Transformation in Art: The Films of Paul Schrader
In this in-depth interview, Paul Schrader discusses his career, examines several of his most influential films, and reveals where Bruce Springsteen got the name of his album Born in the U.S.A.
By David Konow and Jim Mercurio.
Paul Schrader has written or directed some of the most seminal and controversial movies of the last forty years, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, American Gigolo, Cat People, and Bringing out the Dead. Schrader has been responsible for an edgy, uncompromising cinema which he started years before the term “independent cinema” arose. His directing has sometimes been criticized for being too intellectual and calculating to the detriment of emotion, but like the European art cinema he so admires (he was a former film critic), his style, at its best, challenges viewers, forcing them into an active role, fully experiencing his films.
Creative Screenwriting has been fortunate enough to speak with Paul Schrader on several occasions, and the following article is taken from those interviews.
Tell me about your path to becoming a filmmaker.
I was forbidden to see films as a child as an article of degree of the (Calvinist) church. Because I didn’t see films as a young man, I came to films as a college student. Essentially I came to the European cinema of the ’60s. I was really attracted not only by the films, but by their forbiddenness. In many ways it was a luxury that I could be both a rebel and an artist. I didn’t need to go out and vandalize buildings; all I had to do was see movies. In order to see many of the films I had been reading about, I took a course at Columbia University in the summer of ’66. There, through luck and coincidence, I ran into Pauline Kael through someone I had met, and the upshot of all that was that she became my mentor and got me into UCLA film grad school and on the road to becoming a film critic.
Before that I had been a pre-seminary student at my church college. Then I was in Los Angeles, writing film criticism, writing a book of film aesthetics, editing a magazine, and becoming one of the first fellows at AFI. Then I hit a point in my life where nonfiction wasn’t really addressing my concerns, or rather, my needs. I knew I had to make the switch from non-fiction to fiction; I had to tell these stories before these stories started telling me.
How was film school different then from now?
It wasn’t just film school. It was film school at a certain time and place. The social hits just kept on coming. You had civil rights, you had the women’s movement, gay liberation, the sex, the drug revolution. It was an enormously churning social environment all wrapped up in the rubric of the counterculture. And heated by the anti-war movement, which made everything seem real rather than theoretical. People’s lives were actually being changed by the reality of the draft and the conflict. It was a wonderful time to be alive. It’s like that famous Wordsworth poem: “Oh, to be alive in the morning.” It was a nice time to be alive in the morning.
So it wasn’t just film school. This film school generation isn’t being informed by the social issues anymore, because the culture isn’t being informed. The driving factors behind storytelling at this time are commercials and music videos. In my generation, it was film study. For the generation before me, it was live television. Before that it was theater. Before that it was newspapers. There’s always a background influence.
How did coming to films as an adult change your perspective? How does the way you look at or make movies differ from, say, Spielberg’s?
A filmmaker, like anybody, never forgets his first love. And my first film love was intellectual cinema: Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson, Godard, and Truffaut. In a way, the rest of my career circles around my first love and is informed by it. For many other directors my age, their first love was musicals, Westerns, and other forms of films aimed at kids. This doesn’t mean that they are lesser or more trivial filmmakers. It just means that they just have a different referential base. I don’t feel the need to make the movies I loved as a kid because I didn’t see any.
There seem to be recurring themes of redemption and martyrdom in your work. How does your religious background inform the stories you tell?
No matter how fast or far you run, you never outrun your childhood. I was raised with certain concepts, that life has meaning, actions have moral consequences, that you will be called into judgment for the value of your life. And that there is a difference between the right and wrong thing to do. That stuff never leaves you. You can be living in a monastery in Tibet, and you’ll still have that computer program in your brain. You can’t reprogram yourself; it will always be there. I try not to put it in an obvious manner, because I know it will be there anyway. In Bringing Out the Dead, I intentionally took out a lot of the religious references of the book we adapted, because I knew Marty and I had done this so much. It was time to lay off it, because it was going to find its way in anyway.
How did you make the jump from critic to screenwriter?
