Paul Schrader: Are you talkin' to me?

The screenwriter Paul Schrader is responsible for some of the great antiheroes of film. John Walsh hears him explain how Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver was really him
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Paul Schrader breezed into town this week and the faithful flocked to hear him. He is not a revivalist preacher, but he inspires an almost religious loyalty among his fans - and there's a coldly ascetic moral seriousness behind the pronouncements of this former theology student. To listen to this screenwriter's judgements on Quentin Tarantino, Mel Gibson et al is to listen to a man wholly unafraid of speaking his mind.

Paul Schrader breezed into town this week and the faithful flocked to hear him. He is not a revivalist preacher, but he inspires an almost religious loyalty among his fans - and there's a coldly ascetic moral seriousness behind the pronouncements of this former theology student. To listen to this screenwriter's judgements on Quentin Tarantino, Mel Gibson et al is to listen to a man wholly unafraid of speaking his mind.

In London for a talk at the British Library, the climactic event of the Orange Word International Screenwriters Season, Schrader found himself fêted by some of Britain's top screenwriters, who came to hear him talk about the genesis of his most famous movie, the best way to write a screenplay, and the imminent death of the cinema as we know it.

After the event, we hightailed it to dinner in Islington. Hanif Kureishi (whose script for The Mother was such a hit at Cannes last year) was there, as was Andrew Davies, the man with a seeming stranglehold on adaptations of classic British fiction, along with Neal Purvis, co-writer of modern James Bond movies ("Do you realise", he asked, "that every single page of a Bond script now costs a million dollars?"), Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, who is an old friend, Sabrina Guinness, and the film books editor of Faber & Faber. Schrader and I sat opposite each other. He talks in a gravelly growl, with a slightly asthmatic catch in it that suggests he might want to give up smoking fairly soon. He is very good company - enthusiastic and full of ideas - and extremely well-read. Few film critics could so airily quote from WH Auden, or cite Camus's L'Etranger and Sartre's La Nausée as the guiding spirits behind Taxi Driver. And he's nicely spontaneous. When I told him I thought he should publish The Western Canon of Good Movies (like Harold Bloom's controversial listing of classic books) to stop people wasting their valuable time watching rubbish, he instantly turned to his publisher and asked: "How would the money work out for something like that?"

Best of all, he is refreshingly serious. I lost track of the number of things that struck him as "trivial", but one of them was acting. He would, he said, turn down the chance to appear in one of his own films, in case he lost an objective sense of whether he was any good - not that he would want to take up such a negligible profession at this late stage. Even his old associates come in for some stick: Robert De Niro, for example, "hasn't made a good movie in 20 years. He has never done a convincing love story. He's just too interiorised. He can't... melt."

We discussed whether "madness" is an allowable concept any more, when mental stability is regarded as a simple imbalance of chemicals. His uncle's family had a morbid interest in suicide, and Schrader has suffered from chronic bouts of depression, which he likens to "falling inside yourself".

He was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the child of extremely strict Dutch Calvinists who disapproved of "trivial" entertainments, like movies. Consequently, he never clapped eyes on a film until university. "I had a theological training," he says, "and I fell in love with the movies because they were forbidden by the church."

Schrader is one of the most respected writers in movies, the man behind Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, American Gigolo and The Last Temptation of Christ - films about men on the fringe of normality and of society, wondering where they're supposed to fit in, and electing to remain apart whatever the cost. A key moment in Taxi Driver sees Travis Bickle (De Niro) sitting in a chair overbalancing with his foot a TV set, whose screen shows a cheesy romantic sitcom. Will he lower the set, or let it fall and smash to bits? (Guess). In Raging Bull, Jake La Motta (De Niro again) demands that his brother and sparring partner (Joe Pesci) punch him again and again in the face until he can find the limits of what he can endure; his brother can't do it. These are moments of extreme disconnection, unsettling snapshots of the outsider mentality turning septic.

