For the July, 1979 issue of High Times, Harry Wasserman interviewed writer and director Paul Schrader, who celebrates his 74th birthday on July 22.
“You talkin’ to me?” sneers psycho cab-driver Travis Bickle, a few loaded guns strapped down to various parts of his taut body, as he quick-draws a revolver and swivels to glare at himself in a full-length mirror. The character is played by actor Robert De Niro, and the scene is from the movie Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese. The screenplay was written by Paul Schrader, who had previously scripted Rolling Thunder, about a returning Vietnam War vet who goes on a bloody rampage (including jamming a man’s hand down a garbage disposal), and Obsession, starring Cliff Robertson as a man who falls in love with his daughter because she reminds him of his dead wife.
After the success of Taxi Driver, Schrader was given the opportunity to direct his next script, Blue Collar, in which three auto factory workers (Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto) get pissed off at their union for kissing management’s ass and rob the union safe, which turns out to be empty except for documents that reveal graft and corruption in the union. Threatening to blow the whistle, the trio gets bullied and harassed by the union, and there is a harrowing scene in which Kotto dies of asphyxiation while getting lethally sprayed by paint. Blue Collar was the most radical American film of 1978 and was voted Best Picture at the Paris International Film Festival.
Schrader also wrote the original script from which Close Encounters of the Third Kind evolved, as well as the screenplay for director Joan Tewkesbury’s Old Boyfriends, the story of a woman who tracks down and seduces her previous lovers. He’s currently writing the screenplay for Scorsese’s Raging Bull, in which De Niro stars as fighter Jake La Motta.
Schrader is probably the most unrelentingly obsessed director/screenwriter in Hollywood; like taxi driver Travis Bickle, he has a cynical but deadly repulsion from the moral decay of modern, mega-urban capitalist society. His social outrage is almost too hot for higher-ups to handle—episodes of violence or aberrant behavior (including the ‘‘You talkin’ to me?” scene) were unmercifully slashed from the TV showing of Taxi Driver, and the producers of that film had from the start prohibited Schrader and Scorsese from making its controversial climax even more anarchic, violent and blood-drenched than the result turned out to be.
Schrader’s latest success as a two-fisted director/screenwriter is Hardcore, starring George C. Scott as a determined Calvinist from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who follows his runaway daughter (played by ex-Yippie Ilah Davis) into the depths of the West Coast porno scene. Schrader himself comes from a Grand Rapids Calvinist background, which he quit in his early 20s to study film at Columbia University, the American Film Institute and UCLA. He was film critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, and wrote a scholarly book on three foreign film directors, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer.
When I interviewed Schrader he hadn’t slept for a few nights because John Travolta had pulled out of his next movie, American Gigolo, about a stud who gets framed for a sex murder. (Travolta has since been replaced by Richard Gere.) While Schrader was constantly getting called away to the phone for urgent calls from his producers about changes in actors and budget, we conducted this conversation about his controversial movies and about dope, sex and corruption in Hollywood.
High Times: Want to smoke some pot?
Schrader: Uh…I’m headed the other way. I’m coked up. I haven’t slept since Friday. For six months I’ve been planning a film with John Travolta, called American Gigolo, that was supposed to start shooting today. Friday night John pulled out, so I’m recasting the picture as we speak.
High Times: Who are the other possibilities for the role?
Schrader: There’s a battle. There are negotiations going on with an actor I wanted originally before I knew John was involved—Richard Gere. So I’m trying to make a deal with Richard, which is a little thorny. Then I have to lower the budget. Hopefully, both these things will be done today.
High Times: Are you producing American Gigolo yourself?
Schrader: No, it’s a Paramount picture. We had a $9-million budget because we figured John makes so much money in the box office that we could spend whatever we wanted. It was true then, but it ain’t true now; so we have to deal with a more realistic budget. Which in Hollywood terms means a low-budget film for $5 million.
High Times: What’s the basic story line for American Gigolo?