I was doing part-time reading for Columbia—picking up a little extra change at the time doing coverage. At that time, it was $5 for a script, $15 for a novel. So I had an idea what a script was. I had written a sort of practice script that went nowhere, so I had given it some thought. I had an argument with Pauline Kael at her home at Christmas time. She had wanted me to take a reviewing job on a paper in Seattle. When I asked her for some time to think about it, she said no, and then I made the decision that I had to start thinking about being a screenwriter. Then a number of things happened in my personal life, and it collapsed. My marriage broke up. I had a contretemps with the people who were running AFI, and I had to leave. I was broke. I didn’t have any place to live. In this period I started drifting and wandering about in my car. It was out of this, that the metaphor for Taxi Driver was born. I wrote it all very quickly. I wrote it essentially as therapy.
I had to move into fiction to express these fantasies I had, for fear that these fantasies would define me if I didn’t isolate them and objectify them in fiction. And then once I started writing, I realized that I was caught in a kind of shadow world where I wasn’t a real writer; that is, my words weren’t standing alone. And I wasn’t a filmmaker, so that’s when I said, “Well I guess I need to become a filmmaker.” Not because I was terribly upset with what was happening to my scripts, it’s just that I didn’t feel complete. So I either had to write separately from scripts, I had to find an outlet like playwriting or novels, or I had to be a director and be able to create works that I could define completely.
Once I started directing, then I didn’t mind writing for others as well, because I didn’t feel I was being diminished as a creative person by having to hand off my product to someone else’s final vision. When I actually came to writing the Taxi Driver, all elements of calculation were put aside, except that element of calculation that says you must communicate. But the other elements of how to be commercial or how to sell something I wasn’t thinking of. I wrote a couple of drafts in ten days, just wrote continuously.
So in many ways I came to screenwriting for all of the best reasons. I came to it as a form of self-therapy, I came to it because I had no choice, I came to it because I needed to do this to save myself. Taxi Driver came out very, very quickly. I didn’t know it was crazy at the time I wrote it. Then after I wrote it, I left Los Angeles for almost eight months; I drifted around the country and got my equilibrium back. But I wrote that to get it [out]. It was like an animal that was crawling out of my chest, and I had to get it out and cauterize the wound. And I’m very thankful I walked in that door. I always bear that lesson in mind that art and screenwriting are functional. They can help you see certain life crises in perspective. They can help you see your life in perspective. And you can take this and show it to somebody else. And they too can have the same awareness that you were brought to. I really believe that art is functional in the same way that the tools you use to build a house are functional.
When you sit down to write an original screenplay, where do you begin?
At any given time in your life, there are a number of problems running around. Problems that have a lot to do with where you are in your life cycle, whether it’s a mid-life crisis, problems with parents or children. You’re always looking for metaphors that will somehow address that problem. And once you find that metaphor, particularly if you’ve written as much as I have, it’s like a factory is standing there, fully manned, ready to go. All it needs is the raw material. The metaphor is the raw material. Once they get that, they can go to work.
Your films go into dark, tough places that a lot of people don’t want to go to. A lot of writers are scared to go to those places as well. What should writers do to break down those walls when something’s really bothering them, so they can put it in their work and get it out of their system?
Going there isn’t a problem, because that is a natural healing process; it’s just like going into a primal therapy. You know it’s going to be painful, but you know it has to be done. The problem in films, of course, is there’s little or no support for that. No one is out there saying, “We really want to make your dark movie.” So you are running against the current, the economic current of the medium. The only thing that keeps you going is you don’t have any choice. You don’t want to be that other person.
I mean, I don’t want to make The Fast and the Furious, and I wouldn’t know how to make it. So the fact that you have no choice makes it easier to get up and do it every day. Also, in the film business, you need to have a personality that thrives on obstacles. When you get up in the morning and you know that nobody wants you to do what you want to do, that has to be your cup of coffee. That has to jolt you where you say, “Great, another day I get a chance to try and fight against the wall.” You have to meet some success in order to keep at it, but if you meet some success, you keep at it, and strangely enough, these films do get made.
