The Tribeca Film Festival nearly stopped all traffic for the 40th anniversary of Taxi Driver at the Beacon Theater on April 21, 2016.
A huge red carpet tent on Amsterdam Avenue took up its own lane, as New York taxi drivers and commuters crept past; some griping at the NYPD officers on post, while others craned their necks out of car windows to see what the hubbub was all about.
Those in the know, the lucky ticket-holders for the sold-out screening, waited to catch a glimpse of the stars aligning for this special event: director Martin Scorsese; stars Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepard; writer Paul Schrader and producer Michael Phillips. Other stars appeared too, not associated with the film but fans themselves, like documentarian Michael Moore.
After the red carpet glamour, light bulbs flashing, bodyguards dashing, and limousine doors slamming, the Beacon Theater became the host of what turned out to be an electric evening, with the screening of the film followed by a marvelous dialogue with the aforementioned cast and crew, moderated by Kent Jones.
Robert De Niro and his business partner (and Tribeca co-founder) Jane Rosenthal walked onto the stage at the Beacon to thunderous applause, until De Niro raised his hands in a plea, seemingly anxious to speak, and deftly delivered his pleasantries as only De Niro could.
“Forty years,” he wailed, “Forty fucking years of you people yelling at me on the street, ‘You talking to me?’ Well, let’s get it over with already! One, two, three…”
The sold-out crowd did not disappoint. De Niro took a bow. The night was off to a raucous start.
When the lights dimmed, the manic crowd settled in and the moody, haunting score by Bernard Herrmann captivated. As the opening scene engulfed the screen, it was as though I was seeing the movie for the first time, in the Interboro Theatre in the Bronx, a scraggly fourteen-year-old boy. In a way I was. My fifteen-year-old daughter Paige sat beside me now, viewing Taxi Driver on a big screen instead of a DVD. There’s nothing like the experience. Thanks to cinematographer Michael Chapman, the film is as beautiful as it is gritty, a bygone New York seen in all its gore and glory. Taxi Driver is the quintessential New York movie.
* * *
By the time the film ended and the cast and crew were brought onto the stage, the entire audience was on its feet. Taxi Driver had done it again, 40 years later. Paul Schrader talked about its initial opening in New York at the Coronet Theatre. When he got there, he saw a long line. He walked frantically up to a person and asked, “Oh my God, is something wrong? What happened? Somebody close the theater?”
“No,” the person replied. “This is the line for the 10 o’clock show.”
Taxi Driver is steeped in surprises, like the moment at Cannes 1976 when most of the cast and crew, including Scorsese, left France after rumors that then-jury president Tennessee Williams hated the film for its violence. Only Michael Phillips stayed behind. Thankfully he did. When the film won the coveted Palme d’Or, Phillips was the only one there to accept the honor.
Before all the screenings and success, when there was just Schrader’s script, Brian De Palma passed on it, saying it was not for him, but perhaps something that his friend Michael Phillips would like.
Phillips read the script into the night and “felt as thought he were looking into a naked soul,” he said at the Beacon. “But,” he added, “it was a long journey [to completion]. That was 1972.”
When Scorsese was asked what he saw in the script, he said he couldn’t articulate it beyond “I knew it had to be done.”
De Niro chimed in: “We never had long existential discussions about the script. We identified with the character and we all felt very good about the project.”
Schrader added, “We all knew this guy. That’s where the serendipity comes in.”
But perhaps Schrader knew him better than anyone else. The character, he admits, was partly based on his own experiences suffering from depression and having a breakdown of sorts, losing his job and his wife, and frequenting porn theaters, getting lost on many late nights. “This script began in the best possible way,” he said. “It began as self-therapy. There was a person I was afraid of becoming. And I felt if I wrote about him, I could distance him from me.”
As preparation, De Niro drove a cab for 10 days before shooting began. Scorsese recounted how someone had gotten into the cab, recognized the actor, who had just won an Oscar for The Godfather Part II, and asked, “Is it that hard to get a job?”
“I said, ‘Yeah,’” De Niro joked.
For Jodie Foster, it was a matter of just showing up. “My mother had wanted me to have a meaningful career and to have a part like this.” Foster said that the bloody scene at the end of the movie did not bother her—in fact, she loved it. The whole process was interesting and fun. “[Make-up artist] Dick Smith and his gallons of bloody syrup, and watching Bobby put on his headpiece—it was fascinating.” What she did dislike about the film was the wardrobe.
“Were you afraid that your friends were going to make fun of you?” Jones asked.
“Just the hot pants, the dumb hat and the sunglasses. The first day, I cried. I was mortified.”
As a child actor Foster had to go through a unique process. “I had to see a psychiatrist to make sure I could play the part. I guess I passed.”
For Cybill Shepard, casting was quite different. She hadn’t been considered for the part, until her agent approached Schrader and said, “I heard you’re looking for a Cybill-like actress. What about Cybill?”
“This was definitely a very important role for me,” Shepard said now, “and I would’ve given my right arm to do it.”
Keitel reluctantly recounted how he hung around a real-life pimp to prepare for the role, quipping, “Does the statute of limitations apply?” When pressed for details about the pimp, he shrugged. “We improvised for a couple of weeks together, me and this fella; he taught me what it was like to play the role of a pimp. I played the girl, he taught me what to do, and we had a good business together.”
The audience laughed. But Keitel got serious when talking about one of the film’s indelible moments, the scene with himself and Foster dancing, which was a direct result of his experience with the pimp. The scene hadn’t originally been planned, but ultimately, “Marty wanted it in.”
And Scorsese got what he wanted. People told the director that the city was dying. But he loved it. “That’s what I grew up in. New York City at night, in the summer—you can taste the humidity and a sense of anger and violence from the streets themselves. The city was so much of a character. “
They shot in condemned buildings, in some of the most dangerous locales in the city, late at night. The overhead tracking shot at the end of the film required that they cut through the ceiling above, and it took them three months to prepare the set. When it came time to shoot the scene, Scorsese remembered, “The Child Labor Law person said we only had 20 minutes. Twenty minutes! We took like a year building up to it. So, I said, ‘Please, please, just an extra shot.’ We got it in two takes.”
Composer Herrmann also got involved in the film through De Palma… but when Scorsese approached him, he told the director, “I don’t do films by cabbies.”
Phillips said, “Herrmann was impossible to wrangle. He kept quitting the film.”
“We talked about the scores he did for Welles and Hitchcock, even the Sinbad films,” said Scorsese. “And so we became friendly with him, but he did tell me that he saw and heard [Taxi Driver] all in brass, very strong.” When Scorsese wanted to put other music in the film, Schrader recalls Herrmann retorting, “The only person who does music in a Bernard Herrmann film is Bernard Herrmann.” (Scorsese snuck a Jackson Brown song into the American Bandstand clip.)
For the end of the film, Scorsese said to Herrmann, “I need some type of a sound there.”
Herrmann replied, “You mean a sting?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what I mean,” Scorsese replied. He recounts: Herrmann “got the xylophone player and he hit the xylophone a number of times and he played it back. ‘That’s right,’ I said, ‘but it needs something special.'”
“Play it backwards,” Herrmann said and walked out. It was the last time Scorsese would see him. Herrmann died before Taxi Driver was released and the film is dedicated to him.
* * *
Bernard Herrmann hears brass, Dick Smith sees blood, Harvey Keitel improvs with a pimp, De Niro drives a cab, De Palma passes on the script of Schrader’s hollowed-out life. All set against New York in the ’70s.
According to Phillips, “When Taxi Driver won Cannes, half the audience cheered and the other half booed.”
“Well, the movie gets the last laugh,” Jones said, “because that’s why we’re all here tonight.” MM
The 40th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver took place April 21, 2016, at the 15th Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.