On a blazing summer morning, James Deen, looking like the frat boy next door, hunched over a table inside a Woodland Hills café lobbing harsh words at the film business, just days before his dramatic-feature debut in one of the summer's most talked-about movies.
"It's the most unprofessional, God-awful business anywhere: Hollywood," said Deen, star with Lindsay Lohan of the micro-budget indie thriller "The Canyons." "Porn is much more respectable. No shady power plays. People are nicer."
Deen doesn't have to be diplomatic. Five-foot-eight, 150 pounds and looking younger than his 27 years, he is one of the San Fernando Valley's most in-demand heterosexual pornographic stars.
If "The Canyons," now in limited release and Video on Demand (it opens Aug. 9 in Los Angeles), doesn't spark a post-porn career for him, Deen won't look back with regret.
"The mainstream," he said, "is the most disgusting place I've ever seen in my life."
Of course, the closest Deen's come to mainstream filmmaking was living through one of Hollywood's most notorious film shoots.
In the 20 months between idea and inception, screed to screen, "The Canyons" has been characterized by its unusual absolutes: Lohan's last movie before her 90-day sentence in "lockdown rehab," the Kickstarter-funded production written by "American Psycho" novelist Bret Easton Ellis, the hot mess of a shoot for which director Paul Schrader stripped naked on set to coax Lohan through her first ever nude scene with Deen.
"The Canyons" has lodged its way into public awareness through sustained publicity both titillating and terrible. Tales of production chaos — screaming matches between Deen and Schrader; Lohan's dereliction of duty, firing and ultimate rehiring; a surprise disturbance created by Lady Gaga; and the mysterious $46,000 hotel bill LiLo racked up at Chateau Marmont — have become legion.
Before the film was rejected earlier this year by the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, a fest insider jaundiced public perceptions by commenting, "There's an ugliness and a deadness" to "The Canyons." And yet, amid plenty of negative sandbagging lately, there has been a spate of glowing reviews.
"A movie can be highly imperfect, or implausible in all sorts of ways — and still be everything you go to the movies for," wrote Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek. "'The Canyons,' Paul Schrader's contemplation of moral decay in Hollywood, is that kind of picture, in some places so crazy-silly you want to laugh and in others, so piercing you can't turn away."
For Ellis, his producing partner Braxton Pope and Schrader — the high-low director behind "American Gigolo" and "Affliction," whose filmography includes scripts for "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" — "The Canyons" was intended as a passion project.
"Cinema for a post-theatrical era," as Schrader termed it, "The Canyons" is a kind of experiment by a band of outsiders with their faces pressed to the glass of mainstream moviedom. Shot on a shoestring $250,000 budget, the project could assert the viability of making, marketing and distributing film on the digital cheap.
With IFC Films doing domestic distribution (and an international roll-out via Voltage Pictures), the filmmakers claim to have already turned a profit before seeing Dollar 1 in theatrical revenue. Pope and Schrader also feel a certain validation with the picture's acceptance by the Venice Film Festival, where it will make its international premiere next month.
Viewed another way, "The Canyons" represents a triumph of no such thing as bad publicity. Its pre-release awareness is wholly out of proportion with the film's scope, star power or marketing push.
For his part, Deen sees the unique calculus of "The Canyons" in lowest common denominator.
"Lindsay Lohan gets naked, you see her boobs. OK, great. That's awesome. We want to see her boobs," Deen said with caffeinated urgency. "Lindsay Lohan gets naked with a porn star. Like, 'What?!' All of a sudden, it's everywhere. How can people not get that movie? Whether or not it's well-received, it'll be a cult classic."
A psychosexual, neonoir potboiler steeped in Hollywood ennui, the action in "The Canyons" is plotted at the intersection of two rotating love triangles.
Christian (played by Deen) is a bored sociopath with a trust fund, a tight grin and a sprawling Malibu dream house. Setting out to produce a low-budget slasher film, he casts Ryan (newcomer Nolan Funk), his personal assistant's struggling actor-boyfriend. Little does Christian know that his live-in girlfriend Tara (Lohan), a failed ingenue with self-esteem issues and a tobacco-raspy voice, has quietly rekindled her romance with Ryan, her secret ex.
Never mind Christian's kinky penchant for pimping out Tara to strangers through iPhone app-arranged hookups; never mind his yoga-instructor mistress. When he discovers Ryan and Tara's duplicity, Christian leads the lovers down a worm hole of humiliation, manipulation, dread and murder.
Bright Young Things diminished by life in the fast lane may seem like a no-brainer for Ellis, whose 1985 novel "Less Than Zero" stands as a Rosetta Stone for Blank Generation social mores. His sexily malevolent books — "American Psyco," "The Informers" and "The Rules of Attraction," among them — have been adapted for movies stretching back to 1987. But bringing "The Canyons" to the screen was hardly Schrader's and Ellis' original aim.