How are writing and directing different?
Literary logic and visual logic are very different. An image is an idea in a much different way than a word is an idea. When you write, you think of the traditional rules of writing: theme, plot, character, dialogue. When you come to direct, you have to transform that literary logic into visual logic. The word chair is not the same as the image of a chair. You have to translate one form of logic into the other. That’s why, when I write a script, I never think of the visual logic. I try to stick to the literary logic.
Did you think Taxi Driver would be a hit? What was your feeling before the movie came out?
I remember we had a dinner before the film opened, because that film was not tested. We felt that nothing good can come out of testing such a movie. So we had a dinner, Marty, Michael and Julia Phillips, and I, and we all just said, “Look, tomorrow could be a bloodbath. But we all know we made a good movie, and no matter what happens, don’t let any of us say that we didn’t.” So there was a kind of inner confidence that would not have been swayed if the film had not been successful.
When the film turned out to be a success, how did that feel?
It felt right. In retrospect, I realize what a fluke it was. But I just felt it was right. I recently read an interview I did with Robert Bresson in Paris on my way to Cannes, and Bresson asked me in the interview, “Do you think you’ll win the big prize?” and I said, “Sure!” [laughs] And we did, we won the Palme d’Or. I mean, [laughs] looking back now after many years of experience, I realized, Jesus, what was I thinking?!?
You wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver in about ten days, and I know you’re of the school of thought that the faster you write a screenplay, the better.
You have to understand that the gestation period could be months, or even years, and the idea of writing fast is to keep from writing as long as possible, so that it just endures time and obstacles. By the time it comes out, it comes out almost fully formed. Then you write in approximately a time frame that’s like viewing a movie. You can sort of feel the experience as you’re living it, it doesn’t get attenuated, it doesn’t get threshed out. But I’m also of the school of I’m not going to write unless I know what I’m going to write. I pretty much know what’s going to happen on page seventy-five before I sit down and write.
So you have to have the whole thing in your head before you write it?
Yeah, and outlined. It moves and shapes itself as you go along, but it is pretty well worked out, and it has endured numerous tests before it is written. By tests, I mean the oral tradition, telling people. You sit down and you tell people the story. You say, “Look, I wanna tell you a story. Man walks into a bank. There’s a robbery going on.…” There you are, you’re off and running, and you can watch people. It doesn’t really matter what they say, it’s what they do with their eyes and how they sit. You can see whether or not this story has a resonance, and as you tell it, sometimes you have to make changes. Because like a stand-up comedian, you realize you’re losing your audience, you gotta do something drastic. I think it was Chandler who once said, “If you ever get in trouble, introduce a character with a gun. Your reader will be so glad he’s there, he won’t ask where he came from.” The same thing with telling a story; you realize you’re losing your listener, then you say, “All of a sudden, a red car pulls up, and these two guys in black coats come out.” Boom! You got your listener back. Of course, you’ve also got a red car and two guys in black coats, but that’s one of the things you do when you work the oral tradition. By the time you write that script, you’re pretty confident that it’s worth writing because you have seen it work. If you can tell a story for forty-five minutes and keep people interested, you have a movie.
…The demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.
Saturday Review of Literature, “The Simple Art of Murder” by Raymond Chandler, 1950 April 15.
Who would you use as a sounding board?
Anybody. The more ordinary someone is, the better, because they’re not going to give you arcane points, you’re just going to see if they’re interested. It’s like telling a joke—you know when it works. Obviously, certain material is very sophisticated, and it’s not going to work that way. I’m not going to sit and tell Mishima to somebody at the 7-11! But in general, if you’re dealing with a kind of a narrative, you want to get that kind of feedback. Also, another good thing about it is it stops you from writing a lot of scripts, because you see them die, and you see yourself getting stuck. It is very discouraging to write scripts that don’t get sold or made. If you can stop yourself from writing those scripts, you can prolong your career. Because all you have to do is write five or six of those scripts, and you’re about beat up. So if you have a bad idea, you can catch it in time. You haven’t lost a script, you’ve saved yourself four months. I lecture from time to time on screenwriting, and when I lecture, it’s a five-point program. It goes from theme, to metaphor, to plot, to oral tradition, to outline. That’s the progress of an idea. It all begins with a theme, and another word for a theme is a personal problem. In Taxi Driver it was loneliness, the metaphor was a taxicab. Bing-Bang-Boom, it starts to move.
