Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Paul Schrader: Notes On Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Paul Schrader was 26 and destitute when he wrote Taxi Driver. In a discussion published in Martin Scorsese - A Journey he reflects on the origins of the script, its transition to the screen and subsequent reaction to the film.

The script of Taxi Driver is the genuine thing. It came from the gut, and while it banged around town everyone who read it realized it was authentic, the real item. After a number of years enough people said somebody should make it so that finally someone did.

In 1973 I had been through a particularly rough time, living more or less in my car in Los Angeles. riding around all night, drinking heavily, going to porno movies because they were open all night, and crashing some place during the day. Then, finally, I went to the emergency room in serious pain, and it turned out I had an ulcer. While I was in the hospital, talking to the nurse, I realized I hadn’t spoken to anyone in two or three weeks. It really hit me, an image that I was like a taxi driver, floating around in this metal coffin in the city, seemingly in the middle of people, but absolutely, totally alone.

The taxicab was a metaphor for loneliness, and once I had that, it was just a matter of creating a plot: the girl he wants but can’t have, and the one he can have but doesn’t want. He tries to kill the surrogate father of the first and fails, so he kills the surrogate father of the other. I think it took ten days, it may have been twelve – I just wrote continuously. I was staying at an old girlfriend’s house, where the heat and gas were all turned off, and I just wrote. When I stopped, I slept on the couch, then I woke up and I went back to typing. As you get older it takes more work. Hovering in the back of my mind is a fondness for those days when it was so painful it just had to come out.

I didn’t really write it the way people write scripts today – you know, with a market in mind. I wrote it because it was something that I wanted to write and it was the first thing I wrote. It jumped out of my head.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Right after writing it, I left town for about six months. I came back to Los Angeles after I was feeling a little stronger emotionally and decided to go at it again. I was a freelance critic at the time. I had written a review of Sisters and interviewed Brian De Palma at his place at the beach. That afternoon, we were playing chess – we were about evenly matched – and somehow the fact that I had written a script came up. So I gave it to him and he liked it a lot and wanted to do it. De Palma showed the script to the producers, Michael and Julia Phillips, who were three houses down the beach, and he showed it to Marty, who was in town after finishing Mean Streets. Michael and Julia told me they wanted to do it but that Marty was a better director for it. So Julia and I went and saw a rough cut of Mean Streets, and I agreed. In fact, I thought Marty and Bob De Niro would be the ideal combination, so we aligned ourselves – De Niro, the Phillipses and myself – but we were not powerful enough to get the film made. Then there was a hiatus of a couple of years, and in the intervening time, each of us had successes of our own. I sold my first script, The Yakuza, for a lot of money. Marty did Alice the Phillipses did The Sting, and De Niro did The Godfather; Part II.

At the time I remember describing Taxi Driver’s Travis as sort of a young man who wandered from the snowy waste of the Midwest into an over-heated New York cathedral. My own background was anti-Catholic in the style of the Reformation and the Glorious Revolution. The town I was raised in was about one-third Dutch Calvinist and one-third Catholic, and the other third were trying to figure out why they were there, and sort of keeping peace. Well, both cultures, Catholic and Calvinist, are infused with the sense of guilt, redemption by blood, and moral purpose – all acts are moral acts, all acts have consequence. It’s impossible to act amorally. There’s a kind of divine eye in the sky that ensures your acts are morally judged. So you know once you’re raised in that kind of environment, you don’t shake that, you shake a lot of things, but the sense of moral responsibility, guilt, and redemption you carry with you forever. So Scorsese and I shared that. I came from essentially a rural, Midwestern Protestant and Dutch background, and he is urban and Italian Catholic, so in a way it’s a very felicitous joining. The bedrock is the same.

Taxi Driver was as much a product of luck and timing as everything else – three sensibilities together at the right time, doing the right thing. It was still a low-budget, long-shot movie, but that’s how it got made. At one point, we could have financed the film with Jeff Bridges, but we elected to hold out and wait until we could finance it with De Niro. It was just a matter of luck and timing. Marty was fully ready to make the film; De Niro was ready to make it. And the nation was ready to see it. You can’t plan or scheme for that kind of luck. It just sort of happens – the right film at the right time...

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Bob was so determined to get the character of Travis down, he drove a cab for a couple of weeks. He got a licence, had his fingerprints taken by the police and hit the streets.

The dialogue in Taxi Driver is somewhat improvised. The most memorable piece of dialogue in the film is an improvisation: the “Are you talking to me?” part. In the script it just says Travis speaks to himself in the mirror. Bobby asked me what he would say, and I said, ‘Well, he’s a little kid playing with guns and acting tough.’ So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the same time as the basis for his lines.

I remember the night before Taxi Driver opened, we all got together and had dinner and said, ‘No matter what happens tomorrow we have made a terrific movie and we’re damn proud of it even if it goes down the toilet.’ The next day, I went over to the cinema for the noon show. There was a long line that went all the way around the block. And then I realised, this line was for the two o’clock show, not the noon show! I ran in and watched the film and everyone was standing at the back and there was a sense of exhilaration about what we had done.

Jean-Luc Godard once said that all the great movies are successful for the wrong reasons. There were a lot of wrong reasons why Taxi Driver was successful. The sheer violence of it brought out the Times Square crowd.

I’m not opposed to censorship in principle but I think that if you censor a film like Taxi Driver all you do is censor a film, not confront a problem. These characters are running around and can be triggered off by anything.

When I talk to younger filmmakers they tell me that it was really the film that informed them, that it was their seminal film, and listening to them talk, I really can see it as a kind of social watermark. But it was meant as a personal film, not a political commentary.

– Paul Schrader in Martin Scorsese - A Journey by Mary Pat Kelly. Pages 87-98.


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