Paul Schrader has been making the same movie since he put fingertips to typewriter keys, if you believe in the keen culmination of his works, his late-career marvel “First Reformed,” which drinks deeply from his religious fixations, his magpie cinephilia and his wild, wildly erratic filmography. It’s the ur-Schrader, among all its substantial virtues. “I hope it’s not my last movie, but it would be a pretty good last movie,” Schrader keeps saying.
When the Nantucket Film Festival, which has a focus on screenwriters, honored Schrader in 2000, I conducted the onstage interview. (The presentation video, below, lavishes the “fucks” and “motherfuckers.”) I revisited the transcript from that hour of conversation to see how it compared to how the director of twenty-five or so features described his work and the American film industry when he was in Chicago earlier this month doing press rounds and premiering his film at the Chicago Critics Film Festival. Schrader began his career as a film critic, wrote milestone scripts such as “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” and then saw tides shift after he became a director with “Blue Collar” in 1978. By the turn of this century, “serious,” “smart” and “dark” were no longer calling-card words.
We all know Paul Schrader by his works. But how does reputation work for or against you in today’s marketplace when you’re trying to get a production off the ground? Well, that’s a very good question. It’s very much a double-edged sword at this juncture. Because I can no longer lie about what I do. When I was a young man I could walk into a studio and say, “Look, all I care about is making money. Y’know, this is the luckiest day of your life, I have walked into the room and we are going to make some money together, let’s go!” And they would kind of believe you. I can’t do that anymore. I’ve made too many films. So that spiel really doesn’t work. I have found it to be, in fact, more difficult to raise money now than in the past. Although I still am able to raise money and still do get these rather peculiar films made. I find I spend a greater percentage of my time raising money.
Director Keith Gordon told me that he considers his job raising money and every five years, he takes time off to make a movie. Yeah… I mean, well, the independent filmmaker is a scavenger dog, roaming the planet for little pockets of leftover refuse and uneaten food. The last film I did was financed out of Great Britain, the film before out of Japan, the film before, out of France, I think, the next one will be out of Germany.
Well, you’re winning the war back for us. Do you write on “spec” any more? Oh yeah, yeah. Particularly in today’s… [Long pause.] Yeah, yeah. the whole business of selling pitches is on the way out. Studios don’t buy many pitches anymore. The whole pitching mechanism. I grew up pitching. I decided to stop pitching because people just aren’t buying pitches anymore. Maybe two-three pitches sell a year. So in fact, if you’re gonna write something, you might as well write it on spec. Because by the time you go out and pitch it, and by the time you convince somebody to pay you to make it, by the time you negotiate that contract, you can have written that script. There was one idea I had a few years back that I went out and pitched it for three-four days, and I said, this is silly. Y’know? Why don’t I just write it? It’s only going to take two weeks to write it. I just finished a script recently, I didn’t even bother to pitch because it’s a pro-drug movie.
This would be “The Doors of Perception” [an Aldous Huxley adaptation that was not produced]? Yeah. We’re going straight to Europe with it, we’re trying to raise some money there. It’s about high-end psychedelics and trying to do a trip movie, a CGI trip movie in the world of experimentation, clinical experimentation with DMT. A subject like that, I mean how do you pitch that, y’know? Particularly, the only people who really pay true money for a script have some corporate face. And y’know sooner or later someone is going to decide it’s not the smartest thing for the corporate image to be associated with, say, a drug movie or an NC-17 movie, etcetera, etcetera.
It’s like when Ted Turner became aware of “Crash.” That strange film’s fortunes went down in flames. Yeah! Yeah.
It’s important for you to find metaphors to encapsulate themes and the most famous one, of course, would be urban loneliness, god’s lonely man in the city, a taxi driver. Is this still important when you start writing? I mean, I have a kind of method that I’ve taught, when I teach screenwriting from time to time, and it’s a method of introspection, y’know, in the ten-week course we don’t really get around to writing until about the fifth or sixth week because it’s all about how to use your life as raw material for stories. And part of that, of the few key ingredients is defining your problem. Everyone has three or four issues running around in their head at any given time and they’re more or less the same issues, y’know, parental issues, or sexual issues, or y’know, mid-life issues. Whichever. So what you’re looking for is a fresh metaphor that will make that issue seem new, not only to yourself, but to the next person. So you’re always sort of reading the newspaper, listening to conversations, and then the metaphor comes to you. And once that comes to you, the plot can be followed up on. Sometimes it works the other way around, where you get a metaphor, you know it’s a great metaphor and then you figure out exactly what the problem was, that it is the perfect metaphor for. And it is in that little gap, y’know, when that spark crosses those two wires, they have to be sufficiently far apart so the spark will jump, ‘cos if they’re right next to each other, you’ve got nothing. On the other hand, if they’re too far apart, the spark doesn’t jump. I remember one occasion I was teaching and we were looking for a metaphor for homosexuality, a kid, y’know, was in the closet, and that was his problem. In this class, you expose your problems and they become the common domain of the class. So he was trying to come up with a metaphor for that situation. And what we ended up with in that class was an undercover agent, espionage, because it’s close enough to being in the closet, yet it’s not about sexuality. So there’s a spark, you can jump from being a sort of what’s his name, “Tinker, Tailor…”—
John le Carré. Yeah. You can jump from being one of those characters into a homosexual metaphor, situation, and the metaphor is nice. That’s what I mean by using metaphor.
At the tribute, you spoke about when you began as a screenwriter, that it could be therapeutic and explore one’s own personal issues. But that doesn’t seem to be the model today. So what are you bringing to the class and what does it offer you? The last time I taught screenwriting, at Columbia maybe eight years ago, in the middle of the class, about halfway through, I announced to the class that I no longer believed anything I was saying, that I would finish the class, but I realized that I was speaking from a kind of archaic context to these students. As long as I really believed it, then it was still worth teaching. But at that time, I was saying, I don’t believe this anymore. But now I do again. I went through a period of four or five years where I doubted whether this is a relevant approach. But now I’ve just written two or three new scripts and I find that it’s valid again. But it is certainly not what drives film economics today, it is not what makes careers, y’know. I don’t even know if a person such as myself could even get into the film industry today.
Is it a matter of having concerns that are too arcane, we’re not talking intelligence, are we, too smart for the room? Is that what we’re talking about? Yeah. Look, they like to use the word, “dark.” Y’know, that is the equivalent of the “f” word in Hollywood! Call me a motherfucker, call me a cocksucker, just don’t call me “dark”! Because as soon as you’re called dark, you can be dismissed. If a script comes up, or an idea comes up and everybody’s talking about it in the room and that one person says, “Well, I think it’s a little dark,” and everybody goes, “Oooookay!” [big laugh] On to the next idea! What they mean by dark is inherently serious. They use the word dark ‘cos it’s more pejorative, but what they’re really talking about is, it’s a little too serious. Y’know, you can translate that as being intellectual, but it’s just not quite trivial enough. Now, that doesn’t mean they only make trivial movies, they do make serious movies, but there are fewer and fewer. If you look at a calendar of last year’s films, you can probably pick out the serious films on both your hands. There was a period twenty years ago where half the films or a third of the films that came out were serious films. So it has changed.
Essentially, the types of movies that you like, as well as films that you’ve made, are ones that disturb or dare to prompt questions about existence. That’s not what the Hollywood movies seem to want to be today. Yeah, but it’s very easy to say, the “Hollywood movie.” But in fact, you’re also talking about the international film audience. It’s very easy to blame Hollywood for the fix we’re in, just like it’s easy to blame Washington, D.C. for the fix we’re in. But in fact, it is a democracy and it all feeds off each thing. The film business is an animal with four legs. You have the financing, the creative talent, you have the critical talent, and then I know there’s a fourth leg. And the audience, yeah, the audience. Now, when that horse falls down, it can’t get up on one leg. Hollywood can’t get that horse on its feet. The audience can’t get it on its feet, critics can’t, artists can’t. Somehow they all have to work together to get that horse back up. So it’s unfair to blame just Hollywood for the fact that the horse fell down. Because the audience fell down, too. For so many years, we’re dumbing down Hollywood audiences with the films we make that they have now finally become dumb enough to watch the films we’re making.
