The July/August 2018 issue of Film Comment featured a selection of letters written by Paul Schrader to his brother, Len, during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Schrader’s “Letters to Len” capture an extraordinary, perhaps unrepeatable era—and now his unique perspective continues online in expanded form with a special interactive feature. Read on:
Although I’ve made films about men who kept journals, I never kept one myself. I was not a collector. I have director friends who still have the first scrap of toilet paper they ever used. But not me. I threw my past out the window like a greasy wrapper.
I regret this. More and more so as I look back on the times and events I’ve witnessed. But recently I came across a window to those missing memories. My brother Leonard died in 2006. Recently his widow, Chieko, became seriously ill and needed to dispose of 20 boxes of stored possessions. My brother, unlike me, kept things. In those boxes I found 50 letters I had written to him between 1966 and 1970.
Because Len was teaching at Doshisha University in Kyoto for most of this period, it was too costly to speak by phone. So we wrote. I didn’t keep his letters. He kept mine. They detailed my experiences attending UCLA Film School, working at the Los Angeles Free Press, going to AFI, and seeing many, many movies. Len’s collection of letters ends abruptly in June 1970, even though the correspondence continued.
One letter in 1972 particularly changed our lives. I was drifting around the country having written Taxi Driver. A long letter from Len reached me in North Carolina. He too had lost his faith, his job, and his wife, and had taken to watching yakuza movies. His long letter detailed the themes, the stars, and the plotlines of Toei’s yakuza films. I responded to it and we met in Los Angeles to write The Yakuza. But that letter is lost.
April 11, 1969
A great deal of news, so I’ll just skim the surface. With a usual lack of tact you told Dad that I wanted to buy a stereo so now he’s cut back my allowance. But I found a $50 bill on the sidewalk earlier this morning, so that helps a little. I want the information on the Sony stereo immediately or forget it . . . I might be able to work up a good deal in L.A. I’ve become friends with Joel Reisner, broadcast programmer for FM station KPFK, which has a Watts Information bureau…
I’m being seduced into criticism. My writing has been very well received and I’m trying to get a little work on the side. I sold my interview with Henri-Georges Clouzot to Cinema magazine, and am piddling with a few articles they want me to write. I’m also organizing a big research article on Francis Ford Coppola’s dirty dealing for Film Quarterly. Reisner wants me to be on KFFK’s “Film Rap” program. I’m going to meet Allan King, director of Warrendale, and Donn Pennebaker, director of Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop, next week so there might be an article there. I’m also writing three two-to-three-page papers per week for my seminars, which is a fuck-ass drag because nobody reads them. Today somebody approached me about an article on King Vidor’s 16mm feature, but I’m getting a bit busy…
I spent the afternoon at Jean Renoir’s home in Beverly Hills, and was very entertained. Jean (as we friends call him) is shooting four short stories for French TV. During some continental business haggles he decided to come back to L.A. for two weeks. He told Max Laemmle, manager of the Los Feliz Theater, that my article on Boudu was the best he had ever read. He then sent me a letter to thank me, enclosing an autographed photo, asking for a tear sheet for Michel Simon, and inviting me to his home.
So Joel and I (Joel is an old friend of the Renoirs) were there this afternoon. This is an exceedingly kind, gracious, and fragile person. Just like his films: you can’t help but love him. We had a very interesting conversation about Bresson, Simon, Moreau, Magnani, Chabrol, Truffaut, but I remember the afternoon primarily as an experience, like a warm bath. His home is covered with original paintings by his father, Picasso, Cezanne, Braque, etc. In his living room hangs a larger-than-life-size portrait of Jean at 17 painted by his father: he is young and handsome, has a shotgun and hunting dog. Jean, now past 70, bald and pink-faced, was sitting in a chair in front of that painting. I think I’ll always remember that view. He is, as he describes Picasso, “a force of nature.” I think he is a greater artist than his father, for he invented the vocabulary before he embellished it. You think my head’s swelling. Peut-être.
Presently I’m grinding toward an MA in less than a year. I want to write my thesis on “Spiritual Style in the Cinema,” discussing Dreyer and Bresson, and hope to talk Eerdmans into publishing it. But Pauline [Kael] might be able to swing something if not. By fall I’ll be back to making films and working toward the MFA. Right now I’m meeting all sorts of important people so that when I do have a good film I’ll know the right people to show it to. When you get your first job in this business, it is 95 percent connections. Incidentally, Reisner says he might be able to locate some sort of AFI job for me next year, which would be good bread, etc.
For the rest of the letters, click below.
Paul Schrader is a screenwriter and director of 20 films, including First Reformed. He has been contributing to Film Comment for over 40 years.