Paul Schrader’s place in film history is assured, just for the fact that he wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. But to only remember him for those two Martin Scorsese movies would be ignoring a nearly 30 year directing career.
From his brilliant 1978 debut movie Blue Collar – starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto as Detroit auto workers planning to rob a union boss – he has never shied away from controversy, both on screen and behind the scenes. All the way from Blue Collar, which had a notoriously racially-charged atmosphere on set, all the way through to 2013’s infamous Lindsay Lohan-starring The Canyons, the stories behind his movies have often been as interesting as the films themselves.
And despite turning 70 this year, he doesn’t look like he’s slowing down at all.
His latest movie Dog Eat Dog is as crazy as anything else in his filmography. An old school gritty pulp tale based on a book by legendary ex-con turned author (and Reservoir Dogs actor) Eddie Bunker, it stars Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and newcomer Christopher Matthew Cook as three ageing crooks trying to pull off one last job.
Cage and Dafoe are on proper full-on scenery-chewing form, and Schrader makes the film a kaleidoscopic trip of different lens filters, black & white and unexpected violence. We caught up with him when it showed at the London Film Festival to talk about his long career, and what Nicolas Cage is really like.
You disowned Dying Of The Light, the last film you and Nicolas Cage made together, due to disputes with the producers. Was there the thought then that this was you two trying to get it right this time?
Yeah. Not only a sense of redemption, but also a sense of freedom.
It’s quite a simple crime movie on paper – why go so wild stylistically for this film?
Because I’m not a crime film director.
I thought “what is a crime film today?” After Tarantino, Scorsese and Guy Ritchie, what does a crime film need to do to succeed? There’s so many crime movies out there. So that became the fun. The exploration, looking at crime films, thinking about crime films, and trying to find a different way to do it. I knew that if I did it the way other people did, and the way I’ve made my previous films, it wouldn’t be very special.
The opening scene, where Willem Dafoe commits a brutal murder while off his face on drugs and watching bad TV, is both incredibly shocking and funny at the same time. What was the thinking behind that?
I put together this young team. I said to them “the bad news is we don’t have the money to do this right. The good news is though is that we can make any fucking film we want!” So let’s just not be boring. I knew that first scene had to be outrageous, because we had to give the audience permission to laugh.
I made a film a few years before called Auto Focus, which after it came out I realised that the audience never really got permission to laugh at it. It needs to be outrageous right away, to say to the audience that if you’re taking this film serious, you shouldn’t be here and you can leave right now.
And then you cut straight to black and white for the next scene…
I’m sitting with my collaborators, and I’m thinking, “oh my god, I’ve got to do a strip club scene”. Those are the most boring scenes to shoot, the same old coloured lights, the same old smoke machine, the same old cuts. How on earth can we do a strip club scene that’s interesting? Then I thought I hadn’t seen a strip club scene in black and white since Bob Fosse’s Lenny. So let’s just do it in black and white. Don’t tell anybody why. And they’ll be so busy trying to figure out why, that they won’t be bored! [laughs].
VAGUE SPOILERS FOR THE LAST BIT OF THE FILM IN THE NEXT ANSWER
Nicolas Cage does a memorable Humphrey Bogart impression throughout the film – was that his idea?
That was not in the script, not in the book. He was fooling around with the Bogart thing, I didn’t care much for it, I thought I would cut it out. And then we where talking about the end of the film, and said he didn’t understand it. “Why am I still alive, why is my character taking hostages, what is this all about?” So I said, “Maybe he’s not alive”.
Then we come to shoot the scene and we’re reading it before we go out. And he does the Bogart thing. And I go “wow, are you sure you want to do that?” And he said, “well you said maybe he wasn’t alive, and if he’s not alive, he gets to be Humphrey Bogart.”
I thought that was a good point.
I said to him, “you know we don’t have the budget to do this two different ways, we’re going to have to live with it.” We were under very tight budgetary constraints, so if we took a chance, that was that. There was no back up option. And he said, “you’ve been telling me for two weeks, be bold! Well this is bold, isn’t it?”. So I said, “it is bold, let’s do it”.