Ideally, they’ll then develop a taste for something different. Moods shift. History. Maybe even “dark.” Uh, yeah. Obviously, for every effect there’s a counter-effect. So when I describe this swing of the pendulum, you have to take for granted there’s going to be a counter-swing at some point.
When you worked as a film critic, you wrote insightful pieces about genre filmmaking, notably about film noir. Do you think that whether the artist realizes it or not, that different genres can speak to different eras in different ways? Your most recent release, “Forever Mine,” is a riff on Sirkian melodrama. Yeah. I did a film, but it was a miscalculation. I did a real, old-fashioned melodrama, à la Douglas Sirk, and I thought I could run straight counter to the ironic, cynical sensibility of the time and I underestimated the ironic, cynical sensibility. It’s too ingrained for a kind of old-fashioned nineteenth century kind of love-romance to really speak to young people. You take those chances. And sometimes you look awfully smart. And sometimes you look awfully stupid. But genres work at different times. Obviously, film noir was directly addressing the issues of postwar malaise and how World War II had confused the roles of the sexes. Because it had sent so many men overseas and women to work here, when they came back, there was a new equilibrium of sexuality, as well as a lot of other factors. And also in this genre started addressing this issue as well as despair and so forth. The western was a very potent genre for many, many years, but the issues of the western are no longer relevant. Which are the issues of one man against the wilderness, the garden versus the desert, vigilantism, all of these kinds of issues, which had to do with manifest density and the assertion of the American personality on this land, they’re not really relevant anymore. It’s just like these archaic genes we have that tell us to propagate like crazy and to kill living animals for meat. We have archaic genes, we also have archaic genres. The space genre has been the dominant genre of the last twenty years, and maybe coming up the inner space genre, that’s why I wrote this script. They’ve been fooling around for years trying to make inner-space movies and it never quite works but I hope that at some point, we’ll make a good one.
But what advantages does genre afford a filmmaker? If you think about the scripts to “Taxi Driver” and “Hardcore,” there are elements there from the plot of “The Searchers,” one of the classic westerns. Do you find at this stage of your career, something more out of the box like “Mishima” will likely hold your interest? Obviously, “Taxi Driver” was completely out of the box. The box it was in was a kind of existential fiction, y’know, Camus and Sartre. That was the box. But that character has never really been around in movies before, not even in “The Searchers.” He was a new creation and he was genuine and that’s why I think he endured. Genre can be very comforting because it has all these preset expectations. So right now, probably the biggest genre, not necessarily the most relevant, is the teen comedy, the “Dawson’s Creek” genre. And if you’re going to make a film in the “Dawson’s Creek” genre, there are a lot of comforts there. You know certain scenes are always going to work. You know that the audience is going to walk in there with certain expectations, and if you fulfill them, you’re going to be just fine. That is the comfort of a genre. The audience has already bought what they think you are trying to sell them. Just like when you buy a certain kind of serial-killer paperback, you know exactly what you bought. [laughs] And if it isn’t what you bought, you’re going to be upset!
As you grow older do you find yourself less or more interested in material about extremes of experience? One of the problems of growing older in the film business is that the economics are driven by youth. The youth market that has the time and the money to go to films and to go to theaters and see them repeatedly. The further you drift from that demographic, the more you have to think about how you can be true to yourself and not forget that demographic, either. But if you just pander to that demographic, that doesn’t work. They’ve got twenty-five-year-old kids who have that demographic nailed down. They’re not going to ask for a fifty-five-year-old man to do it. Now, that fifty-five-year-old man has to figure out how he can outwit the twenty-five-year-old kid and work that demographic to his advantage. So it does become harder. You do tend to make things, like “Affliction,” is clearly a film for people of a certain age. The characters are older, it doesn’t have youth themes. But on the other hand, since it inherently worked, you do run into young people who liked the film. Not as much as they like, “Buffy,” y’know, but…
Russell Banks quotes something you said about a budgetary level where ambiguity is no longer permitted, something about black hats and white hats. Actually, in this book Julie Salamon wrote about “Bonfire of the Vanities” [“The Devil’s Candy: ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ Goes to Hollywood”], she quotes a memo from Lucy Fisher, who was an exec at Warners, who wrote to Brian, the director, Brian De Palma, she wrote him a memo, saying, “At this budget level, these characters are too complex.” It’s really that simple. Once the budget gets up to a certain point, the complexity of the characters is going to mitigate against you getting the number of people into the number of seats that they need. So break out those white hats and break out those black hats, because we’re going to distribute them. And so that if you want to do complex characters that are neither black nor white and situations that are so clearly ambiguous that you can only clear the mists rather than come to a solution, then you have to work at a budget level where people don’t mind or appreciate that fact.
The types of movies that are given lip service nowadays as the classics from the 1970s, the so-called Hollywood Renaissance, like “Taxi Driver” and “Chinatown” and the movies Robert Altman made, would, if they were made at all today, would be made with independent finance by independents or by studio classics divisions. You started at the studios, but in latter years you’ve worked with smaller concerns. Has there been a difference in terms of executive contribution or interference? Well, y’know, when you get involved in the money-raising end of it all, and you raise money from different sources, eventually the only thing that connects those sources is you, so you’re on top of the artistic world. They can’t really gang up on you, with the pre-sales here and the video sales there. I started out doing films like “Blue Collar,” “Taxi Driver,” “Hardcore,” for the studios. Then I went off to Japan and made “Mishima” and when I came back, it had changed. That was the change that started with “Jaws” and “Star Wars” where the whole pattern of distribution changed, the concept of marketing, the fact that you could have a big weekend, that you didn’t have to build a picture anymore. You could drive a picture out with a huge number of theaters and huge marketing and the goodies, the spin-offs, what are they called—
—The ancillaries— Yeah, yeah, meaning the records and the toys and stuff. That started driving international film economics. So the films that I was making, I ended up financing independently. I was making the same films. I remember when I did “Light Sleeper,” and I talked to Mike Medavoy, who was my agent for a little while when I first started, he was now at Orion, and Mario Kassar had financed that film. He had an output deal with Orion, so they had a first look. And so Mike happened to see the film. He called me up and said, y’know, Paul, that’s a really wonderful film, I think it’s one of your best films, but y’know, we don’t release that kind of movie anymore. What do you say? It’s that simple. Y’know. It’s that simple. But there was another company called Fine Line, and they did release it.
Do you find that there are people in these different parts of the industry that you deal with, though, that have the fire or fervor to tell these types of stories? It seems there’s lip service, we’d like to make this kind of film, we wish we had made this film. Oh, of course. They will always say that. It’s very rare you can find the executive who has the courage to say exactly what he’s up to. Because they like to say that sort of thing. I mean, I always know I’m in trouble when a studio person says, “Oh I’m such a great fan of your work.” [laughs] Ohhhhhhh boy! Y’know? He’s lying!
You want to hear that he’s a great fan of the script in your hand instead. Yeah!
Are there films or filmmakers who give you hope? Oh yeah, yeah yeah yeah. The situation is never as bleak as it seems. Obviously, the most interesting thing that’s happened, post-, the interesting trends have obviously been in gay cinema, black cinema, Hispanic cinema, and you can’t discount the ironic cinema of Tarantino at all, although I don’t know how much life that cinema has in it. But the most particular thing has been P. T. Anderson. In a matter of three films, he has created a unique and interesting approach, which is intelligent, and serious but doesn’t feel forbidding. I think he’s the real deal.
It’s interesting that you can look at his work and peg his influences yet it doesn’t feel derivative. I’m sure there’s a P. T. Anderson coming up next year. Obviously, a film like “Boys Don’t Cry,” apart from that terrible title, really gives you hope. That’s every bit as strong a film as “Badlands” was.
