Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Bret Easton Ellis

In 1985, Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero, was published, introducing the 21-year-old author as a cataloguer of the zeitgeist, tapping into the current cultural climate with insight beyond his years.

These instincts have only sharpened throughout Ellis’ career, as evidenced by his latest, White, which stands as another canonical piece that expertly captures the moods, feelings, and thoughts many of us have, but feel terrified to make public on social media. Ellis’ long-anticipated, first-ever non-fiction work, White may take some of his casual fans by surprise, but those who anxiously await each of the writer’s podcast episodes will no doubt already be familiar with this stage in his career. From his ability to maintain perspective on any given moment to his refusal to bow to sensationalism or search for easy answers, Ellis has patented his unmitigated honesty as a brand unto itself.

In his youth, Ellis took unsupervised trips to the local multiplex for hard-R double features, and later began to devour the criticism of Pauline Kael, sparking what would morph into a long history of engaging with, and working in, the movies. To date, the native Angeleno has co-written the 2008 ensemble feature The Informers; teamed up with Paul Schrader in 2013 to make the self-financed, Lindsay Lohan-starring The Canyons. He cut his teeth as a director on his 2016 web series, The Deleted, bringing his piercing understanding of the inner-workings of Hollywood to the moviemaking sphere.

In this era full of “treading lightly,” political correctness, and constant appeasement, Ellis emphasizes that no great art has ever been produced while heeding such advice as “Be careful.” Here, he offers MovieMaker his commentary on how screenwriting differs from other forms of writing, tackling taboo subjects, and the vital yet volatile relationships that build a film career.

— As told to Caleb Hammond

1. The notion of someone coming out to L.A. to break into the movie business is antiquated. If somebody from the Midwest moves to L.A. to break into Hollywood, stop him. It’s a terrible idea. No one should be doing that, because it’s no longer the central location. It’s not like those days where someone would get a telegram from Hollywood saying, “Come on out here, there’s a million dollars to be made in screenwriting!” That era has disappeared within the last 20 years. People understand that that’s not necessarily what one needs to do to make a movie. Today, you can do anything you want, wherever you are. You can make a movie on your phone, upload that movie, and spread it through social media. DIY: That’s how I would encourage people to do it.

2. Some of the “essential films” have been so absorbed into the language of film that seeing them now may be kind of pointless. The techniques that Leni Riefenstahl used in Triumph of the Will or Olympia were very new and quite startling for their time. No one had seen a movie that technically proficient, in terms of their fade-in and tracking shots, composition, and use of slow motion. But now these things are all accepted by every moviemaker. I don’t know if you can even find Triumph of the Will, let alone ask someone to watch it in this touchy era.

3. You only really need one or two things to influence you, and then you’re on your way. For me, it was one or two writers. That’s it. You don’t need more than that.

4. Tell your story as honestly as possible and don’t hide anything. Certain projects of mine and other people’s I know were once moving forward and are suddenly not because they don’t fit into this moment of #MeToo, diversity, or whatever. That’s what’s in the air, but you just have to approach your story in the way that you want and see what happens. There are no rules for the kind of project that could be construed as controversial—no way of hiding it, or trying to make it into a metaphor, or making it more palatable, or shaping it one way so that one part of the audience understands and accepts it. You just have to write what you want to write, period. Otherwise you’re self-censoring, and that is a terrible thing for an artist to do. But it’s something that a lot of artists are doing now, in this climate.

5. Screenwriting is a collaborative medium. Once you understand that, accept it. That is difficult for some people. It was difficult for me to move into that, and still is, to a degree, because I was so used to controlling my own material—my novels. I had been with my scripts for a long time and had been hired and paid to write them, so it was quite a shock the first couple of times out, when suddenly the director would do a director’s pass on the script. When someone first starts out in screenwriting, they fall into the trap that F. Scott Fitzgerald fell into when he came to L.A. in the ’30s. He assumed that he was going to create a script that was so good, so well-written, and so well thought out— almost like one of his novels—that everyone would want to direct it. And that is just not true. That’s just not really how it works. So he learned the hard way that the medium is collaborative (unless you are going to produce, direct, write it, and act in it yourself). Someone like William Faulkner completely understood that. He understood that he would be writing with people, that the story might change midway through the script, that another actor would be hired. He accommodated himself to the collaborative process. He could get a script done in four days, take the money, and go back to Mississippi.

6. Your script is going to change—and sometimes for the worse. That definitely happened to my best script, The Informers, which I co-wrote with Nicholas Jarecki and which proceeded to get decimated by the people with the money. That was very painful. The only time I had a good director direct a screenplay of mine is Paul Schrader with The Canyons. Paul said, “I am going to direct what you write. I’m not going to rewrite it—I’m just going to direct it.” I know people run hot and cold on the movie and assume that we are all unhappy with it, but Paul and I love and are very happy with it.

All Fund, No Trust: In The Canyons, Ellis’ hellish vision of L.A., trust-fund baby Christian (James Deen, R) hovers suspiciously over girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan, L). Image courtesy of Mongrel Media

7. “The screenplay” means so many different things to so many moviemakers. Is it really a work of art? Is it something to sell? Is it a blueprint for a movie that’s going to be found in the editing room? It’s uncertain how precious “the screenplay” ultimately is, so you have to figure that out for yourself.

8. The first script is the most exciting thing a screenwriter produces. As you get older, you start looking at things through more cynical, jaundiced eyes. You’re not going to look at things ever again, or have the same kind of energy, as you did in your twenties.

9. Great writing is about style—not life experience. You can have a great story and write it in a pedestrian way and no one will care about it. You can have a story about a nobody and write it in a way that draws people into its world. A script is not sold by its story, it’s sold by how the story is told.

10. Actors want to be directed. Most of the time they’re terrified of improv. They really want to be told what to say and what to do.

11. The number one rule, whether you’re on the set of a web series, a commercial, or movie: Your actors have got to be made comfortable. Your actors are the most important thing about what you’re directing. While everyone else is doing their job, it’s the actors who are left wandering around the set. They have to do this magical act of interpreting, which no one else on the set needs to do. They are fragile puppies. They’re nervous and they want to please, so be as nice to them as possible.

(Left to right) Bret Easton Ellis, James Deen, Paul Schrader, and Tenille Houston at the 70th Venice Film Festival in support of The Canyons. Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

12. Be nice to the crew. I’ve seen how people with money, producers, or the director can get so lost in their world that they tend to ignore everyone else. That makes for a cold set.

13. Trust that your cinematographer will answer half of the questions for you. Your relationship with your DP is vital, but they’re technicians, so they pretty much get it. You might say, “I want this in as the master,” or, “I want the camera to float over here,” and they will tell you about lighting issues and problems, and then they’ll solve it. I’ve found that with every DP, you’re almost speaking the same language, so you don’t have to say much of anything.

14. You can tell automatically when somebody comes into the room if they’re absolutely wrong for a part. The casting process isn’t about merit. Sometimes, someone can come into the room, and I will lean over and audibly say, “We’ve gotta get him, he’s perfect for it.” A guy once came in to read for a part in my web series The Deleted, and he immediately started crying and did this remarkable read of the sides for a minute. I watched him thinking, “Oh my God, his technique is amazing. And he is so wrong for this role, I cannot believe it.” I asked him to do it again, but maybe take it down a bit. He did it perfectly. The tears rolled down, and he was yearning to make this series. I said, “You are great. You’re gonna have a career. You’re just not right for this role. It needs to be taken down 100 percent and played in a zombie-like fashion. I understand how you interpreted that from the sides, but you took it all the way to 100, where it should be closer down to 15 or 10.” I cannot imagine being an actor. The whole business must be considered a forest of unfairness, because it’s just so random how people get cast.

15. The key to juggling work with a social life is youth. When I was younger, I went out to dinner at 9:30. Now, I want to be home after dinner by 9:30.

Though his screenplay based on his novel The Rules of Attraction wasn’t used by writer-driver Roger Avary, the 2002 film is still Ellis’ favorite adaptation of his work. Image courtesy of Lionsgate

16. No one keeps track of a writer. You have to keep track of yourself. Some might look at that as self-discipline, but I always saw it as just a way of living. It didn’t seem that weird to have to make my bed and finish reading the paper. That’s part of my ritual, before I can move on. Your ritual is a form of self-policing, in a way, but more than that, you have it because your desire to do it overrides everything else. You want to do the ritual because it’s fun.

17. You don’t need film criticism to make a movie. There’s little film criticism out there that’s good, or that you will learn anything from. It may shape your aesthetics to a degree. There are directors, like Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader, who started out as film critics. There was a moment when film criticism and theory were exciting—especially among moviemakers of the French New Wave, who were all film critics. Pauline Kael influenced a generation of moviemakers, from Wes Anderson to Quentin Tarantino and beyond. That’s true of Gen X, but I don’t know if that’s true for Millennials, or if they even care who Pauline Kael was. Wanting to make a movie is instinctual: You’ve seen movies that excite you and the medium excites you, and that’s why you want to do it. Maybe reading a book on Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Éric Rohmer is going to inspire you to make a movie, but I don’t think that’s where the spark comes from in this day and age.

18. Editing is everything. That’s when you really put the movie together—not in the screenwriting and not in the directing of it. It’s frustrating when people don’t get on the same page with you about editing, because although it is a joy, it involves so many personal choices. Whenever I’ve gotten into arguments with producers about why they would want to use a close-up instead of a master in a sequence, it becomes incredibly personal and the producer eventually wins out. Technically, your editor probably knows more than you, but what they’re working on is not their movie, so you have to be there to work with them to achieve your vision. But remember: They’re always there to help you. They’re there to make your movie better—never to make it worse.

19. Directing isn’t fun. Producers, moneymen, and the studio will be breathing down your neck. They’ll try to shelter you from hearing how “We can’t afford that van,” or, “We lost that house,” because they want you to get the fucking job done and not be distracted. It’s their job to find another house and get another van so you can just direct the scenes and get the film in the can. When I direct, I sense that all the time. It’s stressful… but I also don’t want anyone else to do it.

20. Get enough sleep. And focus. That’s just what you have to do. MM

Bret Easton Ellis’ first non-fiction book, White, was published by Knopf on April 16, 2019. Featured photograph by Casey Nelson. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue.

5 Comments

  1. Jeff

    April 25, 2019 at 11:03 pm

    A helpful blend of insight and common sense based on his experience. I’ll bet actors like being in his films (partly for the well-written roles, partly for how well he gets what they are going through and what they need). Likely his crew does, too, from the HoDs to the basic crew members. I somewhat differ on his take re style/execution as more important than story. I think it’s a combination of the two; a balance is needed. All in all: some good tips and savvy observations for writers and directors.

  2. Prudence

    April 19, 2019 at 1:36 pm

    Puerile from first word to last. The whole article has about it an aura of whining philistinism.

    • Phil

      April 28, 2019 at 1:21 am

      “whing philistinism”… really? You sound more like a whinging millennial!

      • Prudence

        May 1, 2019 at 6:48 pm

        Put on your reading glasses. Thank you. Ageism is a landmine of cliches.

    • Montana

      May 4, 2019 at 1:45 pm

      Did we read the same article? I thought it was pretty insightful and grounded in common sense.

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