THE OTHER SLANT: Paul Schrader Challenges the New York Times Magazine’s Spin on His Hiring, Almost Firing, and Making a Movie with Lindsay Lohan
Imagine writer-director Paul Schrader’s delight when The New York Times Magazine, the bastion of cultural taste and respectability, called to write a piece about his latest directorial effort, The Canyons. Despite having penned cinematic classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, Schrader’s signature flicks–those beautiful meditations on misfits (vigilantes, gigolos, drug dealers, prophets) and life on the social fringe—could not be made today. In fact, most of his body of work—including his masterpiece Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and American Gigolo—belong to a bygone era.
Back in Schrader’s heyday, the 70s and 80s, the movie theater was the prime venue for showcasing new films and audiences hungered for the originality and grit of character-driven dramas, the kind of pictures that made Schrader famous. But with the advent of cable, Hulu, YouTube, Netflix, iTunes–a plethora of new outlets for making and distributing films–Hollywood studios have grown less inclined toward the riskier fare found in Schrader’s oeuvre. And audiences these days seek their drama-fixes via cable or online.
None of that, of course, has stopped Schrader from getting his offbeat, nuanced narratives onto celluloid: He’s relied on his own savings account— $350,000 in one instance—and global financing to bring his works to life. But for The Canyons he sought new school methods–social media and Kickstarter—to materialize his vision.
So when the Times rang to feature him and the cutting edge ways he’s getting his stories told, he was more than happy to reciprocate their interest. But the angle changed—and dramatically so—when he cast the infamous Lindsay Lohan in the lead role. The story (Stephen Rodrick’s “Here’s What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie”) devolved into “a celebrity driven beast,” as Schrader put it.
Rodrick’s delicious page-turner chronicles the highs and (mostly) lows of Schrader’s experience working with the unhinged and unreliable former child star: her inability to be on time, her resistance to fulfilling stated commitments (like a four-way sex scene), her challenges to Schrader’s direction, her emotional outbursts and more.
When The Slant reached the maverick moviemaker at his home in New York City, he gave us his take on Rodrick’s wild read, and offered refreshing insights on filmmaking today, Lindsay Lohan, TMZ and Taxi Driver.
Let’s start with your general impression of the Times story. What did you think?
Obviously, it was wonderful to have the Times devote so much attention to a micro-budget film. I mean, how many micro-budget films get this kind of attention? Zero. It’s a publicity coup. But the article ended up being what it wasn’t meant to be in the first place and that’s the nature of the Lindsay phenomenon. Rodrick started the piece before she was involved and it was going to be about new methods of putting films together. And then she got involved, so then it was going to be about the “new Lindsay.” Well, there wasn’t a new Lindsay. So then it became about the old Lindsay. She hijacks everything she touches.
The best quote about the article was given to The Daily Beast by porn star James Deen, who stars opposite Lindsay in the film. He described the story as “accurate events reflected in the mirror and then retold for dramatic effect.” It’s strange when the most accurate quote comes from the guy who works in the adult film industry.
So you were or weren’t happy with the article?
I can’t say I’m terribly upset or surprised with the way it turned out. I mean you would have to be naive to be either one. As much as Rodrick fought it, he couldn’t resist the hurricane nature of her tabloid presence. That was amplified when the magazine’s editorial staff changed the title of the print edition from “The Misfits” to “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie” for the online edition. What that change did is make the entire article seem like a tabloid piece, a celebrity driven beast, as opposed to a chronicle of a film. That and, of course, the cover art. Even The New York Times isn’t immune to the celebrity gale winds which surround Lindsay. One thing did surprise me though.
I spent an hour and a half on the phone with the Times fact-checker and few of my changes were made. For example, the article notes that Rodrick and I first met when I was trying to set up a Bollywood film staring Leo DiCaprio, but Leo wasn’t involved in that film—it was Shah Rukh Khan–and I mentioned that to the researcher. But it was not changed. I suppose their rationale is, ‘We’re going to keep it as Leo because more people (ie, American people) know who Leo is.” Most of the other unfixed errors had to do with time sequencing. I’ve experienced this my whole life, where journalists pull together events for dramatic effect: Something happens on Monday night, then something happens on Tuesday morning, and somehow they both happen at the same time in the finished piece. So I sort of wonder why they bother to fact-check? I guess it’s just the appearance of due diligence.
Now that it’s all said and done, was hiring Lindsay Lohan worth the hell?
The thing that’s aggravating is that people outside the film business equate production difficulties with commercial or artistic failure. In the history of film, there’s very little correlation between those two things. Some of the most troubled productions have become huge successes and vice versa. Our drama-filled ride doesn’t mean much in terms of the final product. Every film is difficult and every film has its horror stories. In fact, this particular film finished on time and on budget. It was just an exhausting experience. Before it’s even been seen, the film is being discredited as a disaster because Lindsay was late and pulled some stunts. That doesn’t make a film a disaster. It’s business as usual with a high profile actress. Lindsay wasn’t even the most difficult actor I’ve ever worked with. The most difficult was Richard Pryor.
If you had it to do all over, would you cast her again?
I would cast her again.
The article noted that you and Lohan are actually in talks to do another film together. Is that still the case?
Well, I’m willing but I don’t think she can make any kind of commitments. First of all, she doesn’t know whether she’s going to be in jail or not. She lives in a maelstrom of crisis. This week she’ll be back in court again. But who knows if she’ll even appear, or whether a bench warrant will be issued?
Rodrick’s sources surmised that you purposely fired Lohan at one point in order to get her to come back with a greater commitment. Is that true or were you really done with her at that point?