Schrader: I think American Gigolo and Taxi Driver are my two best scripts. American Gigolo is about a young man who is a paid companion, chauffeur and translator, who is framed for a sex murder and simultaneously falls in love with the wife of a small-time politician. What it’s really about is grace, rather than sin and redemption, which my other films have been about. Grace, the idea of unmerited good.
High Times: The George C. Scott character in Hardcore battles the world of child pornography, just as the Robert De Niro character in Taxi Driver battled the world of child prostitution. But don’t you think the depiction of child sexuality titillates the viewers of these movies even while you seem to be coming out against such exploitation?
Schrader: Well, I can’t deny that there is a double motive, in that I try to make movies that people are interested in seeing, although it was important to me that Ilah Davis, who plays Scott’s runaway daughter in Hardcore, was not particularly attractive, because in fact it is not the beautiful young things who run away. More often it’s the ones like Ilah who don’t fit. They run away because they feel out of place.
Hardcore isn’t really very dirty at all, it’s a very middle-class movie, and it’s a very nonprurient movie. It’s quite sexless, I think, and not titillating at all, at least not to me. Neither Scott nor his porn-world guide, Season Hubley, the two characters you get to know best, has any regard for sex. It’s a very antisex film.
High Times: In doing research for Hardcore, did you hang out in the L.A. porno scene?
Schrader: Yeah, I got to know all those people at the different levels. I saw hard-core still sessions, hard-core loop sessions…
High Times: You include scenes from a snuff film in Hardcore. Did you hear rumors of any real snuff films?
Schrader: There’s a parlor girl in San Diego I got to know, and she told me about this film her boss had shown her, and she told me about it in such graphic detail that I had to believe she had actually seen it. It was described in such a way that it could not have been falsified. It was a picture in which a girl’s head was cut off and her neck was fucked by a guy. And she described the whole thing to me. She described it in such a way as, well, the head was there, and the body was over there, and seeing it made you want to faint. She said she would try to get it for me, and I said thanks but no thanks, I didn’t want to see it. I don’t care to live with that memory.
High Times: What was the most outrageous thing that happened during the shooting of Hardcore?
Schrader: The motel porn-shoot scene was the first day of shooting for Season, and she had no lines really, she just had to be there, naked. And that’s a hard way to begin working. And she says to me, “Well, how shall I play this?’’ So I gave her a ’lude and said, “Take this, this is how you should play it.” And she comes back a little bit later and says, “I dunno, I’m still worried,” so I said, “Take another one.” So by the time we began shooting, Season was like this… [goes limp and groggy]. She has one line, where she says, “Can’t you get that bed any warmer?” and she misses the cue, she’s just sitting there, and you can hear my voice: “Season! Season! ‘Can’t you get this bed any warmer?’ Season! Season!” But that was a long hard day for her to make it through. She was—whew!—she was really distraught. The guy who was in that scene, Michael something, runs a place called PAS—the Passive Arts Studio—the passive arts being the arts of domination, humiliation and bondage—and he cannot get an erection except through violence, and being hit and whipped and all that. So I hired him because I knew I had to have an “R” and there was no way this guy was gonna get an erection. In bed with two women, there’s no way, because if he had gotten an erection I would’ve been in big trouble. So, I hired Michael and of course he didn’t get an erection.
High Times: He wasn’t a professional actor?
Schrader: No. In fact a lot of the people in the movie weren’t—all the dominants in the parlor at the end are all dominants, a lot of the parlor girls are parlor girls.
High Times: Did you have any apprehension about using people like that?
Schrader: Yeah, there’s the reliability factor. You never know whether they’re going to show up the second day. So if. you hire them, you make sure all their work can get done in one day and you have someone watch over them so they don’t leave. Because you can shoot one day and they won’t be there the next day. In effect, the way most porn films are shot, they are cast two or three days before principal photography, because if you hire actors two weeks before, you don’t know whether they’ll still be in town when it’s time to shoot, or they’ll be in jail, or they won’t be in shape to do anything. They have a hard time with reliability.