As a writer/director, Schrader's idiom is gritty urban realism, his subjects the bleak territories of loneliness, corruption, violence, revenge and paranoia, with a dressing of sexual exploitation and porn. His directorial debut, Blue Collar, concerns three Detroit car-assembly-line workers who burgle their union headquarters, discover its links with organised crime, and find the Myrmidons of the workers' collective coming after them. In Hardcore, George C Scott is a Midwestern bourgeois who discovers his 12-year-old daughter taking part in a porn film after disappearing from a Calvinist youth camp, and who sets out on a mission of revenge. Later films such as Light Sleeper, Affliction and Auto Focus offer audiences yet more puzzled and solitary men in the grip of moral crises, unable to tear themselves away from the past and start afresh - men who, in a religious sense, need someone to give them permission. The films were not big box office. "As a director," writes the film guru David Thomson, "Schrader has placed himself on the edge of the mainstream. He understands commerce very well; he could explain how to make hits. But some perverse, rugged integrity has left his work increasingly hermitic and narrow in its range."

In a movie industry that's splitting into a million crowd-pleasing subgenres, he embodies an integrity one associates with John Ford or Robert Bresson. "If you're raised in a highly moral context," he says, "if you're raised to believe that actions have consequences, that there are sins of omission and commission, and that, at the end, your life will be weighed in the balance and you'll be judged - well, you don't really escape that kinda upbringing. It's who you are. So you tend to think of things in a moral context, and ask: what's the right thing to do, what's the grey area? And then you find that has a dramatic value, too..."

What follows are some highlights from Monday's talk at the British Library. The interviewer was Tanya Seghatchian, the producer of the Harry Potter movies.

Tanya Seghatchian: You once said that no one but you could have given birth to your films. What is it about you that's unique?

Paul Schrader: I think one thing that makes me relatively unique is that I had no childhood background in movies. They just weren't in my life. When I got to see movies later, in college, the ones I fell in love with were from the European cinema of the Sixties - an interesting point of entry. When I was a critic, I moved over to screenwriting not for ambition or money or fame, but essentially for self-therapy. I'd got myself into a rut where life was getting progressively more unpleasant and I couldn't see a way out of it. I had to create this character and externalise it. It was Travis Bickle. It worked! You see, you can create little golems, and destroy them, and make yourself feel better.

TS: Travis is a classic Schrader hero, the lonely deluded, sexually inactive hero, who doesn't feel comfortable in his own skin. Is that a good film hero?

PS: He's also an existential hero - a man who wanders around and peeps into other people's lives, and who doesn't have a life of his own. How does that connect to me? Well, here I was, brought up in the bosom of the Dutch Calvinist church. I went to Calvin College, which also a seminary - and then I went to graduate school in UCLA in 1968! On my very first night in LA, I went up to a canyon with some other film students, and there were all these people wearing tablecloths and smoking dope... That's how that character got created. That was me, this wide-eyed character, wandering around on the outside.

TS: Did you write it for yourself to direct?

PS: I didn't write it for anybody to direct. I wrote it for myself, then put it away, then I left LA because my mental health was not all it should have been. I travelled around the county for six months, visiting old college friends, and got myself back together. I started writing criticism again. Then I met Brian De Palma, and while we were playing chess, I said: "You know, I wrote this script." I showed it to Brian, who gave it to Marty [Scorsese], and that's how it started.

TS: You've said that you look for the problem and the underlying metaphor in a script. Could you explain that?

PS: All movies are about something, even if they try not to be. In Taxi Driver, the problem was loneliness. I was living in my car, I was driving around, I had a pain in my stomach from an ulcer, I was 25 years old. I realised at the hospital I hadn't spoken to anybody in weeks. Then the metaphor occurred to me - of the taxi, this metal coffin drifting through the sewers of the city, and this man, seemingly surrounded by people yet absolutely alone. I said: "That's me." Once I had the metaphor, the stories began to evolve: he can't have the girl he wants, he doesn't want the girl he can have, he tries to kill the father-figure of one but kills the father-figure of the other and, by irony, becomes a hero. That's the whole story. You have to find some kind of linkage. If you're making a film of the life of Napoleon, you have to ask - what is there in the life of Napoleon that addresses something in me? Where am I in this?

