Aug 12, 2007

Professor of brutality: How did hardcore intellectual Paul Schrader get by in Hollywood?

Director Paul Schrader rejected theology in favour of studying rogue males in films like 'Taxi Driver'.

It has taken until his latest film for a Paul Schrader hero to fully come out – as gay, but also as an intellectual. The American director and screenwriter is still best known for exploring the psyches of troubled, often inarticulate rogue males. In his own films, he has created the coolly narcissistic LA stud played by Richard Gere in American Gigolo, and the primal father and son combatants of Russell Banks adaptation Affliction. His scripts for Martin Scorsese gave us cinema's ultimate hair-trigger loners, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, not to mention an even more tormented hard case, a regular-guy Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ.

But now Schrader has devised a protagonist who's on his own wavelength as a man of words. The Walker, his new thriller cum comedy of manners, stars Woody Harrelson as a middle-aged gay Southern dandy who escorts the married ladies of Washington DC, while dispensing bittersweet bons mots. Carter Page III is a striking anomaly in US cinema: a man who plays detective while reading Suetonius. But he's also a classic Schrader figure: under his gilded surface, Carter is an old-school existential hero in a moral fix.

This may well be the character who comes closest, if not to the heart, then to the culture of his creator, a one-time trainee theologian turned film critic besotted with Bresson, Ozu and art-cinema gods. The Walker allows Schrader a new pleasure, that of the well-turned one-liner. "If American Gigolo was about Gere's physique, this is about Woody's wit," says Schrader. "It took years to get financed, so whenever I was sitting somewhere and overheard or thought of a Woody line, I'd just jot it down. Someone suggested we should do a TV show pilot – I said, I can't write this stuff every week, I've been saving it up for three years!" He bursts into a wheezy laugh.

At 61, Schrader looks comfortably, roundly professorial: he could be Karl Malden playing sage old Doc in a small-town melodrama. But in the Seventies, he was known as one of the looser cannons in Hollywood's young arsenal. He famously wrote Taxi Driver in a 10-day cathartic burst, at a time when he was living partly in his car and his interests were dominated by drink, guns and pornography. That, and his subsequent Scorsese script Raging Bull, cemented Schrader's reputation as a poet of street-smart brutality, but he himself was a cerebral type with European affiliations: even Taxi Driver was modelled on Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea.

Schrader was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a severe Calvinist community; cinema was strictly forbidden, and he only discovered it in his late teens. He rebelled by becoming a film critic in Los Angeles, then in the Seventies, wrote scripts for Scorsese, Brian De Palma and others, before embarking on his own series of idiosyncratic hard-edged films. On the one hand, there were realist evocations of everday America hell, among them, Blue Collar, Hardcore, Light Sleeper; on the other, ambitious stylistic adventures that were as close to avant-gardism as you could get in US cinema of the Eighties, notably Mishima and the expressionistic, overlooked Patty Hearst.

The big mystery is how such a hardcore intellectual ever got by in Hollywood: you imagine Schrader dining out with studio execs and being the only person at the table wanting to discuss Bresson and Walter Benjamin. " I don't move in that world any more," he says. "But when I moved in it, I moved in it on their terms." In Peter Biskind's scabrous book about the Movie Brat generation, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Schrader in the Seventies emerges as a ruthless operator, clawing his way single-mindedly up the career ladder. This was so, Schrader admits. "I felt that if I didn't direct by the time I was 30, I should give it up. That really meant a 'full court press' – it's a basketball term meaning 'total energy'. That's why I never really worried about drugs or alcohol or sex or anything, because I knew that nothing was going to set me off this course."

As Biskind documents, Schrader lived close to the edge, and close to parodic Tinseltown craziness. Yes, he says, he really did sometimes write wearing a metal crown of thorns: "I bought it in a religious antique store in Guatemala. I gave it to Scorsese, he has it somewhere in a box now." The stimulants helped compensate for not being a natural writer. "I write in spurts, which is why the drugs and alcohol came in so handy, because it wasn't a lifetime commitment. You could pour yourself into it for a period of weeks and then step away."

All this was a drastic reaction to a stern upbringing and paternal disapproval: Schrader Sr even took part in the protests against his son's controversial Scorsese collaboration The Last Temptation of Christ. But, Schrader says: "When he died, and I was cleaning out his house, I found that he'd collected all the VHSs of all the films that I'd been involved in. But they were all in their original plastic wrappers. He was proud that his son was successful – but he wanted everyone to know that he had not seen them."

In recent years, Schrader's work has drifted closer to the mainstream; financing difficulties have meant taking on such projects as an ill-fated Exorcist prequel, which the studio hated so much that it had Renny Harlin remake it. Still, Schrader continues to feel a cerebral pull. In 2003, he signed up to write a study of the film canon: a book never emerged but a long essay did, and a considered list of the 60 great films (Renoir's The Rules of the Game at No. 1, Bresson's Pickpocket at 4, and – no false modesty – Taxi Driver at 36).

To this end, Schrader signed up at Columbia University to study the history of aesthetics. "In many ways, I'm really an academic at heart," he says," and the only way to cure that is to immerse yourself in the companionship of other academics. Within a year, you've had it: 'Let me outta here!' Because academics have a justifiably negative reputation as being petty and sniping and turf contenders. And when it comes to film academics, it's even worse, because sometimes the turf is a meagre piece of dirt."

For Schrader, and so many film-makers of his generation, cinema was an alternative religion. He has two children of college age with his wife, actress Mary Beth Hurt, and he is resigned to the fact that neither cares that much for the art form. "They're representative of their generation. They don't see why movies should be taken seriously, and I have not been able to change their minds."

That Schrader still hasn't lost his yen to provoke will be shown by his forthcoming Adam Resurrected, a concentration-camp story from a novel by Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk, about a Jewish entertainer forced by a commandant to behave like a dog. Several Jewish directors, including Sidney Pollack and Barry Levinson, turned the project down, but Schrader is convinced he's managed to say something new about the Holocaust. "It works," he says, "but in retrospect, I think, 'Wow, that was a narrow edge of a blade you were walking there,' because it's very funny in a very nasty way." This nightmarish-sounding film could well be the biggest controversy Schrader has been involved in since The Last Temptation.

Schrader's squat, compact physique suggests a pugilistic scrapper, and one who hasn't mellowed that much with time. Making films is still a struggle, but struggle is apparently to his taste. "It's just like any other competition. I'd much rather win a competition to direct a personal film than a competition to sell the most SUVs this year. But," Schrader chuckles, "it's the same mentality." *

'The Walker' is on general release

Five of the best Paul Schrader films

American Gigolo (1979)

Hollywood's 1980s style starts here, with this sleek study of clothes horse as existential hero, influenced equally by Bresson, Bertolucci and Giorgio Armani

Raging Bull (1980)

One of Schrader's key collaborations with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro – the biopic of agonised boxer Jake La Motta, a brutal portrait of sibling jealousy

Cat People (1981)

The horror film as Freudian sexual study: a metamorphosis chiller that was also a torrid love letter to its ferally alluring star Nastassja Kinski

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Schrader the avant-gardist: an operatic, stylised portrait of Yukio Mishima, Japanese novelist, bodybuilder and martyr of his own militaristic cult

Auto Focus (2002)

The life and strange death of TV star Bob Crane. A wry, stylish study in perversity and the genesis of amateur video porn.


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