A 2-Act Film: Paul Schrader on Dog Eat Dog
Paul Schrader discusses his new film Dog Eat Dog, shooting on a budget, making a 2-act film, and the state of the film industry.
Taxi Driver. Raging Bull. The Last Temptation of Christ. Affliction. With such heavyweight titles under his belt, screenwriter and director Paul Schrader has just let loose with his latest project, Dog Eat Dog.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Schrader himself in his first onscreen role, this film gave the accomplished moviemaker a long-awaited “freedom not to be boring”.
Shot on a small budget, it also marks the first solo credit for various department heads that Schrader handpicked, such as cinematography, wardrobe and composer. He simply gave them the instructions:
We don’t have the money to make this film in a studio fashion. That’s the bad news. The good news is we can make any damn film we want. Surprise me.”
Taken from the Dog Eat Dog Director’s Statement.
Based on the novel of the same name by Edward Bunker, the screenplay was written by Matthew Wilder (Your Name Here). Schrader was shown the script, then made edits to fit his budget, and set about directing the crime drama.
Creative Screenwriting had the opportunity to chat with Schrader at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he discussed shooting on a budget, making a two act film and the state of the film industry.
As a screenwriter, what stood out about this script and made you want to make it your next film?
The opening scene!
I read the script and as soon as I read that long opening, I thought “I want to do this. Whatever happens after this, I can rewrite. But this is great.”
It was also the structure of the film, which is really kind of a jazz riff. You don’t quite know where it’s going.
There’s a prologue and then there’s the first crime, set up by The Greek. Then there is an intermission, with the girls at the casino. Then there’s a second crime set up by The Greek…and then there’s an epilogue. That’s it.
It’s like a free-form piece of music, you know? You just don’t know where it’s going, and I like that.
That became the mantra in directing, which was “Get out ahead of the audience and don’t ever let them catch up”. Don’t ever let them see where you’re going. If they think you’re going to go right, go left. I defy anybody who hasn’t read about the film to know where it’s going.
Were you already familiar with Edward Bunker’s story?
No. I rewrote the script primarily for financial reasons. I like Wilder’s writing a lot, but we didn’t have the money to do the script at the length he had written it. So I had to take out 15 pages.
And at that point, it was easier for me to take out 15 pages than to ask him to do it.
When you shoot on a tight budget, you can’t afford to shoot anything that you’re not going to put in the movie. So you really have to edit the movie at the script stage. And there is nothing on the floor. There is no scene that was shot that didn’t get in. It’s right there – 90 minutes. That’s really how you make a film on a budget.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.
The biggest change that I had to make had to do with the ending.
In the book, Mad Dog dies at the end of the second act. And then there’s a whole third act with Troy. And I just thought “when Mad Dog dies, the life goes out of this story…we have to wrap it up as soon as possible after his death”.
Plus we didn’t have time to restart the whole story again for a whole new third act…so I thought we’d make it a two-acter. The book was three acts but the script was two acts.
How did you find the experience of being in front of the camera on this project?
I was so sick that day, with laryngitis and a fever. I was just trying to get through the day and didn’t want to do it. I kept trying to get other people to do it!
But we didn’t have the money to fly anybody in – Marty Scorcese was going to do it, but we didn’t have the money. I interviewed some local actors but they weren’t very interesting. So I finally said “well, maybe I’ll be bad, but at least I’ll be interesting”.
And I got all of $900 for three scenes.
You have said of this film that you loved the fact that you had “the freedom not to be boring”. Tell me about the production of Dog Eat Dog and what the most freeing part of this experience was.
This began because Nic Cage and I had suffered an injury, creatively, with a film that we made that was taken away from me (2014’s Dying of the Light). I said to him “If we live long enough, we’ve got to work together again and get this stain off our clothes”.
So I went back to him when producer Mark Burman gave me this, and said “OK…here’s this script…final cut”. I thought he’d like to do Mad Dog but he read it and said “I’d rather be Troy”.
But we knew from the first moment that this was going to be an act of freedom and of anarchy. And that we had earned this moment and were beholden to no one.
You’ve obviously seen this industry change in so many ways…
It’s changing as we speak and will be different by the time you leave!
But you’ve always managed to capitalize on what the trends are, using them to your advantage – such as Kickstarter and so on. What kind of an industry do you see it as now for aspiring screenwriters?
Well, the audio-visual world has exploded. So there’s much more product – there’s a tsunami of product out there.
It’s much easier to get a film made. But it’s much, much harder to monetize it.
Technology has now put film in the same category as novels or paintings or music, which means that you can lose money. Previously, if you made a film, you made some money, you got paid. Now you can make a film and not get paid!
Francis Coppola said that anybody who wants to be a filmmaker should have a day job. Film is not a very lucrative profession. You can lose money at it. Just like somebody who is an accountant but plays in a band on weekends.
On the one hand, it’s so much easier to be a writer. But on the other hand, it’s much, much harder to make a living at it.
What advice would you give to our readers?
I teach screenwriting from time to time, and I’ve used screenwriting as part of the oral tradition, not part of the writing tradition. So it’s not really screenwriting, it’s “screentelling”. You have to tell your stories. You have to get somebody interested. That’s where it begins.
Dog Eat Dog will be in theaters in LA and NY on November 4th, with a theatrical expansion, VOD and Digital HD on November 11th.
Featured image: Nicolas Cage as Troy in Dog Eat Dog. Photo courtesy of RLJ Entertainment.