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"If You're Taking This Seriously You're In The Wrong Theatre": Paul Schrader Interviewed
Ian Schultz , November 25th, 2016 09:52

Ian Schultz talks to Paul Schrader, director of Mishima and American Gigolo and writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, about his latest film, the Nicolas Cage starring Dog Eat Dog

Paul Schrader’s new film is Dog Eat Dog, and it represents a total change of pace for the director. It stars Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe, and it’s arguably Cage’s best performance in some time, despite the fact that Dafoe’s crazed, drug-addicted, psychopathic murderer steals the film. It’s a movie made by someone who has never done a crime film before, and so makes the most demented crime story you could possibly make. Schrader’s decisions will instantly divide viewers into haters and fans, it certainly divided the critics at the press screening.

Schrader is better known as a writer, having penned the screenplays for some of Martin Scorsese’s best films, starting with Taxi Driver and continuing through Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the underrated Bringing Out the Dead (which also starred Cage). He’s also directed many films, several of which are homages to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (i.e. American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and The Walker). He describes these as his “night worker” or “man in a room” films, and acknowledges that they feature essentially the same character. His most audacious film, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, was an impressionist biopic of the controversial but brilliant Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, and is still banned in Japan. But despite some successes over the past 20 years, such as Affliction and Auto Focus, many of Schrader’s more recent films have been plagued with difficulties most notably the crowd funded The Canyons starring Lindsay Lohan.

I met up with Schrader in the swanky May Fair hotel on a Saturday morning at the tail end of the London Film Festival. Despite having a cold, which I think I may have caught off him, he was more than willing to discuss his new film, the state of the industry, his previous work and of course Bresson.

How has the industry changed in recent years?

Promotion, festivals, whatever—the goal is to number one on VOD weekend. Theatrical nothing, there is so much VOD product that nobody can keep up with it. People just look at the chart, and only look at the top five to see if they want to see one of them. If you’re in there, you make money.

Then there is piracy, so it gets copied in two seconds.

Not quite two seconds with film, but music is two seconds.

What was the biggest challenge with the film? Because it’s very different to what you’ve done before.

I had never really set out to make a crime film before, and I’m not a crime film director. I kind of got backed into this because Nick and I wanted to work together again, so I was doing a crime film. I had a whole summer and thought, “what does it mean to do a crime film in 2016, what does it look like?” It’s not Scorsese, it’s not Tarantino, it’s not Guy Ritchie, it’s something else. It’s certainly not Eddie Bunker, that’s ‘60s and ‘70s, and the book is set in the ‘90s.

I just began the summer by bringing together a young team, most of them from outside the film business: video games and documentaries and that. Just came up with ideas, and when you say “let’s think out of the box”,” you are already in the box. I was looking for the kind of people who couldn’t find the box if you asked them, and had no real preconceptions. So we just came up with stuff!

I did the same thing when I went to the Cleveland Institute Of The Arts and just coming up with the animations and stuff, so some of the strange shots in the film were done by those CIA students.

I know you watched a lot of crime films to see what has been done recently. Did you find any new favourites during your research?

Wayne Kramer, who had a terrific film out called Running Scared, and there is film called Belly (directed by Hype Williams) and I stole some stuff from that. I also stole some stuff from a British film called Bliss.

What attracted you to the script? Because it’s a great script…

Well, I read that opening scene and said, “I don’t care what comes after this—I can rewrite the rest of this. I want to do this.”

That opening scene reminded me of a similar scene in the film God Bless America, because you either go with the film or don’t after that.

You have to make it very clear to the audience: if you’re taking this seriously, you are in the wrong theatre, and you should leave right now.

Who came up with the whole Bogart thing?

It was Nic, it certainly wasn’t in the book or the script. Nic sort of saw his character as a guy who imagined himself as a old-timey gangster. He was doing bits and pieces of that, which I didn’t care much for but I didn’t want to start a fight with him, and eventually I cut it out. We came to a point when he was trying to understand the ending: “I don’t get this ending—why am I still alive, why am I talking to this black couple?” I said, “Maybe Troy isn’t alive, maybe it’s an afterlife sequence.”

Then we came back to do a read-through before we went out to shoot, and he was reading it like Humphrey Bogart and it was a total surprise.

He has done similar stuff on other films.

But you tend to get a bit of warning, ‘Whoa, Nic, this is a bold choice. Are you sure you want to do this?” “Well, you said maybe he is dead, and if he is dead, he gets to be Humphrey Bogart!” and I was like, that’s a good point! He gets to be Bogart and save the black couple, but he screws that up too, of course. “You have been telling me for weeks we have to be bold in this film, well, I think this is a bold choice.” And I said, “I think it is too, Nick, let’s do it,” It’s probably one of those things where if you planned everything in advance, you would’ve talked yourself out of doing it.

I think everyone’s favourite film you’ve directed, including yourself, is Mishima. Where there any bits of his fiction you wanted to use but were prevented by family or anything?

It’s certainly the one I’m most proud of, because it’s the most unusual. Yeah, he had one overt homosexual novel, Forbidden Colours. It was the only book the widow forbade us to use, and I was trying to get to that side of him. There turned out to be a book that had never been translated, and still hasn’t been translated, Kyoto’s House. and in that book there is a sub-story about a sadomasochistic actor in this relationship which had a very homosexual feeling to it. We of course had approval to use it, because nobody thought we would since it hadn’t been translated.

Do you have any idea if your cut of Dying Of The Light will surface?

I have offered to re-edit the film, re-score it, remix it, all out of my own money. All the profits would go to the producers—and they turned me down. The rights are owned by these guys, and they are very angry with me. There is a lot of personal animosity, even though I offered them money.

Has there be anything about Taxi Driver you’ve never been asked or wish you’ve been asked?

No I don’t think so. I was working with Nic and I asked him, “Is there any scene you haven’t played?” and he couldn’t think of anything he hasn’t played and I can’t think of any question about Taxi Driver I haven’t been asked. It’s the film that won’t die.

What I’ve learned about it in the last year is young men, usually around 15 or 16, see that film when they’ve been seeing action films or superhero films. It’s the film that makes them realise film can be something more, and it makes a impression on them. I hear it over and over: “I was 15 and it really made a impression on me.”

Is Pickpocket still your favourite Bresson?

It’s still my favourite, because it’s the one that made me realise that I could actually be involved in the making of a film. Before that I purely thought of film as a critic, and then I saw Pickpocket You know, there’s a guy and he sits in his room and writes, and then goes out does a little crime, comes back, writes a bit. I was like, “I can make a film like that.” Two years later I wrote Taxi Driver.

Dog Eat Dog is out now in cinemas and available on VOD