Paul Schrader certainly hit the ground running when, in 1974, he sold his first screenplay, The Yakuza, for $300,000. By 1980, the one-time film critic and Pauline Kael protégé had already written the screenplay for two Martin Scorsese masterpieces, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, in addition to having directed three features of his own: Blue Collar, Hardcore, and American Gigolo.
Once upon a time, that would have been enough to ensure a filmmaker could continue to keep making movies the way he wanted to. But as illuminated by the contentious release of Schrader’s Dying of the Light, which was taken away from the filmmaker after he handed in his final cut to the film’s producers, autonomy isn’t easily given in Hollywood these days.
Consider, then, the luridly stylized Dog Eat Dog, about a trio of ex-cons who agree to a baby-napping scheme in order to score an easy payday, Schrader’s opportunity to get right what he and star Nicolas Cage weren’t allowed to the first time they worked together. Last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Dog Eat Dog saw its North American premiere, Schrader sat down with me to discuss his frustrations following Dying of the Light’s release and how it freed him to get crazier moving forward.
What inspired you to direct Dog Eat Dog so soon after Dying of the Light’s contentious behind-the-scenes battle?
With different projects it’s a different story, of course, but this particular one came out of a desire to right a wrong. Simple as that. About three years ago, Nic Cage and I made Dying of the Light, which was in the end taken away from us. It was made into something completely different, recut and made a mess of. And then I said to Nic that, if we lived long enough, we should just work together again on something new and fresh. All on our own. This was to remove the stain from our clothes. It just so happened that someone sent me the script to Dog Eat Dog, which wasn’t even financed. It had the role of Mad Dog in it, and I thought Nic would be perfect for it. But when we talked the project, it turned out that he was most interested in playing Troy, the straight guy. So that’s kind of how it started. I didn’t set out to do a crime film. In fact, at one point I tried to stop myself from making it. I don’t think of myself as a filmmaker working in the crime film genre. I mean, how do you even make a crime film today? Post-Scorsese, post-Tarantino, post-Ritchie? After a while I just tried to make this genre mine. But really the crucial part is the final cut.
What did you do exactly when Cage told you he didn’t want to play Mad Dog? At what point did Willem Dafoe enter the picture?
I’ve worked with Willem a few times, but these were rather small appearances that required him to come for a day or two to the set. Some time ago he told me that, next time I have a part for him, it’d better be big. And since the biggest part in Dog Eat Dog is actually Mad Dog, which I had originally offered to Nic, I decided to offer it to Willem. In that way, our film isn’t your “typical Nic Cage” programmer. Usually he’s the only real player in such a film because there’s no budget to hire someone else. So we were able to escape “the Nic Cage template,” and we did it with Willem’s help.
That’s an interesting term: “the Nic Cage template.” But it must have been easier to avoid that here given the nature of the script by Matthew Wilder. This is another instance, then, of you directing someone else’s material.
True, it’s not the first time. But you know, there are always rewrites. It’s just a part of a process. Sometimes it’s nothing more than just retyping it. But because of a tight budget in this case, we had to pull out about 15 pages. It’s easier for me as a director to do these things because I already have a vision of what I’d like to see on screen and also I write scripts as well.
After pulling out these pages and the rewrites, has the initial idea you had for Dog Eat Dog changed much?
Yes, sure! With the final-cut power and the creative team we had, we had a lot of freedom. For instance, the whole notion of Humphrey Bogart’s resemblance only appeared in the film when we were shooting with Nic. It wasn’t in the book or the script. I didn’t want to argue with him about it, but anyway, I thought we’d cut it all out later, when he wasn’t watching.
And you thought he wouldn’t notice?
[laughs] He probably would. But we could actually find a good explanation for it. At the end of the day, bold choices matter. This was bold. And it paid off.
What was your approach to the film’s aesthetics, in order for it to feel fresh and innovative.
The principal thought behind this film was to do it different, to never be boring. Never let the audience foresee where you’re going. To do that I assembled a group of young department heads for whom it was the first credit. I didn’t just want people who were thinking out of the box, I wanted people who were already out of the box. And then we brainstormed. Whatever idea, however crazy, we put it out there on the table.
I presume you must have done a lot of research of this sort when you wrote film reviews. You often speak of your friendship with Pauline Kael. Do you sometimes think what she would write about your recent films?
Pauline gave some of my films bad reviews. But there came a time when she stopped reviewing things I’d done, because we were becoming friends at that point, and that’s only fair.
I read that you don’t really like to re-watch your films, but I think sometimes you can’t avoid it—for instance, when someone organizes a special screening in your honor, like Tribeca’s celebration of Taxi Driver.
Yes, they also organized a Q&A afterward, where Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, and myself were present. I saw a good part of the film then, but it’s just a film that will never die, no matter if I see it again or not.
Do such anniversaries, like Taxi Driver’s 40th, make you reflect on your past collaborations?
I don’t really reflect, some people just make me [laughs].
Well, no wonder, with such a biography as yours.
Maybe so, but you know, the Hollywood I used to know doesn’t exist anymore. The studio system is being phased out. But we’ll manage. I’m keeping busy, trying to find my way in different genres, trying something new every day.
I’m curious what’s next for you then.
Actually, the idea for my new project came after having a conversation with your countryman, Pawel Pawlikowski. I gave him an award for Ida. In the past, I’ve extensively talked and written about quiet, spiritual, contemplative films, but I’ve never made one. He told me about all the creative freedom he had on his film, and after he and I spoke, I thought about making such a small, quiet film. So I wrote it, and it’s called First Reformed. We’ll start shooting in January with Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried.
Speaking of spiritual, contemplative films, do you then feel part of a generation of directors influenced by Ozu, Dreyer, and Bresson?
Of course, you’re not using those coincidentally, as I wrote a book about them [laughs]. But the director that influenced me, Michael Mann, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese the most would in fact be Bernardo Bertolucci. I think our whole generation looked up to whatever he did.
Do you still feel a part of this group?
Yes, I think at one time we were a group. I just ran into Walter Hill, whom I probably haven’t seen in 35 years. Years ago we were in and around the business, hustling together. George Lucas, Walter Hill, and Philip Kaufman were also around, but once you start your career, you shoot out and then you’re working in your own solar system. You just lose contact with the guys you were friends with, because there are new things to do, and new people to meet. And that’s life I guess.