Based on a bru­tal novel by for­mer ca­reer crim­i­nal and Pulp Fic­tion guest star Ed­die Bunker, Dog Eat Dog is a lit­er­ary adap­ta­tion like no other. Hol­ly­wood leg­end Paul Schrader and co-stars Ni­co­las Cage and Willem Dafoe talk Crime Scene through their colou

Crime Scene - - FEATURE - By James Mot­tram

When Paul Schrader took to the stage in Cannes ear­lier this year to present his new film, Dog Eat Dog, he urged the au­di­ence to have “fun”. It’s not a word usu­ally associated with the work of this bril­liant Amer­i­can – the screen­writer of Martin Scors­ese’s leg­endary Taxi Driver, the writer-di­rec­tor of Light Sleeper, Af­flic­tion and Auto Fo­cus. “He’s a lit­tle light on the come­dies!” laughs ac­tor Willem Dafoe, who chalks up his sixth Schrader col­lab­o­ra­tion with Dog Eat Dog. “He was raised Calvin­ist.”

Still, Dog Eat Dog is a brazenly funny crime ca­per, with Schrader in­ject­ing some much-needed fresh­ness into this age-old tale of ex-cons look­ing for one fi­nal score. This may come as a sur­prise for those who know the source novel, writ­ten by the late jail­bird-turned-screen­writer/ac­tor Ed­die Bunker. Pub­lished in 1995, just three years af­ter he popped up as Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s de­but Reser­voir Dogs, Bunker’s fourth novel was a dark, vi­o­lent tale set in the Los Angeles un­der­world.

Ed­die Bunker was born in 1933, and his hard­boiled prose grew from his early-years ex­pe­ri­ences: ju­ve­nile hall at 14, LA County Jail at 16, San Quentin – the youngest ever

in­mate – at 17. Nor was this just an ado­les­cent phase: Bunker spent the next 24 years in and out of prison, con­victed of bank robbery, drug-deal­ing, ex­tor­tion and armed robbery. It was be­hind bars that he took to the type­writer, even­tu­ally craft­ing his 1973 de­but novel No Beast So Fierce.

No Beast was adapted for the 1978 film Straight Time star­ring Dustin Hoff­man; Bunker’s sec­ond book The An­i­mal Fac­tory even­tu­ally be­came a movie di­rected by Steve Buscemi in 2000, again mark­ing out the au­thor’s pen­chant for lowlife au­then­tic­ity. For Dog Eat Dog, screen­writer Matthew Wilder ( Your Name Here) fol­lowed suit, pen­ning what he called “a fairly straight-ahead, gritty ’70s-style crime thriller”. But then the script ar­rived on Schrader’s desk.

The writer-di­rec­tor was coming off the back of a par­tic­u­larly galling ex­pe­ri­ence on his last film, 2014’s Dy­ing Of The Light, which was taken away from him and re-cut dur­ing the edit­ing process. “I lost that bat­tle,” he sighs, as he re­calls a con­ver­sa­tion with its star Ni­co­las Cage, whom he’d first met on the di­rected Bring­ing Out The Dead, which Schrader scripted. “I said, ‘If we live long enough, we should work to­gether again. We should get fi­nal cut and we should make this right.’” Cage agreed.

When Wilder’s script ar­rived, it was the per­fect ve­hi­cle to make such amends – though Schrader was con­vinced a straight adap­ta­tion wouldn’t work. “To be faith­ful to Edward Bunker would be es­sen­tially to make a ’70s movie, to make Straight Time. They made that movie, Dustin Hoff­man es­sen­tially play­ing Ed Bunker. But we’re in a dif­fer­ent time now. We’ve had Scors­ese and we’ve had Tarantino and we’ve had Guy Ritchie and you can’t ig­nore that.”

In­deed, Schrader pin­points the dif­fi­culty direc­tors now have when it comes to crime films: find­ing orig­i­nal­ity in the wake of what’s gone be­fore. “There was a gen­er­a­tion that made gang­ster rules. Then there was a gen­er­a­tion that broke the rules, like the Nou­velle Vague. Then there was a gen­er­a­tion that laughed at the rules, and that was Quentin Tarantino’s gen­er­a­tion. And now we have a new gen­er­a­tion that doesn’t even know there were rules. That’s who you’re mak­ing this for.”

Switch­ing the ac­tion (and the shoot) from LA to Cleve­land, Schrader’s an­ar­chic ap­proach was a ne­ces­sity, he es­ti­mates. Take the open­ing scene where Dafoe’s loose-can­non crim­i­nal Mad Dog is sit­ting in a pink colour-schemed house watch­ing TV and snort­ing nar­cotics, be­fore he mur­ders a mother and her daugh­ter in cold blood. While it mir­rors the open­ing scene of Bunker’s book, there’s some­thing shock­ing – and funny – about see­ing these pink home fur­nish­ings splat­tered with blood.

Cage takes up the idea. “Paul’s been ex­per­i­ment­ing with that for a long time,” he ar­gues. “Like Mishima [Schrader’s 1985 biopic of the Ja­panese au­thor] – there’s a still shot of a guy in an oxy­gen mask. And these things are sub­lim­i­nal sug­ges­tions. Paul works with colour or black-and-white, or us­ing height­ened colour – like the pink. But he did say to me that he thought Dog

Eat Dog was go­ing to be funny and when I read the script I didn’t see how it could be funny! But I knew when he said that, he had some trick up his sleeve.”

Doubt­less Cage is right; the vis­ual gags don’t im­me­di­ately leap off the page. Min­ing the same black hu­mour as Oliver Stone’s Tarantino-scripted killers-on­the‑lam tale Nat­u­ral Born Killers, Schrader has taken Bunker’s lurid vi­o­lence and amped it up for a post-mod­ern crowd. “The book was not as absurdist or as trans­gres­sive as this is,” he says. “But then Edward Bunker’s sen­si­bil­ity was forged in the ’70s, the book was set in the ’90s, and now here we are in the Twenty-teens. So it’s a dif­fer­ent world.”

If Bunker’s crim­i­nals were danger­ous felons, Schrader’s char­ac­ters are trapped by their own fal­li­bil­ity. The plot sees Mad Dog team up with old bud­dies Troy (Cage) and Diesel (Christo­pher Matthew Cook) to per­pe­trate what should be a sim­ple baby kid­nap­ping, tak­ing the in­fant be­long­ing to a lo­cal gang­ster who has crossed a Cleve­land mob­ster known as Grecco The Greek (played by Schrader him­self, in what is his first ever cred­ited act­ing role; he’d pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered Ru­pert Everett for the part).

For all the stylis­tic lu­nacy, switch­ing be­tween colour and black-and-white, Dafoe be­lieves Dog Eat Dog is still true to the spirit of Bunker’s work (and he should know: he fea­tured, along­side the au­thor, in Buscemi’s An­i­mal Fac­tory). “Once they’re in that world, once they get dirty, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to get clean. And once they go deep enough, get­ting dirty, you know they’re go­ing to have a tragic death. It’s ba­si­cally what Ed­die Bunker talks about – he talks about this world that you en­ter and it’s hard to get out.”

Dafoe and Cage last acted to­gether on David Lynch’s Cannes-win­ning 1990 film Wild At Heart, though they since col­lab­o­rated on the Cage­pro­duced Shadow Of The Vam­pire, which gained Dafoe an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for his role as Max Schreck. “I’ve fol­lowed Nic’s work all through his ca­reer,” says Dafoe. “I get in a room with him, we know each other, we can get right down to work. There’s not a lot of game-play­ing or ego-stuff or even try­ing to find a com­mon lan­guage – we’re there.” Cu­ri­ously, Cage was of­fered Dafoe’s role ini­tially – but de­cided he wanted to play the (rel­a­tively) straight man, Troy. For an ac­tor who has his own Youtube com­pi­la­tion en­ti­tled “Ni­co­las Cage Los­ing His Shit”, ded­i­cated to all his crazy char­ac­ters, this was some­thing of a turn­around. But the rea­son was sim­ple: Cage had just starred in the up­com­ing Army Of One, a com­edy about real-life Colorado con­struc­tion worker Gary Faulkner, who set out to find Osama Bin Laden. “I didn’t have the en­ergy to play an­other ma­niac,” he says. Still, rather in line with Schrader’s di­rec­to­rial man­date – “don’t be bor­ing” – the 52-year-old Cage has plenty to chew on, not least chan­nelling Humphrey Bog­art in one scene. “That’s part of his par­tic­u­lar fan­tasy,” says Schrader. “Troy thinks he’s a sharp dresser. He thinks he’s at­trac­tive to women. We play that lit­tle joke at the be­gin­ning – you see him in that cool suit, look­ing like Humphrey Bog­art, at the bar [all shot in black-and-white]. Then you go to colour and you re­alise it’s a go­daw­ful turquoise suit.”

So could these two vet­eran ac­tors re­verse their roles and play the parts Schrader orig­i­nally in­tended for each? Cage, look­ing daz­zling in a pair of sparkly shoes, chuck­les at this idea. “This [could be] an in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­ment,” he says. “I would ad­vo­cate that we do Dog Eat Dog Deux and have Willem play Troy and I’ll do Mad Dog this time!” Dafoe, 61, is less cer­tain. “He could eas­ily play Mad Dog. I’m not sure I could play Troy!” he notes, humbly – though hav­ing played Je­sus in Scors­ese’s The Last Temp­ta­tion Of Christ, he could prob­a­bly play any­thing.

If any­thing, Dog Eat Dog plays so fast and loose – with Bunker, with genre, with style – it would be no sur­prise if the ac­tors changed roles part-way through. With no stu­dio to an­swer to, any­thing went. Schrader re­calls one mo­ment where he and Cage de­cided on the spot to kill off a fe­male char­ac­ter. “That came from [John Boor­man’s] Point Blank, where Lee Marvin says, ‘Lady, I don’t have the time…’ Boom! We didn’t have to pass it through any­body.” A rene­gade like Ed­die Bunker would doubt­less ap­prove.

Dafoe has his­tory with both Bunker and Schrader. Dafoe’s char­ac­ter is called Mad Dog for a rea­son.

Right:ex-con au­thor Ed­die Bunker was the real deal. Above: Niccage, Willem Dafoe and some other guys have fun as vi­o­lent but bungling hood­lums.

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