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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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution