Screensaver: On his own turf

Director-writer Paul Schrader talks about his acclaimed modestly budgeted "Affliction" and the pleasures of working the fertile emotional territory the big studios can't touch.


Cynthia Joyce
January 7, 1999 11:13PM (UTC)

Sitting at his desk in a modest midtown Manhattan office, writer-director Paul Schrader doesn't much resemble the renegade wild man he's been portrayed as in various Hollywood chronicles (most notably, Peter Biskind's recent '70s nostalgia tome, "Easy Rider, Raging Bull"). The only names he drops are those of his family: his wife of 15 years, actress Mary Beth Hurt, and their two children. Nor does his mildly gruff manner give him away as the rebel writer behind "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "American Gigolo" (which he also directed) and more than a dozen other films over the last two decades. It's just as well, because Schrader isn't particularly interested in talking about his, or anybody else's, notorious past -- he's too busy juggling his current projects. There's "Bringing Out the Dead," due this year, which he adapted from a Joseph Connelly novel (Martin Scorsese is directing); "Forever Mine," a love story starring Gretchen Mol and Joseph Fiennes, also due out this year; and, of course, "Affliction," adapted from the Russell Banks novel, which is currently winning critical acclaim and just earned Nick Nolte the National Society of Film Critics award for best actor.

The pairing of Schrader and Banks seems a particularly serendipitous meeting of minds. Both have an affinity for darkly realistic stories about men who somehow get stuck in their own lives, and who must ultimately make a choice between complete emotional detachment or constant conflict -- a theme Schrader says he can relate to, even if he no longer identifies with it. "Often in these lives, the sun doesn't poke through the clouds -- the music doesn't swell at the end."

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Do you still consider yourself an independent filmmaker?

Well, I began making films for the studios, then the studios stopped making those kinds of films. I didn't really change. I'm still making the same films. "Affliction" is not that different from "Blue Collar," but the studios just don't make them and they don't release them.

I certainly would like to go back and make studio films. It's nice having those budgets and those toys and that security. But today, studio films cost so much money and they have no idea really how to make a film on a budget -- they can't -- that you really don't have much freedom. Once the budget gets up to $30, $40 million, you just can't afford the audience not knowing who the bad guy is and who the good guy is. You take a film like "Affliction," and you say, Who's the good guy? Well, Nick Nolte. Who's the bad guy? Well, it's Nick Nolte. You can't do that at $35, $40 million.

What was the budget for "Affliction"?

Six, six and a half million. When you work at moderate budgets, it requires sacrifice all up and down the line -- including from your actors. But then you have a freedom.

Nolte shared production credits as well.

Well, that was part of the trade-off in terms of lowering his salary.

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He was so well-cast as Wade Whitehouse -- he really gave a haunting performance.

Didn't he? Just beautiful, subtle work. You can just see that guy's plan. He lets you into that man's mind. You could see his mind work.

It was interesting to me how, in the film, alcoholism is used as a sort of fuel --

-- a fuel for male anger. Yeah, it's sort of complicated from my point of view, because that's the ostensible theme of the book. It's not really a theme of my life, I'm not the product of an abusive alcoholic father, and that's in many ways the first theme of the book and the movie, the superficial kind of theme -- male violence as it is born in the blood, bred in the bone, passed down from generation to generation. But that's a handle that you give the audience so that when the movie's over they feel like they know why they were there.

But to me, the more fascinating themes are underneath that one -- that is, the relationship with the brothers, and the nature of the narrator's relationship to the person he's talking about. You have in this case two siblings of an abusive parent. One of those siblings will be selected out for the violence, in this case the older one. The relationship with the younger boy to his brother will be very complex, because on one hand he's very grateful that his brother took the blows for him. On the other hand, he's jealous, because in that kind of family structure, violence equals attention equals love. The father says, "I'm full of love." Well of course he's full of love, and [holds up fist] he'll show you, too. And that's as good a recipe for passive-aggressive behavior as I can think of. Everyone else in town gives the older brother good advice. You know, forget your custody suit, forget the hunting accident. But his brother walks in and says, "I think you were right about that murder," and encourages his delusions.

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When you're adapting a novel, does the visual story present itself to you?

Never. I do most everything I can when writing not to think as a director. I try to think as a writer and do what writers do -- you know, theme, plot, character, dialogue -- work on that side of the brain. Not try to translate it into a visual world. The word chair and the image chair are two different things. And it's best not to let the world of images, I find, dictate how you tell a story.

It is an extremely faithful adaptation.

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I had to drop a few subplots, but essentially, it is the book. One of the important things about it is that it's a story that's being told to you. And the man that's telling it to you is almost as important, or is as important, as the man he's talking about. One of the first things he says in the story is, "In telling this story, I tell my own story as well." This is the Willem Dafoe character. Well, we never see his story, we're only left to surmise it. But it's very important to realize that this is not just the story of Wade Whitehouse, this sort of doomed small-town sheriff, it's also telling you the story of the man who's telling you the story. And therefore, narration becomes critical to what it's about.

So your use of narration, voice-over, seems to be a pretty important tool here -- as it has been in some of your other films like "The Last Temptation of Christ."

I love narration because I find it to be like intravenous feeding. You're getting nourishment but you can't taste it. And so it's very subtle, in a wonderfully manipulative way, to get information across -- when it's done right. When it's not it just throws you out of the experience.

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You can always tell in a movie when narration has crept in during the later phases of it. And often it doesn't work because it wasn't built in to the structure. In the movie that Scorsese and Nick Cage are shooting right now ["Bringing Out the Dead"], the narration is written almost in stone, at the script level, just like it was in "Taxi Driver" -- the narration is the [character's] thought process. At a certain point, the narration just stops, but by then you know what he's thinking because you've been listening to him think.

