Raised in a strict Calvinist household, Paul Schrader didn’t see his first film until he was 17 years old, a late and inauspicious start (the movie in question was The Absent-Minded Professor) to what would become a lifelong obsession. Under the mentorship of Pauline Kael, Schrader became a film critic before shifting his attention to screenwriting. The seminal Taxi Driver proved to be a breakthrough for both Schrader and director Martin Scorsese, and the two would collaborate again on Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ, and Bringing Out The Dead.
Since making his debut with Blue Collar, Schrader has built up a wide-ranging body of work as a director, which includes everything from personal projects like American Gigolo and Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters to oddball one-offs like the made-for-HBO supernatural gumshoe riff Witch Hunt and the music video for Bob Dylan’s “Tight Connection To My Heart.” (Admittedly, the latter does cover Schrader’s longstanding fascinations with guilt, urban ennui, and Japan.) His latest, the darkly comic crime film Dog Eat Dog, reunites him with two veteran collaborators: Nicolas Cage, the star of Bringing Out The Dead and of Schrader’s troubled CIA thriller Dying Of The Light, and Willem Dafoe, whose long history with Schrader includes Light Sleeper, Auto Focus, and Affliction.
During the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, Schrader met with The A.V. Club in a hotel restaurant to briefly discuss his new film. The conversation quickly shifted to creativity.
Paul Schrader: Nic Cage and I had a very bad experience where we had a film [Dying Of The Light] taken away from us. We disowned the film. I said to Nic, “If we live long enough, we should work together again. We’ll get this stain off our clothes.” And he said, “Of course.” Someone gave me this script [for Dog Eat Dog], and I loved the opening scene. I thought Nic might like it. I sent it to him, and he said, “Yes, but I want to play the straight guy. I don’t want to play the crazy guy again.”
The A.V. Club: What attracts you to pulp?
PS: I had this whole issue of doing a crime film in the 2010s. The genre’s been mined very, very heavily. Post-Scorsese, post-Tarantino, post-Guy Ritchie, what do you do? I wasn’t attracted to pulp so much as all of a sudden I had a pulp problem. I had to find a way to make this interesting, because there’s a lot of crime films that come out on VOD every week, and a number of these star Nicolas Cage.
I created this sort of brain trust. I was looking for people who didn’t have any preconceptions about films, what I call the “post-rules” generation. There’s the generation that made the rules, the generation that codified them. The generation that broke them—that’s mine. The generation that laughed at them—that’s Tarantino’s. And now there’s a generation that doesn’t know that there were any. So I picked up this younger group of people. It was the first solo credit in film for all of them. And I said to them, “The bad news is we don’t have enough money to make this film right. The good news is, I have final cut, so we can make any goddamn movie we want. Let’s just be bold.”
The only rule was to never be bored. That began a whole process. We would meet about every two weeks through the summer at a diner, a coffee shop. Here they are. [Pulls up photo on phone.] These are my department heads. And they would just come up with stuff. They would bring in these film references, references from commercials. It became more and more of a meta film. It became a comedy. It wasn’t a comedy.
AVC: What were some of the ideas?
PS: Well, the idea of having a pink room and a blue room came from a movie called Belly. The idea of the “ass wipe” came from Wayne Kramer. Do you know what an ass wipe is? It’s when someone walks across the screen and you use their profile to do a wipe transition. [Traces outline of derriere in air.] The idea of the fight came from Hyena. To give you another example: We’ve got a strip-club scene in this movie. Boring. One of the most boring locations in film, because directors don’t realize how boring it looks. They think it’s exciting, and therefore, every single strip club scene looks the same. The same stupid shots, the same backlighting, the same neon. How can we ever make a strip-club scene look fresh? And you know what? Nobody has shot a strip club in black and white in a long time. Not since Lenny. So I said, “Let’s just shoot in black and white. Don’t explain why. Have no reason for it. Just do it because it’s interesting.”
AVC: Yeah, but when you’re doing something just because it’s interesting, doesn’t it still create some meaning?
PS: [Laughs.] I suppose so, but the impulse was just to keep ahead of viewer expectations. Don’t ever let the viewer settle in and get ahead of you.
AVC: That comes back to old hard-boiled fiction, though. It has that punchiness—that turn of phrase the reader isn’t expecting.
PS: Listen, I’ve made prestigious films. I’ve made quality films. This is not one of those films. [Laughs.] It was fun to do this kind of rock ’n’ roll. One of the things that I do like about filmmaking is that you find out how to solve new problems. A film like The Canyons. You think you can self-finance a film? I said to Bret [Easton Ellis], “You write it, I direct it, let’s raise some money, let’s make it.” The most fun part of doing The Canyons was finding out whether we could actually pull it off, using actors who were not financeable in traditional movies.
AVC: You’ve had a diverse career. Do you need that challenge at this point to keep things fresh?
PS: I’ll go to movies and look up at the screen and think, “How do they stay awake?” They’ve all made this movie 10 times before. How do they keep from nodding off? That’s just my disposition—to create a situation where you have to come up with something. I was talking with Scorsese recently about directing, and we were both talking about how the most exciting thing that happens in a director’s life is when you come on the set and it’s not right. There’s something wrong—the performance, the weather, the set design, the lighting. Something is not working. And so you say, “Give me 10 minutes.” When you’re first directing, you’re terrified. But when you’ve been in that situation enough times, you know that under pressure, it will come to you. You were gonna do the scene all moving, but now you realize that you have to put the camera outside and not move it at all. Boom. Red is now green. That’s the most exciting thing about directing.
AVC: Would you ever want to go back to a production where everything was going to be very planned?
PS: The next one’s a quiet film. I’ve never done a quiet film before. I wrote a book about them [Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer], but I’ve never made one.
AVC: When you’re with actors like Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe, who’ve had such varied careers, do you feel pressure to give them something that they’re not going to get anywhere else?
PS: I remember on [Dying Of The Light], I said to Nic, “When was the last time you did a scene that you haven’t done before?” Of course, every basic kind of scene—the restaurant scene, the chase scene—he’s done them all. But you have to give them something. Nic playing the straight man to Willem, they both got a kick out of that. You can tell. I could see it even in the rehearsals that they were sparking to it.