Interview: Paul Schrader for Open Magazine

At 67, Paul Schrader, the screenwriter behind perhaps two of the most important American movies of all time—Taxi Driver and Raging Bull—is nowhere near done. If anything, he has a renewed vigour—the sort you might see in fresh-faced filmmakers who’ve just released their first feature. The reason for this new energy is The Canyons, Schrader’s 18th film as a director, written by American Psycho novelist Bret Easton Ellis.

The film might as well have been the duo’s first, considering the do-it-yourself manner in which it was made. Crowdfunded (through Kickstarter), crowdsourced (with all actors apart from the leads cast through Facebook, and costumes and locations sourced on favours) and made on a microbudget of $250,000, the film finally released via video-on-demand before it got a theatrical release. Both Schader and Ellis invested $30,000 in the film, and female lead Lindsay Lohan put money behind it, too. The other lead, pornstar James Deen, may have been the only one to be paid up front.

Despite having collaborated with Martin Scorsese on some of the seminal films of recent cinema, and directed actors like Richard Gere (American Gigolo), Joseph Fiennes (Forever Mine) and Michael J Fox (Light of Day), Schrader doesn’t seem opposed to starting from the ground up again, if need be, because cinema is the only way of life he’s ever known. Speaking over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Schrader shares his thoughts on DIY filmmaking film, the state of cinema today and ‘Xtreme City’, his ambitious one-time project with Shah Rukh Khan and Leonardo DiCaprio that was ultimately scrapped. Excerpts:

Q Now that the noise about the movie has subsided, how do you look back on the process of making a DIY film? What did you learn from the process?

A Well, I think I got very lucky with that. We were doing something that hadn’t been done before. We were kind of exploring to see if we could do it. I look back and I realise that so many things that could have gone wrong didn’t go wrong. And in fact, we got very, very lucky. It was very exciting to do that for the first time, but I don’t know if it would be so exciting to do it a second time. So, I mean, I learnt that you could do it. I learnt that it was a lot harder than we thought. And the whole distribution system—VOD —is definitely real, but it’s not as organised or efficient as it should be. And it’s got to improve if it’s going to be genuinely competitive.

Q Did the film make any profits? Can a well done, good looking, profitable film be made today bypassing the studio system altogether?

A Yeah, the film has made profits and everybody has been paid. Lindsay got her deferment; we will all get money.

But just because it worked for us… I don’t know how [replicable] it is. It was a kind of special situation where Bret and I found ourselves in the same frame of mind, at the same time. I mean, at that point in our lives when we were ready to work for nothing, it worked out for us. I don’t know whether you can make it happen every time. I know a lot of people are trying, and it’s very, very hard to make a film that inexpensive and still have anybody notice it.

So to answer the second part of your question, I did make a film that way, but for it to happen again, it has to be a very special kind of film, which has to be a) a contemporary film, b) without any special effects, c) without any action sequences, d) one where you source practical locations for free and e) where people use their own wardrobe or hair. So it can only work for a certain kind of film.

Q Steven Soderbergh gave a keynote address at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, where he lashed out at the studio system saying it’s now more about salesmanship than movies. Do you feel the same about the state of the industry today?

A I’m neutral about this, actually. I began by making films for the studios, then I made independent films, now I’ve made a DIY film, and now I’m going back and making an independent film again. It’s obviously getting harder and harder; the budgets are smaller and smaller. It’s not a very healthy time in the film business, but I think the studio system won’t be around that much longer to attack. What’s going on now is that the executives of studios are basically taking all the money out of the safe in the Titanic. Because they know that ship’s going down. It’s bound to happen if profits are the only reason you are in this business.

Q Would it be a good thing if that happened?

A Is it a good thing that we lost newspapers? Is it a good thing that we lost bookstores? Is it a good thing we lost CDs? I don’t know. But it happened. And it’s going to happen to movies too. Things will change soon.

Q So is Kickstarter—which you used to fund The Canyons—the way to go if the studios go down? Do you believe it’s a viable source of funding in the long term?

A It’s viable, but I think it has to change. I mean, I think you can only go so far in asking people to give you money and not paying them back. And so, at some point, they should be able to work out a system whereby when you put in money, if the film is successful, you get paid back.

If one of these Kickstarter films becomes wildly successful—like, The Canyons wasn’t wildly successful, just plain successful, but if a film made a huge amount of money—there would be a lot of antagonism about, ‘Why did we give money to this film’ or ‘Why do you give these people money just so that they can get rich?’ So it’s got to change.

Having said that, because of [Kickstarter], our film got bigger and better. At first, Bret and I were going to do it with our own money. Once Kickstarter happened, we had people volunteering and helping, [and] we got a house to shoot in Malibu through it. At first, the film was just going to be an exercise but it ended up being a more or less real film because these things started to happen.

Q With the way the filmmaking process has reinvented itself, has your approach to screenwriting changed too?

A Well, a little bit, yes. I mean, there used to be some kind of rules of filmmaking, but there aren’t any rules anymore. You can try almost anything now. If you want to have a 10-page monologue, you can have one. If you want a do a film that’s one long action sequence—like Captain Phillips—you can have that too. You can do sort of whatever you want now. So, with both filmmaking and writing, there really are no real rules anymore.

Q Movies used to mean something to the young people of your generation as they were growing up. That doesn’t seem to be the case today. What has changed?