The Last Temptation of Christ
You adapted The Last Temptation of Christ, which was not an easy novel to turn into a film. How did you approach that adaptation?
I do the same process in terms of problem/metaphor. You look at the book, and you say, “Where’s the problem?” And it’s not necessarily the problem in the book, it’s your problem that you find in the book. “What part of me exists in this book that I can address?” You have to personalize it, and therefore in a book like Last Temptation, there were probably five or six different scripts that could have been written from that. You have a 600-page philosophical novel, and it’s going to become a 110-page script. What I did in that case was I listed every single thing that happened in the book—there were probably 400 or 500 things that happened in the book—then I did columns. Did they address my problem? Were they important for expositional needs? Did they address any of the sub-themes? I went through all the scenes and put checks behind them to the degree that they were useful to me. And then I just took the top fifty scenes, because only between forty to fifty-five things happen in a movie anyway, and said, “Okay, what do I have to add?” Or, “How do I make this meld all together?” That way I was able to take three quarters of the book, and just wipe it off the table in one grand stroke and reduce the size of the book. Then I went back and picked up from those pages I had swiped off, whatever little bits and pieces I might need.
You did a rewrite on the film Raging Bull, and Martin Scorsese said that your version of the script was the breakthrough that helped get the film made. What exactly did you bring to the script for Raging Bull?
Well there was no Joey La Motta! Jake La Motta had written a book called Raging Bull with Pete Savage, and he cut his brother out of his book because he didn’t like his brother! So I started doing research, and I started hearing about the fighting La Motta brothers and that they were boxers together. I interviewed Vickie [Jake’s ex-wife] and Joey, and I realized you had a sibling story. The movie was about these two brothers who had this contract.
Basically the contract was, they were both boxers, but one of them had the gift of gab, and the other one didn’t. So Joey basically said to Jake, “Here’s the deal. You get the beatings, you get the fame, I get the girls, we set up the bookies, and we split the money.” Well that contract is fraught with dangers [laughs]! That was the implicit contract between these two men. Jake would be the headliner and take the beatings, and Joey would be the pretty boy who got the girls and they would split the money. You know that there’s going to come a day that someone doesn’t agree with that contract! So without Joey, you didn’t have a movie.
Born in the U.S.A.
Something I’m curious about: I read in a book about Bruce Springsteen that your screenplay Born in the U.S.A., which later became Light of Day, is where Bruce got the title for the song and the album. True?
Yeah. I had written it, I was going to do it at Paramount, and we wanted to get Bruce to do it. I met with Bruce, he was flirting around with being in movies, then he decided he didn’t want to do it because of the whole control issue. Bruce is nothing if not a control freak. So he gave up the idea of being in a movie, it fell out at Paramount, and I went off to Japan. So now I’m in Tokyo, I go into a record store, I pick up an album, and sure enough there it is, Born in the U.S.A.! I looked inside and he credited me.
When I came back to the U.S. and was trying to get the film going, Bruce called me up and said, “I really apologize.” We had dinner, and he said, “You know, I never read that script. But it was on my coffee table for almost three months, and every time I walked by it, it said “Born in the U.S.A.” And I couldn’t get that title out of my head! Look, if you want the song for your movie, take it. If you want a new song, I’ll write you a new song.” So he wrote “Light of Day”; that’s where the title came from.
What attracted you to Affliction?
I picked it up at a bookstore. The first line of the book grabbed me right then and there and I made it the first line of the film. I was very much captured by the narrative gimmick of it, the complexity of the characters and the use of the language. So I optioned the book, wrote the script, and over a period of six years, I was able to raise the money.
