Paul Schrader: Exorcising his demons

Schrader had his 'Exorcist' prequel snatched in the cutting room, but now it's out on DVD

James Mottram
Friday 14 October 2005 00:00 BST

But not even Schrader, the writer of such Martin Scorsese classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, could've envisioned just how badly he would be shafted over his latest film, Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist. "I thought the worst thing that would happen would be that it would've been dumped," he admits. How wrong he was.

If you were superstitious, you might think that Schrader's much-anticipated $40m theological horror (an attempt to tell the background of Father Merrin, the aged priest at the centre of William Friedkin's 1973 demonic original) was struck by the curse that afflicted its predecessors.

This time, there were no injuries to cast-members or fires on set. Rather, the 59-year-old Schrader suffered the ignominy of seeing the film taken away from him in the cutting room, on account of it not being gory enough. New writers were hired, as well as the director Renny Harlin, to rework Schrader's material into something tailored for multiplex audiences. As Schrader puts it, "What began as more and more extensive re-shoots finally became another film." The only frightening aspect of Harlin's much-maligned version - which was released a year ago under the title Exorcist: The Beginning - was the fact that James Robinson, the CEO of the backers Morgan Creek, forked out a further $40m to reshape Schrader's footage.

"I don't know if he was stupid," says Schrader. "I think he just changed his mind about what he wanted." While the film recouped $41m in the US, it still left Robinson vastly out of pocket. As for Schrader, he was distraught. This was not the first time a film of his had been compromised. Back in 1979, the year after he made his directorial debut with the union tale Blue Collar, he shot Hardcore. Starring George C. Scott as a Michigan businessman who discovers his daughter has become embroiled in the porn industry, Schrader was forced to change the ending to a more heroic finale, which saw Scott rescue his offspring. "It just seemed wrong to me," he says. "I swore that I would never let that happen again."

In many ways, Schrader remained true to his word, desperate not to be haunted by "the millstone" of having made an Exorcist film nobody would see. In what is an unprecedented event, this month sees the DVD premiere of his prequel. Never before have two versions of a film, sharing some of the same footage but made by two different directors, been released. It marks the culmination of months of campaigning and petitions by fan websites. Schrader saw Harlin's version on its opening day, at a public screening in Washington DC. His date was William Peter Blatty, the man who wrote the novel that inspired Friedkin's movie. Back in 1990, Blatty had directed The Exorcist III for Morgan Creek; it was similarly taken away from him, with a new "horror" ending added.

"As the movie went on, Blatty was getting more and more upset," says Schrader. "It was all coming back to him, what he'd been through. After 15 years, he was still angry about it. Whereas I was sitting next to him, feeling better and better. I was looking at this, saying, 'This is really bad. If it stays this bad, I bet there's a chance I can get mine resurrected'."

You might wonder what Schrader was even doing fretting over a horror film. Originally to be directed by John Frankenheimer until he died suddenly, by the time Schrader was shown the script, the film was all but ready to roll. "For someone that spends years and years getting a film together that is a mighty powerful seduction," he says. Having "not worked in the studio system for 20 years", since his 1982 remake of shadowy horror Cat People, this was the chance "to make a big-canvas movie again". When I last met Schrader, during a promotional tour for his film Auto Focus, he was in the middle of this rapid pre-production phase. Having just returned from scouting locations in Morocco, his mood was optimistic. "If it's anywhere near successful, I could perhaps end my career on my own two feet rather than grovelling for coins," he chirped.

Little did he know, but he'd be doing exactly that. From petitioning the metal band Dog Fashion Disco to write their first film-score for free to begging for the use of post-production facilities, Schrader called in every favour he could.

"It's amazing, when you're fighting the good fight, how many people will sign on to help you," he says." Remarkably, he finished his cut for just $35,000. Telling the story of Merrin's (Stellan Skarsgard) first encounter with demonic possession, while on missionary work in East Africa, Schrader's version - what he calls "an old-fashioned intellectual melodrama" or "Shane with a crucifix" - far outstrips Harlin's shocker of a movie. Ironically, had Harlin's version not been made, Schrader believes his film would've been "cut to shreds" and "tarted up" by Morgan Creek. "I ended up with final cut from a company that prides itself in fixing every film they make! Their motto is, 'If it isn't broke, we didn't make it'!"

