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Pretending that Life has no Meaning
Interview with Paul Schrader

George Kouvaros

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Part I: 19 September 2005

GK: Now that Dominion (2005) has been released, what other projects are you currently working on?

PS: Well, Iíve agreed to direct a film called Adam Resurrected [2008] from a very famous Israeli novel by Yoram Kaniuk. We hope to shoot next July: Israel, Romania, and maybe Germany. Itís a very serious film, a very heavy film. And a terrific book. I like the script a lot. The script is being rewritten now. Iím working with the writer.

For years and years, Iíve been trying to do a film called The Walker [2007] and, strangely enough, I have it financed but now I donít have an actor. The window to do it is closing or will probably close in two weeks. So thatís sort of happening. I mean, that could happen very quickly, and suddenly Iíd be squeezing it in before Adam Resurrected. But I donít know.

GK: The Walker is a script that youíve spoken about on a number of occasions.

PS: Yeah, I know, I know. Iíve really come to regret it. Itís so hard to always explain why a thing doesnít happen. Iíve been to bat with four different actors on that and Iíve lost all four ... I could give you a copy of the script. Maybe you want to talk about it after having a read of the script.

GK: Sure. But could I ask you now about its relationship to the trilogy involving Taxi Driver (1976), American Gigolo (1980) and Light Sleeper (1992)?

PS: Well, Iím hoping that the trilogy will become a tetralogy. Thatís the idea of it. Light Sleeper bookends Taxi Driver, and The Walker will bookend American Gigolo. Thatís the idea of it, but weíll see ...

GK: It seems that what you are doing with these films and characters is exploring your own feelings about a certain phase of life, and how your responses to things change over time.

PS: Well, you have a central character who Iíve described as The Peeper, The Wanderer, The Voyeur, The Loner. That comes out of the boy I was, going from Grand Rapids to Los Angeles, coming from a rather strict background and then being confronted with LA circa 1968. And that sense of the push-pull, the sense that you canít stop looking, but you canít get inside the room either. So, youíre frozen there against the window and passing judgment. Then, as you grow older, that sense evolves and it goes through phases: anger, narcissism or anxiety. Now the fourth phase I want to deal with is superficiality: pretending that life has no meaning.

GK: Is this a return to the environment of American Gigolo?

PS: Absolutely. Itís the same way that Light Sleeper is a return to the Taxi Driver environment, New York City. Taxi Driver is in the front seat; Light Sleeper is in the back seat.

GK: Thereís the key difference. What would be the difference between the superficiality of American Gigolo and what we find in The Walker?

PS: The character knows that heís superficial and, in fact, prides himself on it. He has made it part of his protection. I think the Gigolo role was, in many ways, really just a thin guy. The Walker is much more complex.

GK: But even the thin guy in American Gigolo underwent a transformation at the end.

PS: Yeah, but Iím not quite sure how authentic it was. Part of me thinks I just stapled it on to him; you know, took it from Bresson and stapled it on. If I had to do it over again, Iím not sure whether that was an authentic transition or one that was simply imposed on him by his maker.

GK: But you still believe that transformation has to happen in your work?

PS: Yes, some kind.

GK: When you wrote about Bresson, you identified it as a central part of his work: at the end of a film, there has to be an opening up of the character to a dimension of the spirit and the supernatural.

PS: As we get older Ė particularly as the whole process of movies and film storytelling gets older Ė people have different notions of whatís necessary dramatically. They start to see a lot of the melodramatic machinery of the past as outdated. Reality television isnít popular for no reason. Itís popular because weíre tiring of artificial drama, and reality TV seems less artificial.

GK: But it also conforms to quite traditional narrative and character arcs. The process of transformation that drives your work seems to be something quite different. I donít know if you could call it melodramatic, but it does seem to be an attempt to represent change Ė a change in someoneís sense of who they are.

PS: Like everyone else, Iím becoming less and less interested in the heavy machinery of movies that strike me as being a remnant of the nineteenth century. But thatís a whole other subject, one Iíve been thinking about a lot and trying to write about.

GK: This is something that youíve spoken about before: the idea that cinema is at a point of change where the kinds of characters that interest you, the existential characters, no longer have a place.

 

 

 

 

 

1. The argument referred to is drawn from Dudley Andrewsí introduction to the first section of The Image in Dispute: Art and Cinema in the Age of Photography (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), p. 5.

