TELLING STORIES BEFORE THEY TELL
A conversation with Paul Schrader
As a screenwriter,
Paul Schrader has been responsible
for some of the most seminal and
controversial movies of our the
last 25 years (Taxi Driver, Raging
Bull and The Last Temptation of
Christ). Although some of his
directing efforts have been a
combination of critical and commercial
hits and misses, he has been responsible
some edgy, uncompromising cinema
which he was doing for years before
the term "independent cinema"
even arose. His directing has
been criticized for being too
intellectual, calculating to the
detriment of emotion. But like
the European art cinema he so
admires (he was a former film
critic), his style, at its best,
challenges the viewer, forcing
them into an active role to fully
experience his films.
His latest directorial
effort of his own adaptation of
the Russell Banks novel Affliction
stars Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek,
James Coburn and Willem Dafoe.
Like Taxi Driver, Affliction deals
with a character who is near a
breaking point, ready to explode
into violence. And like, The Sweet
Hereafter, the other recent adaptation
of a Russell Bank's novel, the
setting is a stark and cold land
which adds to the immediacy of
the story. Told after-the-fact
by his brother, Affliction is
a story of a man, Nolte, who gradually
loses himself as each of his roles
are stripped away: father, husband,
public servant, son, lover. The
force of Nolte's existential and
psychological breakdown is buttressed
by a mythological resonance as
Schrader shows that it is the
affliction of a legacy of domestic
violence which leaves Nolte somewhat
unresponsible for his predetermined
Tell me about your idiosyncratic
path to becoming a filmmaker.
I was forbidden to see films as
a child as an article of degree
of the (Calvin) church. Because
I didn't see films as a young
man, I came to films as a college
student. Essentially I came to
the European cinema of the 60's.
I was really attracted not only
by the films, but by their forbiddenness.
In many ways it was a luxury that
I could be both a rebel and an
artist. I didn't need to go out
and vandalize buildings; all I
had to do was see movies. In order
to see many of the films I had
been reading about, I took a course
at Columbia University in the
Summer of '66. There, through
luck and coincidence, I ran into
Pauline Kael through someone I
had met, and the upshot of all
that was that she became my mentor
and got me into UCLA film grad
school. And got me on the road
to becoming a film critic.
Before that I had been a pre-seminary
student at my church college.
Then I was in Los Angeles, writing
film criticism, writing a book
of film aesthetics, editing a
magazine, and became one of the
first fellows at AFI. And then
I hit a point in my life where
nonfiction wasn't really addressing
my concerns, or rather, my needs.
And I knew I had to make the switch
from nonfiction to fiction. I
had to tell these stories before
these stories started telling
Coming to films as an adult,
how does that change your perspective?
How does the way you look at or
make movies differ from, say,
A filmmaker, like anybody, never
forgets his first love. And my
first film love was intellectual
cinema: Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson,
Godard, Truffaut. In a way the
rest of my career circles around
my first love and is informed
by it. For many other directors
my age, their first love was musicals,
westerns, other forms of films
aimed at kids. This doesn't mean
that they are lesser filmmakers
or more trivial filmmakers. It
just means that they just have
a different referential base.
I don't feel the need to make
the movies I loved as a kid because
I didn't see any.
There seems to be recurring
themes of redemption and martyrdom
in your work. How does your religious
background inform the stories
No matter how fast or far you
run, you never outrun your childhood.
I was raised with certain concepts,
that life has meaning, actions
have moral consequences, that
you will be called into judgment
for the value of your life. And
that there is a difference between
the right and wrong thing to do.
That stuff never leaves you. You
living in a monastery in Tibet,
and you'll still have that computer
program (in your brain). You can't
reprogram yourself. It will always
be there. I try not to put it
in an obvious manner, because
I know it will be there anyway.
In the film that Scorsese is shooting
now, I intentionally took out
a lot of the religious references
of the book we adapted, because
I knew Marty and I had done this
so much. It was time to lay off
it, because it was going to find
its way in anyway.
How did you make the jump
from critic to screenwriter?
