Monday 9 March 2020

Paul Schrader: Steps to Writing a Script

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
The films of the 1970s, according to the author Robert Kolker, are part of "a cinema of loneliness." Nothing, he believes, better captures contemporary man's loneliness than Taxi Driver. The book's cover depicts Robert DeNiro strolling through New York's streets, past the posters of long-gone porno cinemas that formerly dotted the city's central business district prior to the introduction of the video. 

Since the film's 1976 release, other interpretations have been made. According to some, it is a resctionary and violent picture that conveys a very conservative message. Others regard it as a reflection of the turbulent decade of the 1970s in America, presenting a nightmare vision that ensued following the demise of the hippie dream. The truth is that the film does not provide answers; rather, it raises more questions. 

According to the film's writer Paul Schrader, Travis Bickle – the cab driver played by Robert DeNiro – is not a victim of a socially imposed loneliness or wrath; it is rather an existential type of rage that confronts us with Scorsese's and Schrader's religious crises after they abandoned their studies in theology to pursue careers in film. 

Martin Scorsese's failed attempt to attend Catholic seminary is well known while Paul Schrader was born into a strict Calvinist family where he was not permitted to see films until the age of eighteen. 

“I believe that what makes the film so vivid is what has made all my collaborations with Scorsese so interesting – says Schrader, who has collaborated with the Italian-American director on films such as "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" – which is that we share a similar moral foundation – a kind of closed-society Christian morality, though mine is rural and Protestant and his is Roman Catholic. 

Scorsese and Schrader's work is frequently described as a quest for atonement. Their troubled and obsessed characters exemplify contemporary man's state of being stuck in his own contradictions. These are characters like Travis who are buried in an urban inferno, continuously battling their sins via a catharsis of violence and horror. 

“At the time I wrote it,” Schrader explains, “I was obsessed with guns, suicidal, drinking heavily, and obsessed with pornography in the manner that a lonely person is.” According to the writer, "all of those elements are included in the script." According to the filmmaker, "the book I reread just before sitting down to write the script was Sartre's Nausea, and if anything serves as a model for Taxi Driver, it is that." 

In his paranoid solitude, Robert DeNiro's character spirals into a violent fantasy that culminates in a bloodletting. Taxi Driver, like "Hardcore" or "Light Sleeper," is an urban epic about vice and evil that contrasts with Travis's quest for purity. These are ethically ambiguous creatures trapped in a neon inferno who battle their own selves in order to transcend their misery and reach some measure of serenity. 

Drawing on his own battle with his demons, Paul Schrader clarified the screenwriting development process in an interview with Richard Thompson from 1976 when ‘Taxi Driver’ had just opened. Below are excerpted comments from that interview. 

Paul Schrader: I think there are three steps to writing a script. First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness. Then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they’re fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot.

Schrader reveals how he arrived at his plot for ‘Taxi Driver’:

Two things happened which tied the project [Taxi Driver] together: a Harry Chapin song called ‘Taxi,’ in which an old girlfriend gets into a guy’s cab; and [Arthur] Bremer shot [Presidential Candidate, George] Wallace. That was the thread which led to the script. Maybe I shouldn’t admit to this, but why not be honest? After all, there’s really nothing new on the face of the earth.

Elaborating on his method Schrader goes on to explain:

One of the problems with screenwriters is that they think first in terms of plot or in terms of metaphor, and they’re going the reverse way; it’s awfully hard to do. Once you have a plot, it’s hard to infuse a theme into it, because it’s not an indigenous expression of the plot; that’s why you must start with the theme and not the plot.

Metaphor is extremely important to a movie. A perfect example is Deliverance, where you have point A and point B, and four men going from A to B—the first time [theme] for the men, the last time [metaphor] for the river. On the strength of that metaphor, you could put the Marx Brothers in that boat and something would happen. When somebody walks up to you and says, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a Western and this is the twist,’ you know right off the bat that they’re in trouble, because they’re coming at it the wrong way. Maybe they’ll be able to write a novel that sells, make a lot of money, and live in Beverly Hills; but it’s not interesting to me; not something I really care about.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
As Pipeliner [his first script] was falling through, I got hit with two other blows to the body at the same time: my marriage fell through, and the affair that caused the marriage to fall through fell through, all within the same four or five months. I fell into a state of manic depression. I was living with someone at the time, and she got so fed up with me that she split. I was staying in her apartment waiting for the cupboard to run out of food.

I got to wandering around at night; I couldn’t sleep because I was so depressed. I’d stay in bed till four or five P.M. then I’d say, ‘Well, I can get a drink now.’ I’d get up and get a drink and take my bottle with me and start wandering around the streets in my car at night. After the bars closed, I’d go to pornography. I’d do this all night, till morning, and I did it for about three or four weeks, a very destructive syndrome, until I was saved from it by an ulcer; I had not been eating, just drinking.

When I got out of the hospital I realized I had to change my life because I would die and everything; I decided to leave L.A. That was when the metaphor hit me for Taxi Driver, and I realized that was the metaphor I had been looking for: the man who will take anybody any place for money; the man who moves through the city like a rat through the sewer; the man who is constantly surrounded by people, yet has no friends. The absolute symbol of urban loneliness. That’s the thing I’d been living; that was my symbol, my metaphor. The film is about a car as the symbol of urban loneliness, a metal coffin.

I wrote the script very quickly, in something like fifteen days. The script just jumped from my mind almost intact ...When you’re writing films, you’re dealing with a kind of nascent, primitive force that’s alive.

The Yakuza (Directed by Sidney Pollack)
Schrader goes on to recall:

Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I re-read [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s Nausea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero, that is, the man from The Stranger, Notes From The Underground, Nausea, Pickpocket, Le Feu Follet, and A Man Escaped, and put him in an American context. In so doing, you find that he becomes more ignorant, ignorant of the nature of his problem. Travis’s problem is the same as the existential hero’s, that is, ‘should I exist?’ But Travis doesn’t understand that this is his problem, so he focuses it elsewhere, and I think that is a mark of the immaturity and the youngness of our country. We don’t properly understand the nature of the problem, so the self-destructive impulse, instead of being inner-directed, as it is in Japan, Europe, any of the older cultures, becomes outer-directed. The man who feels the time has come to die will go out and kill other people rather than kill himself. There’s a line in The Yakuza which says, ‘When a Japanese cracks up, he’ll close the window and kill himself; when an American cracks up, he’ll open the window and kill somebody else.’ That’s essentially how the existential hero changes when he becomes American. There is not enough intellectual tradition in this country, and not enough history; and Travis is just not smart enough to understand his problem. He should be killing himself instead of these other people. At the end, when he shoots himself in a playful way, that’s what he’s been trying to do all along.

- Paul Schrader interviewed by Richard Thompson,  Film Comment magazine, March-April 1976.

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