Friday, 26 April 2013

Paul Schrader: Writing, Violence and Therapy

Affliction (Directed by Paul Schrader)
Paul Schrader’s powerful Affliction (1997), adapted from the novel by Russell Banks, charts the inexorable decline into violence of a small-town New Hampshire sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), the brutal legacy of his relationship with an abusive, alcoholic father (James Coburn). 

The plot ostensibly centres on a hunting death on the edge of town which Wade comes to believe implicates a colleague. As Wade delves deeper into the incident, he becomes convinced there is a conspiracy at work involving the mafia or crooked property developers. As the investigation proceeds, his personal life spirals out of control.

Estranged from his ex-wife and young daughter, confronted with the death of his gentle mother and isolated from his neighbours who find him strange, Wade slowly begins to come apart. Events come to a head when Wade moves in to care for his ageing father, and the cycle of generational conflict resumes. Wade’s girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek) tries to stop the destruction, but she is powerless to help and is eventually compelled to leave. 

Affliction is narrated by Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), Wade’s younger brother who has sought to escape his father’s fearsome legacy by retreating into life as a university lecturer. Rolfe informs us from the outset that this is a story about Wade’s descent into criminality, and yet he acknowledges that he is implicated in his brother’s descent, because when he comes to visit Wade after the death of their mother, he encourages Wade’s increasingly paranoid theories.

Paul Schrader’s considerable reputation as a screenwriter and director rests on his exploration of the damaged psyches of American males as they try to come to terms with the contradictions of masculine desires and social reality, most notably in his famous screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Affliction revisits this theme as Nolte gradually loses each of his roles: father, husband, public official, son, lover. The power of Nolte’s existential descent is reinforced by a mythical resonance as Schrader demonstrates that Wade’s ‘affliction’ is a legacy of male violence, a hereditary cultural malaise that is passed on from father to son.

The stark beauty of the snowy wintry setting and Schrader’s understated yet intimate cinematic style builds the underlying tensions until they shatter in powerful close-ups, revealing the rage and fear as it breaks through Wade’s fragile facade.

In the following interview Paul Schrader discusses the film with Josh Zeman in an article first published in Filmmaker magazine.

So what drew you to this Russell Banks’ novel and kept your interest in it over the years it took to get the film made?

I saw it in a book shop when it came out in trade paperback, and it just caught me. The first line of the novel is actually the first line of the film: ‘This is the story of my brother’s criminal behavior and his strange disappearance.’ I was just grabbed by it, so I bought it. Besides the language, the depth of theme and the depth of the characters, I think what I liked most about [the book] was the gimmick: half or two-thirds of the way through, it’s like, boom! You realize that this small-time cop who thinks he is going to redeem himself by solving a murder is really going crazy, because there is no murder. The real drama is about his father, not about this ‘hunting accident.’

You’ve used that structure before.

Yeah, it’s kind of hidden. You use a genre to disguise your real business.

Wasn’t that same idea in ‘Light Sleeper’ and ‘American Gigolo’? You’ve found a novel that finally exemplifies your structure and style.

I view the film as a collaboration between myself and Russell Banks. It’s not really one of my themes, it’s more Russell’s – this whole theme of generational violence, male violence that is passed on from father to son. One of the differences between things that I have written and Russell’s book is that I tend to end my pieces on a kind of grace note, and this one has none. I like some sense of moral grace. But Affliction is pretty bleak at the end. Another thing I like about the film and book – Russell said to me once, ‘You know who the main character of the novel is?’ It’s the narrator [Rolfe, played by Willem Dafoe]. You don’t see the narrator’s life, but he tells you right in the beginning, ‘In telling this story I tell my own story as well.’ And you have to figure out Rolfe’s story because it’s under the surface.

You say the murder mystery ends two-thirds into the film and that your subtext becomes the main text. Compared to ‘Light Sleeper’ and ‘American Gigolo’, that transformation happens much quicker in this film.

Yes, but you still need it to create audience identification. You need to get the audience behind the character when they may not be that willing. You can sort of root for Wade as long as [you think] he is going to solve this crime. And by the time you realize he isn’t going to solve any crime, you have already identified with him, and you’re caught.

So what do you think you as a director brought to the script if the themes were mostly Russell’s?

