May 17, 2012 on May 17, 2012
A list of the best films you'll never see, A through K
By Richard Thompson
Happy birthday, America! From the July/August 1976 issue: religion, Hollywood, and suicide
He has milk, bread, and apricot brandy. That's also from Diary of a Country Priest, and so is, "I think I've got stomach cancer." The country priest is dying of stomach cancer. He starts eating just bread dipped in wine, that's all he can eat, which only accelerates his problem.
Were you able to pick Scorsese to do Taxi Driver?
Taxi Driver is a very special case: it's a film that was made because the people involved all made large financial sacrifices and stuck to them for a long time. The entire above-the-line cost for Scorsese, DeNiro, Michael and Julia Phillips and Tony Bill [the producers], Peter Boyle, Jodie Foster, and myself was probably around $150,000; people were doing it for next to nothing.
We waited a long time. Michael and Julia Phillips saw the screenplay three years ago, about a year after it was written. They liked it; they optioned it with no real prospects in mind. Then I saw the rough cut of Mean Streets. At that point, we were talking about doing Taxi Driver with Robert Mulligan and Jeff Bridges. I was fighting that off because it didn't make any sense to me. Yet it was a deal, and God knows I wanted to see the film made. To Michael and Julia's credit, they were not keen on this either, but it was something that was around and that could have gone. I saw Mean Streets and said, "That's it. DeNiro and Scorsese." They saw it and said, "That's it" too. We never entertained any other possibilities, we stuck with it. Then came The Sting, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Godfather II, and Yakuza, and all of a sudden it was a commercial deal. No studio wanted to make the film, but we were simply offering them too good a deal. The original budget was 1.3 million (it eventually went up to 1.9), and they were getting all those elements for that price. It's like betting football: maybe you don't want a team to win, but the spread gets so large you have to go with that team.
And the only reason the package deal held together was because all the principals chose to hold it together rather than following their new fortunes?
Oh yes, absolutely. Any of us could have broken the deal. Bobby was greatly pressured; he got thirty or thirty-five thousand to do this film, and he was being offered half a million for something else. He was one of the strongest ones behind it all—absolutely adamant about doing it.
Why did everybody defer so much to make Taxi Driver—certainly not to make a fortune?
We were all young enough to want to do something that will last. DeNiro told me, when we were talking about whether the film would make any money, that he felt it was a film people would be watching fifty years from now, and that whether everybody watched it next year wasn't important. That's how we came to it, and that's why we didn't make any compromises; we figured if we're going to compromise on money, we're certainly not going to compromise on anything else. There's nothing in the film that was put there at the studio's insistence. There are things we disagree about, things I would have done differently.
Was this a successful bargaining strategy with the studio?
There was almost no bargaining at all.
The studio didn't intrude at all?
They were aware of the special nature of the film, and that we always presented a single group position to them. If they could have broken DeNiro off, or even Michael Phillips, it would have been a different thing. But we all stood together on it.
This reflects interestingly on the auteur method of splintering up the talents involved in a project; I don't think the people so involved can do that. It's very hard for me to separate Marty, Bobby, and I. Michael Phillips saw one scene in Taxi Driver and said to me, "That's you. Bobby is doing you right to a T in there." I don't see that. But I know Bobby asked me to read the entire diary into a tape for him, and he wore my shirt, my boots, and my belt in the movie.
Once you knew the deal was going to go with Taxi Driver, what was the step by step pre-production all of you went through?
The script pre-existed, and there was no real collaboration at that point. Marty had questions, and we talked; Bobby too. Marty went his own way, off to New York. About six weeks before shooting, I went out there and we went through everything again; I rewrote the script at that time, sitting in a hotel room with the people involved in the film-Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, and Jodie Foster-all around, I had that feedback. I'd just been to Italy and spent several days with DeNiro.
The Jodie Foster character is striking—a Seventies Shirley Temple.
When I was in New York, I was feeling particularly blue in a bar at around three A.M. I noticed a girl and ended up picking her up. I should have been forewarned when she was so easy to pick up; I'm very bad at it. The only reason I tried it that night is that I was so drunk. I was shocked by my success until we got back to my hotel and I realized that she was: (1) a hooker; (2) under age; and (3) a junkie. Well, at the end of the night I sent Marty a note saying: "Iris is in my room. We're having breakfast at nine. Will you please join us?" So we came down, Marty came down, and a lot of the character of Iris was rewritten from this girl who had a concentration span of about twenty seconds. Her name was Garth.
What about the "Pussy and the .44'' scene, with Scorsese as the murderous husband Travis picks up?
I was upset when Marty said he was going to do it himself, rather than get another actor, for two reasons: (1) I think the director's or writer's job is behind the camera; (2) I think you should get a pro to do that stuff. I didn't know how good an actor he was; I knew his egotism was such that he wouldn't admit it if he was wrong, so we could very well have a bad scene on our hands. Fortunately, he did it well.
It's an ambiguous scene.
The idea of the scene was that the man in the back seat would never kill anybody, but that the man in the front seat would. John Milius tried to get Marty to have me play that role. I wouldn't have done it; Marty didn't ask, either.
The scene was supposed to be the prelude to Bobby's moves toward violence—plant that idea in your head and in his head. And you should also see that he is the man who just sits there, and watches, and thinks. The man in the back seat gets his energy off; Bobby never does.
The asceticism of the film is so strong that even Scorsese's busy style doesn't overcome it.
The asceticism is essentially in the script; Marty's religious tendencies don't take that form. In Mean Streets, you have Harvey Keitel and the candles; it's more symbolic than ascetic.
I saw in Marty's work what I didn't have in the script: that sense of vibrancy, a sense of the city. What I think happened was that I wrote an essentially Protestant script, cold and isolated, and Marty directed a very Catholic film. My character wandered in from the snowy wastelands of Michigan to the fetid, overheated atmosphere of Marty's New York. That's another of the contradictions I think is exciting in the film. Travis Bickle is not a character that Marty Scorsese would ever think of or come up with; and that atmosphere is not one that I would come up with. It was a good mix, mixing purely in Bobby, who had the character and stretch that makes them both connect. He plays both ways.
When you talk about the script being Protestant and Scorsese bringing a Catholic tone to it, are you talking about traditional stylistic oppositions—Protestant asceticism and simplicity versus Catholic complication and emotional involvement—or are you talking about larger changes?
No, just the tone. Protestantism has a more individualistic, solipsistic, righteous quality. The Catholic thing is more an emotional, communal flurry. When you walk into a Protestant church, you feel as if you've walked into a tomb; in a Catholic church, people are talking, there are priests, candles, a whole different atmosphere. Travis's personality is built as if it were a Protestant church, but everything around him is acting differently. Both Marty and I have very strong religious backgrounds, so I don't think that's an incorrect interpretation.
Do you foresee working with Scorsese again, or do you think that concretely about the future?
DeNiro, Scorsese and I have thought that we should get together in ten years and do the story of our thirties; and maybe, later, the story of our forties.
Marty's not an easy person to work with. Of course, I'd like to work with him again, but I don't delude myself; time and reality intrude. I wouldn't work with him on the writing stage—I can't think of anyone I'd like to work with at that stage. If he wanted to do a script of mine, I'd love to collaborate at that level. One of the reasons Marty's good is that he's headstrong and stubborn; he has a very strong view of himself. He sees himself as an important entity, therefore he often takes criticism as a child takes a beating, wincing at every blow. If he gets enough of it, his health will go out—he's not at all a strong man. So arguing with him becomes a therapy session where you're reduced to pleading, screaming, arguing, and Marty's health is fading. It's good for him to go through these sessions, but it's hard, it wears you out. There are other directors who are easy to argue with, who accept your ideas very easily, but they're not as good. You have to go with the best people, no matter how hard it is.
When I first saw the film, Marty and I had a talk about it; he ended up having an attack, screaming, accusing me of not knowing what the movie was about and of being against him. That's one of the things that may do him in. If he has a fall, it will be simply because certain flaws have been exaggerated by success—one of which is an inability to take criticism, a paranoia. It will finally reach the point where he can get enough power that he won't have to deal with other people; then he'll be so cut off he'll make a big flop. It's a familiar pattern.
What about the rating issue—making up release prints with the blood color muted to escape an X?
It hurts the film. I hoped it would help create a surreal atmosphere, but it didn't have that effect; it was more surreal with the candy-red blood. But if you have to pay that price for an R, you pay it, because you just can't get an X played. I don't think the studio would have allowed it, would have released it.
Were any shots taken out?
A few minor ones, but nothing important.
Is there anything in the film you were surprised to find, things Scorsese put in?
Yes, it's full of them, in every scene. Many of them were worked on when I rewrote the script. Most of the so-called improvisation was done at that time, sitting down with cabbies, hookers, and people, talking, writing in new dialogue and business.
The value of the script has been multiplied twice over, once by Marty, once by Bobby. DeNiro's contribution was much of the schizophrenic quality of the character, which is not in the script. That quality in Travis of shooting the guy and then saying, "Oh, I don't know what to do about this gun"—all those schizo elements come straight from his personality. The character I wrote was going crazy in a more linear fashion than the character Bobby acted; his characterization zigs and zags.
The broken rhythm is very effective. Is the gesture when the cops come in after the carnage and he makes as if to shoot himself—is that a DeNiro improvisation?
No, that's in the script. A lot of physical stuff is, even to specifying the cute to the pages of the diary.
What's he redeemed from in Taxi Driver? Is it a cathartic redemption?
What he seeks is escape, to shake off the mortal chains and die a glorious death. It's a purely suicidal mission he's on, so to give some greater meaning he fixes on the surrogate father—Betsy's boss, the candidate—then on the other surrogate father—Iris's pimp; he has to destroy that image to break free. It's a shallow, self-destructive kind of freedom. At the end of the film, he is cheated because the gun is empty and he can't kill himself. But, in time, the cycle will again come around and he'll succeed the next time. The redemption or elevation or transcendence he seeks is that of an adolescent—he's simply striking out. He is not intelligent enough to give it any real meaning; it only has meaning as we look at it. It has no meaning for him.
It's quite an irony when he goes through the carnage and comes out an accidental hero.
Well, it's not realistic. It pretends to be a realistic film, but it takes all kinds of license. The whole film takes place inside that man's head; that's why it's not a realistic movie. I think the ending is thematically immaculate and poetically satisfying. The gimmick of the script is to create an untenable situation and see how close you can get to it. You get right to the point where you can't kill the candidate—or you'd have an uninteresting movie. You get right to that point and build up the pressure, then break it away and twist everything around. He's just about to do the act which will totally remove him from our sympathy. That's when the realism of the script starts to fade; it moves into a poetic level.
The controversial nature of the film will stem, I think, from the fact that Travis cannot be tolerated. The film tries to make a hard distinction for many people to perceive: the difference between understanding someone and tolerating him. He is to be understood, but not tolerated. I believe in capital punishment: he should be killed.
He could as easily have been, going into the sequence. Given the way sympathy and point of view have been manipulated about Travis, we can't be sure whether he's going to come out or not.
You don't know, even there at the end of the movie when he puts the gun to his head, whether he's going to die or not. You know he wants to die.
Given your judgment that he should be killed, why isn't he?
I don't really have an answer. The force which he represents is alive; I felt that it should be alive at the end. This is art, not life. In real life, if a man tried to break into my house at night, I'd shoot him. In art, I might want to sit down and have a conversation with him. It's more interesting to have a conversation with a burglar while you hold a gun on him. But in real life you don't fool around.
Long ago Pauline Kael asked me why I wrote about this character, what it had to do with me. I said, "It is me without any brains." It's the same need to escape, to break through, that drives a script in my case—a real need to triumph over the system. Now I live pretty much the way I want, get paid for it, work when I want, get a certain amount of respect, and so I have beaten the system. If I was everybody's pawn, if I was Travis Bickle, the triumph would have to take another course, probably a violent one.
Violence has a central place in your films, conceptually and dramatically.
I'd like to make it less so. I'd like to be able to solve problems without resorting to violence. I tend to write things in which the main character is like a lightning rod, and I build up an enormous amount of electrostatic tension in him over an hour and fifteen minutes. By the end of it, there's almost no place else he can go; he must explode because he's so charged up. As long as I write that kind of character, with a great deal of tension and guilt, then I end up with apocalyptic endings.
I'm trying to do other things. It's hard for me to talk about what I do because I have so little control over it. Taxi Driver I can talk about with confidence, because I know that everything I intended is on the screen, for better or worse; that is what I do. But Yakuza or Obsession are films I felt strongly about, but which now have little or no connection to me. It's hard to talk about my work apart from the director, who has the final say. You can write the most complex character, and if the director isn't a complex man, it won't be a complex character on the screen. Travis Bickle is very complex, full of contradictions. If Mulligan, Aldrich, or Rydell had directed that, it would have been a very simple person; they don't make complex people. If they do, they end up cardboard complex, lacking in passion.
As much as a critic pretends to be objective, he can only evaluate what's on the screen. Therefore, in most people's minds, Yakuza will be a bad script, Taxi Driver will be a good script, simply because one is a bad film, one is a good film. That's not always the case. I do believe Taxi was a good script which became a good film; but it could also have been a bad script which became a good film.
Does your work as a scholar and critic have some bearing on the work you're doing now?
No, I feel very separated from it. I'd like to get back and make the connection again. That's one reason I want to teach so badly: to get back into those disciplines. The similarities between my critical thinking and my screenwriting are more coincidental than anything else; they just don't seem to be part of the same thing.
As a practicing filmmaker, how do you feel about film criticism and thought—do you read it? Who do you read? What does it do for you?
It's as bad as it was when I was involved in it; hasn't improved; if anything, it's stagnated. In the last four or five years, since the country went into economic recession, the interest in commercial cinema has risen. Our recession probably did as much for American cinema as Andrew Sarris—everybody's interested in the business. You go to a film campus today and eight out of ten questions will be about business; there'll be a few stragglers worried about art.
Usually from the English department.
English, Philosophy, or Psychology, wandered over. I try to read as much as possible, but it's dull and unconnected with my immediate concerns. Pauline and Sarris remain for me the most readable of critics; they're the only ones I can read without work; the others I start, but don't finish. The great tradition of American film criticism is idiosyncratic: Manny Farber, Sarris, Parker Tyler, Pauline—the critical Mount Rushmore—people who have come out of the wilderness and are spouting some sort of doctrine which they have half-cocked in their own heads. The tradition, the academy tradition, is limp. It has no tradition and no idiosyncrasies, so it seems almost doctrinaire; quite uninteresting to me. Agee, Ferguson, and Warshow were all excellent critics, but their tradition hasn't survived—rightly, I suspect. It had phony cultural premises. Now I like Durgnat and, on the left, James Roy MacBean—he makes his points simply, effectively.
I wouldn't know what to write if I were writing criticism now. I think that's one of the things that keeps me from going back to it. The only frontier now is the structuralist and semantic frontier, which seems unpromising; it doesn't seem to have created anything. It also exists in such a vacuum of standards that it doesn't relate to anybody. You can't have criticism without standards. It's possible to talk about, say, Framed in an interesting way. But you can never, ever, say it is a good film. Otherwise, you have so abandoned your standards, how could you get people to read and trust you? A perfect example of this is Take One. You can open any issue of Take One and find a rave of anything. There are no standards on that magazine at all.
When you decided to be a screenwriter, how did you organize your campaign to break into the industry?
I didn't think of it as an industry; I thought of writing a script and seeing how much money I could borrow to make the film. I wrote the first script to be made for sixty or seventy thousand. I taught myself to write it very schematically. I'd never written anything before and I said, well, it's ninety minutes long. I used Freytag's triangle—inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement; it has to have these elements, as well as subplots, and certain characters revealing certain themes. There should always be a rising curve; when I lay on my curves, each character having a curve, one will always be rising. When one starts to fall, another character starts to rise, and the most interesting rising characters all meet at the climax. It was the most practical, calculated way of seeing a dramatic structure. There was a personal element, writing about things I knew. And I tried to evoke the religious feeling in that script that I haven't really tried to do since.
I came to movies as an adult and a critic, and I saw them in that light. When I started writing movies, I began to see them again as a child, with a much more unanalytical eye. When you analyze film, you're dealing with a cadaver, you work it over, and certainly it's a valid enterprise; you're seeing why the cadaver lived or died. But when you're writing films, you're dealing with a kind of nascent, primitive force that's alive and often unformed; you can't be analytical about it, you have to let it develop. Seeing movies as a child, you have to sit there and enjoy certain things that critically you may not approve of.
I have different ideas about writing screenplays than most people. One of the mistakes most young screenwriters make is, they go to the movies and say "I can write as well as that," and go home and do write that well. Of course they can, because most movies are so shabbily written that anybody can write them as well. What they don't understand is that nobody in the studio system would hire a fledgling Stirling Silliphant when he can get the pro—and he knows that Silliphant will do the job and come in with the product. He'll gladly pay extra for that security.
You should never try to beat the old pros at their game; they know it backward and forward. What you have to do is say, "What do I have that is so unique to me that if I write it, no one else will be able to copy it, and if they want to buy it, they'll have to come to me?" And in order to do that, you must come to terms with yourself in a very brutal way. If you want to see a woman cut off a man's hand and eat it, then you have to say, "Gee, I like seeing that in a movie, it was interesting." You have to accept that fact and deal with it in your own work. But it has to be a personal reaction. I have a friend in Boston who wrote a three-hundred-page script on Charles Guiteau, the man who killed Garfield; essentially a Janovian study of Guiteau. I was able to get through most of it. Afterwards, I said, "Let me tell you a story," and I recited his script back to him. Then I said, "If this movie were showing here, at the Orson Welles Theatre, would you go see it?" He thought for a while and said, "Probably not." I said, "Now you've spent nearly two years of your life writing a script you wouldn't even go to see. Why?"
That is a problem about writers: they write movies for the wrong reasons. They write them for their professors, their parents, the critics, studio executives, or to sell; and those are all the wrong reasons to write movies. Granted, some people do succeed writing movies for those purposes. The other reasons they write movies are to get laid and to get famous.
How would you advise people trying to break into screenwriting or directing?
Screenwriting is obviously the easiest way to get into the business, because there's no apprenticeship involved. If you write what they want, it doesn't matter what age, color, or political faith you have—they couldn't give a damn. If you have it and they want it, they'll take it. You're dealing with services rendered rather than services promised. In the other crafts, you have to undergo an apprenticeship.
My advice is to reach deep into yourself, pull out something unique and meaningful to you, then try to take that raw piece of meat and see it in the context of commercial film: how can I transform this raw meat into something a million people want to see? As a painter, you deal with a very small number of people, a dozen or so buyers of your work. As a novelist, you could break even if ten thousand people will pay for your work. In movies, you're dealing with a minimum base of a million people. It entirely changes your conception of how and what you're doing. You have to find something that at once means something to you and yet has a broad base.
As you get an idea, start telling it to people. Maybe it starts at five minutes, and grows each time it's told. As you tell it, you see feedback from the person you're telling it to. The important thing is not to listen to anything they say, because they'll always tell you it's good or has possibilities; and if you're insecure, you'll believe what they say and it'll fuck up your work. Watch their eyes and body movements; if you don't have their attention, you're losing the story—do anything to get their attention back. That's where you'll find yourself creating. Chandler once said that if you're losing their interest in a story, have a guy walk in with a gun. Nobody will ask how he got there, they'll just be grateful he did. Explain it later. As your narrative grows longer through retellings, you learn what it takes to hold an audience. When it hits an hour, I know it'll work as a script.
Screenwriting is not akin to fiction writing at all. It's like campfire storytelling, and that's how you should think of it. Words are not your primary tools. Dialogue is essentially a function of hearing. Most dialogue is just picking up the argot of the situation. I don't think a movie should have too many good lines—at most five great lines and ten good ones—and the rest should be absolutely ordinary and banal. Too many great lines make it top-heavy and unrealistic. This doesn't apply to comedy, of course. I think one of the problems with Terry Malick's writing is that it has too many good lines; you begin to listen to all the good lines—Tom McGuane has the same problem—and it breaks the dramatic narrative thread of the movie. You must learn to use good lines as spice.
If your structure is proper, if you get two characters together at the right place and time, it doesn't really matter what they say. Preferably, you should get them there about a minute before the audience expects them to be there, so you've got the element of surprise. If you have a man and a woman, once married and then having undergone separate episodes, and they are to meet again, which the audience expects them to do in front of a fountain, but you have them meet in a supermarket, you've absolutely got the audience. They go back to her place, it doesn't matter what they say at this point, because you've got them. He can say, "I never realized your coffee was so good," or "Your coffee doesn't seem as good as it used to be," or "I think your coffee is getting better," or "Did you change coffees?" Every single one of those lines has meaning because the context is so strong that, no matter what they say, it has reverberations; you've put the audience exactly where you want them. That kind of structure is much more important than dialogue. In fact, you can kill that scene by having them say something right on the nose—uttering a great line at that point.
Do you think Milius is top-heavy with too many good lines?
It's not only too many lines with him, it's too many good scenes. I just had a meeting with Warren Beatty and Milius in which Warren told John something I've been telling him too: "You come too soon and you come too often." I think that's one of his problems: he's so full of juice he just can't stop coming, rather than holding back and tightening the situation and building characters. That releasing diffuses the energy, the characters are too broad because they never have time to build up the inner strength.
How did you decide to take up screenwriting instead of novels, or TV, or nonfiction?
Two reasons. One, I'm a product of my time and films are the medium of my time. Two, I'm ambitious and impatient; novels require commitment and patience and sacrifice that I'm not willing to give.
What are you ambitious for that's best served through screenwriting?
Feedback. The two professions I covet most are comedian and rock singer, not because I would care to do those things, but because you get the feedback so quick. You know right away what you're doing; if s jumping right back at you. A novelist doesn't know for maybe five years. A screenwriter may know a little sooner, but it still takes a long time to get any notion; with Taxi Driver, it'll be four years between the time I wrote the script and when I start getting feedback. Feedback is just a euphemistic way to say Praise, Flattery, Acceptance, Love.
How do you diagnose the commercial realities you've mentioned and make them work for you? How do you take a meeting?
You sell your reality. All executives are scared. The job has very high attrition. If they have three or four failures, they're out of a job. They know they're in a revolving door and that there's no way to predict what will be successful movies; the rules change continuously. Given that it’s four years from the inception to the release of a film, they're trying to predict what people will buy four years from now—there's simply no way to do it. Therefore, they don't know what makes money, and they have to go by their instinct and experience.
You have to convince them that you know, or if you don't know, that your passion is so strong, your perceptions so acute, that they think you may be right. You have to make them believe in you. I remember standing on a coffee table at a meeting and acting out a scene, not only to make the scene live, but to show my passion that it would work. And if you convince them, spellbind them with your storytelling ability, and get them into the energy of the scene, they'll think, 'Jesus, if it works for me it'll probably work for other people too." You have to sell that story the same way you sold it to your friends as you worked it up.
Also, you need a certain amount of confidence and dignity about yourself. You shouldn't sell yourself cheap. Nobody likes a groveler. If you grovel your way into a man's office, he doesn't want you because he doesn't trust you. You have to know when to get up and leave a room. If you're not hitting it off with someone, if s foolish to try to win their favor. I've had a few meetings where I've said, "If s clear we don't get along and our ideas don't mix. If s nice meeting with you, goodbye." In the end, they'll respect you for that, and you can come back and have another meeting with them some other time.
What's your interest in becoming a director?
I see it in terms of getting more control over my life. I have to have control over things I do. If I don't get that control in this medium, I'll choose another. I’ll become a writer, or a painter—I've never painted, but you can learn—or a teacher, or a craftsman, I don't care. But it has to be something where I can control the product and say, "This is the thing I made," even if it’s only a vase. I'd rather set out that vase and say "I made it" than say, "I had ten percent of that movie." And now I'm just at the door. Most people I know in the industry assume that I will shortly direct something. It just doesn't make any sense to be doing half a film.
How do you feel about the visual and kinesthetic part of directing? Have you always been thinking about that?
I think I have good visual taste toward design, decoration, architecture, art; I don't really worry about it much. I don't want to make films whose sole function is to be looked at compositionally. I see directing as an extension of storytelling, which itself is an extension of thematic explorations. So the work I would do would be strictly at that level: as a thinker and as a dramatist. That's how I see movies. Whatever work I directed I would not be directing as a painter. Maybe after a number of years, I would graduate to that.
You're not without some experience here—you had to make at least one film at UCLA, didn't you?
Yes, I've made several student shorts, but, like I say, I see the image in far more pragmatic terms, as a way to get information across. The visual language is different from the verbal language; I see it very functionally. If a shot does not convey certain information, no matter how beautiful, it doesn't belong in the movie. The primary reason for a movie is to tell a story and get feedback.
There are those who don't agree, who see film as first a visual medium, second a storytelling medium. Some directors conceive of movies first as shots, and that's why you need scripts—you need a very clear demarcation between the writer and the director. You have situations where the writer has conceived a movie in terms of scenes and characters, and the director has done so in terms of visual rhythms—and then they meet. Some directors, thinking in terms of shots, composition, pans, and tracks, listen to your story and think, "Yeah, that's good, I can put my visual stamp on it. " Well, I'm a writer; my first interest is in the story. I say, "I have to have a scene in that bed which conveys impotence, or exhilaration, or whatever; how can I shoot it to convey that?" Whereas the director may say, "I have a certain image in mind, now how can I lay that on the scene?" There's a little of that in Marty, because he's not by nature a writer. He had certain shots, visual things, he wanted to do in Taxi Driver which had to be fitted into the movie. He'd tell me, "I want to do this shot. There isn't a place for it now. Write a spot for it into the movie."
You talk about metaphor, particularly with Taxi Driver: when you got the metaphor, you had the whole thing, it crystallized it. Did the metaphor suggest the whole story, did it precede everything?
I think there are three steps to writing a script. First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn't have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness, then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they're fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot.
One of the problems with screenwriters is that they think first in terms of plot or in terms of metaphor, and they're going the reverse way; it's awfully hard to do. Once you have a plot, it’s hard to infuse a theme into it, because it’s not an indigenous expression of the plot: that's why you must start with the theme and not the plot.
Metaphor is extremely important to a movie. A perfect example is Deliverance, where you have point A and point B, and four men going from A to B—the first time for the men, the last time for the river. On the strength of that metaphor, you could put the Marx Brothers in that boat and something would happen. When somebody walks up to you and says, "I've got a great idea for a Western and this is the twist," you know right off the bat that they're in trouble, because they're coming at it the wrong way. Maybe they'll be able to write a novel that sells, make a lot of money, and live in Beverly Hills; but it's not interesting to me, not something I really care about.
The distinction between religious and secular art is important to you.
When I came to movies as an adult critic, I tried to write religious film criticism, in the sense that I saw art in religious terms. As I understand it, religious art is the art of unification, the art that tries to find the common code of symbols and Jungian elements in all experience. It seeks to discover how we are all alike and all unified in a single spiritual purpose. That's how I was taught to view art, and that's how I came to film.
I was intrigued by the auteur theory, but I wasn't taken with it because it seemed to be a pursuit of individuals and idiosyncrasy, and I was interested in just the opposite: common elements of genre, theme, and style that ran through cultures and through individual filmmakers.
When I switched to screenwriting, I found I no longer saw film as religious art but as secular art. Because in order to be successful, I had to find something that was unique to me by reaching into my own personality and formulate my own problems in a way that solved them. I had to pursue my own idiosyncrasies. As a screenwriter, I found myself doing exactly what I opposed as a critic: writing the kind of things that I would not approve of formerly. I felt I had to do this to be able to create things important to me. So I see myself at this point as a very secular screenwriter pursued by his own demons.
My thinking about films is schizoid. There's a big fork in the road where criticism was essentially sacred and screenwriting profane. I am looking forward to the time when I can bring them back together. This was the reason that I was unable to write criticism once I started writing scripts: I realized my work in fiction had supplanted the pinnings of my theories as a critic. So instead of solving the conflict I stopped writing criticism; they were at such cross-purposes that they injured the quality of each other.
That's how I see the difference between sacred and profane; and now I think, as a writer, I can never bring those forks back together, because writers just don't have enough control. If I'm fortunate enough to control a film, I'll try to find a way to do work which is both expressive of my personality and yet has that universal quality.
Why is the pursuit of the crazy so important to you?
It provides a very definite problem you have to solve. Will I commit the aberrant form of behavior? Will I vandalize or steal or kill or mutilate myself? You're dealing with a very definite problem, crazy people: you have to solve it. It's an easier way to approach cinema, which is kinetic form dealing with action and character, than criticism, which deals with cerebral problems.
These dualities are reflected in your taste in films.
It splits right in half. On the one hand, directors who are community-oriented, thinking in terms of two-dimensional iconographic relationships to a mass—Dreyer, Bresson, Ozu, Rossellini, Boetticher, Michael Snow, Frampton, Gehr. I like that whole group of people, which strangely Barry Lyndon has now joined; Kubrick has co-opted that whole Annette Michelson-P. Adams Sitney crowd, a very interesting turn of events. That's one side, regarding film the way an architect looks at building a church. Then there's the other side I'm attracted to: craziness, pure idiosyncrasy, completely antisocial films. Kiss Me Deadly, where it's just random anger and violence; Rocky Horror Picture Show, Buñuel, Peckinpah; all those who say, "The whole world is wrong, only I am right, only I exist, my reality is transcendent." My likes went right to the edges of the bowl. The great American middle didn't appeal to me—Capra, Cukor, the conventional John Ford. Only the mad John Ford appealed to me: The Searchers, the Ethan Edwards half of him, which I love. Only the Vertigo side of Hitchcock, the crazy side. In Taxi Driver, those two compelling things are clear: half of it's Pickpocket, the other half is Kiss Me Deadly or Mean Streets, random brutality all around.
What draws you back to that apocalyptic violence?
Just getting something out of my system—and also, it was a very commercial solution to my problems at the time. I've had a history in the past of violent acts, which I no longer do. One of the stages in stopping them was to be able to do them vicariously in film. The ending of Taxi Driver is in no way horrifying to me. It's rich. It rolls out so right and so naturally, like the ending of The Wild Bunch.
What do you like about Gehr, Frampton, and Snow?
The ascetic quality, the worship of the structure; the value of the commonplace in the order of noninvolvement, the same thing I see in the transcendental style. It requires a lot of patience, but it finally moves me tremendously.
Do you still see a lot of films?
Yes, but mostly now I see them to keep in touch with who's working, who's available in terms of cameramen, editors, actors; I see just about everything that comes out of America, but I don't see as many old or foreign films as I used to.
Which current films interest you?
The films that make me think the most lately have been Mean Streets, Barry Lyndon, California Split—horizon-opening films. I think Barry Lyndon is a revolutionary film, a slap in the face of the entire history of motion pictures. It's an important film. I have endless respect for it. Nobody quite knows what to think of it. If s an assault.
Roeg's Performance is an important film. The Damned. The Wild Bunch, obviously. I think the two greatest films of the Sixties are Lolita and The Wild Bunch, for opposite reasons. One seems to be a film of the early Sixties, full of lust and promise and passion; the other a film of the late Sixties, full of death and suicide and passion.
I go back to certain films regularly. At least once a year I see The Searchers, Vertigo, either An Autumn Afternoon or Tokyo Story, Pickpocket or Diary of a Country Priest—to keep in mind what I'm striving for, and what can be done.
This has been a very healthy year for movies because of the success of off-the-wall projects, regardless of their merits: Lenny, Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon. These films make the room bigger for all of us.
What about blockbusters?
Every time a movie makes money, that's wonderful, because there's more money to spend. The more that's made, the richer the pot. Though eighty percent of it may end up building a nouveau riche palace in Bel Air, some of it will find its way back into movies.
So you're not upset by Steve Farber's worry that Jaws's pre-emptive success will further constrict the number of films to be made?
No, no: Zanuck and Brown got their first check each from Jaws—three and a half million apiece. They'll go on making films, and the money will come back. Steve is exactly wrong on this point. The fact that you can hit the jackpot draws more people into the casino.
What are you working toward?
I have one project I've been dying to do for a couple years and it looks like I'll finally be able to do it, despite a rights problem. It'll be very much like Taxi Driver: a new version of the Hank Williams story. The only difference between Travis Bickle and Hank Williams is that Williams can sing; it's the same character. With Hank you move up one step from Travis. The need to break through finds expression in art, through Williams' prodigious talent, but he was psychologically just as crazy, ignorant, and lonely.
Then I'd like to do the St. Paul story, where the need to transform one's surroundings, to re-create the world, becomes so great that he changes the entire history of Western Civilization. What we know of Christianity is to my mind Paulism. It was Paul far more than Christ who decided that it had to be a world movement. The Jews regarded Christ as one of their great prophets; Paul came along and said, "No, He's not a prophet. He is a God, He is a redeemer, and He has broken the law. Therefore, we can all break the law and break out of Judaism."
If I move from Travis Bickle to Hank Williams to St. Paul, you'll see how the move to transcend the world grows until St. Paul gets to the highest possible level. Travis obviously transforms his private world; Hank Williams transforms the larger world in a limited manner; Paul transforms the world in a huge sense and finally achieves the glorious martyrdom he seeks. He is not forced as Travis or Williams was to kill himself. I think they're very similar lives, and that's why I want to write about all three of them.