I was doing part time reading
for Columbia. At that time, it
was $5 for a script, $15 for a
novel. I was picking up a little
extra change at the time doing
coverage. So I had an idea what
a script was. I had written a
sort of practice script that went
nowhere, so I had given it some
thought. I had an argument with
Pauline Kael at her home at Christmas
time. She had wanted me to take
a reviewing job on a paper in
Seattle. When I asked her for
some time to think about it, she
said no, and then I made the decision
that I had to start thinking about
being a screenwriter. Then a number
of things happened in my personal
life, and it collapsed. My marriage
broke up. I had a contretemps
with the people who were running
AFI, and I had to leave. I was
broke. I didn't have any place
to live. In this period I started
drifting and wandering about in
my car. It was out of this, the
metaphor for Taxi Driver occurred.
I wrote it all very quickly. I
wrote it essentially as therapy.
And when I actually came to writing
the script, all elements of calculation
were put aside, except that element
of calculation that says you must
communicate. But the other elements
of how to be commercial or how
to sell something I wasn't thinking
of. I wrote a couple of drafts
in ten days, just wrote continuously.
So in many ways I came to screenwriting
for all of the best reasons. I
came in as a form of self-therapy,
I came in because I had no choice,
I came in because I needed to
do this to save myself. And I'm
very thankful I walked in that
door. I always bear that lesson
in mind that art and screenwriting
are functional. It can help you
certain life crises in perspective.
It can help you see life in perspective.
And you can take this and show
it to somebody else. And they
too can have the same awareness
that you were brought to. I really
believe that art is functional
in the same way that tools you
use to build a house are functional.
What was your formal film
I went to grad school at UCLA
in '68. Coppola was there the
year before which was the beginning
of the film school mentality.
At the same time I was at UCLA,
Lucas was at USC, Scorsese was
at NYU. That was the birth of
that mentality of the generation
that came out of film school.
How was film school different
then from now?
It wasn't just film school. It
was film school at a certain time
and place. The social hits just
kept on coming. You had civil
rights, you had the women's movement,
the gay liberation, the sex, the
drug revolution. It was an enormously
churning social environment all
wrapped up in the rubric of the
counter-culture. And heated by
anti-war movement which made everything
seem real rather than theoretical.
People's lives were actually being
changed by the reality of the
draft and the conflict. It was
a wonderful time to be alive.
So it wasn't just film school.
This film school generation isn't
being informed by the social issues
anymore, because the culture isn't
being informed. So the driving
factors behind story-telling at
this time are commercials and
music videos. In my generation,
it was film study. For the generation
before me, it was live television.
Before that it was theater. Before
that it was newspapers. There's
always a background influence.
When you sit down to write
an original screenplay, where
do you begin?
At any given time in your life,
there are a number of problems
running around. Problems that
have a lot to do about where you
are in your life cycle whether
it's a mid-life crisis, problems
with parents or children. You're
always looking for metaphors that
will somehow address that problem.
And once you find that metaphor,
particularly if you've written
as much as I have, it's like a
factory is standing there, fully
manned, ready to go. All it needs
is the raw material. The metaphor
is the raw material. Once they
get that, they can go to work.
But your last few projects
have been adaptations?
About four years ago, I ran into
a little dry period. Like so many
others I turned to books. I did
some adaptations where I originated
the projects: Touch and Affliction.
For about a year now I sort of
fell back into the groove and
have been doing a lot of writing
again. That feeling of not having
anything original to say has sort
of gone away. (chuckling) I think
I'll be good for a couple more
It goes through cycles.
Yeah, you just don't have an original
script every year.
What are you writing now?
Right now I am outlining an idea.
The metaphor first occurred to
me four or five years ago, but
I didn't think I was old enough
to write it yet, but just this
summer I realized now was the
time to write this one. So I started
outlining it now. I do a lot of
outlining in lieu of writing,
so by the time I come to writing
I know it's going to work.
What attracted you to Affliction?
I picked it up at a bookstore.