I sort of climbed on top of Russell’s theme: how do you kill the father? I had a very strong father and an older male sibling. My father was not abusive, he was not alcoholic, but there were enough similarities. I came from that part of the country with long cold winters, so I knew these people, and I knew their violence.

I was reading the press release, and it kept speaking of male violence. But I don’t think the film is really about violence. The violence in it seems more the result of cause and effect.

Yes, that is kind of an easy handle. You know movies need handles of various sorts, and there should be themes in films that are acceptable to everyone. And then there should be layered themes underneath. So when Rolfe at the end says, ‘This is the story of generations of boys who were beaten by their fathers,’ that’s kind of the obvious theme. That is put there so people who watch the movie can say, ‘Oh, that’s what it was about, and I didn’t waste my time.’ But there’s other things the film is about too.

What were your experiences working with Nick Nolte on this project?

Well, this took a long time to get made because I had optioned the book and written the script assuming Nick would want to do it. But Nick felt that he should get his full price, and that’s what took five years. I was not able to get it financed, and finally I gave up. When Nick realized that he would only get to play this role if he took substantially less money, then I was able to get it financed. What that also meant was that by the time he got into rehearsals, he knew this character cold. He had reams of notes. He had notes for every other actor. I remember once we were shooting and I was suggesting a different line reading. Nick said to me, ‘Oh, I don’t think he would say it that way,’ and I realized that his decision had been made months ago, maybe even years ago.

So it was fortuitous that you had to wait those five years?

Yes, and I wanted to stick it out with Nick. This character does some unpleasant things, and Nick has a very audience-friendly face and demeanor. He seems like a nice guy, a guy you would like to know. Other actors don’t invite you in easily, so you need an actor who seems friendly, like an ordinary Joe.

So you wanted that audience identification right off the bat?

I wanted the audience to root for him because you know from the first line that it’s not going to work out for him. So how do you still care for him? The actor has to get you to care for him. Willem wanted to play that role, and I just couldn’t offer it to him because he doesn’t have that kind of friendly physiognomy.

The father-son relationship between Nolte and James Coburn seemed very organic.

Well, I needed a big actor, a tall actor, someone bigger then Nick, because Nick’s a big guy, and I also wanted an iconic actor. Coburn and Nolte represent two generations of Hollywood leading men. James is very much of the ’50s, a swinging cat when men were men and girls were babes. Nick is a product of the ’60s, where men were partners with women. So even though they are only about 15 years apart, they represent two generations of Hollywood male sensibilities.

One of the most fascinating scenes in the film was Wade Whitehouse pulling out his own tooth.

Well, that was another one of those sort of gimmicks in the book. You think that the affliction is maybe somehow tied to this toothache. When he gets that tooth out, maybe he will be better.

Does the film have distribution?

We just got a offer in the last week or so that Largo finds acceptable. There have been some offers out there, but they have been so low that Largo hasn’t taken them. I think they got an offer, and it will be announced out of Sundance.

Why do you think it was hard to get a good distribution deal?

It’s a buyer’s market, and it’s a dark film. The company that made it was in financial trouble, and they had told their Japanese backers that they would get a certain amount for this film. They had overestimated what they would get, so they were in a very tricky position since they were asking more then the market would carry.

So you’re still defining your career, still learning about what choices to make?

Well, I think so. I wrote a script just recently that I think is one of the best I’ve ever written. It’s for Scorsese, and it’s called Bringing out the Dead, and Marty likes it a lot. This one is about a paramedic. Again, a kid who drives around Manhattan at night, only this time he is on the side of the angels, and he brings life instead of death. But he’s still going crazy.

Do you think, as an auteur making films, you can ever exorcise the themes that define you and reach some kind of catharsis? Or do those themes just become more important over time?

They can ‘exercise,’ but they can’t ‘exorcise.’ I got into film for the best of all possible reasons – as a kind of self therapy with Taxi Driver – and I still see it as self therapy. If you watch Deconstructing Harry, which is a very scathing film about Woody Allen, he’s not a likable character. I am sure he exercised a lot of those demons [with this film], but I am sure he hasn’t exorcised them.

So you never rid yourself of the demons?

No – all you do is learn more about them and pursue them into the next realm.