TS: When you write, do you concentrate on the rhythm and essence of the scene, or do you start with the dialogue?

PS: The dialogue comes late. What comes first is the metaphor and the structure. Some people learn what they're writing about by writing. I don't. I believe screenwriting is part of the oral tradition, not the literary tradition, and that film is being told to you. The best advice young writers can get is: tell your story. Outline it, tell it, re-outline it, tell it again. If you can tell the story for 45 minutes to a friend, and he pays attention, you have a movie. You have to check their level of interest, their body language, whether you have them or don't. That way, you learn how to mould and rhythm a story and how to test if something is worth writing. Because it's very debilitating to write a script and not sell it and not have people interested in it. If you tell your story and people glaze over - well, that's a good thing. You've just saved yourself six months of needless work. If your story gets over all obstacles, it will, one day, itself say: "Shut up, I'm sick of hearing this story, I wanna be written, let's go to work." And you write, usually quite fast, over a matter of three or four weeks. It all comes out because you've outlined it, you know it all in your head, you've added to the dialogue each time you've told it. And you've done a kind of test-screening already with your friends.

TS: Has serious narrative a place in modern cinema, and will it survive?

PS: It will [heavy sigh]. These are lean times for serious subjects. But I'm not gonna complain too much. It's always been lean times, you know? Most everything is bad, right? Most food is bad. Most furniture is bad. Most architecture is bad. Why shouldn't most films be bad? There was a golden period in the movies, when a high percentage of films were addressing the social problems of the time, during the counterculture [of the Sixties and Seventies], when we had five simultaneous social revolutions going on at once - women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, drugs, anti-government. Society was in flux and it was a healthy time for artists, because people were interested in what artists had to say. It was like they were asking: "Build us a little structure, build us something to give us a context for what's going on." Today, they're not looking for a building any more. They're thinking: maybe we should redo the drapes, redo the carpet...

TS: How do your existential heroes compare with Quentin Tarantino's heroes?

PS: The existential hero asks: "Should I exist?" The ironic hero just "exists", in quotes. When everything is deconstructed and referenced, a lot of fun and excitement has come out of it. But in the end, I don't know know nourishing it is. I remember seeing Pulp Fiction and turning to the person next to me and saying: "Everything I've done is now out of date, because this hero is now out of date, this hero of Sartre and Camus and Dostoevsky." But then, if you start going down the road of Pulp Fiction, you're going to get to Kill Bill (laughter). It's going to become less and less nourishing, but that's a fundamental change in the notion of what storytelling is.

TS: What kind of change?

PS: Storytelling today is much more sensation than sentiment. I believe that the whole notion of film as entertainment is entering a perfect storm, and that movies will never be what they once were - that movies are essentially a 20th-century phenomenon. The end of movies as we know them has been caused by three factors. One, there's not the real cohesiveness of culture any more that once made movies so important. Once, everybody watched the same things. They don't any more. Apart from phenomena like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, for the most part, taste is completely splintered - particularly in American TV, where they have a hundred channels going simultaneously. Second, people don't perceive audiovisual entertainment the same way their parents and grandparents did. My kids were raised watching six or eight shows simultaneously, sometimes playing video games and watching TV and listening to music, too. This is a generational change and I think it's permanent. I don't think this generation sees movies as a serious social force, because they don't see film narrative as a serious thing. These days, when you call a film a "ride", that's a compliment. Third, the system of film distribution is about to collapse, as it has for the music industry. More music was legally downloaded in England last year than was legally purchased in stores. So you don't need record stores any longer. And soon, there'll be four times as many cinemas as we need. Movies will become even more Balkanised than they are now.