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Symbolically, the film marks a return for Schrader to the commercially driven industry he departed with his life in turmoil, post-Cat People. At the time, he was heavily into narcotics. In the 1970s, he was an integral part of the social group dominated by the directors Martin Scorsese, his must fruitful collaborator, and Brian De Palma (who introduced him to the circle and later shot his Hitchcock tribute Obsession).

With marijuana and cocaine in plentiful supply, Schrader slowly became hooked. "Because of the drugs I left Los Angeles," he says. "I then went to New York and then went to Japan. I changed my life, got married [to the actress Mary Beth Hurt], had a daughter and made Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters [his 1985 story of the novelist Yukio Mishima]. But it took a long time to get off drugs - it keeps coming back. But I haven't had anything in 15 years."

By 1987, Schrader channelled his addiction to drugs into the script for Light Sleeper, the story of a charismatic dealer that he eventually shot in 1992. "It was about people I knew," he says. "It was taking a creepy guy - a drug dealer, one of the most vilified in cinema - and saying 'He's my hero!' Let's watch his life, see where he goes'."

Such daring is what makes this Michigan native's writing still such a potent force. "I got into screenwriting for the best of all possible reasons, which was self-therapy," he says. "I started out doing this because I had this stuff running around in my head, and I was afraid of it. I had to get it out. I didn't have any money to go to a psychologist, so I had to turn it into a story."

After studying film at Columbia University and working as a film reviewer in Los Angeles in the late 1960s - when he was an acolyte of the legendary critic Pauline Kael - Schrader decided to write scripts, only to find himself out of work and in debt. Divorced from his first wife, he began drifting around the country, living in his car or crashing on friends' sofas. Out of this isolation came his script for Taxi Driver.

Schrader maintains that this story of the psychotic Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle "jumped out of my head like an animal", a cathartic purging of his inner demons. At odds with his own pudgy, bespectacled appearance, he would re-write the character of Bickle in many different forms. All are either on the verge of mental breakdown, or driven to destroy the life they want. "It's the quintessential psychoanalytic problem," says Schrader. "I want to be happy; why do I do things that make me unhappy?"

Contrary to his adult life, Schrader's rural upbringing in Grand Rapids was a pious one. His family were strict Dutch Calvinists, meaning that the asthmatic Schrader didn't even see a movie until he was 17, when he sneaked off with a friend to catch a screening of The Absent Minded Professor.

While his father - who inspired the George C Scott character in Hardcore - was a businessman who worked for a pipeline company, his mother's side of the family was all farmers. So drenched in religion were his early years that Schrader initially wanted to be a missionary. "I was raised to believe in a very real Hell and a very real Satan," he says.

"I don't believe that anymore but you certainly know that world. But I wasn't Catholic. It was slightly different. The metaphorical strength of that stuff, of those stories, whether it's stories from the Bible or stories from contemporary mythology like The Exorcist have enormous metaphorical weight." It's no wonder Schrader was attracted to Dominion, what he calls "a loss of faith story".

As demonstrated by Schrader's problems with Dominion, like many of the other film-makers from the 1970s, he is not the force he once was. "When I came back to Hollywood, it was a different industry," he says.

"Those films I was making were now independent films. I kept making the same films - but now they're independent films." For years, he has tried to get a film made that some will regard as a follow-up to his 1980 classic American Gigolo.

"It's that American Gigolo character in his mid-Fifties, and he's now homosexual and he's a society walker, an older gent that squires rich old ladies to the opera."

Schrader thinks the goodwill extended to him for past achievements means nothing now. "I am considered to be a serious film-maker and in Hollywood that is not good." However, he has a project lined up - an adaptation of Yoram Kaniuk's "very daunting" Holocaust novel Adam Resurrected. He's fairly sure it will happen. "This is one of those great movies that they don't make anymore like Sophie's Choice or Slaughterhouse-Five," he says. "It's great when somebody comes at you and says, 'We have a big serious movie and we want to hire you because you're a serious person'. Particularly in today's world, when you spend so much of your time pretending that you're not."

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is to buy on DVD from October 17th

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