No, I really was ready to cut to cord. If she hadn’t come to my hotel and pleaded with me to reconsider, I was moving on. I had called another actress in France to take her part, in fact, and had booked a plane reservation for her.
What is it about Lohan that makes it worth the struggle?
Well what is it about movie stars, you know? There are probably fifty guys in Hollywood who look just like Tom Cruise, but there is only one Tom Cruise. It’s inexplicable. It’s the same thing they said about Marilyn Monroe. No one ever had a pleasant experience working with her. When director John Huston was making The Misfits, which she starred in, he said, “I wonder why I am putting myself through this. Then, I go to the dailies and I think, ‘Oh yes, that’s why.’ There’s something you’re just mesmerized by.
In the article, Rodrick said that you don’t think Lindsay is contending with substance abuse problems, but rather with loneliness. Is that an accurate reflection of your opinion?
Yeah, I’ve been around a lot of druggies and she doesn’t seem like one to me. I’ve talked to people who were up with her until 4 or 5 a.m. I’d ask, “How does she do it?” They say it’s not drugs.
What is it then? Self-sabotage?
Oh, that’s a huge question. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Bad brain chemistry added to problematic parenting added to a culture which tolerates misbehavior from an early age. It’s not the ideal situation. Child stars have survived. There’s Jodie Foster and Ron Howard. But the deck is stacked against them.
In what ways is it stacked against them?
It’s a killing system. The killing part of it is that they’re taught as adolescents that they own the world and that everything they want is theirs. Then all of sudden the child star is around 20 and they realize all of that was false. Now they have to start over and the public is really mean to them. Look at Hannah Montana’s Miley Cyrus. The public is really mean; they’re really pissed off that child stars want to start over, but they have no choice but to start over because they can’t remain children. I am still quite surprised by the intensity and the volume of the anti-Lindsay rhetoric. I mean she really makes people angry. It’s like, ‘How dare you not be a child star anymore? How dare you be pulling all these stunts? Why don’t you just die?!’ And I’m not joking.
Are you referring to the audience or the media?
Well, the relationship between the media and the audience is tricky. The degree to which the media gins up the audience is uncertain. It’s like TMZ. Is TMZ feeding an audience’s needs or is it creating an audience’s needs? A little bit of both.
Despite all the drama and fanfare surrounding The Canyons are you happy with the way the film turned out?
Oh, I’m more than happy. We got very lucky given the fact that so many things should have gone wrong, working without permits and insurance, managing temperamental people on a micro-budget. But virtually everything went right. It was a little miracle, and hopefully that kind of luck will work when the film is finally shown, but it’s hard to tell.
When is it coming out?
Well it takes about three to four months to really effectively set up video-on-demand (VoD). Starting next week, we’re going to show it to the multi-platform distributors.
It used to be just theatrical distribution, but there are many platforms now. There’s different levels of cable, internet, and video-on-demand. There are about 8 different on-demand companies now. A group of distributors specialize in multi-platform distribution as opposed to just theatrical. A film like Arbitrage did fine in theatrical, but it made $12 million VoD. The Canyons, in particular, is perfect for VoD. You don’t have a rating problem. People can watch it at home.
Do you think these new avenues for making and distributing films is a good thing?
There are pros and cons. You lose the theatrical experience, that’s a genuine loss, but on the other hand you now have an art house cinema in every living room. Is it better or worse? Doesn’t matter. It’s different. Make the most of it.
So The Canyons is the future of independent film making?
It was a great experience, but I don’t know how replicable it is. We had a number of elements that just fell into place. We’re getting a lot of publicity for The Canyons, but basically we are all analog stars. Bret [Easton Ellis, the writer], Lindsay and I made our names in the analog era. It’s so much harder today for kids in the digital era because there’s so much competition. There’s 10,000 little movies being made as we speak. Everybody is making one! Back in my day, there were 200 or 300 being made. How do you get your head above the crowd in this era?
Speaking of your day, do you think movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull could get made today?
For the most part theatrical no longer does straight drama. The idea of the conventional drama has migrated to television or cable. You couldn’t make those movies now. And don’t blame the studios. Don’t blame the banks. Blame the audiences and technology.
Well, audiences are doing 100 other things. They’re playing games. They’re online. They’re not interested in using their money and time to go to the cinema to see drama. If they want to see drama, they watch it on cable or online. The multiplicity of media has taken away from the theatrical experience, so blame technology too; it has changed people. It has rewired our brains. It’s taught us that it’s not worth our time to go out and see a conventional drama in a movie theater. This isn’t a passing fad either. It’s just the way it is now.
Through the years we’ve heard talk of a sequel to Taxi Driver. We know that’s not going to happen, but if it did, what would it look like?
De Niro tried to get me to do one about 15 years ago. But I think that character died about six months after the film. He was on a short leash. There is no sequel there. I told De Niro if there’s anyway he survived, he’s Ted Kaczynski up in a cabin in the woods, sending out letter bombs. That didn’t appeal to him much.
Is Taxi Driver your proudest accomplishment?
No, my best work is probably Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, but I’ve accepted the fact that Taxi Driver will be the first line in my obit even if it’s not the first line in my life.
*After we posted this interview, Schrader shared an observation he made in an email he sent to Stephen Rodrick on February 1:
I now realize it wasn’t just Lindsay who caused the change in the tone of the article’s title. It’s part of a general NYT attempt to rebrand itself for the Twitter generation. Now news titles have become increasingly flip, snide and condescending. Today’s example comes from the Arts section: “Don’t Call the Cleaning Crew. That Yellow Spill is Art.” There’s clearly been an upper echelon decision made to compete with the Buzzfeed world when it comes to soft news headlines.