“Taxi Driver wasn’t autobiographical in terms of the actual events,” Paul Schrader tells me with a cautious chuckle, “but I did draw on my own mental state.” Written when he was 26, Schrader’s violent tale of psychological breakdown wasn’t the first screenplay he sold but it was the film which launched the career of one of American cinema’s defining voices. Schrader, who had a strict religious upbringing and didn’t see a film until the age of 17, set about using film to explore the existential loneliness of modern man. He wrote three more scripts for Martin Scorsese: The Last Temptation Of Christ,Bringing Out The Dead and Raging Bull, as well as writing and directing the timelessly stylish American Gigolo. His most recent film, Adam Resurrected, is an idiosyncratic piece about a man who survives the Holocaust by living as a dog. “I think the appeal of storytelling in general is to explore outsider characters,” he says. Here, Schrader explains how writing scripts can be a form of therapy, why he didn’t want to make a conventional Holocaust film and why the movie industry as we know it is dead.
GQ: Did you approach shooting the adaptation of Yoram Kaniuk’s novel Adam Resurrecteddifferently to the screenplays you’ve written yourself?
Paul Schrader: No, I don’t think so. By the time you get around to shooting the film, it is your own. You’ve lived with it, rehearsed and rewritten it and it feels like your own story even though it is born of Yoram’s experiences which are very different to my own. The thing about the film is that I’m not Jewish and there have been so many movies about the Holocaust that I certainly didn’t feel like the world needed another one from me. What drew me in to the script was the irreverence of it and the black humour – that’s also what made the book so controversial. Yoram is a very iconoclastic man – he is someone who called Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, a “Disneyland”.
How did you translate the novel’s magic-realism onto the screen?
Some of that ambiguity is lost when you turn it into realistic images for the film, but it remains inherently preposterous – there’s a mental hospital in the middle of the desert for a start, which makes no sense! In fact, the very first Holocaust institution in Israel was built in the 1980s and the novel was written 20 years before that. I like to describe the film as “The story of a man who once was a dog, who meets a dog who once was a boy!” The main character is a clown who survives the Holocaust by becoming a dog. Yoram was not in the camps but he was in the war of liberation. He was injured on Mount Sinai and he left to go to America and he was on a ship full of holocaust survivors. He heard all these stories, and then he came to Boston and went up to the experimental medical centre there, including a case of a guy who thought he was a dog. So he put it all together – it’s more aggressively an act of imagination than an act of history.
Many of your films have returned to certain themes, such as The Walker which updates some of the characters from American Gigolo. How does Adam Resurrected fit in?
The original scripts that I’ve written tend to be more realistic. The closest thing to Adam Resurrected, I guess, would beThe Last Temptation Of Christ, because that was also an act of imagination about sacred events that feels blasphemous! In screenwriting there are definitely certain things that you fall back on and certain things that you’re interested in. There’s also a sense of humour that’s inherent in your characters.
Jeff Goldblum in Adam Resurrected, like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and Richard Gere in American Gigolo, is on screen for almost every scene of the film. How do you prepare an actor to take on that sort of role?
I call them monocular films, because it’s like you’re looking with one eye! In these films the actor has to play more than one role. He has to use different sides of himself to stay interesting. I actually break apart the character into the different elements he has and then I draw a graph of those various elements, so at any given time one aspect of his character is on an uprising curve. Every film creates its own rules.
How much of yourself do you put into those characters?
A script like Taxi Driver was originally written as a kind of self-therapy. This ugly person was taking over my life, but I came to realise that this kid locked in a metal box and floating around the sewers of New York getting angrier and angrier is a metaphor for what I was feeling. I realised that if I could write that kid, I could exorcise my own feelings.
Can you recommend a good book?
The book I’m reading right now is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K Massie. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner and it’s a really great read. In terms of screenwriting there isn’t anything I’d recommend. I teach a course in screenwriting at Columbia, but I’ve never taken a course and I’ve never read a book about it!
What do you think the future holds for the film industry?
