret Easton Ellis as a writer. I didn’t watch the film with any sense of ill will.
I’m going to trash the film for a bit. After that, I’m going to try and set out to answer why novelists struggle to transition into writing for film. The final part will explore how even though this film is terrible, but it can teach you. Some takeaways from it can help you if you ever plan on writing fiction or making a movie for that matter.
The Canyons is Bad
If it seems like I’m harsher on The Canyons than I was The Predator it’s because this film wasted it’s potential.
The story is about a guy who works in Hollywood and his girlfriend played by Lyndsay Lohan. There is an up and coming actor who was romantically involved with Lyndsay. Both these men are head over heels in love with Lyndsay.
Now you’re going to feel like this is cruel, but I just didn’t see it, Lyndsay does not look good. The cinematography does not help her either. Could be down to the low budget of the film, the fact that Lyndsay was a liability during the making off is also a factor.
If you mean to tell me that both these men obsess so much over Lyndsay to the point of committing murder, you lost me.
I’m trying to summarise the plot here but to be honest, not much of it is worth writing about.
Without trying to be funny, the film is just a progression of scenes. All characters do is talk about what happened in the previous scene. Nothing occurred during the last scene, so people end up talking about nothing.
Let me give you a bit of context. I watched this film with my housemate. It was his idea to watch this film. As we watched I observed “The way they keep talking about the dinner from the previous night. This feels more like an episode of Made In Chelsea”. My housemates face dropped, “Ellis did a podcast on the genius of The Hills”. It all clicked into place. I may have ruined the podcast for my housemate. He can’t stop himself hearing Ellis rabbit on about getting dinner.
Then there’s some sex.
You know for a film that is supposed to be lurid and edgy, hiring pornstars, this film is tame. The sex scenes are poorly choreographed, the mystery of one scene, is he making love to her doot or her belly button? Oh, the suspense.
This film doesn’t even have the balls to show the balls.
This begs the question, what exactly was the point of hiring pornstars? Was it for their acting talent?
I’m not going to storm the Bastille while waving a flag screaming “I demand to see hard cock”. At the same time, if you’re going to be this trashy, lurid little thriller, you have to give the audience something. Steer into the skid.
Is there anything more unappealing than a coquettish slut?
There’s a sex scene between Lyndsay Lohan, James Deen and some other guy. Lohan makes the two men kiss, maybe they do more, it’s gone from my mind. The way this homo/bi moment is presented, it seems like it’s meant to blow our minds. It did not.
Why is it in these kinds of films there is always an inferred moral code. Like why is a guy doing something homosexual presented as a low point?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an SJW/NPC but they did the same thing in Shame, the Michael Fassbender film. It was about the male sex addict. His low point was when he gave a dude a blow job.
Why is that bad, why is that the low point?
“Uh because he’s straight Kieran.”
No, he could be bisexual, what’s wrong with that?
Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Some woman gets murdered Lyndsay Lohan runs away, and the up and coming actor is nowhere stalker.
The movie is light on plot like there is no progression from one scene to the other. It’s just a bunch of shit that could have happened in any order.
What is frustrating is that every once in a while something happens, and you say, “This needs explored” but no. It feels like it’s just trying to tick boxes with scenes.
Paul Schrader was miscast as a director. This was his first digital film, and it shows. The lighting makes everything look cheap. The film takes place in a mansion, but it seems like they managed to sneak in when people were moving out. I could be wrong. Is it meant to symbolise the vacuousness of these people? The whole film looks cheap and has lousy lighting.
My housemate told me that Ellis wanted to adapt 50 Shades of Grey. This film is his audition script. The James Deen character name is Christian and is controlling.
Was the main creative driving force behind the filmmaking it as a stepping stone? Tells you all you need to know.
Which makes you wonder
Why the hell can’t novelists write for film?
JK Rowling has gone the George Lucas route and made semi prequels to Harry Potter. These are not adapted from anything. She has written scripts, and they have become Fantastic Beasts. Now I haven’t seen them but the latest one, Crimes of Grindelwald, is terrible. This isn’t coming from me, this is from fans of Harry Potter. One friend a big Harry Potter fan. I remember him asking everyone, “Who is the Half-Blood Prince?”, he walked out of this film.
Another HP fan said it was shit.
Go on Youtube and HP fans will talk at length about how bad it was.
Harry Potter passed me by, I don’t have anything to add on the topic.
You may remember The Counsellor, Ridley Scott directed film with Michael Fassbender. It was terrible. There’s a scene where Cameron Diaz has sex with a car, or she pisses on a windshield or something. Either way, its fucking awful.
Side note, why whenever Cameron Diaz even so much as dips her toe outside comedy it’s some of the worst cinema you’ll see. The Counsellor, The Box, My Sisters Keeper. This could be another blog article, let’s put a pin in it for now.
Anyway, The Counsellor, trash, the writer, novelist Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy’s books are the more adaptable of writers out there. No Country for Old Men, The Road, go and read them. They’re written like a detailed script treatment. How the hell did The Counsellor, written directly for the screen, end up an abomination?
Bret Easton Ellis wrote The Canyons.
To get an idea of how good his talents are as a screenwriter his script for American Psycho, got rejected. The guy couldn’t adapt his own work.
