Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader is learning a lot these days.

Simultaneously excited about the future of moviemaking and pessimistic about its finances, he recognizes that while it has never been easier to make a film, it has also never been harder to make money from a film. Listening to him talking giddily about the difficulties and rewards of self-funding his 2013 movie The Canyons, or leaping into the crime genre with new film Dog Eat Dog, it’s hard to believe this man is 70 years old.

With his beloved collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ), and his own storied directing career (Hardcore, American Gigolo, Affliction), there really isn’t much Schrader hasn’t done in the film world, and successfully. A Pauline Kael protégé, he published a book of criticism before diving into the screenwriting world, co-writing Yakuza with his brother in 1974. Fast forward 40 years to Dog Eat Dog, a “redemption” of sorts for himself and star Nicholas Cage, after creative control over their 2014 film Dying of the Light was wrested from them by the studio. “I had to try to figure out what a crime film looks like in 2016,” Schrader says, “after Scorsese, Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and Wayne Kramer.” Here are some other things he’s figured out.

Paul Schrader at the Toronto International Film Festival 2016. Photograph by Fabrice Dall’Anese

As told to Caleb Hammond

1. The first lesson every filmmaker learns is to “wear comfortable shoes.”

2. Films no longer need a unified style. A unified style used to be a principle. Now it’s an option. You can now make a film with a multiplicity of styles.

3. There’s very little difference anymore between sound design and music. They have merged. They used to be two separate fields, but now more and more it’s just the same job.

4. Things that we used to call mistakes are now choices. So if I have a character who wears a red shirt walking into a restaurant, and I cut into the restaurant, and now he enters with a blue shirt, 20 years ago that would be called a continuity break and a mistake. Now it’s called a choice. Twenty years ago the viewer would have said, “Look, they’ve got his shirt wrong.” Now the viewer looks at it and says, “Ha. I wonder why they changed his shirt.”

5. Most everything we’ve learned in the past 100 years no longer applies. We don’t know what a movie is anymore. We don’t know how you finance it. We don’t know how you make it. God knows we don’t know how you monetize it. Movies used to be something projected in a dark room in front of an audience. That’s no longer the case. Is a YouTube video about my dog a movie? Yeah, I suppose it is. Is Mad Men a movie? Yeah, it is a movie—a pretty long movie, but a pretty good one. They’re all movies.

6. There still will be a place for theatrical, but it will be more and more a boutique experience. Just because it is the hallmark of a previous artistic time, doesn’t mean it’s no longer happening. That whole model of the 20th century film is history, but so is the 19th century novel, but people still read them. We still go to operas.

7. Boredom can be an aesthetic device.

8. I don’t know if I would be a filmmaker now. It’s like what Bret Easton Ellis says: “Nobody wants to be a filmmaker. They want to make everything.” Would I be making films? Would I be writing code? Would I be doing something else? A lot of these young artists now have different forms of expression folding in onto each other—fashion, design, music, dance. Kanye West is trying to be every kind of artist at the same time. So is James Franco.

9. Everyone who wants to be a filmmaker has to have a day job. You have a lot of freedom, but you can’t make money. There was a magic window of 100 years where movies and capitalism slept together, and they really were a great team. Everybody got rich. “If you would pay to see it, we would make it for you.” Now technology has broken movies out from the shackles of capitalism, and set it adrift, just like the other arts: painting, music, literature. In the past if you made movies you made money, even if the movie didn’t. Now you can make movies, good movies, and not make money.

10. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote: “I have fewer readers now because of the internet, but they’re more passionate.” It’s not possible to keep up. We are being inundated with a tsunami of products: 400 stupid TV shows and 30 films a week, in the U.S. alone, and the history of cinema all on demand. So we retreat into our aesthetic cubby holes.

11. There should always be a dissonance between sound and image. That is what art is always about. Just like cuisine: There’s gotta be sweet and sour. There’s gotta be smooth and rough. It’s out of the counterpoint of a texture that experience explodes. So if you work one way on the music, then you have to work a different way on the picture.

12. All artists are autodidacts. In the end, you teach yourself. There used to be four reasons to go to film school: You used to go for the professors, the equipment, the movies and the networking. Now there’s only two: the professors and the networking. And hopefully you find some decent professors.

13. Audiences are more frightened these days, because they understand the bigger picture. They understand the fact that my generation fucked the planet—“the greatest generation” turned out to be “the selfish generation,” and we haven’t left much for anybody else.

14. Get your actors to respect what they’re doing. Unless an actor has some serious problems, most unhappiness occurs when an actor doesn’t feel like he’s doing something he respects. And he doesn’t respect it and he doesn’t think you respect it, problems will result.

15. Screenwriting is not really a form of writing—it is a form of the oral tradition, of telling a story. If you can tell a story, you have a movie. It doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are.

16. In the new economics of filmmaking, you can no longer afford to shoot scenes that will not be in the movie. I’ve made enough movies now to know when a scene starts to have the curse on it. It starts to feel like it won’t be in the film. If you can spot that before you shoot it, boy, have you saved yourself a lot of trouble. You’ve given yourself more time to shoot stuff that will be in the film.

17. I have virtually no advice to offer anyone. That said, I will offer this advice: Hang out with people who are trying to do what you want to do, and then do it better. MM

Dog Eat Dog opened in theaters November 4, 2016, and opens its theatrical expansion and on Video on Demand and Digital HD on November 11, courtesy of RLJ Entertainment. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2017 Guide to Making Movies.

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