In 2011, Ellis, Schrader and Pope teamed up for the shark thriller "Bait." When its pre-"Sharknado" financing fell apart, Schrader pitched Ellis on a new idea: something they could own. A micro-budget film with no studio interference. They'd harness burgeoning digital technologies for its funding, marketing and distribution.
"'You write it, I'll direct it, we'll pay for it ourselves,'" Schrader recalled emailing Ellis. "'What you do — good-looking people doing bad things in nice rooms — how expensive can that be?'"
Ellis drew screenplay ideas in part from his personal experiences with a smartphone app to arrange casual sexual hookups. "My boyfriend and I have used the Grindr app before and that became part of the movie," he said.
In early 2012, more than a year before online crowd-funding for a "Veronica Mars" movie and Zach Braff's "Garden State" sequel generated millions of dollars and grabbed headlines, Ellis and Schrader took to the Internet with a Kickstarter campaign promising such rewards as the money clip Robert De Niro gave Schrader on the set of Martin Scorsese's 1976 vigilante thriller "Taxi Driver." Raising $160,000, the "Canyons" triumvirate each kicked in $30,000 of their own money and moved into the casting process through LetItCast.com, an online audition submission site.
Pope alerted Ellis to Deen (né: Brian Matthew Sevilla), a Pasadena-born college dropout who in addition to having twice won Adult Video News' male performer of the year award and appearing in several thousand porn films, boasts an enthusiastic fan base of teenage girls. Infatuated with Deen, Ellis wrote the character of Christian with him in mind.
"He looked almost like a gay porn star, compared to heterosexual porn stars I remember in the '70s and '80s," Ellis said. "He almost looked like a Twink. Thin, boyish, nice-looking Jewish kid with a nice smile. Not like one of these mastodons from old-school porn."
The production initially dangled the smaller part of Christian's mistress to Lohan, who had become nearly unemployable after a long run of car accidents, rehab stints, jail stays and an on-set reputation for being unprofessional.
But at a Chateau Marmont meeting with Schrader and Pope, Lohan insisted on playing Tara, the tragic female lead, necessitating a difficult conversation with Hollywood's foremost Girl Interrupted. "We spent a lot of time asking, 'How reliable are you? How do we know you'll show up?'" remembered Pope.
"I thought, 'No, it's not going to work,'" Ellis said. "She has way too much baggage right now. I know people who know her," he recalled telling his "Canyons" partners. "She doesn't seem well to me."
Schrader, for his part, initially balked at casting Deen. Both performers, however, landed their roles on the strength of their auditions.
According to Deen, who receives billing as an associate producer on "The Canyons," Lohan initially demanded $1 million upfront. Instead, she wound up getting a Screen Actors Guild minimum $100 a day for the month-long shoot with a back-end deal to share profits on theatrical and VOD revenues. (Lohan completed her court-mandated stay at Malibu's Cliffside rehabilitation clinic Wednesday but subsequently chose to stay with a "sober coach" and could not be reached for this story.)
Before cameras rolled in July 2012, the director famously fired Lohan for skipping an important rehearsal and began maneuvering to bring in French actress Leslie Coutterand. After Lohan tearfully trailed him across Hollywood, begging for a second chance, Schrader relented.
She repaid that kindness by challenging Schrader's authority. At a table reading, the actress crossed her costars' names off her script and penciled in alternates.
"She's writing Jared Leto and Justin Timberlake. Brad Pitt," Deen recalled. "It's the type of thing where, like, yeah, if we had millions of dollars, we'd probably have Brad Pitt playing Christian and Jared Leto playing Ryan. But we'd also have someone else playing Tara. We'd probably have Angelina Jolie!"
"Lindsay does live in a world of created drama; she seems to live in a cone of crisis," Schrader observed. "A lot of it is unnecessary. You want to say to Lindsay, 'Why are we in this emotional upheaval?' More than once I said to her, 'It really must be hard to be you.'"
Case in point: the predicament that has come to define "The Canyons" in microcosm. At the Malibu dream house set, Lohan got a bad case of performance anxiety and refused to remove her robe for her first-ever nude scene, a four-way romp with Deen and two other pornography pros.
"So she comes up with this idea she had heard where Julia Roberts [supposedly] said if the crew is naked, she'll get naked," Schrader said. "It was one delay tactic after another. So we're standing in the walk-in closet and I take my clothes off and say, 'OK, Lindsay, is this what you want? Let's start shooting right now.' I don't think the crew even realized I didn't have my clothes on until we were shooting the scene."
In the end, Lohan dropped her top and climbed into bed, three cameras rolled and the foursome got down to business for one continuous 14-minute take, partially obscured by a revolving disco light.
"I knew it was going to be a psychodrama," Schrader said. "It was pins and needles 24/7."
"Whatever happens," Ellis said, "the mission was to make this movie. We all felt, 'Let's show people it can be done. There's a new way of making movies. The studio system is totally dead.'"
"We sowed the wind," Schrader said. "And when you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind."