Paul Schrader: ‘I’ve made some important films. Dog Eat Dog is not one of them’

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The writer of Taxi Driver and director of American Gigolo reflects on a career and life of highs and lows

It doesnt really matter what I do, says the film director Paul Schrader, the first line of my obituary will be the writer of Taxi Driver.

I meet the onetime enfant terrible of Hollywood in a hotel in Leicester Square during the London film festival. He has a cold that makes his already gravelly voice sound like a cement mixer. Stocky with a lived-in face, he is now 70 years old.

Hes got a point about how hell be remembered. Schrader has directed 20 films, among them Blue Collar, American Gigolo, The Comfort of Strangers and Affliction, but his reputation as a film-maker remains overshadowed by his work as a screenwriter for Martin Scorsese as the creator of legendary lines for Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

Those films were so powerful and vivid, so charged with tormented personal struggle, that they seemed to define a whole era of not just film-making but social alienation and cultural revolt. But perhaps more important, they represented a time when popular cinema was taken seriously as an art form.

Theres probably more talented people making films today than there were back then, says Schrader. The biggest and only difference and people dont understand this was the audiences were better. The audiences were going through social uncertainty and they wanted artists to help them out. And the moment that a society turns to artists for answers, great art emerges.

Schraders latest film, Dog Eat Dog, a sort of low-rent crime caper starring Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe, does not fall easily into the category of great art. A post-Tarantino rush of dysfunctional Americana, full of lurid violence and dubious humour, it stands awkward comparison with some of Schraders more memorable films.

Watch the trailer for Dog Eat Dog.

Whereas, for example, Blue Collar, his directorial debut in 1978, was a gritty tale of three Detroit auto-workers falling out against the backdrop of a corrupt union, Dog Eat Dog features three criminals who come to a sticky end in a bleak Cleveland setting. If you wanted to, you could perhaps construct a theory that the two films, placed together, trace Americas postindustrial urban decline. But it would be a stretch.

Thankfully Schrader cuts through such pretence straight away. Ive been fortunate over my career to be involved in some important and prestigious films. Dog Eat Dog is not one of them. He explains that he made the film, which is a based on a pulp novel by Edward Bunker, as a redemption project to put right the unhappy experience of an earlier film he made with Cage. Dying of the Light, made in 2014, was taken away from Schrader and recut by the films financial backers. It was disowned by director and star and disappeared without trace, except for the bad feeling it left Schrader with.

He read the script of Dog Eat Dog, which opens with an almost comically grotesque domestic murder of a mother and her teenager daughter, and he thought, Oh maybe Nick would like this. I just wanted to do something with Nick to show that we could make a film that people would see.

Cage liked the script but didnt want the part of Mad Dog that Schrader was offering, explaining that hed just done a crazy guy in his previous film though it could be said that this had never stopped him before. Instead he took the part of Troy, the straight guy, a relative concept in a film in which pretty much everyone kills everyone else.

So then, Schrader explains: I was able to go to Willem and say, Ive got the best role for you. This too was an act of redemption because the last time hed cast Dafoe it was in a walk-on part, which the actor agreed to but told Schrader to come to him next time with a proper role. Dafoe liked the part.

Then it was just a matter of massaging the egos financially, says Schrader. However, that was more complex than it might sound: Schrader only had a small budget, which wouldnt cover both actors. The good thing about working with Nick is that he gets your film financed, he growls. The bad thing is that he eats your budget alive. His solution was to ask Cage to give Dafoe $100,000 out of his own payment.

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Paul Schrader and Nicolas Cage on set for Dog Eat Dog. It was a redemption project, says Schrader. Photograph: Allstar/Signature Entertainment

Willems ego was hurt by the distance between them and the only thing that would fix that was if the money actually came from Cage himself. And I was able to say, Nicks going to give you a hundred grand more out of his salary. Then he says: OK, that will do it.

This kind of frankness is not typical in film-making, where behind-the-scenes negotiations tend to be guarded like nuclear codes, but Schrader has a reputation for candour. A couple of years ago he made The Canyons, a film set in the louche backwaters of LA, where sex is a communal activity. It was written by Bret Easton Ellis, financed by crowdfunding, and it starred the porn actor James Deen and the troubled actor Lindsay Lohan.

It was a bizarre but fascinating confection. Lohan, he has said, was exhausting. As he commented at the time: When you are working with someone who lives in a world of crisis and unpredictability, youre never really relaxed.

The film made money and we made money, he says now, but Id never do it again. Its much more work than normal financing.

Intriguingly for someone who has repeatedly returned to themes of moral and sexual transgression, Schrader grew up in a highly religious environment as a child of strict Calvinists. He did not see his first film The Absent-Minded Professor until he was 17. He was so anxious about sinning that he walked out of the cinema, before returning to watch the movie. It left a big impression upon him.

Thereafter he started trying to make up for lost time by watching as many films as he could. During summer school at Columbia University in 1966, he met Pauline Kael, the pioneering film critic. He later recalled the encounter: The first time I met her, referring to some movie, a comedy, she said: The laughs are as sparse as pubic hair on an old ladys cunt. I was shocked. I didnt know women talked like that.

Despite his alarm, he became one of her acolytes at a time when she wielded enormous influence in the film world. Thats another thing thats changed the high priest role of the critic. One of the problems we have now because of social media and the internet is that everybody is a critic, everybody is a film reviewer, says Schrader. And the other half of it is that none of them can make any money.

Back then, Kaels opinion didnt just close films, it also opened doors. Kael got him a job as a film critic at LA Free Press he later lost it after giving Easy Rider a bad review and recommended him for a place at UCLA film school. I wouldnt be a film-maker if it wasnt for Pauline, he says.

Having been both critic and film-maker, Schrader says now: The critic at heart is like a medical examiner. He or she simply wants to get that cadaver on the table and figure out how it lived. A film-maker is like a pregnant woman. All the film-maker wants is to give birth to a living thing. So if you allow the medical examiner into the birthing room he will kill that baby.

Robert
Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976). Photograph: Ronald Grant Film Archive

In those early days in LA he was the ultimate film nerd, making notes on everything he saw. I look back on the late 60s, he says, and I missed a lot of sex and a lot of drugs and a lot of good times because all I cared about was going to the movies and catching up.

But as I remind him, he later caught up with the sex and drugs with the same dedication he put into discovering cinema. First, though, he was intent on penetrating Hollywood.

He befriended a group of other aspiring film-makers, including Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. They were further ahead than him in their careers but what he lacked in experience he tried to make up for in networking.

In Peter Biskinds 1998 book about the New Hollywood of the late 60s and 70s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Schrader is portrayed as someone whod sell his grandmother to get into the right party. As his girlfriend at the time, a part-time publicist called Beverly Walker, complained to Biskind: What kind of relationship can you have with someone when you fuck them, and then you turn over, and theyre asking you to give a script to Clint Eastwood?

But Schrader and his other film-maker friends sensed that Hollywood was ready to be taken over they just needed a few contacts on the inside. There was a big change in Hollywood because of two films, recalls Schrader. One was Paint Your Wagon and the other was Hello Dolly. They were both mega-budget films in the old way and they tanked and sent their companies to the edge of bankruptcy. There was a real panic about what the young people wanted. And there was a period when the financiers were actually asking the artists what the young people wanted to see.

He says that era, which produced masterpieces such as Taxi Driver, The Godfatherand Chinatown, came to an end when Barry Diller went to Paramount and made market research the midwife of formulaic blockbusters. But before that happened, Schrader lived through a spate of successes that was matched only by his drive towards self-destruction.

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Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Photograph: Alamy

Still deeply affected by his fundamentalist upbringing, he struggled with the moral free-for-all that money and attention brought. These were his years of catching up on sex and drugs. But he felt no more at ease with excess than he did with constraint. As he once put it: I always felt there was something between me and that world. It was like looking through a pane of glass and I couldnt quite touch it, even though I was in it. And that dislocation first showed up in Taxi Driver, where there literally was a pane of glass between the character and the world. Ive always circled around that same feeling.

If his own moral alienation as an excluded young man in laissez-faire LA led him to create the confused and puritanical Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, life as a Hollywood director wasnt any easier. His 1978 debut Blue Collar had three actors Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto each of whom believed he was the star. Pryor was using a lot of cocaine and he and Keitel were constantly at each others throats.