Motion pictures as we knew them are virtually over. They were a Twentieth Century phenomenon. The idea of a projected image in a darkened room with a crowd is going the way of albums, CDs, books and bookstores! Our culture is evolving into a new kind of audio-visual entertainment, and nobody quite knows what it is yet, but I don’t think there’s anybody in the business who thinks that it’s going to continue much longer the way it is.
Will that change the types of stories that are able to be told?
I think it’s already done that. The middle is gone, and all you have left is low-budget and big-budget films. A film likeAdam Resurrected couldn’t be made anymore, because you couldn’t get the $11m dollars you’d need! You’re left with $5m films and $75m films and the conventional, well-made dramas in the middle are few and far between. A film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has become the exception, but it used to be the rule.
Are there positive things about the decline of the studio system?
Films are moving into a post-capitalist era. The only economic paradigm that movies have ever known is capitalism. There were no church sponsors or state patronage. The idea was that if you’d pay to see it, we’ll make it for you. Now, because of the low cost of the technology, micro-budget films are being made in much the same way as a painting, a poem or a song is made, without a direct connection to the capitalist marketplace. Films are being made essentially for the makers, and that changes everything! They’re being made for an audience of one, so you’re getting a huge influx of films. There were 15,000 films submitted to Sundance this year, and of that 15,000 you will only hear about maybe 30 and you’ll see, perhaps, one! The new model of film is becoming more like the model for the other arts, and not like the capitalist model of the studio system. There will still be the big road-show films, but for most films the audiences will become so fractured that they’ll be more like theatre or opera. To me, the era of the multiplex is dead.
Do you feel sad to be witnessing that decline?
I’m very lucky to have been able to work during the most interesting period in the 100-year life of movies. I’m not done yet! I’m working on a couple of different things, including one which would essentially be a DIY film, made on the equivalent of an iPhone. A whole new curatorial system is also going to have to evolve, and right now it’s evolving through the film festivals. They are becoming the new editors and power-brokers, because somebody has to screen all this stuff! The internet has brought about fundamental changes – who would have thought that all those ones and zeroes would have destroyed the world we knew!
Much like Richard Gere’s on-screen pimp, American Gigolo helped make us – teaching a generation of men how to dress, how to move and how to make love. Paul Schrader’s film first hit cinemas 32 years ago this week, but the film’s style, particularly Gere’s Armani wardrobe, remains a touchstone for well-dressed men everywhere. From the opening sequence where Gere is fitted by his tailor to the famous scene where he lovingly lays out his suits on his bed while dabbing cocaine and singing along to Smokey Robinson, menswear has never been quite the same since. The film launched Armani’s career, caused a sea change on Savile Row and inspired a generation of men to adopt his silk, linen and Italian cotton suiting. Here Schrader guides GQ.com through the style which made the man…
As an actor, Richard was more interested in the character than the clothes, but to me the clothes and the character were the same. I mean, this is a guy who does a line of coke in order to get dressed!
I remember telling Richard in 1980 that men’s clothes would become more Edwardian. I felt there was a kind of foppishness that was due to reoccur. Richard thought I was completely wrong, but a couple of years later I ran into him and he said: “You were right about that!” It was just around the corner, so it was simply a matter of who exploited it first.
Giorgio Armani was involved because of John Travolta. Travolta was originally going to star, and his manager suggested Armani because he knew that he was on the verge of becoming big. We all went to Milan and Giorgio was just getting ready to go into an international non-couture line, so the film synced up perfectly with what he was up to. John dropped out at the last moment and Richard came in, but we kept all the Armani clothes. It was just a matter of tailoring.
The whole style of the film is influenced by Italy. Los Angeles is an over-photographed city and has that punishing sunlight. It’s hard to find a new way to shoot LA. I got around that by going to Italy and bringing back Ferdinando Scarfiotti. He had been the art director on Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Last Tango In Paris and eventually he won an Oscar for The Last Emperor. It was Nando who was the driving visual force for the film.
I’ve worked with Giorgio subsequently, but the last time I tried to pull him into a film his representative told me: “We don’t do films anymore. It’s too much work. We prefer to just do the red carpet!” That’s where the money is!
Originally published by British GQ.