I was talking with Marty and Bobby before we shot Taxi Driver. I said, "This is the film of our youth, the film about our twenties, even though we're just in our thirties now; it's looking back." Bobby had once wanted to write an assassination story some years ago. It was about a kid who carried a gun around New York. He was lonely. He fantasized about using it. He used to go to the U.N. and sit there with the gun, trying to imagine killing any number of diplomats. Bobby said he was never able to write that script, it never worked out for him, but when he read Taxi Driver, he saw all the things he wanted to do with it. I told him, 'You know what the gun is, don't you Bobby? It's your talent. At that time in your life you felt you were carrying that huge talent around and you didn't know what to do with it. You felt embarrassment. You knew that if you ever had a chance to take it out and shoot it, people would realize how important you were, and you would be acknowledged." It's the same thing which caused me to write Taxi Driver, and the same thing that brought Marty to Taxi Driver.
Now we've all reached a point in our lives where we've had a chance to take out our guns and shoot them; we've received money and acclaim, and therefore, the pressure is not so great anymore. If Taxi Driver was to be any good, we would have to backtrack five years to those times when the pressure was so enormous that we needed to fantasize at that level. It goes back to a need to break out that was primitive and juvenile.
What sort of film would the film of your thirties be—the film you said you'd like to make with Scorsese and DeNiro?
I don't think it would be the Hank Williams story—too similar to Travis. It would have to be a story which had a successful male-female relationship; that's the thing that eludes Travis.
Do you envision a place for violence in the story?
I'm trying to move away from it, to solve problems in other ways. In the Hard Core script, I'm going to do the The Searchers ending, where you go right up to the moment of violence and then, rather than have it, you turn completely around and have a moment of forgiveness.
I'm trying to find a balance between my small, monomaniacal films and the large-canvas films. I've failed for the most part on the large ones; they haven't been as good as the small, personal films. I have to keep working on the large ones in order to keep growing. A new film I want to write is a kind of history of the Sixties seen through flashbacks from the points of view of two washed-up guys in the Seventies who are living in the Yucatán-called Not So Long Ago. A woman comes back to get a divorce.
I'd also love to write Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a film. To write a film unlike anything that's ever been done in America , a film of ideas; a sort of American Godard.
There was a story that someone came to your house one night with a script idea, and you listened, then said, "It doesn't have enough of this!" Whereupon you hauled out a .44 and leveled it at the person's nose.
Yes, that was Beverly Walker, she wrote that [FILM COMMENT, July-August 1973, p. 58]. It was a .38. She had written a Western, Pearl of the West, about a female bandit - sort of Alice Doesn’t Live Here in Dodge City. Now, you don't write about those times without having—well, if the gun was here now, I'd reach it up and say, "Without having enough of this." You have to accept that violence. You must come to terms with it. Her mistake was trying to do violence at all, because she had decided not to come to terms with it; so she should not have written a script about gunplay. If you're going to write a screenplay, then you need to have somebody stick a .38 in your face and say, "Give me more of this."
Are you a gun hobbyist, do you shoot as a sport? Do you have guns around for dramatic reasons, or self-protection?
More an obsession. I first got it for self-destructive reasons. I keep a gun right by my bed; have for a number of years. Sometimes I wake up in the night convinced that people are trying to break in. This makes me more comfortable, just a psychological thing.
An interesting thing about guns, which my shrink pointed out to me and which pertains to Taxi Driver, is that all my suicidal fantasies are exactly the same: they all involve shooting myself in the head. I never fantasize about jumping off a building, or taking pills, or using a knife. The shrink pointed out that I believe all the demons are in my head; the fantasy is to get them out of there. I have those evil, bad thoughts in there—it's my Calvinist background. So when I have fantasies, they're all about my blowing those evil thoughts out of my head, and then I'll be all right. So it isn't even like dying: it's getting that shit out of my head.
When you were a child, were you a good Calvinist boy or were you a rebel?
I was very good. I'm still a confessing member of the Church. I not only went to my own church's catechism, I'd go to two other church's catechism; I'd go to catechism three times in one night. I knew all the answers, and I became rather unliked among my friends because of it.
A bit of a spiritual show-off.
And I had great fantasies about converting the world. I still do. My father is always bemoaning my fate. I tell him, "You shouldn't feel so bad, Dad, I became an evangelist, just one of a different sort." Every time I have a success, it bothers my mother.
Because it's a success in films?
Yes, she's much enamored of the parable of the prodigal son, and she believes that eventually I will have to come back. Each time I have a success, it violates the rules of the parable—I'm supposed to be eating cornhusks out here. Therefore, the more success I have, the more she realizes I'll never come back.
And she won't switch parables?
No, and it's been a hard adjustment to make. But getting back to that story about Beverly, I've now switched metaphors. If Beverly came back here, I'd shake this in her face [Schrader picks up an open circle of metal bands from his coffee table] and say, "What we need is more of this." It's a silver crown of thorns I bought in Mexico. They use it in festivals. They put it on some poor peon's head and lead him around.
A list of the best films you'll never see, A through K