`The existential hero is dead; he was born of cynicism and has been killed by irony': Paul Schrader, director of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, talks to Kevin Jackson about his latest film - a comedy
Even his keenest admirers (I am one) could scarcely maintain that the films of Paul Schrader add up to one long high-spirited, bright and breezy chuckle-fest. His career as a director began in the late 1970s with Blue Collar, a brutal account of factory workers ripping off their union, and then branched out into the likes of Hardcore (the porn industry, abduction), American Gigolo (prostitution, murder), Mishima (biopic about the suicidal writer and militarist), Patty Hearst (terrorism, abduction), The Comfort of Strangers (death in Venice) and Light Sleeper (drug dealing, anxiety, murder).

Then there are the screenplays for Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver (psychosis, homicide), Raging Bull (fisticuffs), The Last Temptation of Christ (deicide). It's a formidable track-record, but there's not a great deal of light relief. Why, then, has Schrader just made his least predictable move to date: directing a comedy? And not a dark and troubling comedy, either, but something he cheerfully describes as "very genial, very pleasant, very droll"?

There are several good answers to that question, of which the simplest is that, genial as it may be, this is decidedly not your standard Hollywood comedy. Witch Hunt is about the adventures of a private detective called H P Lovecraft (Dennis Hopper) who operates in early 1950s Hollywood. Straightforward enough: except that these 1950s unfold in a weird parallel universe where, as an opening credit puts it, everybody uses magic - the original H P Lovecraft, horror buffs will recall, was a writer of supernatural fiction.

Thus, the film industry relies on thaumaturgy and necromancy (a sorceress kidnaps Mark Twain and Shakespeare from across the centuries to work as screenwriters; we later catch a glimpse of the Bard in Hawaiian shirt and shades, a "babe" at his side), and the McCarthyite witch hunts to which the title alludes are searches not for closet Reds but for real- life witches. Curiouser and curiouser: these traffickings with the paranormal are dressed up in plenty of inventive special effects, and sport co-star Penelope Ann Miller as a rising actress, Julian Sands as a nasty piece of work with a wonky eye and an Irish brogue, and the stand-up comedian Eric Bogosian as the McCarthy figure, who hides a hideous secret. In one sequence, he wrenches his body savagely apart, and from its ruins crawls... Eric Bogosian, stand-up comedian.

The real point of Witch Hunt, however, is not so much its quirks of style and form as its place in Schrader's overall game-plan. As he notes, "I've been out of Los Angeles for about 12 years now and there's a whole tier of executives who don't know me personally, and just associate me with a certain kind of dour, uncommercial film-making. The best way to confront that is just to do something different."

This is a task of some urgency for him, since, baffling as it may seem to the industry outsider, Schrader has been finding it harder and harder to make films of any kind. In a climate where even a regular box-office hitter like Barry Levinson needs to take on Disclosure to pull his career out of a spin (Levinson's previous film, Jimmy Hollywood, won't even have a theatrical release in the UK), what chance for a man whose early cinematic idols were Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer?

Schrader actually had to bankroll pre-production on his last film, Light Sleeper, from his life savings until his resourceful producer Linda Reisman managed to secure more conventional funding. Since then, he has been trying without success to make a number of personal films - including an adaptation of Russell Bank's novel Affliction, in which Nick Nolte is eager to star - and he even took one stab at a high-concept, high-budget effects movie, Irresistible, about an unattractive female scientist who discovers how to transform herself into a Sharon Stone-type vamp and sets about taking revenge on the men who have mistreated her.

A change of studio heads and problems with casting made Schrader's own transformation into a Spielberg-type director look as remote a possibility as that sci-fi body makeover, and so he returned to trying to launch Affliction and other projects.

In Schrader's view, the difficulties he is facing are not solely the result of his personal reputation, but also of cultural shifts. The projects that have been closest to his spirit over the past couple of decades have concerned, as he puts it, "existential heroes" - solitary, haunted men facing a crisis in their lives that can only be resolved in some extreme way. He sees Taxi Driver, American Gigolo and Light Sleeper as a kind of unofficial trilogy about the same archetypal figure at different stages of life, and until recently he was tempted to make it a tetralogy by writing one more. But:

"I now believe the existential hero is dead, finally, after about 100 years; he was born of cynicism and has been killed by irony. In the new world of Quentin Tarantino and others, where everything is a pastiche and nothing is real, there are no more existential heroes, only "existential heroes" in inverted commas, who "love" the girl, or "kill" the girl, but are winking at you the whole time. And that kind of irony spreads out across the culture, to the other arts and the media - I mean, David Letterman [the late-night talk-show host] is just Johnny Carson with quotation marks around him."

And so, recognising that his old preoccupations are no longer striking a chord and that he can't beat the ironists and pasticheurs at their own game, Schrader started to look to the example of such directors as Stanley Kubrick, "who take on a genre like science fiction or the action movie and try to transform it into something more intelligent". At which point - to simplify and blur chronology a little - enter the producer Gale Ann Hurd with a script by Joseph Dougherty entitled Witch Hunt - the sequel to an earlier feature about the Lovecraft character, Cast a Deadly Spell. Schrader read the script last March; by June he was shooting in California.

"The reason I agreed to direct a sequel was that I didn't really like the first one, which was done pretty much as a straight film noir. And I wanted just the opposite - a `film blanc'. So I rewrote the script with that in mind, took out all the Raymond Chandler wisecracks, took out all the downbeat, world-weary stuff, and I moved the time-frame forward from 1948 to 1953, into the world of Technicolor and California cool, so Dennis Hopper basically dresses like Chet Baker and Julian Sands dresses like Dave Brubeck."

The result is a gleaming, pastel-coloured box of tricks, featuring Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, Nina Simone songs and dozens of sly gags, from a pair of tombstones reading "Reagan" and "Thatcher" to the Joe Average act of Hollywood's veteran demento, Dennis Hopper: "the biggest joke in the movie is having Dennis play the normal guy". Witch Hunt ought to be released in Europe later this year. If it proves popular, Schrader's career may be moving into still more unpredictable areas. For example, he has just optioned the rights to a remake on another comedy: The Grass Is Greener. Original writers: Hugh and Margaret Williams. Original music and lyrics: Nol Coward.

n Schrader is interviewed on`Moving Pictures' (BBC2, Sunday,8.25pm); `Light Sleeper' follows at 11pm