  PS: Well, I think the point of change is even greater than I thought before. Iíve been doing a fair amount of research because I agreed to write this book for Faber on the film canon, and I found myself thrown into all this work about the history of the notion of the canon and why it went out of fashion. Film itself, in fact, is one of the things that destroyed the notion of the canon. When people talk about a film canon, itís kind of a contradictory phrase. So, how can you have a film canon? Iíve been thinking about that. While I was writing this morning, I was thinking about an argument put forward by Dudley Andrew concerning the transitional nature of cinema. (1) It comes from a seed idea by Walter Benjamin. Andrewís contention is that motion pictures are a way-station in the cavalcade of art history, a stopover en route from nineteenth century written narrative to the twenty-first century world of synthetic images and sounds. While this is perhaps a little bit extreme, itís also very much to the point.  

 

 

GK: One thing that cinema did, certainly back in the Ď60s, was to make a canon out of things that were considered non-canonical.

PS: Yep, the Andrew Sarris thing.

GK: Then we had a period where the canon lost its value and film came to be treated as just another cultural text to be analysed. Among film writers, things are changing again. There is now a sense that we need to be able to recognise, discuss and try to teach what constitutes the landmarks of cinema.

PS: Thatís the whole point of what Iím working on now in this long introductory essay. Thereís a de facto canon in populist literature and thereís a de facto canon in the academy. So, if you have a de facto canon, why not try to find a way to justify it and raise the bar so fucking high that only a few films get over it?

GK: So, the de facto canon lives?

PS: Yeah, I mean, since it exists anyway. Weíve now reached that point in film history where, without a canon, you cannot talk about history. When I was starting out, there were still people who had seen virtually everything. Thereís now so much out there that it beggars the imagination. Film students today have to specialise. You canít be a film authority in a way that you could be thirty years ago. Thereís just too much. (Laughs)

GK: To specialise one needs to first get a sense of the films that constitute the general field.

PS: Thatís right, the canon. So, you can look at the high points of Japanese cinema and Iranian cinema and screwball comedy and ask ĎWhat interests me?í

GK: You said that the canon would be quite an exclusive group. What criteria would you use to define the qualities of a canonical film?

PS: Thatís what Iíve been working on now. Iíve been working on this for almost a year and taking classes at Columbia. Iím up to that point in the introductory essay where Iíve gone through the history of the notion of the canon and the history of aesthetics in terms of the creation of the canon and why the canon collapsed. And now Iím in the section of the essay where Iím trying to say under what conditions can there still be a canon. The first condition is that you have to understand cinema as a transitional art in that itís the art form of the twentieth century, and itís maybe all over already. You have to look at films in the context of where they came from and where theyíre going, somewhere between Victorian melodrama and Andy Warhol rethinking the static shot.

GK: Given your own history as a critic, what role do you see for the critic in defining the canon? For the canon to exist, it needs people to invest in it and sustain it through a practice of critical writing that is quite different to the kinds of critical writing that we confront on a day-to-day basis. This comes from reading some of your comments about criticism as a cadaverous activity, in that it deals with something that isnít alive. When I read that, I thought immediately about the role of the critic in animating a film, a painting or piece of music. It seems to me that if one sets out to revive the notion of the canon Ė whether it is in film or any other medium Ė one is also setting out to revive a form of critical writing capable of bringing the work to life for a reader.

PS: The book was presented to me initially as a variant of Harold Bloomís The Western Canon. Bloom starts off by asking: If you have a canon, what author must be included? If itís literature, it must be Shakespeare. How can you have a canon without Shakespeare? And if you have Shakespeare, what work? You must have Hamlet otherwise you donít have Shakespeare. So, letís look at Hamlet and say: what makes it canonical? And then you start to work from there. Thatís a very clever argument. For me, the key film would be Rules of the Game (1939). You canít have a canon without [Jean] Renoir and you canít have Renoir without Rules of the Game. So, the question becomes: ĎWhat makes Rules of the Game canonical?í (Laughs) But Iím not that far yet. Iím still talking about the history of the notion of the canon. Iím not even into specific works.

GK: It reminds me somewhat of the opening scene in Hardcore (1979) where the elders are gathered in the room on Christmas morning, debating the theological significance of passages from the Bible. This type of endeavour still seems very important to you.

