I am Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver, writer/director of American Gigolo and director of The Canyons. AMA!
I am Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver, writer/director of American Gigolo and director of The Canyons out now on demand and on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-canyons/id675561118
I'll be here answering your questions for an hour at 3pm EST today, ask me anything!
Edit: Have to run, but thanks for all your questions everyone!
The times piece was mostly true, some of it was out of context and that's inevitable. It began as an article about Bret and I making a film, then it was going to be an article about the new Lindsay but when the new Lindsay didn't show up, it became an article about the old Lindsay. Not even the New York Times is immune to the hurricane force of the Lohan phenomenon.
I'm a huge fan of your work. I have a few questions, none of which relate to Lindsay Lohan (which I assume will be a popular topic in this AMA):
Most agree that Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are brilliant, but I also think Bringing Out the Dead is criminally underrated. When you were writing that screenplay, I'm curious as to whether you thought the John Goodman/Ving Rhames/Tom Sizemore characters kind of represented Cage's ego/superego/id respectively? When I watched the movie, I kind of made that connection, and I was wondering if that was at all intentional.
You sadly haven't written much since 1999 (with only two writing credits). I assume this is mostly by choice, given your stature. I'm wondering what made you decide to pick up the pen again so many years after your last project to write The Walker and then pick it up again seven or eight years later for the upcoming The Jesuit? On a related note, what made you decide to direct The Canyons after not directing/writing a movie since 2008?
Trying to avoid Taxi Driver spoilers as much as I can, but I've read in numerous places that many people interpreted the very end of Taxi Driver as a "dream sequence" of sorts after what happened to Bickle. I've also read that both you and Martin Scorsese were surprised that anyone read it that way, and meant it to be totally unambiguous and literal. If that's all true, I'm wondering to what extent you think the interpretation of a writer's work is "out of his hands" once his work is published. In other words, if everyone is seeing something in a work that the writer claims he didn't intend, are they "wrong?"
(Edited to add question mark at the end of Question 2.)
No I did not make that connection.
I will be directing a script of mine the end of this year, coincidentally with Nicholas Cage. I had several of my own scripts fall through or not get made, which is why I proposed Bret and I go DIY. The Jesuit, which I was going to direct has now been directed and will come out next year. I have not seen it.
The epilogue is not a dream sequence, it's just the restarting of the movie. I've always felt that the last frame could be spliced to the first frame and the movie started all over again. However, you are right to say that good movies leave themselves open for interpretation.
I was scouting locations for Cat People when the news came over the radio. I said to the driver, it's one of those Taxi Driver kids. When I got back to the hotel, the FBI was waiting for me because Hinckley had mentioned the film. They wanted to know if he had tried to contact me. This is a very thorny moral question. My feeling is that if you censor art you will lose Crime and Punshiment but you will still have Raskolnikov. But I also feel that there is a level of moral responsibility as well.
Were you pissed off with the whole Exorcist affair? Or was it just hollywood?
I was also to blame for the Exorcist fiasco, I worked with people I didn't respect and who didn't respect me. As an alpha personality director you always think you can outwit your opponent, but in this case I could not.
Did your religious upbringing influence your work and does it still?
No matter how fast you run or how far you run, you can not outrun your childhood.
I was a staff member at Sundance the year you served on the jury, and you were truly one of the nicest "VIP's/big names" I dealt with in all my years working for that organization. (So many of the Hollywood people coming into Park City have tended to treat the staff/volunteers with little more than civil condescension.) Furthermore, I hear from others who know you what I truly good guy you are. SO.... I must say I've always found it interesting how your movies often deal with protagonists who are kind of the opposite of that--in short, people one would NOT want to have to deal with professionally or personally. I'm not saying you don't have a dark side; we all do, right? It just seems remarkable that your fictional world is made up of characters like Jake Lamotta and Christian from THE CANYONS rather than, say, the kinds played by Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. So: How do you see yourself in relation to your characters, and more broadly, film authorship as it regards the personalities of the author in contrast to the personalities of the characters?
It's really not that more difficult being civil than being rude. It certainly makes your life easier. I'm attracted to characters who are not fully aware of their own mental and psychological process. Who do the right things for the wrong reasons and vice versa. For me the essence of character is "I loved her so much I hit her". I'm very comfortable not having to act out many of the conflicts of my characters.
In the scene in AMERICAN GIGOLO where Richard Gere is looking for the evidence he suspects has been placed in his apartment, I noticed something strange: WHY DOES HE HAVE SO MANY CLAY POTS?
There are like, 20 clay pots in his apartment. That's weird.