That was a good call by the studio. Have you read American Psycho? Have you seen the film? You agree then. It’s a miracle that the film was coherent. That American Psycho is a brill psychological thriller is proof of an afterlife. Respect to Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. They took an aimless mess and made it a concise adaptation under two hours.
Novelists struggling in Hollywood is a cliche of its own. William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald had a hard time. It’s part of the B-plot in David Mamet’s State and Main.
Why is that?
Let me put it as bluntly as possible. Novelists are lazy screenwriters. The reason novelists see screenwriting as a lower art form is that they’re a jealous pack of snobs. Novelists write their 1000 page tome about growing up in Alberta. Set during last spring before they go build a school in Africa on their gap year.
Yawn, nobody gives a fuck, nobody wants to buy a vandalised paperweight.
Meanwhile, people are flocking to see the Firm War 3: Revegarooney.
People loved the emotional scene where the robot horse has to choose between his son and his best friend (did I mention the friend is a talking pie?). You can see why novelists are resentful.
Screenwriters need discipline. Screenwriting is reductive, compressed, simple. You can’t rely on the written word to save you. In a book, you can write “Dave and Bill were friends for 20 years”. In a film you can’t do that, you have to somehow show that they have been friends for twenty years.
Novelists like to meander.
As you read this, you think that I’d make a good novelist, right?
Novelists like to tell you how the world works. They’ll stop the story dead to tell you the inner workings of the Space Miners sick leave policy. Since it’s a novel, you indulge the author.
In a script, you have to tell us all the essential stuff in the first ten minutes, not whenever you feel like it. Doing that kind of shit in a film is equal to going “Wait, did I mention that Paddy Englishman, Irishman, Scottishman walked into a travel agent?”.
If you’re writing a script, you have to be upfront with your audiences.
In a novel, you can tell us when you want.
Here’s another reason novelists struggle. Their ego is the weapon of choice by the time they transition. They had some success in the literary world. Look at JK Rowling, she is a genius but do you think that with her power she is making more or fewer cuts to her work?
It’s the George Lucas problem all over. George was fortunate to have Gary Kurtz on the first two and what a coincidence, they’re the best. There was someone who challenged him, told him to make changes. By the time the prequels were getting made no one wanted to get fired, so they nodded and agreed.
A final point before moving on is that authors tell you to “Kill your darlings” when writing. Many of them could do with following their own advice.
What can The Canyons teach you about filmmaking?
Bad films are just as important as good ones. You can actually learn what filmmaking is from seeing what it is not.
The Canyons is useful in this regard. Here are some of the lessons I distilled from the film so that you don’t have to watch.
This section will be in list format with some commentary from yours truly, enjoy.
- Earn your opening credits. For the love of God don’t start with a credit sequence and if you do, don’t make it so clear that you are padding the runtime. Have it like Robocop if you’re going to do one. Quick shot, title, on with the film. My preference is that you go the “James Bond” route. You have something that sets the tone of the film and then once they’re hooked in, opening credits. Pulp Fiction is my favourite example of the “James Bond” scene. You have criminals talking about the practicalities of crime. There is an explosion of profanity than a threat of violence then Misourlou. Perfect, well-earned opening credits. The Canyons starts with photos of derelict movie theatres. After the third tattered row of seats, you go “OOOHHHH symbolic” yep, it’s a load of symbolics.
Your scenes should have a visual element.
- The first scene has four people, two couples, sitting at a table talking about “the movie”. I’m not forgetting, they only refer to the production as “the movie” does it have a name? We’ll never know. It’s not until a few scenes later that we find out about everyone’s relationship to one another. You could have done that in the first scene. The camera pans down, and someone is playing footsie with someone they shouldn’t be. How hard would that have been? Instead, you have a scene with people talking and no subtext.
Your first plot point should happen at the 20-minute mark.
- The first twenty minutes you set up who the hero is, what the world is and what the story is going to be. Something is interesting in bad films. Their first plot points all occur around the forty minute mark. By the time the story kicks in your audience have tuned out. Are you still introducing characters after the 20 minutes/page mark? You need to go back and rewrite.
Don’t have a long take just because you can.
- The Canyons has a scene where a character goes to a place, walks around, talks to his boss and leaves. This is all done in a long take. Don’t just have the scene drag on because long takes are cool. Long takes are nowhere near as cool as they once were. Especially when you have films like Children of Men pushing the limits of the long take. When I made the zombieless zombie film Deadville, there was a long take. The camera followed the hero walked around and nothing happened. Thankfully my editor talked me out of keeping it as it was. My editor cut the take into shorter segments. No one who saw the film said that they wished the scene was longer and more meandering.
Don’t have a twist just for the sake of it or if you’re going to make it short.
- The Canyons ends with Lyndsay Lohan escaping LA and starting a new life or something. Someone is keeping tabs on her. It went on so long that my housemate and I saw it coming a mile off. The twist didn’t make much sense and left you going “What? Is that it?” rather than “Ooohhh”. Twists are good but shoehorning it in is just sad. The fact that the audience was already way ahead of the filmmakers is not good. You need to beat them to the punch. You got to outsmart the audience which is difficult. Unless you’re Chris McQuarrie.
Anyway, I hope, you have been spared having to watch The Canyons. It’s not even so bad it’s good. It’s so dull it’s boring, but maybe you learned something.
Like if you’re going to show us a penis, to paraphrase Jerry McGuire, “Show me the penis, show me the penis.”
It could make for a great movie.