Was it strange to be working with Scorsese again?

I hadn't really planned on it. About 10, 12 years ago we decided to sort of call it quits because we were arguing a lot about a project. So, we just went our own ways and kept in touch and stayed friends. And then something came along that was just such a natural fit that it proved irresistible. And, from the few times I've been on the set, I felt that Marty was very relaxed, he feels very good about this. I have a good feeling about it, too.

It must be hard to back away from directing something once you've written it ...

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No, I like to write. I can write more if I'm not directing. You can write three scripts a year, four scripts, and you can direct one every year and a half. One of the luxuries is that I can ensure my independence as a director by supporting myself as a writer. I never have to really take those crappy directing jobs that destroy your spirit and your reputation, or start doing those TV movies and exploitation stuff.

You were a big supporter of the film "Pi" at Sundance last year -- what drew you to it?

It's just an original voice. It's more a promise than a film. It's a promise of a career, and of an original way of seeing things and approaching subjects that people don't think are visual -- like mathematics -- and finding a way in. It's really at it's worst when it tries to do the conventional stuff. You know, the kind of spy melodrama --

-- like the chase scenes?

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Yeah, that stuff is painful to watch. But when he gets into the young man's mind, into the world of mathematics, the world of pi, it is absolutely original and exciting.

How do you respond to those other types of high-action, low emotional involvement films that seem to have seen their heyday?

You mean the ironic hero. Well, the ironic hero had to make his appearance. He's banging around in the arts for 30, 40 years now. And he came rather late to film -- everything comes late to film. By the time any art movement reaches film, it's pretty well worked its way through every other art form, because film is the most audience-driven of the arts. And so therefore it's the most conformist and the least adventurous of the arts.

And so when the ironic hero supplanted the existential hero, when I first saw "Pulp Fiction," I really thought that was the end of my tradition, which was an existential kind of tradition. The dilemma of the existential hero is, Should I exist? But the dilemma of the ironic hero is, Does it matter? I personally felt that the ironic hero is so thin and unnourishing, and I was wondering how long he could really drive movies commercially before people would just get tired of him and his precious kind of winking at you and jabbing you in the side, his preening detachment. I think people have gotten sick of it sooner rather than later.

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Does that -- the fickleness of audiences' tastes -- affect the choices you make as a filmmaker?

Well, if you don't want to be in the business of mass communication, you just should not be making films. Those people who complain about film economics, yet insist on making films -- they have it all wrong. There are other ways to express yourself in the arts without needing $10 million. And if you need $10 million then you deal with the reality of what it takes to get $10 million. Having been raised as a good Christian boy with a sense of stewardship, I believe that if you borrow $10 million from somebody you should have a pretty strong expectation of getting them their money back. You know, you don't have to make them rich, but should believe you're going to get them their money back!

But does your sense of who the audience is change what kinds of things you're writing about?

Well, it gets harder as you get older, because you get further away from the demographic G-spot of movies, which I think is right around 15 and a half years of age at the moment. So you have to sort of take that into account. With a film like "Affliction," you decide to make a film about a different generation. But my next film -- I've written it, and I'm going to direct it -- is with two young actors. Not as young as Buffy, but young. And it's a love story, a flat-out obsessional, undying love story, with Joseph Fiennes and Gretchen Mol.

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You started out as a critic -- how has criticism changed since you began making films?

At the time I was involved in film criticism, it was seen as part of the movement -- you know, part of the counterculture, as ludicrous as that sounds today. So that when you were out reviewing "La Chinois" or "Weekend," you were carrying the banner. Film was an instrument, and ... well, those days are long gone. The arts in general are in a very fallow period. And film criticism for the most part is a form of entertainment and, at best, consumer guidance. There are a handful of very good critics out there who I still read -- I think David Denby is our best critic -- but by and large film criticism has been divorced from its function.

You've said before that you never really made the movies that you would have necessarily approved of as a critic. What did you mean?

Well, I wrote a book on a kind of transcendental style of cinema, a spiritual style -- very rarefied stuff. And, what I meant was that I don't feel equipped to make films in that style myself. That sort of style eschews psychological realism, and I work very much in the arena of psychological realism. I work very much in mainstream storytelling, whereas many of the films I loved as a critic were out of that mainstream. So that, when I started making films, I had to acknowledge the fact that really, what I felt the need to create and what I appreciated as a critic were not necessarily the same thing.

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You know, artists and filmmakers, they never forget their first love. And for me the first love was the European cinema of the '60s. In some way, all my career I've circled around that and used that as a reference point. For many filmmakers of my generation their first love was westerns, musicals or gangster films, and often those directors are trying to make the film they loved when they where a kid. Well, I never saw those films when I was a kid -- my church prohibited theatergoing, so I didn't really see a film until I was 18 or so -- so I never was trying to make that.

Of all the films you've had a part in, "The Last Temptation of Christ" was probably the most controversial.

That became a battlefield of the culture wars, so [the controversy] was about the culture wars, it wasn't about the film. Sort of like flag burning -- I mean, who really cares about flag burning? How's your life affected by flag burning? It's not. It's a totem in the cultural war. And so, the film became symbolic of who controls the culture. Us or them. And unfortunately, the totemic object of a cultural war suffers, because it loses its own indigenous meaning.

"The Last Temptation of Christ" was always actually meant as a religious film. I mean, it was written by a Greek Orthodox, I'm Dutch Protestant, Marty's Italian Catholic -- and it was based on a spiritual book. We all have different Christian reference points, but it was meant to be reflective of those kinds of spiritual values. I don't think there's any interest on [author Nikos] Kazantzakis' part or mine or Scorsese of poking fun of religious matters. I mean it's not worth it. It's a waste of time. It's like farting during the national anthem. Who cares. Get a life.


Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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