For years I’d had this wild image of Paul Schrader
in my mind. I’d never met the man, never spoken to him,
never even seen a picture of him before I started doing my research
for this interview. Nevertheless, the image was there, likely borne
in part from some hazy, late-night film school discussions about
the ultimate urban nightmare,Taxi Driver, and speculation that
its author had to be equal parts genius and madman. When I heard
the stories about his strict Calvinist upbringing, heavy drinking,
lonely insomniac nights and fascination with Gotham’s bottomfeeder
denizens, the mythology was complete.
Schrader may be a bit softer around the middle now,
but he is still the driven, obsessive, too-hard-on-himself artist
he was when working with Scorsese and De Niro on Taxi Driver two
decades ago. His script for that film remains one of most influential
to come out of the 1970s, and he went on to write classics like The
Last Temptation of Christ, American Gigolo, and Raging
Bull, developing a reputation as an explosive, visceral screenwriter
with an uncommon intellectual edge. When one speaks of great American
writer-directors today, Paul Schrader’s name is certain to come
Directing, however, didn’t come as easily as writing.
He basically learned how to direct on the job, and his first experiences
at the helm were, well, challenging. In Kevin Jackson’s definitive
Schrader text, "Schrader on Schrader," he recalls a moment
on Blue Collar, his first directorial effort, when "I
was in the middle of the set and I started crying and I just couldn’t
stop, something I’d never done before. (Richard Pryor) calmed me
down and walked me back in and I guess everyone realized I wasn’t
as much the iron man as I had been appearing."
That was a long time ago. The day Schrader and I
met for this interview he was very much the iron man, directing
an impossibly difficult "low-budget" (Five mil. Everything’s
relative, kids.) film he wrote called Touch, which stars
Christopher Walken, Bridget Fonda and Tom Arnold. Fighting countless
distractions from his crew and the business manager who just happened
to show up on the set, Schrader paced in a small circle like a
caged tiger and, between takes, chain-smoked his way through the
|Schrader with George C. Scott in Hardcore (1978).|
Tim Rhys (TR): So you edited
a magazine called Cinema?
Paul Schrader (PS): Yeah.
TR: How long did you do that?
PS: Two years.
TR: While at school?
PS: I was at AFI. I was among the first group
of graduates from AFI.
TR: I had all these introspective questions
to ask, and now I sort of feel like it’s not the right time.
PS: No, I’ve done a lot of those kind of sit-down
TR: So just tell me what you’re doing now.
What are you doing today?
PS: I just did the opening scene of the script.
TR: How many days have you been here?
PS: This is the second day. It’s a very complex
scene. I had four characters in the house at different times interacting,
so it was sort of a challenge to figure out how to choreograph
it. I have a kind of double-bind on this film because of the short
TR: How short is it?
PS: Thirty-two days. Not only can I not miss
a shot that I need, I can’t do a shot that I don’t need. It all
has to be shot right to the bone. By the time this film is put
together, I’d be surprised if there were more than three or four
set-ups that aren’t in the movie.
TR: How does that affect your style? You
kind of edit in the camera usually, don’t you?
PS: Actually this time much less than usual
because I have long dialogue scenes. It’s a taut, driven piece
— Elmore Leonard. We’re really interested in seeing the faces
and hearing what they have to say.
TR: Filming in a very close environment
like that, with a lot of people talking, how do you get creative
about camera set-ups? What are your thought processes as you try
to make it interesting?
PS: Well, you’ve done the rehearsals and then
you break down the rehearsals to their component parts and then
you start watching them with a viewfinder over and over again until
you find the shots. And then you basically edit it in your head
and when it’s all over you call out the shots — in this case 27
of them. And then the trick is to hold the cut in your head.
TR: That’s got to be a tremendous amount
of pressure. You don’t storyboard, I know that.
PS: No, you can’t storyboard because actors
tend to move around, find their own space. I wrote the script,
shopped it out, had a very hard time getting it made. I put the
package together, put the actors together, and fortunately Lumiere
decided to do it. It was a big risk for them. They’re financing
it out of their own pocket — I don’t have a distribution deal.
I’m under pressure, but Lumiere’s under pressure, too.
TR: What’s your rehearsal process like?
PS: You let the actors have the set, give
them some sort of guidelines, confine their actions somewhat so
that you can shoot it. Another big problem with shooting low-budget
and short schedule is that in order to get a look that looks like
a feature film you have to come in in the middle of the night to
light the set, because you don’t have time to do your major lighting
during the day. And that means that often the rehearsal that you
did two weeks prior to shooting where you blocked it out in a room
somewhere with fake furniture, that’s what you’re pre-lighting
for. And actors always want to do a different blocking. Unfortunately,
you don’t have that luxury.
TR: But you do still have the luxury of
working with Christopher Walken two weeks ahead of time —
PS: Oh, yeah. You have to prepare to death.
Every actor has to be good; you cannot have any performance problems.
Also, you just stay on the set all day long. I haven’t been able
to leave the set. You leave the set, everything slows down. You
come back, you find out the dolley track is six inches from where
you thought it was going to be and there is no diffusion where
there should be diffusion. You have to stay in the room while those
decisions are being made.
TR: The performers you picked — did you
choose them particularly because you knew they could handle this
PS: Yeah, that, and of course they all have
to basically do it as a favor. I mean, I’m losing money every day
on this film. My standard of living and salary are not in sync.
I have to go get a writing job this summer to pay for the fact
that I’m directing this movie. Tom Arnold is off making a little
Swedish film. Christopher just got a big money gig. The actors
squeeze these films in between. They can’t survive on the money
they get paid for these films either.
TR: While reading about your directing
style, one thing I found intriguing was your idea of the floating
rectangle. Can you talk abut that a little bit?
PS: The whole idea is that if there are two
people in a scene there is really a third person there and that
is the person who is setting the frame. How present should that
third person be? In this film I’m not as present as I have been
in other films, but in other films I really want the audience to
know there is a third person in the scene, and that’s the person
who’s watching these two people. But when you have dialogue-driven
stuff you tend to go a little more routinely and make yourself
invisible as that third person. That whole idea of letting the
audience know you’re watching comes from Godard and Bertolucci.
As opposed to the old Hollywood style – trying to be invisible.
TR: So your visual style changes depending
on the project?
|Surveying the set on Light Sleeper (1992).|
TR: When you’re writing does this style
PS: I mean I don’t put anything in the script
marked "camera." Nothing whatsoever. There are no camera
TR: But as a director, don’t you also think
about these things?
TR: Really. In your writing–
PS: Not at all, not at all. When you’re writing
you think about what writers think about: story, theme, character,
plot, dialogue. That’s what you think about. When you’re directing
you think about what directors think about.
TR: That’s fascinating because I would
think as a director you would see the movie playing in your mind
as you’re writing.
PS: No way. I hear it, but I don’t see it.
TR: You’ve said that once you find the
theme and the metaphor in your writing, then the plot and the
execution are pretty easy. I think that’s true of most writers,
but I’d never heard it explained like that.
PS: The theme drives right through the metaphor.
As soon as the theme hits the metaphor the plot starts to move.
It’s the interaction of theme and metaphor that gives you story
ideas. So in Light Sleeper the theme is mid-life crisis, the metaphor
is drug delivery boy.
TR: How do writers go about finding that
theme — whatever’s personally important to them?
PS: Yeah, but it has to be something sort
of original. It has to have a little hook to it and be something
that appeals to others, not just yourself. It can’t be your mid-life
crisis, it’s got to be something that allows your imagination to
jump from where you are into someone else’s life and therefore
into an audience’s life.
TR: You were saying in Kevin Jackson’s
book that, coming from an evangelical background, you have to
make your films speak to a large number of people; you have to
do "commercial" moviemaking–
PS: Well, I mean it is a mass medium. You’re
making films that cost a lot of money, even five or six million
dollars is a lot of money. And a lot of people have to see it to
get that money back. You have to think in those terms. Even if
you make smaller films it’s still a mass medium and it’s still
a tool. It’s not like writing a book or a song that can survive
at a much lower threshold of economic return.
TR: I’m just wondering now, with this advent
of the popularization of the independent film, if you’ve felt
lately like you can make that very small, very personal film
that you’ve maybe wanted to make, maybe like Mike Figgis’s Leaving
PS: I don’t think so. I don’t think it gets
any easier. I’ve had a hell of a time making this one. I’ve got
one called Affliction that I want to do with Nick Nolte that I’ve
tried to finance for four years. It’s certainly not any easier
for me. And it’s not any easier as you get older. It gets harder.
In fact, because many of the films I’ve made have had an intellectual
edge to them it’s harder for me to lie. It’s harder for me to go
to people with money and say "I don’t care about art, all
I care about is commerce, all I want to do is make money."
TR: What do you do when you’re in a situation
like the one you were in with the three principals of Blue
Collar, and they’re not getting along. From a first-time director’s
viewpoint, if you’re in that situation, you’re busy babysitting
your actors and you can’t spend time with your shot selection
— how do you avoid that?
PS: Even before I started I got a very strong
script supervisor, A.D., and cinematographer and I basically said "you
guys are responsible to make sure this looks good on screen. I’
m going to take care of the story and the performances." And
it really wasn’t until the third film that I learned how to direct.
On Hardcore I was fooling around trying to figure out how to direct
and I hadn’t quite figured out how. By the time I did Gigolo I
knew how to direct.
TR: What turned the light on? What was
it that led you to figure it out?
PS: A mixture of experience and getting involved
with (cinematographer Nando) Scarfiotti and the highly stylized
story. I had edited by then, and just knew what cut.
TR: So it was more of a technological education.
PS: Yeah, I knew how to block a scene in an
interesting way, shoot it in an interesting way, and I knew what
would cut even when people on the set said it wouldn’t. I had the
confidence to say yes, it will cut; yes, I can jump the line; yes,
the eyeline is right; no, we shouldn’t be on a 35 here, we should
be on a 75, or vice versa. I knew those things by then. But it
took two films to learn them.
TR: So it’s just the doing of it that gives
you the education.
PS: Well, the doing of it and paying attention
to what everyone else is doing, not just hanging out in your trailer.
Watching things, trying things, stumbling on things and learning
you can do things in different ways.
TR: From an aesthetic viewpoint, what does
a director need in terms of education and training? Evidently
architecture influenced you quite a bit, and literature of course,
and other films.
PS: The biggest challenge in directing is
to cut over two hours in your head, to call the shots. The biggest
thing in directing is being able to just sit down and call cut-cut-cut
from start to finish. You hold that all in your head. That’s one
TR: So as far as training goes–
PS: Learn how to play chess, to train yourself
to hold complex patterns, the same sort of skill that puzzle-making
is. Being able to look at pieces and see what will maybe fit where
without actually picking them up and putting them there. And you
get to intuitively know whether a shot is right and the mood is
right and see how to communicate those shots.
TR: It’s instinctive. Did your visual style
evolve in a sort of instinctive way, as well? I was interviewing
John Frankenheimer recently and he keeps coming back to the Steadicam,
the handheld shot, the wide angle lens, that’s just what he does.
How did you evolve your style?
PS: Well, primarily (cinematographer) John
Bailey and I watching The Conformist and I going to Rome and bringing
Nando over and it evolved out of thirst. And I’ve added enough
personalized touches now that they’ve become part of my vocabulary.
But the truth is that the other day on the set I said the new frontier
in film style is character. They’ve pushed film style so far that
there’s no sense trying to change these music video and film school
TR: You go back to basics?
PS: You go back to basics. The Coen brothers
realized that with Hudsucker. That’s what it’s about. Particularly
on a lower budget, the only things you can compete on are dialogue
and story. You can beat the hell out of them in those categories.
TR: That’s terrific. A lot of our readers,
a lot of our readers are independent filmmakers. So, a lot of
your work is basically done after the casting is over, right?
The casting process is hugely important, especially on a low-budget
PS: Yeah. I mean, there’s not much you can
do if you miscast. Not unless you have an action-driven picture
where the cast isn’t that important. If you miscast, you’re dead.
TR: Tell me briefly about collaborating.
I know you collaborated with your brother a couple of times.
Is that easier or more difficult? What further challenges do
you find when you collaborate?
PS: I don’t really collaborate. The few times
I have — the two times with my brother and once with Nick Pileggi
for City Hall, I wold do the structure, we would discuss the scenes,
they would write the scenes and I would re-write the scenes. And
that’s pretty much the only way I’ve ever collaborated. Which isn’t
really like a writing team per se.
TR: How do you keep your writing muscles
built up when you do stuff like this? Don’t you feel like when
you get out of it for a while…or have you been doing this so
long that you don’t really get rusty.
PS: No, no. They asked Truffault once what
he liked best — writing or directing or editing. He said when
I’m directing I like editing, when I’m editing I like writing,
and when I’m writing I like directing.
TR: And you find that’s true? When you’re
directing you’d rather be writing?
PS: No, now I’m directing, and I look forward
to writing something this summer.
TR: So what are your habits like when you
do your writing. Do you have any set hours or anything?
PS: Well I’ve switched over now because I’ve
gotten too old and I can’t do drugs. I used to write nights, you
know. I used to write drunk for 15 years. And it was always good;
I never had a problem with the quality. But my body just couldn’t
take that kind of abuse anymore. And then I had children who had
to get up in the morning. So I had to switch to days. And that
took six months to a year to learn how to write during the day.
I’d always liked to write at night, when there was nobody else
TR: It fascinates me that you wrote drunk
for 15 years. Now that you’re sober, do the ideas flow differently?
How did you change your creative thinking?
PS: At first it was so much slower. So much
slower. It didn’t come fast enough. You know, drunk you’re loose,
you’re uninhibited, you have everything popping. You’re sober,
you have so many distractions, it’s hard to stay in there. But
now I’ve sort of learned how to do it. But I still can’t put in
the hours. I can only write four to six hours a day. When I wrote
at night I’d write 10, 12 hours at a time. I realize I got a bit
excessive in certain areas in terms of dialogue, but right underneath
the excess was some very nice stuff that you might not have gotten
if your self-censoring mechanism was fully intact.
TR: How do you avoid that now? You have
to write sober now, and most people should-how do you get out
of that? It’s the same thing you said in the Jackson book. You’ve
got to leave your critic outside the door.
PS: I’ve learned how to get loose during different
parts of the day. But like I say it took me almost a year to get
to where I felt comfortable writing sober, where I was just loose
enough to write, and not be self-restricting and self-inhibiting,
in writing emotional stuff, funny stuff, embarrassing stuff, without
— you know — feeling I shouldn’t be doing this. Booze makes me
playful. When I’m drinking, all the little people inside my head
can come out and play. MM