A Well, that was because we had a ‘model culture’, which we don’t have any more. Everything is split in all parts—no one universally likes something today. So just like there won’t ever be a Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson again, there will be never be a film that sits at the centre of culture again.

I’ve said before that earlier we faced a crisis of content, and today we face a crisis of form. And the crisis of content was much more exciting, because the problem with a crisis of form is that movies are becoming something else and we don’t know quite what they are becoming yet. We only know that things won’t be what they used to be. Are those Youtube videos movies? I suppose. Is Breaking Bad a movie? Yes, I suppose. The whole definition of a film is changing.

Q Even the great directors of that time—like Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin—haven’t managed to sustain themselves, except for Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg…

A Well, everybody is working today, but in [Martin Scorsese’s] case, you are talking about someone who has spent his entire life managing his critical reputation; it didn’t just happen to Marty—I mean, I have the same tenacity as Marty, and so do a number of others, in the way that what you do is what you are. It’s more fun to keep trying and fail, than to give up.

Q In Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, you and Martin Scorsese have collaborated on three of the most powerful films of our times. Why haven’t you worked together for almost two decades now?

A That time passed, you know. In the last thing we did together, Bringing Out The Dead (1999), it was clear that we were both thinking like directors. And that really wasn’t how the relationship worked. I think those movies before that one just had to do with the times as much as they had to do with anything else.

Talented artists come from the times, not the other way round; they don’t make the times. And when the times demand and ask artists to step up, there are always plenty of artists that do. We lived in a moment where we had a very exciting supportive social situation—and we weren’t the only ones. A lot of good things were done. It’s not that the 60s or 70s had more talented people than today, there’s just as many talented people today. It’s just that the times are different.

Q Why do you think Taxi Driver has managed to outlast other movies of your time?

A I’m not sure. I think we got lucky with [Robert] DeNiro, [and] Scorsese and myself being at the right place at the right time for the right movie—I mean, it was absolutely true to what we were feeling. We never really talked that much about the main character because we all knew exactly who he was. But we didn’t think it would be very successful. We had jitters the night before it opened, and at that time, it was harder to predict what would happen, and we said, ‘Wow, we’ll see tomorrow. Nobody should be embarrassed, because the film is a real film.’ But it didn’t fail. (chuckles)

Q Would a Taxi Driver set in today’s times be relevant?

A Well, not that film but a film like that, I suppose. That character is a part of the 70s, and when you move him 40 years later, he’s a different guy. He’s probably scarier today than he was then. Because today, he will find a group of people who thought just like him, and he would become some kind of… militant.

Q Do you ever wonder if your scripts would have been any different if Taxi Driver hadn’t been so wildly successful at the beginning of your career? If they would have been better or worse?

A It was great, actually… it was terrific to get [that] out of the way. I was fortunate to get that kind of gratification early on, and I could put that aside and continue. It’s a terrible thing when you go through your whole life without ever having that one moment where you realise that not only do you think that something is valuable but other people do too.

Q So what happened to ‘Xtreme City’, the film you were going to make with Shah Rukh Khan and Leonardo DiCaprio?

A Well, in the end, I don’t think Shah Rukh wanted to make it. It was really up to him, and I just got the feeling that he was never going to be comfortable doing an international film that he didn’t control. You know that everything SRK does, he has total control over? So if he did something like this at an international level, he wouldn’t have that control. I think in the end he wasn’t that comfortable not being a hundred per cent in control. We did have a script, which was a hundred per cent paid for. We also had a meeting with SRK and Leo in Berlin, but neither of them actually ever committed. There was a lot of waiting—maybe they were waiting for each other to commit, but it never quite happened.

Q Were you ever interested in doing the film with someone else?

A I was interested in doing it with Salman Khan some years ago. I actually met with him, but I couldn’t really take it very far with Salman—because if SRK found that out, that would have killed it for SRK. By the way, how’s Salman’s health? I just read that he had cancer or something.

Q No, he’s absolutely fine. You seem quite knowledgeable about the Indian film industry…

A I was intrigued about Bollywood for a brief period because I had flown to Delhi for a film festival and I had met some people there who asked me if I would like to work on a cross-cultural film. I just liked the idea of trying to combine an international movie with a Bollywood movie. I’m always interested in things that haven’t been done before. At this point, I only knew of Anurag Kashyap, and he was very exciting to me then. He has a new film out, I think, and although I haven’t seen it, I did get to meet him a few weeks ago.

Q What kind of role do you think Indian cinema plays in the larger world cinema scene?

A All the international cinemas are kind of coming together.

I remember that when I was in India five-six years ago, there was a craze starting here about these hyper developed bodies, with all the six-pack stomachs and steroids and all these kids who had very atypical bodies. They looked like gym rats, and I remember there was a young actor at that time who was really a wonderfully handsome kid who was obsessed with getting this new body. (tsks) He’s a star now. (pauses to think) Shahid Kapoor! He was such a handsome young kid, and the next thing you know he has this body that looks like it came out of a comic book. I thought that trend was very silly at the time, and then two-three years ago, it went from Bollywood to America. I started seeing these young American actors who had these bodies that were implausibly fit. (laughs) So, I just sort of [figured] that world cinema is interconnected.

Q If you had any advice to give today to the kid you were in the 70s, what would it be?

A I don’t know, because the way things are now, I wouldn’t want him to get into the movies.

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