"If you're taking this movie seriously, you're in the wrong theatre." - An Interview with Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader has experienced a lot of highs and lows over the course of his forty years in filmmaking, but having Dying of the Light taken away from him and recut against his wishes in 2014 was perhaps his most grievous setback. Schrader – along with his stars Nicolas Cage and Anton Yelchin and producer Nicolas Winding Refn – publicly protested against the film’s treatment to no avail, and the director found himself at his lowest ebb, but he has bounced back in style with Dog Eat Dog. Reuniting with Cage, and wielding his right of final cut with evident relish, Schrader has produced a film that pushes him into thrilling new territory. As a writer and director, Schrader has already crafted one of the most consistently eclectic, provocative and ambitious bodies of work in American cinema, but Dog Eat Dog feels like something entirely new. It’s a hilarious, grotesque and audacious low-budget film made with high style, and I had the privilege of discussing it with Paul Schrader ahead of the film’s premiere at the London Film Festival. I
didn't know what to expect from Dog Eat Dog, but I certainly
didn't expect what I got.
it's pretty hard to figure out where it's going.
was trying to think of another film you've done that I could compare
it to, but I couldn't come up with anything.
I haven't done anything quite like that before. It came about in a
kind of backdoor way, which was that I had been involved in an
unpleasant situation with Nic and we just wanted to work together
again, to prove that we could make a film that people would see. I
read this script and I thought maybe this is the one. Nic wanted to
do it, but now I was doing a crime film and I thought, I'm not a
crime film director, you know, so I'd better start studying. I had a
whole summer studying crime films, and how do you make a film after
Scorsese, after Tarantino and after Guy Ritchie? So that became the
goal, to make a crime film that felt like it was made in 2016.
to make a comic crime film from a book that's definitely not a
as we got into it, more and more I kept thinking, this stuff is
funny, I can't take these guys seriously. And we just kept moving
more and more along that road. Of course, the guys don't know they're
funny. Then when I was editing it, I realised that if people started
laughing in the opening scene they'd laugh throughout, but if they
don't then they'll never laugh. So we had to really amp up that
opening scene in the editing to make it very, very clear that if
you're taking this movie seriously, you're in the wrong theatre.
I was to try to compare it to one of your films, I'd say it's as
audacious and surprising as Mishima.
but not quite as intellectual.
Willem Dafoe's performance is unlike any he's given for you in the
a friend, which is unusual because directors and actors aren't
usually friends. What was interesting was that I wanted to take this
film away from being just another Nic Cage film, so I gave Willem a
big section in the front and a big section in the back. Then we were
bringing in Chris Cook, who's a new actor, and Willem was working
with him, because Chris was a little rough and Willem said to me,
"Let me work with him." But then we had a situation when
Nic quit the film on the first day because he hadn't been paid. I
turned up on the set and asked where's Nic, and he was on a plane
going home. The producers finally got him paid so he came back the
next day, but now we had a day to shoot without Nic, and the pink
room wasn't ready yet, so all I had was that long scene at the end. I
said to Willem, do you think you can do your big final scene on the
first morning, and he said, "Yeah, I can do that." So that
was the first thing we shot.
even though they are three despicable characters, there's something
quite endearing about Mad Dog's yearning for friendship.
"I only want love...I believe in redemption."
on these low budgets must be frustrating in a lot of ways but is
there something liberating about it too?
I don't need that much money. I don't need that much money in my life
and I don't need that much money on screen. I'd rather just do
something lower key, I don't need the big toys. There was a
documentary that I watched about De Palma, where Brian said all he
wanted to do was to get the big toys - the cranes, the cameras, the
big sets - and I've never felt that.
thing that struck me looking back at your recent work is that the
only two films since 2000 on which you've had a writing credit are
The Walker and Dying of the Light. This seems strange given how
noted you are as a writer-director.
not sure why. I wrote a number of things that didn't happen, as we
all do. Scorsese and I tried to do a series for HBO that didn't get
picked up. I wrote a number of other scripts that I got paid for. I
was going to do a film with Shah Rukh Khan and Leo DiCaprio and
I wrote that but it didn't get going, and I was going to do a film in
Russia about a ballerina, but that didn't go anywhere. So I've been
writing, it's just that sometimes they don't get made. Now the next
film I have written, and then if I do another one, if it's the one
I'm thinking about, it will be one I haven't written.
seem to be attracted to material that nobody else will take on. Does
that sort of challenge entice you into doing something?
happened to me a couple of times. With Patty Hearst nobody could
figure out how to shoot a movie when the main character's in the
closet for the first half-hour. I said, well if she's in the closet
then anything she imagines is real and we can use it. Then
Schlesinger was going to do The Comfort of Strangers and he backed
out of that because he thought it was too nasty, so I've been able to
pick up some films that other people couldn't make. And Adam
Resurrected, I loved that idea of the man who used to be a dog
meeting a dog who used to be a boy.
a piece of material comes to you do you have to find a way to make it
inevitable. When I first directed a script that I didn't write it was
Cat People. I thought it would be interesting to do somebody else's
material and just adapt it to a genre piece, but by the time I
finished that film I realised it was as personal or maybe more
personal than the others. So I think it's kind of inevitable that you
take ownership. I did two films with writers that had a very strong
signature, and I didn't touch their scripts, one was Pinter and one
was Bret Ellis. I really tried to respect their voices.