There’s a point in Affliction where Nick Nolte’s character is at the lowest point of his existential crisis, and then the film immediately leads him and the audience back to the mystery subplot. It occurred to me that that parallels your entire relationship to genre. I don’t think of you as the guy who does boxing bio-pics (Raging Bull) and horror flicks (Cat People). What is your relationship to genre?
Genre is a very, very useful tool, because it sets in motion a certain set of expectations that you can use and that you need to respect if you are going to use them. There is a little bit of the mystery genre in Affliction: a small-town cop thinks a hunting accident is a murder. I use it to get the audience to a place so that I can drop what has seemed to be the plot and reveal it to be irrelevant, so what had seemed to be the subplot can take its place.
As Nick Nolte’s character loses touch with reality, the demarcation between what’s real and what’s in his head begins to blur. How did you deal with this stylistically?
There were several levels of reality. There were his conspiracy theories, which were in black and white, and there were his memories, which were in a highly grainy color, but those were the only things technically.
But isn’t there a point where the POV changes?
The important thing to remember is that it’s a story that is being told to you. And the teller is as important as the story being told. In many ways, the narrator is the main character. He tells you right at the beginning that in telling this story he tells his own story as well. But he never tells us his story. His story is left up for you to surmise. But it is a story of both brothers, and what he doesn’t tell is as important as what he does tell. You can see there is a certain denial about mistakes he has made. Like his complicitious role in his brother’s decline.
In an essay you wrote years ago, you quoted one of your favorite filmmakers, Bresson, and I’m paraphrasing: “In art, there must always be a transformation.” What is the transformation in Affliction?
In films I have written, I tend to end with a grace note. There is no grace note in this film for the Nolte character. It is kind of a predetermined world, predetermined from the first line of narration. The one whose life is left in flux is the narrator, who tells you why he can’t let it go. He hopes his brother died, but he must go on. In fact he reveals himself as the one character of the piece who is capable of transformation.
Bringing Out the Dead
It strikes me that there are similarities between Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Frank Pierce in Bringing Out the Dead…
Bringing Out the Dead is about a paramedic in New York City. A fellow who drives around at night on the cusp of social decay. He’s not unlike the taxi driver, but he’s different because he’s on God’s team now. He’s out there trying to save lives, but he’s still going crazy. It takes place on a long three-day weekend, and he’s hallucinating by the time we meet him. Certainly Marty and I were aware that it will be compared to Taxi Driver, so we tried to make it a bookend rather than a remake.
Did Scorsese bring you into the project?
Marty and I had decided a long time ago not to work together any more and just to remain friends, and not press a situation which was becoming increasingly unpleasant in terms of ego clashes. We’d have dinner once a year and keep in touch. Then we were having dinner a year ago, and he brought it up to me reluctantly. And as soon as I read the book, I realized why he had. It was a natural for me and rather natural for us.
Tell me about your collaboration with him.
It’s not really that much of a collaboration. There were a number of conversations, but with this kind of material, we can pretty much finish each other’s sentences, and we know how we’re each thinking. It’s just a matter that if we feel we’re on the same page, I take off to work. He was in post-production on Kundun at the time, which was fortunate for me, because he didn’t have time to micro-manage the writing, so after a short discussion at dinner and one ten-minute phone conversation, I just went off and wrote it.
You’ve dealt with pornography in several of your films. It’s been in Taxi Driver and Hardcore, and of course in Auto Focus. Why do you feel it’s a subject you’ve explored several times? Do you feel there’s good dramatic possibilities in a story about pornography?
Well it all comes from character. Movies, like literature and all forms of storytelling, tend to deal with exaggerated behavior; movies in particular because they’re kinetic. When behavior gets exaggerated, the two most kinetic forms it takes are sex and violence. That’s why movies have traditionally worked in these areas even more than literature.