High Times: Was there anything the producers of Hardcore wouldn’t let you shoot?
Schrader: When this script was first at Warner Bros.—it started at Warner Bros, and went to Columbia—in the original ending Scott goes to San Francisco and his daughter is dead. And the detective, played by Peter Boyle, tells him to go home, and he does. She died by accident, it turned out, not from being in a snuff movie or something like that. Well, Warner Bros. did not think that was the most commercial of all possible endings. So I changed it.
High Times: Were you angry?
Schrader: Well, I’m free, white and 21, and I had to decide whether to change the ending or not, and I did. In Hardcore there was also a long dream sequence I wanted quite badly to do. It was a dream I actually had. It was supposed to go throughout the movie, it’s the George C. Scott character’s dream of heaven. It justifies his life, because he believes he’s going to heaven. It justifies the fact that he believes he’s superior, better.
High Times: What was the dream about?
Schrader: It’s a dream of fear, torture and agony, until finally at the end he thinks he’s in hell, and it turns out he’s not in hell at all, he’s in heaven, and his life is over, he has won. Everything had been worth it. It’s a nice dream, and as I said, it’s a true dream. It was three days shooting at about $250,000, and they just wouldn’t put up the money. It had to go.
High Times: In Hardcore, the Scott character is obsessed with getting his daughter back; in fact, the heroes of all your films have very powerful obsessions. Is this an aspect you see in yourself?
Schrader: Yeah, I have a drive. I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan—George C. Scott’s hometown in Hardcore—for 22 years. It was a very stern, disciplined upbringing. There was no card playing, no dancing, no drinking, no dating, no theater attendance, no smoking, all that stuff. I didn’t see a movie until I was 16. It was a closed community, and it took a lot of effort for me to get out. It was a church community, and I went to our church’s schools all the way through college.
High Times: The same church that George C. Scott attends in the movie?
Schrader: We had to change the title, my church wouldn’t give me permission. Mine was called the Christian Reformed Church, his is called the Dutch Reformation Church. But the church building in the movie is the one I went to—because our neighborhood had changed and our denomination had sold it to a black congregation. My own denomination would have nothing to do with the film.
So I sort of came out of there like a bullet out of a gun. The result is the obsession of the last ten years, which I think is finally coming to an end. It ended last year. I think that phase is all over.
High Times: Just before doing Hardcore, you made your debut as a director with Blue Collar, a film about factory workers who discover corruption in their union. What was it like directing Richard Pryor in that movie?
Schrader: Uh… he started to coke up a little toward the end. He was straight most of the movie. He blamed me for going back on. Richard and I had a lot of problems, as you may have heard. I admire Richard’s talent, but Richard is torn apart by a terrible contradiction, which is that he has been given the rare ability by birth to be both very black and very big. Maybe it’s because of his boyish frame and face. He can say things to white people no other black man can. White people will let him get away with it. It’s like a pendulum: the bigger he gets, the more guilty he feels about being the white’s Sambo, so he turns around and does something outrageously black and antiwhite. At which point he gets terrified that he won’t be big anymore, and then ingratiates himself again, and then gets angry at himself for having kissed ass, and then swings the other way.
In the year or so that I knew Richard, I’ve never known that pendulum to stay for any length of time in the center. It’s always swinging out one way or the other. During shooting, one day he would be totally white hatred, the next day totally nice guy. He wasn’t playing games; it was real psychodrama. Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, his costars in Blue Collar, also have egos, so it got a little tense. But actors live on the edge of the mountain: it’s a scary life. I’ve known enough of them to know you don’t expect sanity or normalcy.
High Times: Blue Collar comes out against corruption in the unions. Would unions be okay if they weren’t corrupt?
Schrader: I think all large organizations are essentially the same, whether they’re called government, or church, or big business, or unions, or Mafia. It’s essentially a bunch of people who get together to tell other people what to do. That’s the nature of society. And I don’t like that a lot. I never did like unions, I never have been able to hold a job. Maybe it goes back to my church childhood—I don’t like people telling me what to do. So maybe in my twisted mind the church and the union are about the same. I don’t see the union being run by the individuals in it. I see it run by a clique.