– ‘Sins of the Father: Josh Zeman talks to Paul Schrader about his new film Affliction’. Winter 1998 


Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Writer’s Craft: A David Mamet Interview

Glengarry Glen Ross (Directed by James Foley)

‘There’s no such thing as talent; you just have to work hard enough.’ – David Mamet

One of the most prolific and influential playwrights of the late-20th century, David Mamet’s work is famous for its lean, gritty and often profane language possessed of such a singular rhythm that his dialogue has been dubbed ‘Mamet speak’. Known for his robust male characters, Mamet’s facility for creating highly-charged verbal encounters in a masculine environment repeatedly made his work the subject for discussion and controversy. Emerging from the Chicago theater scene, Mamet came to prominence with American Buffalo (1975) and A Life in the Theatre (1977) before making the transition to Hollywood with the scripts for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and Verdict (1982). Following awards for the powerful stage plays Edmund (1982) and Glengarry Glenn Ross (1984) – the latter of which was turned into a notable 1992 film directed by James Foley – Mamet made his directorial debut with the thriller House of Games (1987). Also that year, he wrote one of his most memorable screenplays, The Untouchables (1987), for director Brian De Palma, while penning his satirical denunciation of the movie business with the play Speed-the-Plow (1988). Mamet tackled sexual politics with the theatrical piece Oleanna (1992), while continuing to make his mark on film with Homicide (1991) and Wag the Dog (1998) before going on to direct The Spanish Prisoner (1998) State and Main (2000) and Heist (2001) to considerable critical acclaim. 

In 2004 Mamet directed the political thriller Spartan about a Secret Service agent played by Val Kilmer who is assigned to the kidnapping case of the missing daughter of a senior politician. To promote the film David Mamet hosted a roundtable interview with several journalists. The discussion which followed provides a revealing insight into Mamet’s thoughts on the craft of writing:

Homicide  (Directed by David Mamet)
Do actors usually get your dialogue or do you have to coach them?

No, they get it. I write it to be spoken, and I think that almost all actors appreciate that.

How many passes does it take to create perfect dialogue?

That’s a really good question. I’m not sure I know the answer. I do it fairly spontaneously, and then sometimes, for various reasons, it has to be recrafted. I used to be really good at that, but it gets more difficult as I get older just because my brain is failing. I have less brain cells because long before any of you guys were born, there was something called the ‘60s. That’s where the brain cells were.

What’s your writing regimen?

I think I’m going to just start writing and keep writing until they throw me in jail. Other than that, I set aside all day every day for writing and break it up with going home to see my family or having lunch or getting a haircut...

Is writing a screenplay or stage play easier?

It would seem that you could do almost anything on film, but that’s part of the wonderful fascination of filmmaking. You say, well, okay, you can do anything you want. Now, what are you going to do? So that’s the wonderful challenge of film. Theoretically, I can do anything I want, limited only by my ability to express it in terms of the shot list. So that’s a fascinating challenge. So I don’t find it any more freeing or any more constrictive than writing plays. They each have their own strictures. The wisdom of how to understand those strictures fascinates me.

Heist (Directed by David Mamet)
What are the strictures of playwriting?

Aristotle said it’s got to be about one thing. It’ll be one character doing one thing in the space of three days in one place, such that every aspect of the play is a journey of the character toward recognition of the situation. And at the end of recognizing the situation, he or she recognizes the situation, undergoes a transformation, the high becomes low, or in comedy, sometimes the low becomes high. That’s the stricture of playwriting.
How did you approach ‘Spartan’?

I just started writing it and kept writing, and it evolved and evolved. It’s like filling in a crossword puzzle. You know that word has got to be abracadabra, right? Because there’s no other word it can be until you get halfway through and you see that the word down the middle has a P in the middle of abracadabra and there is no P. So therefore, one of them has to be wrong. They can’t both be right. And the same thing is true about structuring a drama. You go along and say, ‘I know this has got to happen at the end of the second act,’ until you realize you’ve spent two years, and it doesn’t work. So something’s wrong. Either the first and third acts are wrong or the second act is wrong. How am I going to fix it? The structure is the whole thing – getting the movie to eat up 15 lines on a sheet of paper so you can write it.

Heist (Directed by David Mamet)
 How do you make a genre film your own?

Well, you can’t help but make a distinct movie. If you give yourself up to the form, it’s going to be distinctively your own because the form’s going to tell you what’s needed. That’s one of the great things I find about working in drama is you’re always learning from the form. You’re always getting humbled by it. It’s exactly like analyzing a dream. You’re trying to analyze your dreams. You say, ‘I know what that means; I know exactly what that means; why am I still unsettled?’ You say, ‘Let me look a little harder at this little thing over here. But that’s not important; that’s not important; that’s not important. The part where I kill the monster – that’s the important part, and I know that means my father this and da da da da da. But what about this little part over here about the bunny rabbit? Why is the bunny rabbit hopping across the thing? Oh, that’s not important; that’s not important.’ Making up a drama is almost exactly analogous to analyzing your dreams. That understanding that you cleanse just like the heroes cleanse not from your ability to manipulate the material but from your ability to understand the material. It’s really humbling, just like when you finally have to look at what that little bunny means. There’s a reason why your mind didn’t want to see that. There’s a reason why you say, ‘Oh, that’s just interstitial material. Fuck that. That’s nothing, right?’ Because that’s always where the truth lies, it’s going to tell you how to reformulate the puzzle.

Spartan (Directed by David Mamet)
What’s the bunny rabbit in this movie?

Part of the bunny rabbit in Spartan is what does he do in the second act? He finds out that everything is screwed up, and it’s not a question of manipulation. I better get on my white horse and ride off in all directions, but the question is what am I going to do? So the first thing he does is he says, ‘I’m going to get everything to the first lady, because she’s the mommy. She’ll solve the problem.’ He finds out that he’s failed. He was so intent on trying to get to the mother of the victim that he overlooks the fact that he’s just gotten trapped. This woman doesn’t look like she’s the secret service but she is, and then it turns out that that wisdom there leads him to where does he go then? First he goes to the young girl and says, ‘Here’s the story. Can you help me; can you help me?’And what she says is, ‘All I’m going to tell you is what you told me in the first reel, right?’ He doesn’t like that, so he’s going to get out of it by going to the mother. He goes to the mother first, and she says, ‘There’s nobody there but you; therenobody there but you. Everything you wanted to avail yourself of isn’t there. There is no government. The government’s trying to kill you. There isn’t any unit cohesion. The unit’s trying to kill you. There isn’t any sense of patriotism. Your country’s trying to kill you. Everybody wants you dead. You have to save her.’ The woman says, ‘You have to save her because there’s nobody but you. It’s just your responsibility.’ And then he goes to his friend, Tia Texada, and says, ‘What am I going to do?’ She tells him the same thing, ‘There’s nobody there but you.’ So he says, ‘I’d better go do it. Let me go back and avail myself of one of my other allies.’ And the other ally says, ‘I’m not even going to help you. There’s nobody there but you.’ She offers him an out as we find that friends often do when we’re in the midst of a moral dilemma. We go talk to our friends, right? One of our friends always says, ‘Listen, I understand that you wanna do what you think is the right thing, but that’s really not the right thing here, and let me tell you why.’ It does you a credit that you said you want to do the right thing, but the really righter thing would be to do the wrong thing. And the question is, having had the problem restated to him, having understood what the problem is and having had the problem restated to him, he’s now given an out. What’s he going to do? That’s when he has to make a decision that starts to get into the third act. As in any dramatic structure, the third act is really just a reiteration of the first act where the terms are clarified.

Spartan (Directed by David Mamet)
So personal responsibility is the bunny rabbit?

Yeah, maybe that’s the bunny rabbit.

How did you keep the exposition to a minimum?

That’s the fun of it. Anybody can write a script that has ‘Jim, how were things since you were elected governor of Minnesota? How’s your albino daughter?’ ‘As of course you know, Mr. Smith, your son has myopia. It’s amazing that, having that myopia, he was winning the national spelling bee.’ That’s easy; that’s not challenging. The trick is to take a story that might be complex and make it simple enough that people will want to catch up with it rather than stopping them and explaining to them why they should be interested because then they might understand, but they won’t care. What makes them interested is to make them catch up. What’s happening here? Who is this guy? What crime was committed? Who was taken? Why is she important? Why are all these government people running around? And how is he going to get her back? They want to see what he’s going to do next. That’s all that moviemaking comes down to – what happens next?

How do you not become lost in power?