They lost the original title because of song rights: It was supposed to be “Take it Like a Man.” Ehhh. They still could have come up with something better than “Boys Don’t Cry.” That sounds like another Shirelles song.
Are there Euro— No, that’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Who did that?
“Boys Don’t Cry” is the Cure. No, there was a “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” that was Frankie Valli.
Are there European directors you find interesting? There are directors who’ve followed in Bressonian style, to bring up that name— I did an interview a while back with, help me out here—”Mother and Son”—Alex—
Sokurov— Sokurov! I thought that was an extraordinary film. I like this film that Benoit Jacquot did, called “A Single Girl,” but I just saw his new film two nights ago, “Sade,” after the Marquis de Sade. He has become such a bourgeois filmmaker. It’s very hard in Europe because so much in Europe is being driven with the American consciousness in mind. In fact, Richard Price and I, a few years back, did a screenwriting workshop in Copenhagen. It was very clear that the two idols of the film school were Paul Verhoeven and Renny Harlin. A friend of mine [Mogens Rukov] was running the film school at that time, and he said it was at that period when he had written “Festen” (The Celebration) and he and Lars von Trier came up with this gimmick of Dogme ’95, they were blatant about the fact that it was a gimmick. It was a gimmick to capture the imagination of their students, because Hollywood had completely stolen them. So what could we do to make them think we’re still valid? So they said, let’s try this. [laughs]
Story and dialogue are the cheapest special effects. You made a comment at the tribute that stories and storytellers are what matter, and always will, but in thinking about CGI for this inner trip, do you find this is liberating? In talking about “The Perfect Storm,” Wolfgang Petersen said that he still doesn’t understand what it is he’s being shown, he can point at the finished result and tell them what to change. But his imagination is challenged and improved upon—Yeah, certainly a genre of movie that had died in the 1950s has returned, which is the spectacle. With “Gladiator,” we are now able to make all those movies that became prohibitive after “Cleopatra.” That was the huge barge that sunk Twentieth Century Fox. But now you can make that film again. I know Herzog has been talking about making a film about Montezuma and Cortés. You can now make a film about Montezuma and Cortés. That’s kind of fun. But there is a progressively smaller audience for well-written material on screen. Robert Wright from NBC made a comment last night, when it comes to television, it truly is dialogue. And that is very liberating. For that reason, I’m developing a series for HBO, because it’s just dialogue. But when it comes to the big screen, it is really getting harder and harder to have long, intelligent conversations about anything.
As a reformed film critic yourself, do you think film criticism is possible anymore? Well, certainly not at the level that I care about. It’s hard for me to even believe anymore that in the late sixties I considered myself, as a film critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, which was a counterculture thing like the Village Voice, part of the movement. Y’know? As much as Gloria Steinem or Abbie Hoffman? You were out there carrying the banner of “La Chinoise” or the banner of “Weekend.” You were part of a political force. And of course, the war was behind all of this and was driving all of these countercultural mechanisms. And so when I say to students today I felt that I was part of a political movement, it doesn’t parse, those two ideas don’t fit together. Unless we have a major depression, I don’t think those days will return.
Do you ever feel that stories are written out just to hang the action scenes upon? Some have laid that criticism on “Gladiator.” I think that the writer was appropriately relegated to a tertiary position. As far as “Titanic,” I’ll pay $9.50 to see them rebuild that boat. That was cool, that was $9.50. And I’ll pay $9.50 to see the Coliseum. As a young boy, you spend, particularly me, coming from a religious background, you spend your whole adolescence fantasizing about being in the Coliseum. In my case, it was being one of the Christians… [laughs] So to see the Coliseum again, that’s exciting. They’re using the technology first, the star second, then somehow, some kind of story that doesn’t completely turn the audience against you. That’s all you need. Just enough. What kind of old formulas can we use? A little revenge drama, a chase at the end? That’s all they’re really asking of the story because they have this other element that’s going to sell the movie. They have the boat, they have the Titanic. All you need is a little love story.