Nona Scarfiotti was the production designer on American Gigolo, you'd have to ask him unfortuntaely he's dead. I think that the answer is that they are there for the same reason as all the walnuts are on the desk in Conformist, which he also designed.
Hi Paul, did anything ever happen on the set of a film that made you think the entire movie might be called off?
The first week on Blue Collar Harvey Keitel after a fight with Richard Pryor left the set and went to the airport and bought a ticket. I knew if he got on the plane my first film would have fallen apart and I'd never direct again. I started getting emotional and the AD had to walk me around the block. When I got back to the set Pryor looked at me and said, "Are you going to be a pussy or are you going to be a man?" We were able to talk Harvey back from the airport.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Fantasize about working.
Hey Paul, Longtime fan of yours. Fell in love with Taxi Driver instantly. Got a few questions. Answer one or more. Thanks. What are the best tops you could give for an aspiring screenwriter? What do you think about film school? What was your favorite script to write?
The best thing about film school is networking. Therefore the best film schools are the schools closest to the money, that is Los Angeles and New York. It is possible to teach yourself how to be a filmmaker and many have, but that road is full of rejections and disappointments. Going to film school protects you from all those disappointments for a few years while you are meeting others attempting the same thing you are.
The lead character in Raging Bull and in Taxi Driver, played by Robert De Niro, were damaged individuals with serious problems dealing with women. In the case of Jake La Motta, he was a wife abuser, and Travis Bickle was essentially a stalker.
What was your approach to balance these flaws and still make the characters sympathetic to the audience?
I think likability is an overrated quality in screen characters. What they need to be is interesting. If you put an interesting person in front of the viewer for 45 minutes and don't give another perspective the viewer will begin to empathize with a character he or she previously though beneath empathy. That's one of the ways art works.
Is there anything you've written that didn't get produce for whatever reason that you were really bummed to see not be?
Also, did you ever do coke with Scorsese?
Yes, I did one about the crime world in Quebec in the 70s. I did about Ayahuasca and the world of hallucinogens. Those are two that come immediatly to mind and there are more.
The answer to the second question is yes, Marty quit before I did. He had a very bad asthma experience in Rome and fortunately he was able to stop cold.
Any chance of you writing for Marty again in the future?
How was it like working with Pauline Kael and writing scripts for DePalma and Peter Weir?
After writing Taxi Driver, Yakuza, Blue Collar, and Obsession, what made you decide to write Old Boyfriends? Did you ever get to talk to Belushi on set? How was he?
Lastly, any hopes of your other films like Blue Collar or Hardcore going on Criterion?
I did an HBO pilot for him but HOB passed. We have no other plans.
I have been bugging my friends at Criterion mercilessly to put out some of the more interesting titles, specifically Patty Hearst which has no NTSC DVD. Maybe if more people bug them the'll get on the case.
Have you been approached to make a remake or sequel to Taxi Driver?
DeNiro suggested that to Marty and I about 15 years ago and I told him it was the dumbbest idea that I've ever heard. I told him that character had died not more than 6 months after that movie was over. He was on a death trip and was gonna succeed the next time.
Relatively little re-writing on Taxi Driver. It turned out much better than I could have imagined. The only scene omitted I know of was a scene with Albert Brooks and the politician Palantine. Marty added it because Albert wanted more material, but it never really belonged. This was Travis Bickle's movie and only his. Marty also added the scene with Keitel and Foster dancing, but we were able to keep it when we intercut Bobby looking from another scene so it looked like part of this scene as well.
I don't really have a question, I just thought The Canyons was great, I really enjoyed it. All of the "issues" I've read about in various interviews really didn't show on screen. (Example - not being able to film at the mall, issues with filming at dusk, etc.) So great job. :]
Thank you. Many people confuse a troubled production with a troubled film, but in fact there is little interrelation. Many great films have had agonizing production problems and many harmonious/happy filmmaking experiences have resulted in stinkers.
I'm beyond stoked that you're having this AMA.
As a fellow Calvin College grad, would you say your experience there helped you in any way to get into the writing-focused part of entertainment?
Calvin was a great education. Primarily because it was serious and intellectual even though faith based. Calvin thought one could logically reason one's way into heaven. The best part of the Christian Reform education was oddly enough not seeing movies. I was raised in a culture of the oral tradition. Relatives got together after church on Sunday and told stories. There's no better training for writing than storytelling.
A few years ago I understood you were working on an Indian project, what happened with that?
P.S. I love Mishima, it ruined me for all other biopics.
This was a project with Shah Rukh Khan. Scorsese, DiCaprio, SRK and I met in Berlin talking about this. But in the end SRK never fully committed. He didn't want to get out of his Bollywood comfort zone.
Maybe this is obvious to you but... Do you have a process of coming up with your stories? How do you know a screenplay idea is worth writing?
First, watch and listen. Second, look for metaphors for life around you. A taxi cab, for example, was a metaphor for loneliness. A good metaphor expands your understanding of both your inner and outer life.
In an interview you gave recently, you talk about the decline in our love of movies, that sacred dark room experience which has defined cinema thus far. Do you think there's any other experience - digital or not - which shows signs of replacing it? Or are we simply different human beings than we were when we loved movies?
We are different human beings, our new technology is rewiring our brains. The 7 year old on the subway playing on his iPad has different brain wiring than I do.
What is the number 1 problem you come across on a movie set and how do you go about solving it?
Part of the adrenaline of film directing is it's ad hoc nature. Every day there is a new number one problem, and every day you have to come up with a new ad hoc solution. Some work, some don't. let's just say that bad weather is easier to deal with than bad acting.
Hi Paul, thank you so much for doing this. Few questions:
- What's it like to work direct non-actors like James Deen and Lindsay Lohan? I kid, but really, did you find it more challenging or was Deen more open minded, enthusiastic then some classically trained actors?
- Who are your influences as a filmmaker and writer?
- Finally, was Taxi Driver a hopeful film to you, or a way to exorcise thoughts of depression and nihilism? Or both?
I would certainly not describe James and Lindsay as non actors, there's probably more film on James than any actor working and Lindsay has been in movies since she was 7 or 8. They are very natural performers and very secure in their own screen image. A director doesn't really teach an actor to act. He watches, listens, suggests, rejects and repeats.
The most influential film for me as a writer is Bresson's Pickpocket. As a director Bertolucci's Conformist.
Taxi Driver was an exorcism through art and it worked.
Any chance of stateside Blu-ray release of American Gigolo ?
The mysteries of how and when films get released on dvd and blu-ray are beyond me.
Hello! Thanks for doing this. "Hardcore" is one of my favorite films, and I was wondering what it was like working with Peter Boyle?
I used Peter in Hardcore because I had met him in Taxi Driver. He was a great natural type, he would have made a great Tony Soprano.
As it relates to The Canyons, how do you think the extreme press, both positive and negative, surrounding the film will have on it's staying power, and furthermore, it's place in the collective registrar of the year 2025, let's say.
I think it will have staying power for me. Beyond that it's anybody's guess.
What is your honest opinion on Lindsey Lohan? Do you think her career will stay damaged or can she regain a positive image again?
Robert Downey was in jail, a drug addict and written off in the film world. Last year he was the highest paid performer. Hollywood loves comeback stories.
Slightly long question-apologies
I was fortunate enough to see Taxi Driver on the big screen a few years ago when it was released on Blu-Ray.
There was a film discussion organised afterwards and one of the main topics of conversation centred on whether the character of Travis Bickle was a racist.
Most participants seemed convinced that Travis was a racist (against black people) and cited an earlier draft of the Taxi Driver script in which Harvey Keitel's character 'Sport' as one of their main justifications.
I was surprised at this view, I always saw Bickle as an angry, isolated character but one who just hated the bad/evil in society, not any race in particular. He never seems to target a particular group or race, just the villains in his city.
I never thought I'd get the chance to ask the writer so here we go! Did you write the character of Travis as a racist?
Travis Bickle was a racist. In the original script all the people he killed including sport were black. It's not unusual for someone who feels oppressed to in turn oppress those who he feels another notch down the ladder. It's part of the psychology of racism.
Sport was cast as a white actor because we were genuinely afraid of starting racial conflicts in the theaters. There had just been a riot involving Hispanics on the film The Warriors, and Columbia was afraid the same thing would happen in the black community. We did not want any part of provoking something like that.
When you are in the initial stages of creating a story, do you do any outlining, or do you jump straight into composition?
Outline, outline, outline and outline again. Between outlines tell the story orally. At some point you'll get sick of the idea and it will go away, or it will demand that you write it.
I worked with Mark Dawson on an unreleased bob crane documentary. How accurate do you feel Auto Focus was in comparison to the real story of Bob cranes murder? If I recall correctly there were a lot of inaccuracies in Robert Graysmiths book.
We made every effort to be as truthful as we could. I do feel that Carpenter killed Crane.
Hi Paul. Giant fan. Is it time to reassess Forever Mine? I love this. And is there a chance to get hold of Angelo's music? Thanks. Andy
I have no seen this film since I completed it, and am in fact a little anxious about watching it again. I was trying to do an over the top melodrama and that is not my strong suit.
What are your thoughts on The Canyons lead male?
James Deen was Bret's choice from the get-go. Bret felt -- even while writing the script -- that Deen epitomized the character he was imagining. I thought it unlikely that I would cast someone from the adult world. I also thought it unlikely that someone from the adult world could have the acting chops that James does. But the deeper we got into the process, the more I realized that Bret was right.
Mr. Schrader, let me say that I'm a big fan of your work, one of my favorites being Mishima: a life in four chapters. I was wondering if you could give any insight into either the making of the film or your attraction to the character and the story? Thank you.
After Taxi Driver I wanted to write another script about suicidal glory. I wrote a script about Hank Williams that didn't happen due to issues with the estate. But then I realized if I wanted to do a film about suicidal glory I should go to the other end of the book case. Go to Japan, go to an intellectual, go to an honored writer and homosexual, yet also in the grips of that same pathology.
what is it like working with Bret Easton Ellis?
It was a lot of fun with Bret. He was my partner as well as my collaborator. I don't think we are necessarily on the same page but we are in the same book.
First off, I am a huge fan. That being said, was it difficult working with Scorsese during that phase of his life?
Marty and I had and have a very good relationship, but we were sequential collaborators. I would do my work and he would do his. The greatest bond was probably our mutual love and knowledge of the movies.
How was it getting naked and directing? Would you do it again?
Yes, but not at the same time.
How happy was you with Nicholas Cage performance in Bringing Out The Dead? It's one of my personal favourites and one of his underrated gems
I liked Cage's performance, but I felt he was 10 years to old to play that character. I'm excited about being able to work with him on my next film.
When Bret Easton Ellis did his AMA, he praised Lohan in The Canyons, going so far as to say that it was her fist "Adult performance."
Do you share this opinion?
It was Lindsay's first performance outside the rom-com world. I suppose rom-com characters are adults, but perhaps not for Bret.
First off, I'm a huge fan. The films you've made over the years are amazing, and I thank you.
A lot of people in the film industry are moving over to television because it seems like that is where some of the best storytelling is taking place. What do you think of this change and are you also taking part in the 'move' to TV?
The best writing has migrated to television. The studios make relatively few serious dramas, and much of the marketplace is driven by the global economy. It's hard to be a good writer when most of your viewers don't speak English.
Was it true that an advance screening of Rolling Thunder ended with violence against the studio personnel?
In a Santa Barbara screening something through a standing ash tray against a mirror in the lobby.
Paul, what is your process in selecting the right producer for your films?
The right producer is the producer that can get your movie made. It's also helpful if you like each other.
What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker about to direct his first short film?
My advice to directing a short film is different today than it would have been a few years ago. They say writers should writer at least 500 words a day, but now with your cameraphone you can shoot 15 minutes of film a day. So my advice now is just make films everyday.
The Comfort of Strangers is an incredible film! I love the monologue given by Christopher Walken throughout the film! How did audiences react initially to the ending? Was it as polarizing as I can only imagine it was?
That's always an interesting question because the filmmaker has lived with it and doesn't think the film is polarizing, he thinks it's natural. It's surprising when people get upset.
How was working with James Deen? Also Do you think you'll be making a Canyon's sequel? I loved the movie by the way!
James was a true professional. If it's possible to have a Calvinist work ethic in adult film, he has it. It also helped that he had been witness to all varieties of high strung female behavior and was truly unflappable.
It helps to write good prose in a screenplay even though it's not on screen because it makes it more entertaining to read the script. Only a fraction of the scripts that are opened are actually read all the way through. So if your script is an enjoyable read that's an important asset.
We were going to do a film which fell apart, we both had frustrating experiences and decided to see if we could make the new model work together. A DIY model. I'd known Bret for many years, he tracked me down in New York because he was a fan of American Gigolo.
Hello Mr. Schrader! What do you like better, writing or directing? It seems a lot of writers try their hand at director, but not a lot a directors try writing - does it seem like one is a more natural transition?
Thanks for the AMA! As a last question: any advice/words of wisdom for those trying to get into the writing side of the film industry?
Whenever I'm asked this question I give the answer that Francois Truffaut gave, "When I'm writing I like directing best, when I'm directing I like editing best and when I'm editing I like writing best." Writing and directing are very different skills, different sides of the brain in fact. The difference between verbal logic and visual logic.
I've heard Mardik's name recently but I have not met him in many years. He wrote the first draft of Raging Bull, I wrote the second. In his script there was no Joey LaMotta. Jake had cut his brother out of his own autobiography. I offered to give Mardik first writing position, but he chose to arbitrate to get my name off. The writer's guild decided to instead give me first position writing credit.
How accurate was that Times article about the making of The Canyons?
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