The first line of the book grabbed
me right then and there which
is also the first line of the
film. I was very much captured
by the narrative gimmick of it,
the complexity of the characters
and the use of the language. So
I optioned the book, wrote the
script, and over a period of years,
I was able to raise
How long did that process
Oh, six years.There's a point
in Affliction where Nick Nolte's
character is in the lowest point
of his existential crisis, and
then the film immediately leads
him and the audience back to the
mystery subplot. It occurred to
me that that parallels your entire
relationship to genre. I don't
think of you as the guy who does
boxing bio-pics (Raging Bull)
and horror flicks (Cat People).
What is your relationship
Genre is a very, very useful tool,
because it sets in motion a certain
set of expectations that you can
use and that you need to respect
if you are going to use them.
There is a little bit of the mystery
genre in Affliction: a small-town
cop thinks a hunting accident
is a murder. I use it to get the
audience to a place so that I
can drop what has seemed to be
the plot and reveal it to be irrelevant,
so what had seemed to be the subplot
can take its place.
As Nick Nolte's character
loses touch with reality, the
demarcation between what's real
and what's in his head begins
to blur. How did you deal with
There were several levels of reality.
There were his conspiracy theories
which were in black and white,
and there were his memories which
were in a highly grainy color,
but those were the only things
But isn't there a point where
the point-of view changes?
The important thing to remember
is that it's a story that is being
told to you. And the teller is
as important as the story being
told. In many ways, the narrator
is the main character. He tells
you right at the beginning in
that telling this story he tells
his own story as well. But he
never tells us his story. His
story is left up for you to surmise.
But it is a story of both brothers.
But what he doesn't tell is
as important as what he does tell
You can see there is a certain
denial about mistakes he has made.
Like his complicitious role in
his brother's decline.
In an essay you wrote years
ago, you quoted one of your favorite
filmmakers Bresson, and I'm paraphrasing:
"In art, there must always
be a transformation." What
is the transformation in Affliction?
In films I have written, I tend
to end with a grace note. There
is no grace note in this film
for the Nolte character. It is
kind of a predetermined world,
predetermined from the first line
of narration. The one whose life
is left in flux is the narrator
who tells you why he can't let
it go. He hopes his brother died,
but he must go on. In fact he
reveals himself as the character
of the piece who is capable of
Tell me about the new Scorsese
project with Nic Cage, Bring Out
I'm done; they're shooting it.
It's about a paramedic in New
York City. A fellow who drives
around at night on the cusp of
social decay. (I laugh) So he's
not unlike the taxi driver, but
he is 'cause he's on God's team
now. He's out there trying to
save lives, but he's still going
crazy. It takes place on a long
three day weekend. He's
hallucinating by the time we meet
him. Certainly Marty and I are
aware that it will be compared
to Taxi Driver, so we tried to
make it a bookend rather than
Did Marty bring you into the
Marty and I decided about ten
or twelve years ago not to work
together anymore and just to remain
friends, and not press a situation
which was becoming increasingly
unpleasant in terms of ego clashes.
We'd have dinner once a year and
keep in touch. We were having
dinner a year ago, and he brought
it up to me reluctantly. And as
soon as I read the book, I realized
why he had. It was a natural for
me and rather natural for us.
Tell me about your collaboration
It's not really that much of a
collaboration. There are a number
of conversations, but at this
juncture, and with this kind of
material, we can pretty much finish
each other's sentences, and we
know how we're each thinking.
It's just a matter if we feel
we're on the same page, I take
off at work. He was in post-production
on Kundun, which was fortunate
for me, because he didn't have
time to micro-manage the writing,
so after a short discussion at
dinner and one ten-minute phone
conversation, I just went off
and wrote it.
How are writing and directing
Literary logic and visual logic
are very different. An image is
an idea in a much different way
than a word is an idea. When you
write, you think of the traditional
rules of writing: theme, plot,
character, dialogue. When you
come to direct, you have to transform
that literary logic into visual
logic. The word chair is not the
same as the
image of a chair. You have to
translate one form of logic into
the other. That's why when I write
a script, I never think of the
visual logic. I try to stick to
the literary logic.
When you're ready to direct
your own script, do you take the
same approach that you would with
another piece: sitting with it
a while to find the architecture
You look at it and you say: "Who
the fuck wrote this?" And
how can I possibly save it."