Gilbey on Film: Adapting Bret Easton Ellis for the screen

Director Paul Schrader has started shooting "The Canyons" with an original screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis.

 

It’s heartening to hear that the director Paul Schrader has now started shooting The Canyons (tagline: “It’s not The Hills”) from an original screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, thanks in part to financing provided by the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. Schrader, Ellis and the film’s producer, Braxton Pope, had already put up a $100,000 budget but they went on to generate a further $60,000 by making this appeal through Kickstarter. The cast includes the underrated Lindsay Lohan and the porn actor James Deen, whose CV, regrettably unfamiliar to me, includes such promising titles as Hot For Teacher, Bobbi Violates San Francisco and Fuckenstein
 
The consensus is that Bret Easton Ellis’s writing has not lent itself to a cinematic rendering. Ellis has been publicly critical of the adaptations of his first and third novels, Less Than Zero and American Psycho respectively, though it’s always worth keeping up with him on Twitter, where you can not only catch him making announcements about how The Canyons is shaping up (“gorgeous composition…Influence: Godard’s Contempt”) and lobbying to adapt Fifty Shades of Grey—you might also happen upon the odd, uncharacteristic note of contrition about his earlier broadsides. Only the other day, he tweeted: “Just caught some of Mary Harron’s American Psycho and was surprised how good it is. I’d been lightly dissing it but I’m wrong. Polanski...” [sic] (And the [sic] was not just for that dangling mention of Polanksi but for the phrase “I’m wrong”, not something you hear often from Ellis).
 
He was complimentary, though, about the 2002 film of his second novel, The Rules of Attraction, written and directed by Roger Avary. “Bret sneaked into an early screening,” Avary told me in 2003. “I was mortified. He’s not known to monitor what he says, and I had heard he didn’t like the other films based on his books. But he told me it was not only the best adaptation of his work, it was one of his favourite movies.”
 
Indeed, it brings a new and compassionate dimension to Ellis’s “difficult” second novel—“difficult” in this context meaning “like wading through a cesspool.” It wasn’t the drug-addled, vomit-soaked sex that rendered unpalatable Ellis’s induction into life on a fictional New England campus so much as the misanthropy: all human life was DOA. Avary translated Ellis’s despair into sensitivity, and included humour that wasn’t exclusively of the gallows variety. Everyone in the movie was still going to hell, but you sensed that Avary considered this a bad thing. 
 
The director has had his own experience of the cesspool, having served eight months in prison for DUI and manslaughter. Now he is back at work, and his screenplays for two more Ellis adaptations are being championed—by Ellis. Avary’s film of Glamorama has been on the cards since long before his jail term; in 2005, he even made an as-yet-unseen “interim” movie, intended to act as a bridge between Rules and Glamorama. This expanded upon the virtuoso section midway through Rules when Avary absconded from the narrative for five minutes to follow a minor character named Victor on a hedonistic jaunt around Europe. The director and his actor, ex-model Kip Pardue, did it for real, partying hard over two weeks with Pardue in character as Avary trailed him with a DV camera from breakfast to bed. “Kip would bring girls back to the hotel room, they’d be making out. And beyond. I have no interest in making pornography. When I felt I’d got enough of what I needed, I’d go back to my room. There was no need to stick around until the final cigarette.”
 
Avary edited the 70 hours of Victor footage into an accompanying 2005 film called Glitterati, which has not yet been seen. But as well as Glamorama, Ellis is championing Avary’s script for his most accomplished novel, Lunar Park. They’re a good team: they understand each other. Avary coaxes out the easily-overlooked humanity in Ellis. And Ellis responds by doing the most helpful thing possible: not griping.
 
"The Canyons" will be released next year.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Roger Avary's "The Rules of Attraction"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories