Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Writer/Director Paul Schrader

Originally published on September 8, 2017 11:19 am
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week we're marking our 30th anniversary as a daily NPR program with a retrospective collecting interviews from our first couple of years. We'll start today's show with my 1988 interview with Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ," which were each directed by Martin Scorsese.

Schrader wrote and directed "Blue Collar," "Hardcore," "American Gigolo" and "Light Of Day." Sin and sometimes redemption are recurring themes in his work. He grew up in a religious Calvinist home. As a young man, he'd planned to become a minister. He didn't enter a movie theater until he was 17 because movies were banned by his church. He told me about that ban.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAUL SCHRADER: Well, it banned what they called worldly amusements, which included things like card playing and smoking and drinking and dancing and theater attendance. And this came out of Prohibition days. And the ban was actually instituted in 1928. And you know, I once as a child rather impassionately queried my mother about this. I think I wanted to see some Disney film. And she said to me, it doesn't matter. The quality of the film doesn't matter. It's the industry that is evil. And so I think that was the position.

GROSS: Did you have a sense of what you were missing?

SCHRADER: No, and I'm actually very happy about having missed all those.

GROSS: No, really? Come on (laughter).

SCHRADER: Well, yeah because, you know, you are imprinted as an artist or as a person by, you know, how you come to a specific field. And I came to films as a college student. And the first films I really saw or paid serious attention to were the films by Bergman or Bunuel, Antonioni, Bresson. And that was my original imprinting in films.

And my peers and coevals, you know, were imprinted with Westerns and Disney films. And when they say, I want to make the movies that I loved when I was a child, they think about those films. And when I say that, I don't think about those films. I think about, you know, the kind of childhood background and about the films I first came to love. I came to films as an adult and then later learned to love them as a child. So it has given me a unique perspective and a unique place in this business. And I've never really worried about anyone doing what I'm doing because no one has my perspective.

GROSS: What's the first film you saw, and what effect did it have on you?

SCHRADER: Well, actually the first film was a Disney film - was "Absent Minded Professor." And I snuck...

GROSS: Is that the one with Jerry Lewis, or was that "The Nutty Professor"?

SCHRADER: That's "The Nutty Professor." This is the one with Fred MacMurray.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, OK.

SCHRADER: And the one about flubber.

GROSS: Oh, boy (laughter).

SCHRADER: And anyway, I snuck in to the balcony. And I sat there watching this, and I was wondering what all this fuss was about.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: And then about a year later, a friend of mine took me to see "Wild In The Country" with Elvis Presley and Tuesday Weld. And I sat there, and I realized, aha, this is why they don't want to me go.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: Here's the problem.

GROSS: And what effect did that have on you, seeing that?

SCHRADER: (Laughter) Well, I had developed a mad crush on Tuesday Weld.

GROSS: And did that make you feel bad?

(LAUGHTER)

SCHRADER: No. It made me want to see more movies.

GROSS: Yeah, so what made you so passionate about movies?

SCHRADER: Well, you know, it's - it was a very luxurious forbidden fruit. I mean not only could you be a rebel and do something that upset your elders, but you could also wear the mantle of respectability while you were doing it. It was like having your cake and eating it. It was a rare opportunity, you know, to be a rebel without, you know, having to do things like break into cars.

GROSS: When you started to go to the movies, did you feel hopeless about catching up, that everybody had grown up with movies and you hadn't and you had this whole wealth of movies to see before you could really know them?

SCHRADER: Well, you know, I came in as a film critic. And I went to UCLA film school. And I remember my first year in Los Angeles, I kept a notebook. And I averaged I think 22 films a week for that year. And this was before cassette, so I had - you know, I was jockeying from one little university cinema to the next. And that's all I did for about two years - was caught up.

GROSS: You had intended I think to be a minister, and then you became a film critic and then a screenwriter and director. Why had you wanted to be a minister?

SCHRADER: Well, it was just sort of part and parcel of the background, you know? Those were the most respected figures. And I've always had this sort of proselytizing urge, you know, to go out and communicate and convert. And so that was rather natural.

GROSS: Do you feel like you channel that urge into movies?

SCHRADER: Well, I think it's pretty obvious.

GROSS: (Laughter) One of your movies, "Hardcore," is about a father from a background similar to yours, a Calvinist in Grand Rapids. And this father's daughter runs away to the city, where she starts working in pornographic movies. I was wondering if your parents felt like the father in this movie when you left home and started just working in regular movies, if the movies were so extreme to them in the first place that it might have well have been hardcore.

SCHRADER: You know, I suspect they may well have.

GROSS: Did they ever break the ban to see any of your movies?

SCHRADER: I believe so, but it's not a subject comes up.

GROSS: Yeah. I was wondering if ordinary life or if the film world seemed exotic to you after leaving Grand Rapids. When I say ordinary life, I mean a more secular life.

SCHRADER: Actually, you know, people came to Hollywood - who come to Hollywood - they talk about how tough it was. You know, before I moved to New York, I was in Los Angeles 14 years. And strangely enough, it never seemed that tough to me because I had come from a background where people were not trying just to tell you how to behave. They were trying to tell you how to think. And you had to fight off the mind control aspect of it. I got to Hollywood, and I said, these people don't care how I think. They just want me to behave in a certain way. This is no problem.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: So I didn't see it as that difficult.

GROSS: You've been collaborating with Martin Scorsese on and off since the mid-'70s. The first time you collaborated was on the film "Taxi Driver." You had written the screenplay. And you asked I think that he direct the movie. And I think you wanted him to direct it after seeing his film "Mean Streets." What was it about "Mean Streets" that you knew was the right sensibility for the film you were making, "Taxi Driver"?

SCHRADER: Oh, it was just the passion, you know, and also the perversity, you know - someone who is willing to grab the thing, put it between his teeth, bite hard and run, you know? I don't want to use words we can't use on language - but someone who has the guts to do it.

GROSS: Now, in "Taxi Driver," your screenplay is about a lonely, alienated, psychopathic taxi driver. You've described the taxi as the perfect metaphor for loneliness - a man driving around the city in a steel coffin. And his alienation erupts into a bloody killing spree at the end of the movie, which he thinks of in heroic terms. He thinks he's helping to clean the city of the pimps and the filth. I want to play from - yeah, go ahead.

SCHRADER: What's interesting about that is in the film, he fixates on two women, one of whom he can have and one of whom he can't. And of course he wants the one he can't and doesn't want to one he can. And out of this dilemma, he decides to kill the father figure of the good girl, and when he - and who is a politician. And when he cannot do that, he fails. He kills the father figure of the bad girl, who's the prostitute.

And what's interesting, in his mind, there's really not much difference. They're both - you know, there's these competing father figures. It's just that in society's mind, of course he becomes the hero because one of them was a pimp and not a politician.

GROSS: Sounds a little Freudian. Were you on Freudian analysis at the time?

SCHRADER: (Laughter) No, subsequently.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK, well, you wrote the journal, the diary for Travis Bickle, the taxi driver, which De Niro just gives a brilliant reading of in the movie. I want to play some of that. And this is from the record, so it's excerpts edited together from the film. So this is Robert De Niro over a score by Bernard Herrmann with the screenplay by my guest Paul Schrader from "Taxi Driver."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAXI DRIVER")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Travis) May 10 - thank God for the rain, which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks. I'm working long hours now, six days a week, sometimes seven days a week. It's a long hustle, but it keeps me real busy. I can take in 300, 350 a week, sometimes even more when I do it off the meter.

All the animals come out at night - buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies - sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn. I take them to Harlem. I don't care - don't make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won't even take spooks. Don't make no difference to me.

Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the back seat. Some nights I clean off the blood. Twelve hours of work, and I still can't sleep. Damn, days go on and on. They don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person like other people.

GROSS: The tone of writing in that seems so perfect for the character.

SCHRADER: I love that line. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, which of course is what this character does...

GROSS: Oh, precisely, precisely.

SCHRADER: ...Every moment of the day (laughter).

GROSS: And the next line is just the most perfect line about alienation I think I've ever heard. I believe that somebody should become a person like other people. I mean it's just the perfect, perfect expression of alienation. How did you know - not being a psychopath yourself, how did you know the tone of voice to get for this? It just seems just right.

SCHRADER: Well, I wrote that script in 10 days and two drafts. It jumped out of my head like an animal. And so it was a really cri de coeur. It was a cry from my heart. I had fallen into a difficult period in Los Angeles where I was living in my car and just sort of driving around and having a lot of trouble sleeping.

And then finally I got a pain stomach, which turned out to be an ulcer. I went in the hospital, and then while I was talking to a nurse in emergency, I realized I hadn't spoken to anyone in several weeks. And when I was in the hospital, I realized that that's what I was. I was like a taxi driver. I was like this person who was floating around in this car. And I got out of the hospital, and I wrote that script, like I said, in 10 days.

GROSS: Did being in that car, driving around in it, almost living in it increase your sense of detachment and alienation (unintelligible) separate from?

SCHRADER: Yeah, yes. I mean particularly in Los Angeles where I was - I wasn't in New York at the time - you know, you really - you know, you do feel like you are alive in a coffin.

GROSS: Let's get back to the tone that you actually wrote it in. There's something almost Old Testament about the tone. Someday a real rain will come along and wash all the scum off the streets - that apocalyptic sense.

SCHRADER: Yeah. I really, you know, that was my first real script. I'd done one thing before. And so I mean I really - I didn't know how you were supposed to write scripts yet.

GROSS: (Laughter) But had you studied the journals of people who had become assassins or murderers?

SCHRADER: No. I was actually surprised. Arthur Bremer's journal came out after I had written the script. And I read it, and I was very surprised to find that the voice was almost identical. And I think that, you know, the reason that people - psychopathic people have attached themselves to this film is because the voice is absolutely authentic.

GROSS: Did it scare you that you were able to so authentically and so intuitively capture a psychopathic voice?

SCHRADER: Well, you know, it scared me that I was at that place at that time. I mean the person who wrote that script is long gone, and I don't even know if I would recognize him if I saw him.

GROSS: Now, I read that De Niro had you record the diary that you wrote. Do you still know all the lines by heart?

SCHRADER: No, no. In fact I never go back and see any of the films, you know? I saw "Patty Hearst" when I handed it in April, and I'll never see it again.

GROSS: Well, why not?

SCHRADER: I don't like to go back.

GROSS: Listen; I've seen "Taxi Driver" lots of times (laughter).

SCHRADER: I don't like to go - all I see is the bad. I never see the good. And I just like to, you know, keep moving.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1988 interview with screenwriter and director Paul Schrader. We'll hear more after a break as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "NIGHTMARE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and continue my 1988 interview with Paul Schrader. When we left off, we were talking about writing the classic film "Taxi Driver." The film has an unwanted echo in American history. John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan in 1981, was obsessed with the film and one of its stars, Jodie Foster. Hinckley said he tried to assassinate the president to impress her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You had mentioned that you think one of the reasons why psychopaths attach themself to "Taxi Driver" is because the voice is so authentic. How - what was your reaction when Hinckley said that he had seen "Taxi Driver" and he wanted to impress Jodie Foster by attempting to assassinate the president?

SCHRADER: So I was in New Orleans at the time, scouting locations. And it came over the radio that this kid had tried to kill Reagan. And he was from Colorado, sort of a white-bread kid. And I said to the person sitting next to me - I said, it's one of those "Taxi Driver" kids. And I got back to the hotel, and the FBI was waiting for me. And in fact it was one of those "Taxi Driver" kids.

You know, the film didn't create them. They exist before the film and after the film. And they attach themselves to many things. You know, more - you know, it's actually sort of rare that they attach themselves to a good film - more likely they attach themselves to things like advertising.

GROSS: You know, you were always warned about the danger of films. Did any of that come back to you after this?

SCHRADER: No, no. I mean...

GROSS: Not relevant?

SCHRADER: I think that really works, you know? I mean I think that it is possible through artifice to, you know, vicariously purge yourself of these dangerous feelings.

GROSS: Three of your films - "Taxi Driver," "Hardcore" and "American Gigolo" - are set in part in the sex trades. And I was wondering what your interest was in there.

SCHRADER: Well, it was, you know, a lot of adolescent acting out. You know, I came from a rather puritanical background. And so you know, at a certain age, you've got to trash the candy store.

GROSS: (Laughter) Is that what you saw yourself doing?

SCHRADER: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: When you started directing as well as writing, what was the most difficult thing for you to learn about directing?

SCHRADER: Visual logic. I know - I'd come from a background which believed that ideas were the - in the province of words. If you had something to say, you used words to say them. And it took me a long while to understand that images were also ideas and that they were not synonymous with words and that the image of a fork is not the same as the word fork. And it sounds rather simple, but I tell you; it took me a long time to figure it out.

GROSS: Well, how did you learn how to think visually?

SCHRADER: Well, I - actually, I fell under the tutelage of a wonderful architect named Charles Eames. And that played a very important role in understanding that - the poetry of and the logic of imagery.

GROSS: You've also said that you had to learn how to not be too literary when you were writing screenplays. You said, I don't think a movie should have too many good lines - at most, five great lines and 10 good ones. The rest should be absolutely ordinary and banal.

SCHRADER: Yeah. Well, I mean you can overwrite a movie and start to call attention to the language - you know, unless that is your intention, unless language is the subject matter of the film, such as in a David Mamet production. But if you are trying to, you know, convey, you know, quotidian - daily reality, then you've got to restrain yourself from getting a little excessive in that area.

GROSS: You said that you are no longer the same person who wrote "Taxi Driver," that you don't really have those feelings anymore. At that time, I think you were really motivated by certain demons, by alienation, by loneliness. You're now married. You're a father. And I figure loneliness wouldn't have the same pull on you that it did then. Are there different things that motivate you now when you're writing or even different demons that drive you?

SCHRADER: Yeah, certainly. And you miss those old demons, you know, boy, because those are powerful engines, and they really drive you hard. And it's actually easier to write then because you had no choice. You were just trying to - you were running to keep from - keep the demons from swallowing you up. So today it's a little more difficult. You have to use your imaginative powers and your creative skills to a greater degree.

GROSS: Several of your films, like "Patty" and "Hardcore," are in their way about leaving the family and about breaking away either voluntarily or involuntarily from what your life has been. When you left your home and when you broke away from the church, was that a wrenching experience for you?

SCHRADER: No, no. I mean it was more like the way a bullet must feel when it's finally discharged from a gun.

GROSS: (Laughter) You want to explain that?

SCHRADER: Oh, how I'd been - I'd been waiting a long time to get out of there, and I came out with a bang. You know, I took off and didn't look back.

GROSS: Paul Schrader recorded in 1988. After we take a short break, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective with my 1989 interview with John Updike recorded after he wrote his memoir "Self-Consciousness" and my 1988 interview with Tobe Hooper, who wrote and directed the influential horror film "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Hooper died last week. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.