Taxi Driver meets Lindsay Lohan

Can the ill-fated Canyons spell a comeback for Paul Schrader?

Barry Hertz
Content image

Mongrel Media

Mongrel Media

In Hollywood, there is no greater gift than a comeback story, which makes Lindsay Lohan the gift that keeps on giving. The 27-year-old actress—who is by now more familiar with courtrooms than movie sets—has had several shots at career rehab over the past few years, each weaker than the last. After her foray into TV movies-of-the-week, Lohan’s latest and possibly last chance is a starring role in the micro-budgeted sexual thriller The Canyons. But while much has been reported of Lohan’s melodrama and meltdowns during filming—thanks to a warts-and-all feature in the New York Times Magazine—The Canyons isn’t her comeback story. It’s Paul Schrader’s.

The writer and director once ran in the same elite circles as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, yet hasn’t helmed a film since 2008’s near-forgotten Adam Resurrected. The antihero of his iconic script for Taxi Driver serves as an almost-perfect metaphor for Schrader’s career: the loner surrounded by darkness, once celebrated but eventually forgotten. Born to strict Calvinist parents—who banned such “worldly amusements” as movies and playing cards—Schrader used his troubled childhood to fuel a steady stream of other classic outsider-looking-in screenplays, including Raging Bull, Rolling Thunder and American Gigolo.

But revelling in the world’s filth can only take a filmmaker so far. Unlike his peers who embraced popcorn cinema now and then, Schrader refused to pull back from his jaundiced view of humanity, all the while developing a difficult reputation, which climaxed with his firing from Exorcist: The Beginning in 2003. With his last semi-hit, Auto Focus, released more than a decade ago, Schrader found himself in his late 60s, exiled from studios and at the mercy of undependable foreign investors—the result, he insists, of a “monumental collapse of the independent filmmaking system, where studios just aren’t interested in making $8-million dramas.”

Frustrated and with few options, he decided to try something completely different. “I was working on two films that fell apart before The Canyons, one of which was written by Bret Easton Ellis,” he told Maclean’s. “Finally, we both just said, ‘F–k it, let’s do it ourselves. We’ll pay for it.’” Ellis proved an unlikely ally. Once the toast of the town himself, the American Psycho author was struggling to stay relevant after his latest book flopped. Schrader, Ellis and producer Braxton Pope pooled together $90,000 of their own money, and turned to the website Kickstarter to raise the remaining $100,000 needed for production.

After bringing in Lohan through Pope’s connections, Schrader decided to add yet another wild card to his late-career gamble, casting porn star James Deen as the film’s male lead, a movie producer who thrusts his girlfriend (Lohan) and a young actor (Nolan Gerard Funk) into a world of sex, drugs and violence. While Deen turned out to be a dependable, even electric performer, the inexperienced crew and Lohan’s erratic behaviour (“She’s an Adderall addict—it made her turn on a mood in a millisecond,” Schrader says without a hint of discretion) made for one complicated comeback vehicle. Yet the filmmaker stubbornly pressed on. “What the hell, right? If you can’t take a chance on your own money, when can you take a chance?”

Schrader’s bold—or desperate—moves paid off. Before it was even released on Aug. 2, The Canyons was already in the black, thanks to a deal with IFC Films—fuelled, no doubt, by the project’s infamy. From the unorthodox casting to a widely circulated anecdote about Schrader directing a sex scene in the buff (“It was an impulse thing,” he says—a last-ditch strategy to coax a nervous Lohan out of her trailer), The Canyons is a rare instance in which the filmmaker’s uncompromising attitude worked in his favour. Whether the movie is good or not is irrelevant: If enough people give in to their curiosity, Schrader will never have to beg for studios’ attention again. In the meantime, he’s launching a new project, “something much more conventional.” Will it star a performer as unpredictable as Lohan? “It’s with Nic Cage,” Schrader says. Godspeed.