That's interesting because I think The Canyons feels very much like a
Bret Easton Ellis movie, but I don't feel that way about The Comfort
of Strangers, perhaps because of the aesthetic style you bring to the
interesting there is you have Ian McEwan's thing, which is that men
and women are inherently incompatible and no amount of socialisation
can paper this over. Then you have Harold's thing, which is that
language is a tool we use not to communicate. I thought that was
enough, but then as I started making it I thought of a third theme,
which is the Mishima theme, that beauty is in and of itself
dangerous. I liked the film because we had three interesting themes
working around each other.
get back to the theme of this film, you have three ex-cons hoping to
take advantage of their liberty to do something big, I was wondering
if it felt personal in the sense that this is a kind of
release for you after Dying of the Light?
don't think it's that one-to-one. In fact, I think this film is more
about crime films than it is about criminals. These guys in some way
know they're in a crime movie. You know, they talk about it, and so
it's a meta-film in some way.
you do seem to have been reinvigorated by the possibilities of digital filmmaking and
I mean, it has become relatively inexpensive to make a film now, so
the film that took 45 days when I began now takes 25 days, and you
have more footage. The next film I'm doing, which is a kind of quiet,
meditative film, I could have never done under the old economics.
This is a film that has to be done in a very limited way, and 15
years ago it would have been too expensive to shoot.
always seem like someone who is very engaged with the technology of
cinema. Your Game Changers series of articles in Film Comment looked at
that aspect of cinema's development. Do you have a sense of where we
are now and what the next threshold is?
used to think that we were entering a period of transition. I now
believe that we have entered into a period of constant transition,
and we will never get out of it. Just like the computer is out of
date by the time you open the box, every film model is out of date by
the time you finish the film. The distribution models, the technology
models, it's all changing very quickly.
of the common refrains on Bret Easton Ellis's podcast is that he
meets students and recent graduates who tell him they don't want to
make movies anymore, and they just want to shoot web content or
aren't going away, but the 20th century notion of them is going away.
There will always be audio-visual entertainment, even if you're
watching it on your glasses. But the big difference I think between
that moment when I came in, the late '60s early 70s, to today is not
the talent, it's not the subject, it's the audiences. Movies used to
be the centre of the social conversation and audiences were turning
to artists for advice: what do we think about the war? What do we
think about gay rights? Women's rights? Black rights? And the moment
audiences ask artists for input, great art will emerge, it's that
simple. There are always great artists around. When audiences don't
think art is important, like my kids don't think movies are
important, well then it's awful hard to make important movies. When I
was my son's age I thought movies were very, very important.
of those directors who came up with you in the '70s seemed to have
periods in the '80s and '90s being in favour with the mainstream, but
you've been working outside the system for almost your whole career.
first three or four films I made for the studios. Then I went to
Japan, I came back, and the studios weren't making those kinds of
films anymore. They were now independent films. I just kept making
there ever a possibility of making a studio film in the subsequent
years or did it just not come up?
don't think so. I can't say I was ever in a situation like that, but
maybe that's a good thing. I mean, I was asked me to do that Exorcist
movie and it was a mistake, I shouldn't have done it. I've been
fortunate that I've been forced to be a self-starter, because the
self-started projects are always more interesting.
still think that first run of five films that you made - Blue Collar,
Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People and Mishima - is one of the
great opening runs of any filmmaker. They are also very different
films. Were you trying to find your voice in this period?
are a couple of different models. There's the Hitchcock model where
you find something that you do, and then there's the Kubrick model
where you're trying to do something different every time. I've always
been more attracted to the Kubrick model. What can I do that I
haven't done before? What can I do that's different? What new
challenge can I try? Can I self-finance a movie and pull it off? Can
I make a film about a girl in a closet, you know? I go to the cinema
sometimes and look at the screen, and I think how do they stay awake?
They've all made this film five, six times before. The next film I'm
doing will be a film unlike any I've ever tried to do.
re-watched Blue Collar recently. It's one of my favourite films and I
think it stands as one of the great American debuts. I know you had a
difficult time making it but it's an incredible achievement.
fact that I survived it is an achievement. I don't really have a
perspective on it. When it was all over I thought, if this is what
moviemaking is I can't do it. My goal in directing that was just to
get through it and illustrate the story. It wasn't until a couple of
years later that I started to really think visually and realise that
images are ideas in the same way that words are ideas.
did you approach American Gigolo in a different way?
that was primarily because of this fellow named Ferdinando
Scarfiotti, who was the production designer for Bertolucci and had
done The Conformist and Last Tango. He came to LA and I fell under
about learning to work with actors? You had these strained
relationships on Blue Collar and then went straight onto working with
George C. Scott on Hardcore, who was another strong personality.
nothing could be harder than Blue Collar, because race came into it.
If you're just dealing with bad behaviour, irresponsible behaviour,
angry people, that's one thing, but when they start bringing race
into the conversation, it's tough. You know, Richard Pryor said to
me, "The first white man I ever met came to my momma's door to
fuck her and you're just like him."
Wow. How can you respond to a statement like that?
just said, "Well, that's interesting Richard. I never thought of
it like that." [Laughs] Then we went back to work. Dog Eat Dog is released in the UK on November 18th