Leonard Schrader

Oscar-nominated screenwriter
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The Independent Online

Leonard Schrader, screenwriter and film director: born Grand Rapids, Michigan 1943; married; died Los Angeles 2 November 2006.

Though less well-known than his younger brother Paul, the writer-director Leonard Schrader was a prime contributor to several cult movies of the 1980s and 1990s. He was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), a project he helped develop, and in the same year he became the first American screenwriter to have two films entered in the official section at the Cannes Film Festival, when Mishima and Kiss of the Spider Woman both won awards.

He was also unusual in writing prolifically for Japanese-speaking movies as well as American ones, having steeped himself in Japanese culture while teaching American Literature at Doshisha and Kyoto Universities in Kyoto, Japan. Teaching by day, he would spend the evenings examining the subculture of the Yamaguchi-Gumi, the dominant Yakuza gangster family and the Eastern equivalent of the Mafia in Kyoto. He was to use that experience and knowledge for his first screenplay, The Yakuza, written with his brother.

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1943, he was the son of strict Calvinists of German-Dutch descent who forbade their children to experience film, television or other forms of popular culture - he did not see a film until he was in his late teens. Rebelling against his upbringing (as did his brother) he went from Calvin College, a local religious school, to the writers' workshop at the University of Iowa, where classmates included Nelson Algren, Kurt Vonnegut and Jorge Luis Borges. After finishing his Master's thesis in 1968, he taught at a church school in Japan before he took the university post, where he stayed from 1969 until 1973. He wrote several magazine pieces about the activities of the Yakuza, and these prompted Paul to suggest he write a story for the screen.

The Yakuza (1975) starred Robert Mitchum as a former soldier who was stationed in Japan. He returns to rescue a friend's daughter from mobsters, and rekindles his affair with his former mistress. Though there are the expected battles with both sword and gun, the film also movingly explores the Japanese culture of tradition, honour and sacrifice. Warners thought so much of the screenplay that they paid $300,000 for it, and the first choice for the lead, Lee Marvin, was replaced by Mitchum when he asked for script changes.

The Schraders had written the role of the mistress's husband with Takakura Ken (Japan's Bogart) in mind, and were delighted when the studio signed him. Ultimately some script changes were made by Robert Towne, who received writing credit along with the Schraders.

Leonard and Paul also wrote Blue Collar (1978), directed by Paul (his directing début) and starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel as car-factory workers in a tough tale of union corruption and the dehumanising nature of assembly-line work. The Schraders followed this with Old Boyfriends (1979), directed by Joan Tewkesbury, in which a woman (Talia Shire) seeks out old lovers in an effort to understand her past. Despite a cast including John Belushi and Keith Carradine, it was not a success.

With his Japanese wife Cheiko, whom he married in 1977, Leonard Schrader wrote Japanese plays, and he also wrote several popular Japanese-language films, including Otoko wa tsurai yo: Torajiro haru no yume (Tora-san's Dream of Spring, 1979), Taiyo o nusunda otoko (The Man Who Stole the Sun, 1980), which won the Japanese equivalent of the Oscar as best film of the year, and Shonben Rider (1983).

In 1981 he and Chieko wrote a documentary, The Killing of America (1982), a study of the origins of violence in the United States, but its producers withheld it from release due to its uncompromising approach. It received its first showing in the UK in 1990, when Schrader told The Independent, "If you're interested in the real America, the real America has a lot of blood in the soil."

A collaborator on the film was the independent film-maker David Weisman, who had spent time in Brazil. Schrader had studied Latin American literature, and together they developed a screen version of Manuel Puig's avant-garde 1976 novel El beso de la mujer arana, the story of a gay man obsessed with old Hollywood movies, who finds himself sharing a cell in a South American prison with a homophobic political activist. Kiss of the Spider Woman, produced by Weisman and directed by Hector Babenco, won an Oscar for its star, William Hurt, and a nomination for Schrader's screenplay.

Mishima (1985), the life story of the controversial, militaristic writer Yukio Mishima, was a project Schrader had been pursuing since the man's ritual suicide in 1970. He had met Mishima in the late Sixties, and spent some years trying to secure the rights to his life. With Cheiko and Paul, he fashioned a Japanese-language screenplay which was eventually produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, and directed by Paul. Response to its ambitious structure, with the life story filmed in black-and-white and extracts from Mishima's writings filmed in vivid colour, was mixed. The film also destroyed the relationship of the Schrader brothers. According to Leonard, Paul co-opted Leonard's idea and then started treating him on the set "like an employee". The two hardly spoke to each other afterwards, though upon Leonard's death Paul remarked,

Leonard was a natural storyteller . . . Because he felt he was a stranger in his own upbringing, he was drawn to strangers throughout his creative life, whether it be in Japan or South America.

Leonard Schrader's only film as a director, Naked Tango (1991), which he also scripted, reunited him with the producer David Weisman and the writer Manuel Puig, but the heated tale of the tango underworld of Buenos Aires in the 1920s, starring a miscast Vincent D'Onofrio, provoked unfavourable comparisons with Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Though he worked as a "script doctor" on several movies ("That way you get big money for a short amount of work") Schrader mainly taught for the last decade. From 1996 to 1999 he held a screenwriting class at the University of Southern California, and from 1999 to 2003 he revamped the Screenwriting Department at Chapman University, where he was an Associate Professor of Film. For the past two years he was film-maker-in-residence at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.

Recently he returned to film-making, collaborating with David Weisman on the script for a biography of Edie Sedgwick entitled Edie: Girl on Fire, directed by Weisman and to be released next year.

Tom Vallance

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