That’s a very good question. I think the answer is that you have to have the specter in front of you all the time. You have to be able to learn, and I think I’m capable of doing this to a certain extent, and I would like to be able to do it to a greater extent, to say that you have to be able to take pride in mastering your own impulses, take pleasure in gratifying them. There are a lot of really great models, and the military is one of them. I think this is a very pro-military movie in many ways. It’s saying, Here are people who are capable of subordinating their financial needs and their physical needs to an extraordinary regiment, mental and physical regiment, in the cause of service. The question of the movie is, ‘To what extent is that person capable of abiding by precepts which he’s teaching other students, which he’s explained to others?’

Spartan (Directed by David Mamet)
Do actors like Val Kilmer respect your dialogue and not try to change it?

Yeah, they don’t do that to me because of several reasons. One is the dialogue is good; the other reason is the actor is good.

Have you ever deviated from your own script?

I haven’t deviated from it. I’ve certainly changed it.

In what circumstances?

Well, if something’s not working, a lot of the times you say, ‘Well, let’s try something else.’ I mean, I’ve always got a typewriter in the trailer. Say, ‘You know, that scene isn’t working right. Give me a moment, I’ll write a new scene.’

You get inspired too. Oftentimes, you just get inspired. Stuff’s happening on the set. You say, ‘Oh my God, let’s do some more of that,’ or, ‘Now I understand what happens in scene 47. One of my favorite moments was doing State and Main with Alec Baldwin and Julia Stiles. They’re both drunk out of their minds, and he crashes the car. The car is upside down; they’re both drunk, and he crawls out of the car and looks around. He says, ‘Well, that happened.’ It was like an inspiration at four o’clock in the morning. He said something else, and I said, ‘Well, wait a second, say this.’ I was looking at what was happening on the set and said, ‘Wouldn’t that be funnier?’

The Spanish Prisoner (Directed by David Mamet)
Has an actor ever invented a brilliant line that you took credit for?

No, I would never take credit for something somebody else said.

But in a play, you wouldn’t change what’s written.

Well, of course, when it’s written. I mean, I just opened a play in San Francisco on Saturday, and I’m changing the play up until opening night, and that’s the first production. I’ll probably change some things as I work on the manuscript before it gets published. At a certain point you’ve got to stop.

What have been the greatest frustrations of letting other people direct your scripts?

Well, the greatest frustrations have been having the scripts directed other than the ways in which I thought they would have gone. But when I did a script for someone else to direct, I got paid for it. I mean, that’s one of the things you get paid for.

The Spanish Prisoner (Directed by David Mamet)
Something as well regarded as ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ – what would you have changed?

Oh, nothing. I wouldn’t have changed anything. I love that one.

When do you make yourself stop writing?

I’m pretty good. At a certain point you want to do something else. Past a certain point, you say it could be perhaps a little bit better with a lot more time, but I try to get it as perfect as I can given the fallibility of the fact I’m not going to live forever.

How do you approach something that’s your own as opposed to a for hire project?

I don’t think I approach them any differently. I put my name on it. That’s the best I know at this time.

Do you see a career plan?

I don’t know. I just make them up as I go along. Whatever anybody says, you’re always making it up as you go along. It’s like when you have babies; nobody gives you a how to book; nobody gives you a manual. It’s like any of the important things in life. Whether it’s your career, whether it’s marriage, whether it’s child rearing, you’re making it up as you go along. And you try to have certain precepts, and sometimes they even change.

Glengarry Glen Ross (Directed by James Foley)
Has directing become as natural as writing?

Well, I enjoy it. There are certain things I can do naturally, but the people a lot of us admire – I’m sure a lot of athletes that people admire – they’re working on their weaknesses all the time. That’s what I’m doing at least some of the time. So do you enjoy doing the thing that goes easy? Yeah, sure. But there’s also great enjoyment in doing the thing that comes with difficulty.

Directing is more of a challenge?

Well, certain aspects of the writing are easy. I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass. I work very, very hard on that, but I enjoy working on it because it has great rewards. And I love directing.

When you sit with your plot, do you start with character, theme or story elements?

I think when you’re working on the plot, you’re talking about what does the character want? All the plot is is the structure of the main character towards the achievement of one goal.

– ‘The Dramatist Poet: A David Mamet Interview’. By Fred Topel. (Interview first appeared  in Screenwriter’s Monthly)