I’m in a guild right now—the Writers’ Guild—which a couple of years ago I had to sue. I was brought up on charges, I had to hire a lawyer, it cost me several thousand dollars. We had gone on strike and I dutifully manned the picket lines, but a reporter came up to me while I was striking. And I told him that I thought the strike was so much bullshit, and that it was a bunch of dilettantes trying to pretend they were the proletariat, and this and that. Well, it all got printed up, and I was brought up on charges for undermining the morale of the strike. I had to hire a lawyer to defend my First Amendment rights against the Writers’ Guild. So this reinforces in my mind that it’s just another bunch of people telling me how to behave.
High Times: Shouldn’t workers have more control over the factories they work in all their lives?
Schrader: Yes; a good union is a union that’s in a state of continual flux. It has to be a fluid situation, because the work force changes so much; the work force is totally different than it used to be—the problems of youth, racism, drugs, alienation, monotony. It’s so different from what it used to be… there has to be a changeover in power as well. On the other hand, the only way a union achieves power is to achieve stability. If management knows the work force is in flux, that the workers can change, then they don’t take it as seriously. For the union to be successful, it must alienate itself from its membership. So they get together with big business so they can deal with them on a one-to-one basis.
High Times: At some factories the workers have actually taken control of the factory. Is this any hope for the future?
Schrader: That’s a contradiction in terms. Once he’s a stockholder, he’s no longer a worker. But it seems sensible for workers to be shareholders.
High Times: Before making your directorial debut with Blue Collar, you wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Robert De Niro. What was Scorsese like to work with?
Schrader: Marty’s a little crazy, but that’s not unusual for a director. He cares a lot—that’s very important. He cares… about people, about things. He’s very passionate. He’s courageous.
High Times: Is Robert De Niro your favorite actor to work with?
Schrader: I wouldn’t say he’s my favorite, but he’s certainly as good as they come in this country. He has a strong inner life. He knows how to put his inner life on his face. He knows how to carry his soul in his face, in his body… he doesn’t need the lines of dialogue. Like the scene in Taxi Driver when he sits and watches television—he’s full of hatred, resentment, toward the kids who are dancing on “American Bandstand.’’ In the script there’s a long description of how he just seethes at this world of normality. He’s like a wolf watching the campfires at a distance, who wants to go in and attack. The only tool Bobby had was his face. He had no lines for that part of the script, he had nothing. He was able to externalize that emotion so that when you see his face you feel those things. Maybe not in as precise terms as when you read them… but you feel them in your gut.
High Times: Was the character he played in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, based at all on Arthur Bremer, the guy who tried to kill George Wallace?
Schrader: A little. I knew who Bremer was, but the diaries had not yet been published when I wrote the script.
High Times: The character was pretty similar to the Bremer diaries.
Schrader: That may be, but it was either coincidence or the fact that similar minds run in similar channels. I created the character in my mind out of my own life and experience, and it turned out to be true.
High Times: How was De Niro to work with in Taxi Driver?
Schrader: He pours himself into what he’s doing a lot. So in Taxi Driver he was essentially very intense and very… unsexual. The character was. He wasn’t terribly interested in dating or women or anything like that. Now, in Raging Bull, the new movie I’m writing, which Scorsese will direct and in which De Niro plays fighter Jake La Motta, the character Bobby plays is a real lecher. As Bobby gets into that character, he assumes more of those qualities. He has a tendency to get into the people he plays.
High Times: You worked with Cliff Robertson in Obsession…
Schrader: No, I wrote the script, but I had a falling out with Brian De Palma, the film’s director, before the shooting even started, so I didn’t hang out on the set. Brian decided he didn’t want to shoot the last 40 pages of the script. That bothered me. And, again, money problems. They cut the budget when they cut the last 40 pages.
