'I was in a bad place'
Paul Schrader was 26 and destitute when he wrote Taxi Driver. As the film is re-released, he tells Geoffrey Macnab why he's still proud of his violent movie - and why he lied about it to the FBI
Source: The Guardian UK
Seemingly against his wishes, the American writer and director Paul Schrader is in town to edit his latest feature, The Walker. The film was largely financed with British money, and so Schrader is obliged to complete post-production in the UK. On one level, however, the timing is fortuitous: Schrader will be in town for next week's 30th anniversary re-release of Taxi Driver, the film he scripted for Martin Scorsese and which made both their names.
Schrader, who is 59 and grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a reputation as an intense and driven figure. But on the evening I meet him, he is in a surprisingly relaxed groove. Not even the prospect of a new computer game based on Taxi Driver seems to upset him. After Sony announced plans for "a total entertainment experience", he and Scorsese scrambled unsuccessfully to have the project stopped in its tracks.
But when they went back to their original contracts, Schrader discovered they had sold "all their rights to all media, known and unknown, now and in the future". That was their Faustian bargain to get the movie made.
Talking to Schrader about the origins of Taxi Driver is a disarming experience. On the one hand, he waxes nostalgic about a movie he is still clearly immensely proud of. On the other, he is forcing himself to rake over one of the most troubled moments in his own life. Schrader used to say "Travis Bickle is me", an unlikely claim, given that at the time he wrote the screenplay, he was a budding writer, protege of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, and a cinephile with a passion for Robert Bresson. (Travis, by contrast, was an alienated out-of-towner whose movie tastes inclined only as far as Times Square porno flicks.)
"At the time I wrote it [Taxi Driver], I was in a rather low and bad place," Schrader says. "I had broken with Pauline [Kael], I had broken with my wife, I had broken with the woman I left my wife for, I had broken with the American Film Institute and I was in debt." For several weeks, he drifted around LA, living and sleeping in his car, eating junk food, watching porn. Eventually, when his stomach began to hurt badly, he went to the hospital and discovered he had an ulcer.
"When I was talking to the nurse, I realised I hadn't spoken to anyone in weeks ... that was when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me. That is what I was: this person in an iron box, a coffin, floating round the city, but seemingly alone." He claims he wrote the script, which he dashed off in under a fortnight, as self-therapy, to "exorcise the evil I felt within me".
Taxi Driver was set in New York, but this wasn't a city Schrader knew especially well. His screenplay was riddled with geographical errors. When they were preparing to shoot, Scorsese used to make sardonic remarks to him: "Sixth Avenue doesn't run downtown. What are you going to do? Have them change the traffic?"
But whatever their reservations about his street knowledge, Scorsese and De Niro were entirely in synch with Schrader as to who Travis Bickle was. They didn't spend long hours discussing Travis's motivations. Schrader simply gave De Niro his jacket and boots and left him to get on with it.
Taxi Driver was released in the US in February 1976. Three months later, Schrader accompanied the movie to Cannes, stopping en route in Paris to interview his idol Robert Bresson. "He asked me, 'Do you think your film will win the big prize?' I said, 'Yes.'" Schrader was right, and Taxi Driver went on to win the Palme d'Or despite jury president Tennessee Williams's reported revulsion at its violence.
Schrader tells a lovely story about an evening he spent in Cannes. He and Scorsese were having drinks on a hotel terrace, winding down at the the end of the day. "I was there with Marty and [Francis Ford] Coppola. Then Fassbinder came by with somebody. Then Sergio Leone came by. I remember thinking, wow! This is the fucking greatest thing I've ever been at in my life. Here I am with all these movie gods, sitting on the terrace discussing movies in the middle of the night in the Mediterranean."
Ask him today if he or Scorsese feel any responsibility for the toxic effect Taxi Driver subsequently had on its youthful star Jodie Foster, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of 12-year-old prostitute Iris, and he strikes an evasive note. On March 30 1981, John Hinckley Jr, who had become obsessed with the film and had been stalking Foster, attempted to assassinate US president Ronald Reagan in a bid to impress her; in some subliminal way it was as if the US public and media blamed her for it. "She [Foster] was a strong girl. She refused to do interviews about the film for a long time, which was smart," he says, and then changes the subject.
The day Reagan was shot, Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro were questioned by the FBI. "I was scouting locations in New Orleans. It came over the radio that a white kid from Colorado had made the assassination attempt. I said to the driver, it was one of those Taxi Driver kids."
By the time he got back to his hotel, the FBI were waiting. "I've got a lot of respect for the FBI that day because they were really on it." They wanted to know whether Schrader had had contact with Hinckley. "They said, 'Have you heard from him, and if you have, have you heard any other names from him?'"
Schrader now admits that he lied to the Feds. His office had received one or two letters from "this kid in Colorado who wanted to know how he could meet Jodie Foster". He told the secretary to throw the letters out. "I knew that if I told the FBI, 'Yeah, I got a letter from him [Hinckley] once but I threw it out,' I would be fucked, my secretary would be fucked. We'd have to be endlessly answering questions about a letter we've thrown out and don't remember. So I just said, 'No, I have never heard of him.'"
Contrary to internet rumours, there are no plans for a Taxi Driver sequel. Arguably, Scorsese and Schrader have already made it, with Bringing Out the Dead (1999), about an ambulance driver in New York - although Schrader felt the film went awry when Nicolas Cage was cast in the lead instead of his preferred choice, Ed Norton.
The writer acknowledges that Taxi Driver is "a young man's film" and could even be considered juvenilia. Its racial politics in particular remain problematic. In his original screenplay, the pimp (eventually played by Harvey Keitel) was black and in the final reel shoot-out, Travis killed only black people. "In the original script, it was just a racist slaughter," Schrader remembers. "There was genuine concern. [The producers] came to me and said, 'We've really got to change this. There could be a riot.' It would have been socially and morally irresponsible if we had incited that kind of violence."
Schrader points out that there is a difference between making a film about a racist and making a racist movie. He also dismisses the idea that Taxi Driver is pro-vigilante or - as some have called it - a fascist parable. Nor is Travis' sexuality as straightforward as it may have appeared. There is, Schrader contests, a strong homoerotic element to the storytelling. "If you look at this character, in this film I've just finished (The Walker), he is now gay. From Taxi Driver to American Gigolo to Light Sleeper, he has been working his way there. I've finally got him out of the closet!"
He has at least partly renounced "the new brutalist" side of the movies he made in the 1970s. "I killed more screen characters in the first four films I wrote than I have since," he says. "I realised I had to stop writing violence." His next film is "about a man who once was a dog who meets a dog who once was a boy," he explains to my bafflement.
Schrader is a very different personality and film-maker to the 26-year-old who wrote Taxi Driver, but his continuing pride in the movie is self-evident. "The film holds up because it is true. It is true to who we were," he says. "The reason it holds up is that it is the real deal. Scorsese, Bob (De Niro) and I were in that place at that time."