Paul Schrader: Film undergoing ‘total systemic change’
The writer/director talks about The Canyons and the current ‘crisis of form’ in filmmaking.
“We are in a total systemic change in the definition of a motion picture of movie,” writer/director Paul Schrader declared in a public talk in Cartagena, Colombia.
“2013 is more or less like 1913, we’re making it up all again. Very little we’ve learned in the last 100 years of cinema is of very much use anymore.”
Schrader, giving a public masterclass at the 53rd Festival international De Cine De Cartegena De Indias (FICCI), compared the changes in the industry now to the changes in the industry when he started out in the 1960s.
“In the 1960s we were suffering from a crisis of content, there was a new generation that had become defined by various liberations….movies needed new heroes, new anti-heroes and new themes. From the mid and late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, a lot of interesting films came out of that.”
Crisis of form
“Today we’re in a greater crisis, it’s crisis not of content but of form. We don’t know what movies are anymore,” he continued.
“We don’t know how long movies are, how we watch them, we don’t know whether you participate in them or not. The projected image in a dark room is a very 20th century notion…we’re entering into the post-theatrical era.”
That represents opportunities and also challenges, he noted. “We’re trying like crazy to figure out how to monetize new media.”
He said that the “underpinings of the independent film world are starting to crumble” and the studios are even worse – “I don’t know how much longer the studios as we know them can exist”.
After having several projects fall apart after budgets were squeezed and squeezed, he turned to a new model himself to make his new film The Canyons.
“I had expected to end my career riding off on an old broken horse, but the change was happening so fast that it had overtaken me. If I wanted five more years of a career, I had to rethink everything.”
The project was shot digitally on a $250,000 budget outside of the traditional studio or independent financing system. The sexual thriller, starring Lindsay Lohan and adult film star James Deen, has a script by Bret Easton Ellis.
“I don’t know how replicable this model is. For us, it’s worked. It’s already profitable [the film sold last week to IFC] and we haven’t even sold international yet.”
The Old Lindsay
Of The Canyons and the now-famous article about the film’s production by The New York Times, he noted: “The Times was going to write about it as a new economic model. Lindsay came on board so they changed their approach, to have an article about ‘The New Lindsay’.
“Well, the new Lindsay never showed up so the Times had a front row seat to the Old Lindsay…My vanity would have liked it [the article] to be less catty but that’s the world we live in now.”
Her celebrity hasn’t hurt the attention on the film, he admitted: “We didn’t tell Lindsay to keep getting arrested, but in the end that didn’t hurt us.”
IFC plans a multi-platform release for The Canyons, which is something Schrader is excited about. He said the theatrical experience isn’t extinct (yet) but is under threat.
“Theatrical exhibition won’t be the primary exhibition,” he predicted.
He pointed to the growth of VOD in territories like South Korea, Denmark and the US. Specifically he pointed to Arbitrage, which earned $5m theatrically and $12m on VOD in the US.
“In every home there is now an arthouse movie theatre,” he said. “That is something. I’m bullish on all of this. I think we’re recreating what movies are.”
All the changes are being driven by technological advances and the way that people’s viewing habits are changing because of technology.
“People in their 20s no longer process information the way I did,” he said, before adding that his generation is changing too. “Movies I used to think were well-paced I now think are slow.”
New ‘free’ digital technologies mean that capitalism isn’t driving filmmaking in the same ways it has in the past, he noted. “We’re now entering an era where it’s possible to make movies nobody pays for because they are so cheap…that DIY aspect upsets a lot of things economically.”
That DIY movement is also changing content styles. “We spent 50 years in the US creating classic cinema and the last 25 years destroying it,” he said with a smile.
Free doesn’t mean easy, he warned. “One of the dangers is that with digital technology, some filmmakers think they don’t need story. They think if they let the cameras run enough, it will get smart. It won’t. Just because the film is free doesn’t mean you don’t need to be prepared.”
He gave the example of “new auteurs” making one or two minute pieces of content for YouTube, or of watching Whitney Houston’s funeral on his computer monitor, with the live feed in the middle, her music videos streaming on the right side of the screen, and a live global Twitter feed on the left. “All of this at the same time, that’s what movies are becoming.”
Schrader is also the subject of a retrospective in Cartagena, including his writing and directing works such as Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Raging Bull, Affliction, Blue Collar and Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters.