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
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.