High Times: Robertson blew the whistle on Columbia executive David Begelman; he thought there was some financial hanky-panky going on…
Schrader: In fact, it involved Obsession. It didn’t involve me, but Columbia paid out $25,000 to Cliff Robertson that David had just put on the books as an expense: “Cliff Robertson’s expenses for promoting Obsession, $25,000.” But the $25,000 really went to David. Well, somehow that statement got back to Robertson. He said, “I didn’t do any promotion for that film, I didn’t do any tour or anything like that.” So that’s how it all started.
High Times: Do you think Robertson was right in talking about it?
Schrader: Sure. A crime had been committed, and he exposed it.
High Times: How have Robertson’s and Begelman’s careers been going since?
Schrader: Uh… I’m rather predisposed toward David because he’s been one of the champions of my career, he’s been rather good to me. In fact David made the decision to make Hardcore. Without David the film wouldn’t have been made.
High Times: Is that kind of thing typical in Hollywood?
Schrader: Yeah. It doesn’t happen quite the same way anymore. The cheating has to take a more clandestine form. Producers aren’t allowed to build projection rooms in their houses anymore. Certain pictures are put together for bogus financial reasons—to hide money, to move money from one place to another—the same as when certain stores are opened.
High Times: Pictures are made to lose money sometimes, too…
Schrader: Yeah, that’s a tax shelter, that’s a way of cleaning money. There’s money that’s stuck all around the world, that can’t be pulled out of certain countries. That’s how countries protect their economies. Like Japan—a certain amount of the revenue that’s generated in Japan has to stay there. A certain amount of the money that’s generated in this country has to stay here. So if a picture is huge in Japan… Star Wars was huge in Japan—now 20th Century-Fox has a certain amount of money in Japan, and they have to get it out. Well, one way to get it out is to refinance a movie to be shot in Japan; even if that movie loses money, they can take it out. Whatever money comes in, even if the picture is a total flop, they can take it out, whereas they couldn’t take it out before.
High Times: So when you lose the money you still have it.
Schrader: Yeah, you actually lose the money to get it out. It’s also a way of hiding money. I don’t know anybody in this business who thinks King Kong actually cost $25 million. On the books it cost $25 million. Maybe it only cost 20—five of it just got washed clean. At that level, you’re making a film in the Far East for $25 million, it’s easy to wash a little money. So it comes from Vegas in a suitcase, and it comes back clean.
High Times: As a director, does the politics of the money have an effect on you?
Schrader: Yes. I am involved in an art that is also a business, and a business that is also an art. It’s something I’ve chosen to do, and I have no apologies for that. I’ve chosen to work in the mass arena; I’m not in a cloister or a university. Just as your magazine has to generate a certain amount of advertising income, I have to generate a certain amount of tickets to survive. It’s always a question of how much I can have my way, and how much I have to do their way in order to have my way.
High Times: How much control did you have on Hardcore?
Schrader: Well, for both Hardcore and Blue Collar I had the final cut. However, decisions were made early on what would be shot based on monetary reasons.
High Times: Have the producers ever told you that you can’t do something?
Schrader: Sure, usually for budgetary reasons, using Hardcore as an example. At a certain point the studio throws down the gauntlet. I was called in to [producer Daniel] Melnick’s office one time: he said he would make a picture for $4,100,000 but he would not make it for $4,150,000. That was it. Now, there were a lot of considerations in the making of the picture, so that it ended up costing $4,300,000. We went over a little bit. But there’s such a thing as an “addback.” The addback is part of the studio system today. Usually, you can get a straight addback, or an addback after 10 percent. What that means is… Let’s say a picture is budgeted at $2 million; you go over the budget, something happens, weather, God knows, it ends up costing $2.5 million. You’ve gone $500,000 over. This is added back to the budget. So the picture goes into the books as $3 million negative cost. So there’s a $500,000 bonus to the studio. That’s a penalty to you. Of course, when you move that $500,000 through the return-money system, it’ll become $1 million or $2 million or $3 million, because you only see about 30 percent of what you ever should see anyway. It gives them another $500,000 out of your profits, out of the profits of the film.