There’s lots of stories about him coming up with weird quirks for his characters. Is he like that?
He has that component. He is highly responsible, and super prepared. But he likes you to believe he is irresponsible. That’s part of his aura. But then he’ll do something kind of wacky, and then later on you’ll figure out that he’s been planning it for weeks!
What was it like for like for Christopher Matthew Cook, a relative unknown, to have to act alongside Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe?
Well, the nice thing about working with Nic Cage is that you get your movie made. The bad thing is he eats up your budget. Then you manage to get some money together for Willem. So now you have to get an actor who’ll work for scale, and who’ll also be a nice counterpoint to them. I wanted someone a bit younger so it was not entirely a ‘grandpa movie’. Christopher was an ex con from Texas, and he had the right physicality, so it worked out. I was going to do it with Andrew Dice Clay, but then he had a conflict with a TV series.
I’m really happy with Cook, though it did become more of a two man movie than a three man movie, because Nic and Willem just shoot off together.
What do you think is the best film you’ve made?
You like different films for different reasons. Mishima is the damnedest thing, it’s so unlikely, so it’s just great to have done something so peculiar. Affliction is probably the most solid adaptation I’ve ever done. But Light Sleeper probably means more to me than any of the others. It touches me personally.
Do you ever worry that Taxi Driver overshadows your directorial work?
No. I mean, you get involved with something like Taxi Driver, you can’t predict that, you can’t plan it. All of a sudden you are associated with film history, and a cultural touchstone. And that’s kind of cool. Don’t fight it. I was very fortunate that it happened to me right away, so I didn’t have to spend my whole life waiting for validation – I got it right out of the box!
What’s the thing you enjoy most about making films?
I was having lunch with Martin Scorsese earlier this year, and that subject came up – what’s the most fun thing about directing? And we both felt the same. Which is you go on the set, and something isn’t right. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the actors, maybe it’s lighting. Something is wrong. And when you’re a young director you panic. But when you’ve done it enough times you realise that it will just come to you. You tell the crew to give you 15 minutes. And you just sit there, and all of a sudden it comes to you. And you see it again. That’s the most exhilarating feeling.
Did Scorsese agree with you on all that?
And then what’s the worst thing about directing, the thing that still annoys you?
I mean, just having to slog your way through certain situations. Obstacles that are being put in your path. You don’t respect these obstacles, and you wonder why are they making it so difficult for me!
These obstacles are people, right?
Yeah. Well, people, money, all kinds of obstacles. I think one of the worst things that can happen when you’re directing is if you’re sick. I’ve directed with a fever, and you get through the day, but you know that you weren’t 100%. You know you missed something today. Something got by you, and if had been 100% lucid, you would have caught something you missed.
Were you ill on any films in particular?
Well, on every film there’s usually some day, where for some reason, you’re not right where you should be.
It’s interesting you say this the first straight crime movie you’ve made. Criminal activity has been in all your films, going all the way back to Hardcore and Blue Collar…
Well, Blue Collar is not a crime movie, it’s about working class men who decide to commit a crime. But this is just about criminals.
Was the Blue Collar set as mad as people say?
Yeah. I mean, it was because of race. You get involved with a lot of difficult situations with Lindsay Lohan, or George C Scott or whoever, but it’s still kind of normal. But with Richard Pryor race came into it. Richard Pryor was saying things like, “The first white man I ever met came to my mother’s house just to fuck her, and you remind me of him.” At which point you just say, “let’s keep working Richard!”
Pryor is just one of the supposedly ‘difficult’ people you’ve worked with and got great performances out of. You’ve also worked with other ‘big’ characters like Lindsay Lohan, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, even Nic Cage. Are you attracted to working with actors like that?
I think the ones I’ve most enjoyed working with are Nick Nolte and Willem Dafoe, just because they were on the same wavelength as me. But it all comes down to casting. Antony Perkins once told me that acting is 75% casting. If you get the right person at the right time in their life, and you just watch them and help them. And if you miscast a movie, there’s nothing you can do.
Paul Schrader, thank you very much!
Dog Eat Dog is in UK cinemas from November 18th.