Au­teur de force

He will al­ways be in­tro­duced as the screen­writer be­hind ‘Taxi Driver’, but there are in­nu­mer­able points of in­ter­est to the ca­reer of Paul Schrader

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY TARA BRADY

Screen­writer and di­rec­tor Paul Schrader

There are two things that every­body knows about Paul Schrader. Aged 71, hav­ing di­rected some 21 films and writ­ten many more, the film­maker be­hind such post-Hol­ly­wood clas­sics as Blue Col­lar and Hard­core, will al­ways be in­tro­duced as the screen­writer be­hind Martin Scors­ese’s Taxi Driver.

The pair have col­lab­o­rated on other ti­tles, no­tably Rag­ing Bull, The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ and Bring­ing Out the Dead, but it’s the 1976 Os­car-win­ner that will, he reck­ons, fea­ture in the first line of his obit­u­ary. And he’s okay with that.

“When you get in­volved in a cul­tural cor­ner­stone, on the one hand, it’s enor­mously grat­i­fy­ing, and it’s very much a mat­ter of luck,” says Schrader, in his vaguely Mid­west­ern drawl. “I’ve al­ways seen it as a to­ken of free­dom. I got that out of the way early on, so then I was free to get on with and do other things. I never had to worry if I would ever make a film that leaves a huge cul­tural foot­print.”

The sec­ond thing that the prover­bial dogs on the street might bark about the Michi­gan-born au­teur is that, hav­ing been raised in the Calvin­ist Chris­tian Re­formed Church, he did not see his first film un­til he was 17.

Speak­ing to Film Com­ment mag­a­zine in 1976 – not long af­ter he and his brother Leonard earned a record $345,000 for the screen­play of The Yakuza – Schrader noted that: “I’m to­tally un­like all the peo­ple I know – Spiel­berg, Scors­ese – whose whole ado­les­cent con­scious­ness is de­fined by movies. My ado­les­cent con­scious­ness is de­fined by the church and the fam­ily struc­ture.”

As a child he begged to see King Cre­ole and Dis­ney’s Liv­ing Desert. His mother in­sisted that it didn’t mat­ter how in­nocu­ous the movie might seem, the ad­mis­sion price would sup­port an evil in­dus­try.

“That’s where she was com­ing from,” says Schrader. “You’d ar­gue that a cer­tain film wasn’t so bad, and my par­ents would ar­gue that you’re sup­port­ing all the other films that are bad. I sup­pose it’s an ac­cept­able ar­gu­ment. But film is like any other medium. It may be largely pro­fane but it doesn’t have to be.”

This sen­ti­ment re­calls Schrader’s cel­e­brated di­a­logue with the film critic Pauline Kael. Writ­ing in his 2006 es­say, Can­non Fod­der, the film­maker re­called that Kael had “… at­tacked the wall of high cul­ture – and the walls came tum­bling down. Kill Bill is the apoth­e­o­sis of Kael’s movies-as-trash ide­ol­ogy. Movies are as­sem­blages of pop cul­ture; the only cri­te­rion is “fun”. Is it fun? Is it cool? Is it hip?”

“Film was very dif­fer­ent when Pauline was writ­ing,” says Schrader. “I well re­mem­ber her line about trash be­com­ing all we were go­ing to get. She never imag­ined that trash would pre­vail over ev­ery­thing else.”

There’s trash and there’s trash. Schrader re­mains a movie nut, even when it comes to some of Hol­ly­wood’s four-quad­rant tent­poles.

“I’ll go to watch Black Pan­ther be­cause that’s some­thing I haven’t seen be­fore,” he says. “I went to watch Won­der Woman for the same rea­son. I don’t need to see an­other Jus­tice

League. I have less in­ter­est in see­ing a sec­ond or a third one of any­thing. But I am in­ter­ested when they’re mak­ing a new mould, like a black su­per­hero or a fe­male su­per­hero”

In 1969, Schrader aban­doned his plans to be­come a Calvin­ist min­is­ter, and took a uni­ver­sity course in film stud­ies. With a help­ing hand from Kael, he be­came film critic for a new un­der­ground mag­a­zine, the LA Free Press .He was soon fired for a neg­a­tive re­view of Easy Rider, but not be­fore he wrote about Robert Bres­son’s Pick­pocket. In 1972 that film and di­rec­tor fea­tured heav­ily in Schrader’s first book, Tran­scen­den­tal Style in Film: Ozu, Bres­son, Dreyer, a fas­ci­nat­ing coun­ter­in­tu­itive study of the sa­cred in a medium most, in­clud­ing Schrader’s own par­ents, con­sider pro­fane. Ob­ser­vant view­ers can find echoes of Bres­son’s Pick­pocket and A Man Es­caped in Hard­core, and a loose quadrilogy com­pris­ing Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper, Amer­i­can Gigolo and The Walker.

Col­lapse of the species

“First Re­formed has a sense of com­ple­tion about it,” he says. “It harks back to the book I wrote be­fore I be­came a film­maker and also harks back to the first script I wrote. It feels like the end of a 50-year cy­cle.”

First Re­formed, Schrader’s 21st film as a di­rec­tor, is the most overtly Bres­so­nian of his films to date. An in­te­rior, pro­found work, the film stars Ethan Hawke as the spir­i­tu­ally and phys­i­cally af­flicted min­is­ter to a dwin­dling flock in up­state New York. His cri­sis main­tains a di­a­logue with two par­tic­u­lar cin­e­matic grap­ples with faith: Ing­mar Bergman’s Win­ter Light and Bres­son’s Di­ary of a Coun­try Priest.

“Over the years you’ll not catch me be­ing Bres­so­nian,” prom­ises Schrader. “I was al­ways more in­ter­ested in ac­tion and drugs and sex­u­al­ity and vi­o­lence. I just didn’t think I’d make a film like this, as much as I like them. But then the time came and I’m glad I did.”

Nar­rated by a di­arist, First Re­formed is in­tro­spec­tive in a way that even the most thought­ful con­tem­po­rary pic­tures are not.

Schrader laughs. “Yeah, maybe that’s some­thing to do with the fact that in­tro­spec­tion is gone from con­tem­po­rary life. There are a num­ber of films that in­spired it. But the thing that first in­spired it was a con­ver­sa­tion I had with Pawel Paw­likowski, af­ter I’d given him an award for Ida. And af­ter­wards I said to my­self:

it’s time for you to do one of th­ese movies. And I had just made Dog Eat Dog which was a com­pletely ou­tra­geous, off the rails, pro­fane, gonzo, Tarantino kind of film. And hav­ing made that I re­alised I had the urge to do the com­plete op­po­site.”

The com­plete op­po­site sees Schrader as­sume the guise of Cas­san­dra. Con­cerned by im­ped­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal doom, First Re­formed’s pro­tag­o­nist con­sid­ers sui­cide bomb­ing as a form of rad­i­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal protest. The film­maker is sim­i­larly con­vinced that hu­man­ity, as we know it, is un­likely to make it into the next cen­tury.

“One of three things is go­ing to hap­pen,” says Schrader, who cites Yu­val Noah Harari’s Sapi­ens: A Brief His­tory of Hu­mankind as an in­flu­ence. “An en­vi­ron­men­tal col­lapse. A holo­caust, likely a nu­clear holo­caust. Or an evo­lu­tion. We’re head­ing to­ward what they call a sin­gu­lar­ity, when we will no longer be able to dis­tin­guish be­tween car­bon-based and sil­i­con­based life forms. Our tech­nol­ogy is driv­ing us fur­ther into our­selves. But that’s re­ally a byprod­uct of a larger col­lapse. Which is the col­lapse of the species. I don’t know how upset you can get about Trump and white racism and all that other stuff when the species has about 50 years left to run.”

‘Anger and black­ness’

Film­mak­ing has not al­ways been an easy busi­ness. Peter Biskind’s squab­bling ver­sion of the mak­ing of Cat Peo­ple takes up a size­able chunk, a de­bat­able chunk by Schrader’s ac­count, of that post-clas­si­cal Hol­ly­wood chron­i­cle, Easy Rid­ers, Rag­ing Bulls. For Blue Col­lar, Schrader’s 1978 di­rec­to­rial de­but, he had to jug­gle the egos of three ac­tors – Har­vey Kei­tel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto – each of whom be­lieved he was the lead. In 2003, hav­ing shot an Ex­or­cist pre­quel (Ex­or­cist: The Be­gin­ning), he was dis­missed by the stu­dio and re­placed by Renny Har­lin (two years on, Schrader’s Ex­or­cist at­tracted de­cent no­tices; Har­lin’s did not). A 2013 ar­ti­cle pub­lished un­der the head­ing ‘Here is What Hap­pens When You Cast Lind­say Lo­han in Your Movie’ in the New York Times, out­lines the trou­bled pro­duc­tion of The Canyons, a tale of house ar­rests, du­bi­ous doc­tors’ notes, and car crashes. Th­ese in­ci­dents have noth­ing, how­ever, on the Amer­i­can au­teur’s ex­pe­ri­ences on Dy­ing of the Light, a 2014 psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller star­ring Ni­co­las Cage as a gov­ern­ment agent who must track down and kill a ter­ror­ist be­fore he loses his full mem­ory from a dis­ease.

“I just gave a lec­ture about my ex­pe­ri­ences last week at Rot­ter­dam,” says Schrader. “I re­ally thought – I was dread­fully afraid – that this was it. I was go­ing to end my ca­reer with this hor­rific ex­pe­ri­ence and it was just go­ing to be anger and black­ness from here on out.”

Dy­ing of the Light was, he says, a ca­su­alty of the moviev­erse’s new breed of in­vestor. The maths were pre­cisely cal­i­brated around Cage. With that ac­tor, five ac­tion se­quences, a spec­i­fied run­ning time of 92 min­utes and a bud­get of $5mil­lion, the bean-coun­ters would make an es­ti­mated 17 per cent on their in­vest­ment.

“Be­fore, you were al­ways deal­ing with peo­ple who came up through the movies and who loved the movies,” sighs Schrader. “So you could al­ways sit down to­gether and find a res­o­lu­tion to any dis­agree­ment. But in the last 10 or 15 years, the peo­ple who fi­nance movies don’t par­tic­u­larly like movies or par­tic­u­larly watch movies. They have a fi­nan­cial model. And if you ad­here to the model, you can work. And if you don’t, you get re­placed. And that’s what I fell into with Dy­ing of the Light. I had writ­ten the script and they hired me as di­rec­tor and I as­sumed they had hired me be­cause they had some re­spect for me.”

Once Schrader had fin­ished shoot­ing, the film was taken away from him, cut, and dumped into the VOD mar­ket.

“And then af­ter­wards one of the men in­volved gave an in­ter­view to Indiewire say­ing ‘Schrader was a di­rec­tor for hire who mor­phed into an au­teur af­ter the film was cut’. I couldn’t let that stand. That stain. And that’s when Dog Eat Dog came along. It wasn’t my most im­por­tant pic­ture. But I had fi­nal cut.” De­spite the un­pleas­ant­ness around Dy­ing of the Light, Schrader in­sists that in most re­spects, film­mak­ing is eas­ier than it once was.

“First Re­formed is not a film I could have made years ago,” he says. “The shoot would have taken 45 days; now it takes 20. That’s the ben­e­fit of the new tech­nolo­gies. The down­side is that it is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to make money off th­ese kinds of films. The film­mak­ers are still out there. The au­di­ences aren’t.”

He is not sure that there’s a neat, easy way to coax think­ing pa­trons back into cin­e­mas. The post-clas­si­cal pe­riod that spawned Schrader and oth­ers may, he notes, be heav­ily ro­man­ti­cised. But it would be vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to repli­cate in the cur­rent cul­tural cli­mate.

“I think it has to do with the frag­men­ta­tion of cul­ture,” he says. “When cul­ture was more uni­fied it was a place where peo­ple could meet: a town square in the arts. There was a so­cial ele­ment to ac­tivism. It didn’t mat­ter if it was abor­tion rights or gay rights. We made movies about it and peo­ple talked about the movies. Now there’s no place where ev­ery­one goes. And no­body talks to each other any­more. It’s hard to talk about an artis­tic life when you’re only see­ing things that have been pre-ap­proved for you and that you agree with.”

Against this – not to men­tion the thor­oughly Calvin­ist doom that un­der­scores his new­est film – Schrader re­mains grate­ful for the time­li­ness of his ex­is­tence and glit­ter­ing ca­reer. With cer­tain caveats, of course.

“I love the movies, and at my age I have lived in the sweet spot of hu­man his­tory,” he says. “I was born into the wealth of Amer­ica of 1947. I had the best of health­care, the most leisure time, the most ma­te­rial goods. What did we do us baby boomers with that ex­tra­or­di­nary priv­i­lege? We ru­ined ev­ery­thing for our grand­kids. I don’t know what our suc­ces­sors will make of us. But I’ll bet they’ll build us a hell of a mu­seum.”

Paul Schrader will present First Re­formed at ADIFFonFe­bru­ary22nd.Seed­

When cul­ture was more uni­fied it was a place where peo­ple could meet: a town square in the arts. There was a so­cial ele­ment to ac­tivism. It didn’t mat­ter of it was abor­tion rights or gay rights. We made movies about it and peo­ple talked about the movies


Paul Schrader: ‘The film­mak­ers are still out there. The au­di­ences aren’t.’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.