Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Hollywood's Lonely Man

Paul Schrader discusses how serious, smart and dark play in today's filmmaking scene

By Ray Pride

JULY 10, 2000:  Meeting Paul Schrader, he seems less the angry man that the reputation of his twenty-five-year career would suggest than a serious craftsman who's simply not allowed to practice his trade the way he'd like.

Endlessly quotable, Schrader has always been well-spoken about his intentions, hopes and fears. But the industry's goals have shifted. The momentous-minded "movie brats," who turned 1970s Hollywood on its head are all middle-aged now: DePalma, Coppola, Scorsese, Schrader, all striving to make an occasional labor of love. In the latest rebuke, Schrader's old-fashioned melodrama, "Forever Mine," starring Joseph Fiennes and Gretchen Mol, is tentatively slated for a straight-to-video release this fall.

While we know Schrader by his work -- is there a week you don't hear someone saying "You talkin' to me?" -- does that reputation work for or against him today? "It's very much a double-edged sword," he says, "because I can no longer lie about what I do. When I was a young man I could walk into a studio and say, 'Look, all I care about is making money. Y'know, this is the luckiest day of your life, I have walked into the room and we are going to make some money together, let's go!' And they would kind of believe me. I can't do that anymore; I've made too many films. So I have found it to be, in fact, more difficult to raise money than in the past. Although I still am able to raise money and still get these rather peculiar films made. I just spend a greater percentage of my time raising money."

Director Keith Gordon has joked that he considers his primary job raising money, and every, five years, he takes time off to make a movie. "Yeah," Schrader says. "The independent filmmaker is sort of a scavenger dog, roaming the planet for little pockets of leftover refuse and uneaten food. The last film I did was financed out of Great Britain, the film before out of Japan, the film before, out of France, I think. The next one will be out of Germany."

Schrader was once a practitioner of the pitch: going into a studio executive's office, spinning a campfire tale, walking out with an assignment. "I grew up pitching, but studios don't buy many pitches anymore. Maybe two to three sell a year. So in fact, if you're gonna write something, you might as well write it on spec. Because by the time you go out and pitch it, and by the time you convince somebody to pay you to make it, by the time you negotiate that contract, you could have written that script. There was one idea I had a few years back that I went out and pitched it for three to four days, and I said, this is silly. Y'know? Why don't I just write it? It's only going to take two weeks."

There are also other reasons to write instead of pitch. "I just finished a script I didn't even bother to pitch because it's a pro-drug movie." Based on Aldous Huxley's "The Doors of Perception," Schrader says he's "going straight to Europe with it, we're trying to raise some money there. It's about high-end psychedelics and trying to do a trip movie, a CGI trip movie in the world of clinical experimentation with DMT. A subject like that, I mean how do you pitch that? Particularly [when] the only people who really pay true money for a script have some corporate face. And sooner or later someone is going to decide it's not the smartest thing for the corporate image to be associated with, say, a drug movie or an NC-17 movie."

Schrader finds it meaningful to establish a metaphor for himself to encapsulate themes. The most famous, of course, would be urban loneliness, as captured in the circuits of Travis Bickle. "Yeah, I first got this idea with 'Taxi Driver,' he says, repeating a familiar personal myth. "I was very lonely at the time. I had been living more or less in my car and driving around-this was Los Angeles, it wasn't even about New York. I got a pain in my stomach, went to the hospital, I had an ulcer. When I got to the hospital, I realized I hadn't spoken to anyone in two or three weeks. Drifting around, drinking, going to pornography. While I was there, I got this image of this metal coffin drifting around in the city. And that was the taxi cab. The taxi driver appeared to be in society, he was surrounded by people, he was constantly interacting with passengers, but in fact, he was desperately alone in a little coffin in this sea of humanity. Once I had this metaphor, I could start to address the problem of loneliness. I realized the true nature of the problem. I wasn't talking about loneliness per se, but about self-imposed loneliness. That is, a situation where you choose to make yourself lonely. That came out in the plot as well. There's one girl he cannot have, but wants, there's one he can have but doesn't want. He tries to kill the father figure of the one and fails, kills the father figure of the other. So it's a very simple addressing of that mechanism of enforcing one's own loneliness. Like all true neurotics, we become so invested in our neuroses, we will fight to the death before we give them up."

When Schrader talks to film students, they don't seem to understand his notion that screenwriting can be therapeutic, or a means to self-discovery. "The last time I taught screenwriting, about halfway through, I announced to the class that I no longer believed anything I was saying. I was speaking from a kind of archaic context to these students. I went through a period of four or five years where I doubted whether this is a relevant approach. But I've just written two or three new scripts and I find that it's valid again. But it is certainly not what drives film economics today, it is not what makes careers. I don't even know if a person such as myself could even get into the film industry today."

He contrasts the simplistic solutions of today's movies with life: "Life gives us dilemmas. Dilemmas like, 'I love my mother so much I want to kill her.' And you don't solve that dilemma. Dilemmas don't get solved, they get explored. So when you have complex characters who are exploring dilemmas, you're never going to have a solution. When you don't have a solution, a simplistic little ka-ching of a cash register that usually occurs when a Hollywood movie ends."

Talking to this reformed movie critic, does he believe film criticism possible today? "Certainly not at the level that I care about," he says without missing a beat. "It's hard for me to even believe anymore that in the late sixties I considered myself, as a film critic for the Los Angeles Free Press -- which was a counter-culture thing like the Village Voice, part of the movement, as much as Gloria Steinem or Abbie Hoffman. You were part of a political force. And of course, the war was behind all of this, driving all these countercultural mechanisms. And so when I say to students today I felt that I was part of a political movement, it doesn't parse, those two ideas don't fit together. Unless we have a major depression, I don't think those days will return. There's nothing like a good economic crisis or political oppression to stir the artistic soul. One of the reasons it's so hard to get your jones up as an American artist is that we have lived an entire era of peace and prosperity. We have not seen a fraction of the hardship my father or your grandfather's generation knew. It is out of hardship, hardship is what makes artists functional. When everything's going along fine, artists basically are interior decorators. Y'know, let's recover the sofa, we'll get an artist. But when things are really hard, and you don't have enough to eat, and you have to call an artist to get something to eat, then you get a real artist."

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