One of the things that’s happening now in the business is that studios are intentionally underbudgeting films, taking a film that they know will cost them, say, $5 million, and going to the film maker and saying, “We’ll make it at $4 million, and we won’t make it at a penny more.” The film maker goes back and creates a phony budget, comes in and says, “I can make it at $4 million,” and they say, “Great.” He goes out, and it costs him $5 million. He knows it, they know it. They put it in the books at $6 million, for accounting reasons, so he doesn’t see any profit until it clears $6 million rentals. So there’s a million dollars free to the studio. That’s the addback system. So studios do have a tendency to underbudget a bit, and that’s something we directors try to fight.
High Times: So it’s like the old shell game, and you directors are aware of it.
Schrader: It’s changed a little bit now, it’s addback after 10 percent overage. It used to be straight addback. On Taxi Driver it was straight addback. Now a $2 million picture would be allowed to go up to $2,200,000 before the addback went into effect.
High Times: Has a director ever complained about this practice?
Schrader: They all complain, but there is a thing called the power of the purse.
High Times: So it’s hard for a director to consider himself just an artist these days?
Schrader: There are no Emily Dickinsons in the cinema. It’s strictly a Walt Whitman trade. Part of the problem is that the kind of person it takes to survive—not only the preproduction wheeling and dealing, the backstabbing, finagling—not only to survive that, but also the grueling experience of actually shooting a picture, which involves a certain constitution, a certain mental attitude, which a lot of writers simply don’t have—they can’t put up with the unpleasantness of dealing with that hundred or so people, 25 of whom have major ego problems, dealing with them every day—that the kind of person that survives these requirements is often not the sort of person who can make a good film. And that’s one of the reasons for the quality of films being what they are. It’s not that hard to direct a movie per se, almost anybody could, it’s just that a lot of them don’t understand how to break the system, and there’s some who do who just can’t stand it for their mental and physical health. A man like Alvin Sargent could direct a film if he wanted to, he just can’t handle it, he doesn’t want to live that kind of life.
High Times: Do you like it better having power as a director than when you were just a screenwriter?
Schrader: Well, I want to be in control of what I do. And a screenwriter is not in fact a writer at all, he’s half a film maker, and to be responsible for what I do, I have to be either a film maker or a writer. For me, being a screenwriter is a kind of shadow existence I find unsatisfying, satisfying only on rare occasions.
High Times: Do you ever write when you’re stoned?
Schrader: No, I can’t write stoned. I find it impossible. I just sit and spin my wheels, my mind goes blank. I can write completely drunk. I do caffeine, nicotine, alcohol—I mix all three—I bring myself up with the alcohol, then back down with the caffeine and nicotine. I get myself up there with a level of sustained energy. One night I was writing late, I got finished with what I was doing at about four in the morning, and when I got up to go to bed I passed out drunk and fell asleep next to my desk. I woke up a couple hours later, a little more sober, crawled into bed and went back to sleep. The next day I went over and looked at the pages. They were good. There were misspellings and craziness, but it was basically good writing. So I knew exactly what I was doing in that state.
Whereas with grass, no way. I lose the precision. Writing, like most of life, is timing. Once you lose your sense of timing, you can’t write, because the rhythm—da-boom, da-boom—the trick of writing dialogue, the cadence is lost. If you lose track of your cadence, if your cadence is slowed, then you have a hard time keeping your concentration. I have a hard time keeping my concentration—I get up to go to the kitchen, pass the TV set, and an hour goes by.
High Times: How do you get the rhythm of conversations and dialogue?
Schrader: I walk around. I’ve always lived in areas where I can walk. I have several walks, depending on how long the scene is. I have my little walks, I play all the characters; I walk and talk, walk and talk, until I have it all talked out. So I go walking around the neighborhood, like your basic crazy, talking to myself. By the time I get back to the house, I know what the characters are going to say.