It’s an armature for the special effects more than human experience? Yeah. Particularly, if you’re selling that movie around the world and it’s going to cost over $100 million, you don’t want to involve them in a story that may be confusing to someone who’s not educated and doesn’t speak English. Those plots are quite profound when you see them in Hong Kong with subtitles.
How about Kiarostami? I’ve only seen “Taste of Cherry,” I haven’t seen the most recent film. Like with any country that is coming out of the veils of oppression, there is interesting work. As soon as Franco passed, the scene in Spain, it went kaboom. A whole bunch of interesting films in all kinds of fields. If the mullahs are to pull back, you are going to see a lot more interesting work coming out of Iran, just like with Russia. In fact, I had dinner with someone two nights ago who had just come back from Iran who was at Kiarostami’s house, they were having a party. The veils were off, they were wearing makeup, they had pirated Italian porn playing, American rock ‘n’ roll, they were serving drinks, men and women together, they were trying to convince—this was [Telluride Film Festival co-founder] Tom Luddy—they were trying to convince [their visitors] that they weren’t what they thought. Y’know, there’s nothing like a good economic crisis or political oppression to stir the artistic soul. One of the reasons it’s so hard to get your jones up as an American artist is that we have lived an entire era of peace and prosperity. We have not seen a fraction of the hardship my father or your grandfather’s generation knew. It is out of hardship, hardship is what makes artists functional. When everything’s going along fine, artists basically are interior decorators. Y’know, let’s re-cover the sofa, we’ll get an artist. Let’s change the drapes, gotta call an artist. But when things are really hard, and you don’t have enough to eat, and you have to call an artist to get something to eat, then you get a real artist.
“Mishima” and “Magnolia” both have that counterbalance of music and visual and narrative elements rather than being prioritized, equilibrium. I think that is true of Anderson’s work. The thing with “Mishima,” though… Most of artistry is simply problem solving. I remember I did an interview years ago with Charles Eames, the designer, who I had a lot of respect for. And I said, y’know, what do you do when you design a chair? What’s the first thing you do? He said, the first thing I do is I go around the workshop, I go around the office, and I measure everybody’s ass. The dimensions of the ass change from year to year, and he said, and you may think your ass is different from mine, but it’s more like mine than it’s like a tree. I don’t know why, but I found that terribly profound at the time! But the point being, these abstract esthetics derive from very simple, hard-core problems. The problem in “Mishima” was how to depict a functioning schizophrenic, a man who’s living maybe five or six simultaneous lives that did bleed into each other, he so compartmentalized his life. I came up with a puzzle-like structure to deal with a puzzle-like life. You may think, when seeing that film, that it was all an intellectual exercise, but it did actually come from a genuine, practical concern. How do you depict a person’s life that doesn’t adhere to conventional narrative tricks?
Metaphors… Yes. I first got this idea with “Taxi Driver.” I was very lonely at the time. I had been living more or less in my car and driving around, this was Los Angeles, it wasn’t even about New York. I got a pain in my stomach, went to the hospital, I had an ulcer. When I got to the hospital, I realized I hadn’t spoken to anyone in two or three weeks. Drifting around, drinking, going to pornography, y’know. While I was there, I got this image of this metal coffin drifting around in the city. And that was the taxicab. The taxi driver appeared to be in society, he was surrounded by people, he was constantly interacting with passengers, but in fact, he was desperately alone in a little coffin in this sea of humanity. Once I had this metaphor, I could start to address the problem of loneliness. I realized that the true nature of the problem, I wasn’t talking about loneliness per se, but about self-imposed loneliness. That is, a situation where you choose to make yourself lonely. That came out in the plot as well. In the plot, there is one girl he cannot have, but wants, there’s one he can have but doesn’t want. He tries to kill the father figure of the one and fails, kills the father figure of the other. So it’s a very simple addressing of that mechanism of enforcing one’s own loneliness. Like all true neurotics, we become so invested in our neuroses, we will fight to the death before we give them up. “American Gigolo,” I was thinking about the issue of the inability to express love. I was teaching at UCLA, we were doing a class, and I said, what does this guy do for a living? Is he a sailor, a construction worker, is he a gigolo? Ah-ha! That’s it, boom. Gigolo. Inability to express love. That’s my guy. “Light Sleeper,” I was trying to deal with mid-life crisis. For about a year, I had been