TS: So what keeps you going?

PS: Well, the modern novel doesn't have the power and the force it used to, but there are still a lot of good books to read.

TS: Do you think there's a canon of films with which everybody should be familiar, as there is of books?

PS: Does my daughter or my son think so? I made them watch The Philadelphia Story one week, and Sunset Boulevard the next. They said: "Wow, those are really terrific movies." But does that affect the movies they'll go to see? No. It's a classroom experience.

TS: What happened with The Exorcist? Why did you get involved, and what happened?

PS: A couple of years ago, I was asked to direct a prequel to The Exorcist. John Frankenheimer had been slated to do it, but dropped out. They had a script, they had locations, a cast and a start-up date. I liked the script. They'd decided not to try and try and compete with the original Exorcist as a horror film, but instead to make a historical character-study of Father Merrin [Max Von Sydow in the original], played by Stellan Skarsgard, during the Second World War - how he loses his faith, meets the Devil and gets his faith back.

So we made that movie. We shot for six weeks in Morocco and six weeks in Rome. Towards the end of the shoot, I started hearing comments about the film being "not scary enough". It was being financed by one man who signed all the cheques and made all the decisions. He'd worked out that he was wrong not to do it as a horror film. I did the final cut and showed it to him. We talked for only five or 10 minutes. He said very little. I offered to cut it and set up a screening for the following week, but he didn't even show. He tried to recut the film himself to make it scarier, but I said to him: "What you're talking about is a rewrite, not a recut." So they started working on a rewrite. They didn't want me involved, so they brought in three or four new writers and a new director, Renny Harlin. Then they started replacing the cast. Two of the four main actors were replaced, and a third wasn't available so they replaced him too. Then they changed the person who was possessed. They changed the location. They changed the lot. So now they've made two completely different, separate, stand-alone $35m movies. It's like a film-school exercise: "I'm going to give two of you the same premise, to go out and make different films from it." It's a very peculiar situation, I think without precedent in the film business.

TS: How do you think Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ compares with Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ?

PS: They're entirely different films, entirely different phenomena. The Last Temptation got caught, unwillingly, in the cultural wars, and we suffered for it. Mel Gibson decided to create a cultural war, and he was very successful at doing so. He screened the film, month after month, to conservative religious groups and built up a groundswell of support by driving a wedge between the cultures. A screening of this film is not like an ordinary movie-house screening, it's more like an evangelical tent meeting. When people bring their own belief systems to a movie, all you need do its make sure the right button is pushed. You think you're having a religious experience, but it's just emotional validation of your own feelings.

The amazing thing about the film, which is very well made, is how medieval it is. It harkens back, not just beyond Vatican II, but past the Enlightenment; it harkens back to the medieval, pre-literate blood days of Christianity and it reminds me, in some ways, of a kind of Shi'ite self-flagellation. It's quite disturbing. It turns its back on what many people think Christianity has accomplished and goes back to an era of blood and judgement.

WIN SIGNED FILM SCRIPTS

As the Orange Word season winds to a close, Independent readers are offered a rare treat: seven screenplays and a novel from the writers whose work has been featured during the festival - Harold Pinter (above), Ronald Harwood, Paul Schrader, Carrie Fisher, David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade - all signed by the authors. This is a priceless and unrepeatable collection of autographed texts by the world's top screenplay talents. All you need do to win the lot is answer the following questions:

1) In Taxi Driver, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) is first seen walking in slo-mo along a sidewalk, past a bearded figure sitting on a wall. Who is he?

2) Which actor was initially signed to play the role of Julian in American Gigolo?

3) Paul Schrader's Cat People (1982) was a remake of Jacques Tourneur's 1942 original. Who played the Nastassja Kinski role in the original?

Please send your answers to competitions@independent.co.uk.

See www.independent.co.uk/legal for terms and conditions relating to competition rules. Winners will be notified by 16 April

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