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.
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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.
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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.
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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.