dragging this theme around behind me, going through all the conventional permutations. Y’know, the guy who quits his job and buys a sports car, the guy who has an affair with one of his students, a guy who travels cross-country. Oh! All the boring midlife metaphors. I couldn’t find one that would bring any new juice to what I was feeling at reaching that point in life. Then I had a dream one night. In this dream, a drug dealer I had known quite a few years before was right there. His face was right smack up to mine. It was so vivid that I woke at four in the morning. His name was John, and I said why, why is John’s face so vivid. And I thought, what were we talking about? He was asking me about the movies. He wanted me to make a movie about him! I thought, for over a year, I’ve been trying to find him, and I couldn’t, so he finally gave up and came and found me. So then I realized that my metaphor for the mid-life crisis was a drug dealer. That he was a drug dealer at the age of forty, he’s really just a drug delivery boy, his boss is going to quit and he has no skills. How does he address the backside of his life when the only skill he has is delivering drugs? So by six, seven in the morning, I had already started sketching out plot elements with that idea. By eight o’clock that evening, I had contacted this guy, he was still working, and I went out with him, doing his rounds. So within three to four weeks, I had a script from an idea I had been dragging around for a year and a half. All it was waiting for was a click, that metaphor, then it just came into existence.
You used to write very fast, scripts in a couple of weeks or three weeks. But it sounds like you have a great deal of cogitation before you can barrel through it. Yeah, yeah. I’m a binge writer. I’m not really a true writer. I’m not one of these people in the classic mode who gets up and works every day. There’s a saying among writers, y’know, the most important thing that happens to a writer every day is when he sits down. But I, I tend to carry a lot of ideas, fooling around them, and not writing them, until they get so formed and so insistent that they are now knocking on the door. They want to come out, they want to be written. And once an idea reaches that stage, it happens that fast. Generally, in terms of screenwriting, faster is better. If someone says to me, oh here’s a script, an idea I had, I knocked it off in three weeks, now that perks my ears up. Now, if someone says, y’know, I’ve been working on this a year and a half, I go, ohhhh god. I think one of the reasons is that filmmaking is not really part of the writing tradition, it’s part of the oral tradition. It has less to do with the words we choose and the descriptions we make than with the time your uncle went hunting and his dog got away. So what I advise people to do, and what I still do myself, is I begin telling the story. Y’know, begin, maybe, ten minutes. However long it is. Just tell it. Two men are sitting here on the stage. There’s a yellow hat on the table between them. Someone in the back screams. One of the men falls over. Okay. Now I’ve started a story. I’ve gotcha. Now I’ve got to keep telling that story, I’m onstage. You just keep telling your story again and again and every time you tell it, it gets longer and longer and more interesting and richer… or it doesn’t. When it starts going the other way, when it starts boring you, it’s a very happy day because you have just saved yourself a lot of work. There’s nothing more debilitating than writing a script that doesn’t work. So you put in through this exercise. If I can tell you a story for forty-five minutes and hold your interest, I know I have a movie. What I have told people is, if you want to find out how good your idea is, go to a friend, buy him a drink, buy him a Perrier, say, let me tell you a story. Half an hour into the story, go to the bathroom. Then come back. Just sit down. Change the conversation. [laughs] If they don’t ask to finish that story, you don’t have a script!
Do you worry about the ultimate reception, about making something to live up to your past work? That can be immobilizing. That whole idea of the great American novel, how do you sit down to write the Great American novel? I remember Nick Nolte said to me about “Affliction” when it was all down and he had gotten his accolades, he said, if I had known this was going to be one of my most important roles, I don’t know if I would have done it! Because there is something immobilizing about that sense. Primarily, I think for me, the main criterion is that the work not bore me. Most everything bores me, most every movie, most every book. I read books and see movies and I think, how can they possibly have gone back to work the next day, this is so boring, how can their fingers have even reached the keyboard to write one more paragraph of this stuff! I often end up doing things that are out of the mainstream because I know I won’t get bored. It’s so peculiar it’s going to keep me interested. That’s one of my criteria. If, perchance, some degree of greatness spins out of it, that you just get down on your knees and thank God and the powers of serendipity.
