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.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.