High Times: When you direct, what gives you the biggest high or the biggest rush?
Schrader: A thousand little decisions, which as a total become your style. But most of it is just getting through it. When it comes to a real high, nothing beats writing, because when you write something it’s all possible and it’s all there. All-encompassing. You can write a whole script in a week. You can see it all, you can feel it all. With movies, it’s a little bit here, a little bit there, and so watered down, so mixed up with logistics, that it’s hard to sustain any high.
High Times: Ever direct a scene so good that the crew applauded?
Schrader: If a crew can see the scene well enough to applaud, it means the scene is not very good, that it’s been overdone. Like, if I was shooting out in the hall, you could barely hear the dialogue. Good movie actors don’t raise their voices. Usually the scene that gets the applause is when the actor really hams it up and the guy in the back yells, “Now that’s acting!” It’s a good way to judge that something really went wrong.
High Times: When you direct, do you or your actors ever use coke?
Schrader: Not me. I know a lot of people do in our business. One of the things I like to do the first week of a film is fire somebody—for drinking, or smoking dope, or doing any kind of high. Because it’s good for the morale of the film to fire somebody early for that. Because once it cuts in on a crew, it goes like wildfire, and your efficiency just drops like crazy. The first week of shooting, I have my eye out, because if I can pin somebody down, then the whole crew knows I mean business, and stops.
There are a lot of alcoholics in the business. And if they know they can get away with drinking, then in the afternoons we get about half as much accomplished as we do in the mornings. These guys are dragging their asses around. If I can catch somebody with a little Scotch in his coffee, then—whupp!—he’s out. Because, what the hell, that hurts the reputation of the business. The union will stand behind me if I fire somebody for drinking on the job.
High Times: Do you ever find yourself in the position of being a ringmaster or a babysitter?
Schrader: Hand holding is definitely part of the director’s art. I gotta build up their confidence sometimes, too. A camera is a pretty scary thing, and a director doesn’t have to go out in front of it. Actors need to be told that the camera loves them.
High Times: Any actors you don’t have to encourage, who have enough of a feel for the camera?
Schrader: Well, George C. Scott has been around so long he knows exactly how dumb the camera is. He knows how to fool it. But still, a man of his age, with his level of experience and credits—he’s just a grab bag of insecurities. Like every actor—scared, unsure. If he gets a little too much to drink, it all comes out. Normally he’s very together, but you know it’s there under the surface. One of the definitions of an actor is that he’s more comfortable being someone else than being himself. That’s one of the great attractions of the profession. “I don’t have to be me.” One of the times this was brought home particularly to me was when I went to De Niro’s wedding. Looking around the room, I realized that almost everyone in the room contributed to his career in one way or another. In other words, the people he felt the most comfortable with were the people who helped him be somebody else. That’s an actor’s life.
High Times: How do you pick the actor who can play the kind of character you have in mind?
Schrader: It’s just something in your stomach, and in your head. It’s a mixture. You have certain intellectual and economic needs, or you need a name. In the case of Peter Boyle in Hardcore, I didn’t need a name—I had George, so I had the picture—but I wanted somebody who could give the picture comic relief without losing character. And that’s one thing Peter is very good at: he can play a character straight, make me laugh, but still stay in character. Whereas with another actor, in order to get laughs he has to sacrifice the character’s believability.
High Times: How do you get an actor into his role when you first talk to him?
Schrader: I tell him the thematic line, certain touchstones, what the character’s life means, then I tell him certain accoutrements that he can do, how a character walks… Suddenly the actor’s eyes will light up; he understands. I make him relate to his character on both the physical and the intellectual level.
High Times: Are there as many affairs between actors and actresses as we’ve heard about in the gossip columns?
Schrader: In general, yes, because these are people who live on the edge of their emotions, and who externalize their
emotions for a living. Therefore they have a tendency to let their emotions go if they get hot for somebody. Actresses have a tendency to fall in love relentlessly. Their job is to be emotional, so they have a tendency to fall in love over and over and over again. It’s real love, madly in love. When you’re on the road in a movie crew, there’s a special community-pressure atmosphere. Like on a magazine, when you’re working late at night, that camaraderie…
High Times: Do you go to a lot of Hollywood parties?