What movies mean the most to you? From a storytelling point of view, for me, if you had to pick one movie, if someone said to you, we’re sending this spaceship off and we have some extra little chip space on one of the drives and we can send one movie, which would you pick? I’d send “Rules of the Game.” In many ways, it is the most perfect film, when you consider all the elements that are involved. The quality of the writing, the narrative, the social impact, the courage and adventurousness of how it’s shot, and its sheer humanity. So that’s my number one. When you go beyond that, they start to get a little more idiosyncratic. There’s a film by Bresson called “Pickpocket” that I have knocked off and emulated a lot and the Japanese director Ozu, a film called “Tokyo Story.” that would be my top three.
Not bad! [laughs] Another film I like a lot that I knock off, I don’t knock it off so much, it’s become antiquated, that’s “Il Conformista” by Bertolucci. I like that film. I like “Performance” and I’ve knocked that film off, the one Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell made.
A lot of your work foreshadows body-obsessed culture. Your characters often build up for some challenge. In my case, it’s all about using physicality to hide something else. What’s that Freudian maxim about, the depiction of a thing by its opposite? What you’re depicting when you show someone building up is you’re depicting the opposite. The characters that have always interested me most are people who act against their own best interests, but don’t know that they do. That is, people who, as I’ve mentioned before, have such a neurotic investment in failure they think they’re doing the right thing when in fact they’re doing the wrong thing. This is a classic description of the Nolte character in “Affliction.” He wants to be a good man, he wants to be a good father. But of course, everything he does is counterproductive. These kinds of characters, which are inherently complex and contradictory, are to me the more elucidating… is that a word?
You’ll get away with it. Illuminating? Illuminating! That’s the word. Because they have that knot of contradictory motives. And that, of course, is what often becomes a commercial problem in a movie because the unresolved complications violate the commercial myth of the movies. Here’s the commercial myth of the movies: It is that life has problems, and therefore it can have solutions. So here we go. Here’s a problem of life: terrorists kidnap the president’s plane. Okay. Now here’s a solution: President gets terrorists! Wasn’t that easy? You walk out of the theater, boy they solved that problem! Unfortunately, life doesn’t give us those kind of problems. Life gives us dilemmas. Dilemmas like I love my mother so much I want to kill her. And you don’t solve that dilemma. Dilemmas don’t get solved, they get explored. So when you have complex characters that are exploring dilemmas, you’re never going to have a solution. When you don’t have a solution, a simplistic little ka-ching of a cash register that usually occurs when a Hollywood movie ends.
Do you distinguish between writing and directing? I don’t distinguish between writing and directing. A script I write for myself or I write for someone else, it’s the same script. It’s two different thought processes. Literary logic and visual logic are two different languages. You write in literary logic. Visual logic: This is this. That’s a different way of thinking. You write plot, character, theme, first and foremost dialogue. Then when you come to direct it, you try to think visually. So I would approach a script I wrote the same way I would approach a script someone else wrote. You just look at the thing and say, y’know, what can I do to salvage this now? How can I rethink this visually?
So from loneliness to collaboration. What can you say about working with Scorsese? We’ve done four films over the years. I think it’s been a very felicitous collaboration. We’re quite similar in temperament, two moralistic asthmatics. His cultural background is urban, it’s Roman Catholic, and Italian. Mine is suburban or rural and it’s Dutch Calvinist. It’s Dutch. So he was raised in churches that look like chapels, I was raised in churches that look like courtrooms. That’s just about enough difference for us to be on the same wavelength yet have a slightly different take on everything. So I think that’s what has been the essence of that collaboration.
“First Reformed” opens Friday, May 25 at River East, Landmark Century and CineArts Evanston and will go wider in coming weeks.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.