I don’t feel that I am particularly driven by sexual themes. I don’t even know if I’m particularly good at them. I don’t have a singular fascination with them the way that someone like Jim Toback does. But when people’s behavior starts to get distorted, sexuality is a way to visualize it. And if your characters tend to be internal, often pornography gets involved. Bob Crane is not as internal a character as some of the others I’ve written, but I do tend to gravitate toward these character studies and patterns of improper thinking, where characters do the right things for the wrong reasons, and the wrong things for the right reasons. So it makes interesting characters when the motive and the appearance of the act don’t line up.
I wouldn’t say that porn is, in particular, one of my themes. What first drew me to Auto Focus was that it seemed to be the midwife, American, heterosexual, TV star version of Prick Up Your Ears. That’s what drew me in. I do not have the kinds of fascinations you have in Boogie Nights, with the birth of porn and all of that. It’s more character driven. Dirk Diggler in that film is one figure in a tapestry, it’s not really about getting inside him.
You’ve said that the title of the film Auto Focus is really a reference to being self absorbed, and that in the film Crane is a destructive person and the worse his behavior gets, the more oblivious he is to what it does to people. That also made me think of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull.
Absolutely. It’s a good parallel because they’re both semi-public figures. People sort of know who Bob Crane is, but they really don’t. And they sort of know who Jake La Motta was, but they really didn’t. So you have the license to go in and find the artistic truth of the life without people getting knocked out of their seats because some holy writ has been violated. It’s not like Richard Nixon and you’re looking at the screen saying, “Is that really true? I remember Richard Nixon, that’s Anthony Hopkins!”
Neither Raging Bull or Auto Focus are exactly puff-pieces about their subjects. Jake La Motta cooperated with Raging Bull, and for Auto Focus you spoke to members of Crane’s family. Did that ever feel uncomfortable for you?
In the case of Raging Bull, Jake was so forgotten, and he was so tickled that we were making a movie about him, that he was completely hands off. I could have had him out in the backyard banging sheep and he wouldn’t have complained! That didn’t present a problem. And in both films, all of the events are based on things that happened, but did they happen this way? Were these words used? Did this confrontation exist exactly the way it was portrayed? I don’t know.
Scotty Crane [one of Bob’s sons] has said, “This wasn’t my father,” and all you can say to that is Greg Kinnear is not Bob Crane, Bob Crane’s life did not last an hour and forty minutes, and you set personal boundaries of what kind of license you can take. I don’t think anything goes. It is not only a form of storytelling, it’s a form of shaping a life into a dramatic purpose so that it can hopefully elucidate, as well as entertain.
Do you try to make characters like Jake La Motta and Bob Crane more sympathetic?
That’s where the beauty of acting comes in. The right actors bring an enormous residue of good will to the screen. Nick Nolte, you like Nick, he’s the sort of guy you’d like to be around. And so you let Nick get away with things. You cast somebody else in that role that you don’t like, and you can’t watch that movie; it’s just too unpleasant. In this case, Greg Kinnear, who is extremely personable and likable, and has that glib affability just like Crane did, he gets away with murder. And you see that in the film. Even though he didn’t do particularly likable things, people always let him get away with it.
When you’re making a film based on someone’s life, do you feel it has to be as honest as possible?
As honest as permissible. Like on Mishima, everything in that film happened, but then I also used his books to get into his real psychological life; his fantasy life, which is important for a writer. Patty Hearst was another biopic, and I went into her mindset. Here she was, locked in a closet. What does she see? Well she sees whatever I want her to see. She sees what I imagine she sees. And Last Temptation of Christ, which is not really a biopic, but Nikos Kazantzakis used artistic license to go into this fantasy-temptation sequence.
Obviously people have to understand that a movie can never be 100% accurate, but you can get pretty close.
Everything in Auto Focus is based on real events; nothing is made up. Scotty, for example, gets very upset with this whole penile enhancement thing. It’s not quite clear whether Bob had a penile enhancement (or not). The autopsy wasn’t clear about it, some people say he did, some people say he didn’t. The truth is, though, he told others, in particular John Carpenter, that he did. So that’s what the movie says, he tells John Carpenter that he did.
Portions of this article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting 6 #1 and 9 #5.
Featured image credit: Petr Novák, Wikipedia.