Schrader: Hollywood parties are just an extension of the business day. A place to go and do business. All the real wild parties are in the valley, with the wife swappers. The movie industry, as you may have heard, is a very early-to-bed, early-to-rise business. If you’re working, your work day begins at seven, your call is at six, you gotta get up at five. If the people at the party are successful working people, they’ve got to leave the party early and go to bed.
High Times: For a young film maker starting out, what do you suggest?
Schrader: Writing worked quite well for me, because it’s the only field in film making where there is no apprenticeship. If you’ve written a screenplay they want to buy, they’ll pay you for it—it doesn’t matter your race, how old you are, or what kind of experience you’ve had. Whereas in all the other fields—directing, cinematography—you have a long apprenticeship. So writing is the easy way, if you have the knack.
I got off the plane in L.A. just ten years ago. I didn’t know a soul. I went to the airport, rented a car, went to the car lot and bought a car, found a place to live, and… it took a while. I went to grad school, I became a critic. I wrote for the L.A. Free Press during its halcyon days, when it was a big weekly magazine like the Voice; I wrote every week for them. And I wrote film reviews for Cinema. For the University of California Press, I wrote a book called Transcendental Style, a book of theological aesthetics.
Then I started getting into screenwriting. The first thing I sold was The Yakuza, which turned out to be a stroke of luck, because it turned out to be a major sale. It put me on the map overnight. My literary agent, when he realized the script would be hot, sold it to a regular movie agent, and it became his property. When I went to UCLA and later AFI, I took classes in film criticism, never film production; I didn’t make any shorts. So when I came to do Blue Collar, I had never shot a film.
High Times: What happened on your first day as a director?
Schrader: It was a relief. I was finally there. I was supposed to direct Rolling Thunder, but they took it away from me.
High Times: Ever direct plays or TV?
High Times: Do you ever want to?
Schrader: There’s a few more things I want to do in this field first. You spend a number of years getting to a certain point and you want to capitalize on it. I have a long script on the life of Hank Williams that I want to make quite badly. We wanted to make it for television, but I can’t get the budget for television. I wanted to make a four-hour miniseries, but the most they give you is a million dollars an hour, and for $4 million I just can’t make a film. I was thinking about using the original songs so I could use an actor as Hank, but I may want to use a singer, I don’t know.
I’m writing The Covert People right now. It’s about life on the other side of the barricades. It’s about the young kids in 1968 who believed in the war, who were working for the government. Three people, two guys and a girl, all of whom are involved in CIA activities, none of whom know that the others are. Nobody tells anybody anything. One guy is poisoned, and the poison happens to have been made by his friend and given to him by his girl friend. And none of them know. And they’re all trying to figure out who did it. And they finally figure out they did it. They’re all in their 20s, they’re future Donald Segrettis, they’re New Frontier people. They believe in America, and they believe in the morality of Vietnam. It’s about the impact of secrecy. These people believe in secrecy. They believe that they shouldn’t be honest—with each other. And they all accept that; that’s the way it is. Someone says to another, “I can’t tell you that,” and the other says, ‘‘Okay, I understand.” Whenever they’re given the choice between the truth and a falsehood, they naturally choose the falsehood, just because it’s almost ingrained.
High Times: Are there any other directors whose work you like?
Schrader: There are a few directors I respect, whose work I like. It’s a tricky question, though, because you have a tendency to like what you can’t do. Every rock star wants to be a director, every director wants to be a rock star. So I envy those directors who do what I don’t do. People like Bob Fosse or Nicholas Roeg.
I respect Marty Scorsese, but Marty works quite differently from the way I do. I work very strongly in the narrative tradition. I’m basically a storyteller. I’m far more a writer than a painter. I’m working on becoming a painter.