About three weeks in, Schrader told Biskind, all of a sudden I started crying, and I just couldnt stop. Richard looked at me and said: You pussy are you gonna be a man or not? Pretty soon Schrader was seeing two psychiatrists, was himself a major cocaine abuser, and kept a loaded gun on his desk. His brother, Leonard, with whom he wrote Blue Collar, was also in a crazed state, and the pair of them fell out in such a damaging way that they never really repaired the relationship before Leonard died 10 years ago.

Things came to a head for Schrader in Hollywood with Cat People (1982), the erotic horror film he directed starring Nastassja Kinski. Schrader was consuming a gram of cocaine a day. Everyone on the set was doing drugs aside from Kinski. Again as Schrader told Biskind: One day, I had been doing some coke in my trailer, I didnt want to come out. My AD [assistant director] came in to get me. He started doing drugs. The second AD came in to try and get us both out. Then the three of us were there doing coke Somebody said, How are we gonna get anybody to direct this movie?

Schrader also had an on-set affair with Kinski, which she broke off towards the end of the film, leaving Schrader embittered and obsessed. According to the writer-director John Milius, Schrader pursued Kinski to Paris, where he found her with a young stud. Milius told Biskind that Kinski explained: Paul, I always fuck my directors. And with you it was difficult.

It should be said that, while he stands by what he told Biskind himself, Schrader disputes many other stories in the book as gossip and hearsay. Of his decision to leave LA, Schrader tells me: There was an incident and my psychiatrist came over in the middle of the night. There was a gun involved. The next day I called up my office and said, Im going to New York. Sell it all. Sell the house, sell the furniture, sell it all. Because I knew that I wasnt going to last much longer in the way that I was living.

Nastassja
Nastassja Kinski in Cat People (1982). Photograph: Allstar/RKO

But relocating didnt entirely solve the problem. So I got to New York and lo and behold I made new drug friends. I thought all my drug friends were in Los Angeles. But they had drug friends there too! And so thats when I went to Japan. Japan at that time was a drug-free country. But it took a while. Took about eight or nine years [to get off drugs]. The year he moved to New York he married William Hurts ex-wife, the actress Mary Beth Hurt (theyre still together), and they had two children. Hes said that the children put an end to his suicidal fantasies.

The idea, popularised in Biskinds book, that Schrader was a busted flush by the mid-1980s is not fair. His experiences as a cokehead he put to good use in 1992s Light Sleeper, which he wrote and directed. Starring Dafoe, it was a stylish and affecting voyage into New Yorks drug underworld.

But perhaps his finest hour was the 1997 drama Affliction, which he again wrote and directed. It featured a tormented father and son relationship and starred Nick Nolte and James Coburn, the latter winning an Oscar for his role. Like most of Schraders best work, there was a personal element to the film, the flame of autobiography that illuminated the rest of the story.

Schraders relationship with his own father turned on strict discipline, often in the shape of corporal punishment; his brother in particular would receive regular whippings. Schraders parents are long dead but he wishes they were alive so that he could apologise to them. What for, I ask? The anger it took to break away, and the hurt it gave them. But it was a life or death situation for me. Maybe it wasnt. Maybe I was too cruel. Ive started going back to church. I find its a comfort. Im not a big believer but I like the idea of a Sunday morning ritual.

There has long been a spiritual element in Schraders films, albeit sometimes quite contorted. His first love in film was what he calls the intellectual European cinema of the 60s Antonioni, Bergman, Godard, Truffaut et al. And, he says, you never forget your first love. The next film he plans to make with Ethan Hawke is overtly spiritual. Its a kind of reworking of [Ingmar Bergmans] Winter Light, a little bit of [Robert Bressons Diary of a] Country Priest. And a little bit of Tarkovsky. Black and white.

It doesnt sound much like Dog Eat Dog, although that too features a redemptive ending, in which Cage plays Humphrey Bogart in a noirish heaven you sort of have to see it. How did that scenario come about? He says Cage had been flirting in various takes with Bogart impressions that Schrader himself didnt much care for. But Im not going to pick a fight over it. I can always cut it out.

Needless to say, Cage went full Bogart. Given Schraders experience with Lohan and Pryor, we can take it that the director has learned a thing or two about how to deal with mercurial talent. The days of shedding tears over actors are now a distant memory.

With two or three projects in the pipeline, he still loves the whole mad business of film-making, telling me that directors dont retire, the phone just stops ringing. But Schraders phone is still running up a healthy bill, and long may it remain so.

Dog Eat Dog is in cinemas and on demand now

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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