PS: Yeah, well ... Are you a Christian?

GK: Yes.

PS: Which?

GK: Greek Orthodox.

PS: Well, when it comes to Protestants, people get confused between the evangelicals and the fundamentalists and so forth. There are basically two kinds of Protestants: thereís faith-based and doctrine-based. Mostly, when people think of evangelicals they are thinking of faith-based people. And thatís just: ĎI believe ... and thereís nothing to talk about because I believe. God and Jesus told me and I know.í Doctrine-based people are people who argue their way through. So, a lot of my upbringing in the church was really just argumentation ... a lot of catechism, a lot of intellectual debate. There is such a large part of Christianity that is anti-intellectual. And the moment you start talking about Christianity, people assume that youíre part of the anti-intellectual group, the anti-Darwin, anti-science group. And God knows, there are plenty of those. But that wasnít my background at all.

GK: Have you got to the stage where you have an idea of what you would put into that canon apart from Renoirís Rules of the Game?

PS: I have a rough idea: a lot of Frenchmen. But because of the nature of film, I donít know if itís necessarily auteur-driven. Itís important to understand that there are great collaborative films. The Third Man (1949) is a great collaborative film. And maybe itís as great a film as a film that has a much stronger sense of authorship.

GK: Iíd like to ask about the idea of collaboration. One of the things that defines your career is the way itís developed through strong collaborations, for example, with Scorsese on Taxi Driver, with Ferdinando Scarfiotti on American Gigolo and Cat People (1982), then an important collaboration with Harold Pinter on The Comfort of Strangers (1990). How did these collaborations change your approach to cinema?

PS: Well, itís always fun to come up against a strong set of ideas or themes. I think the reason Affliction (1997) is good is because Russell Banks is really strong. Now, Russell was not an overt collaborator, but he was definitely a collaborator on Affliction. If youíre both writer and director, you sometimes get lost doing both jobs. As Iíve said before, the writer and director Ė they lie to each other. And you often donít realise the extent to which you have believed your own lies until you edit. Right now, Iím working with Noah Stollman on Adam Resurrected. We have a terrific book. Thereís a good script and weíre trying to make it better. He keeps saying stuff to me and I said to him, ĎDonít bullshit me. Iím a writer too. I know that stuff youíre saying. Youíre whistling in the dark. Youíre trying to convince me that something is working when itís not working. Iíve done it a hundred times myself. Letís go back and try to make it work.í Well, I can recognise that when heís saying it to me. I often donít recognise it when Iím saying it to myself. (Laughs)

GK: Watching Dominion, there were two moments that, for me, seemed to really shout Paul Schrader. One was the Light Sleeper moment: the overhead shot of Merrin on the bed where he ...

PS: Going into that period dream sequence ...

GK: Yes, and thereís a series of cross-fades of Merrin occupying different positions on the bed, very similar to the way Dafoe is shown in Light Sleeper. The other moment is the final shot that reprises the final shot of The Searchers (1955).

PS: Those are visual things. But also the two religious discussions between the younger and the older priests. Those were in the original script. I rewrote them and they got better. But I think another director would have bailed on those. One of the things that attracted me to the script was the fact that those conversations were in there. I didnít realise at the time that they really didnít want that movie. I assumed because I was being asked to direct it and was ready to go that they actually wanted that script. (Laughs)

GK: Again, itís another thing that defines your work: your willingness to stick your neck out and do those kinds of scenes.

PS: Adam Resurrected is a very, very ambitious book. It was written in 1971. Itís the kind of book they donít really write anymore. It was written at the time of things like Slaughterhouse Five, Sophieís Choice and Enemies: A Love Story. Itís about a psychiatric clinic for camp survivors in Israel. Itís very heavy. The main character survived the War by becoming a dog for the Commandant. The Israelis who are financing it had given it to Barry Levinson and Sydney Pollack, and both Barry and Sydney said, ĎHow can you do this? How do you make this film?í So, Ehud [Bleiberg], the producer, was talking to an agent at ICM and said: ĎWell, what directors do you represent whoíll do anything, who have no fear?í And up came my name. ĎSchrader will do anything.í And thatís how I got asked Ė because Iím certainly not Jewish, Iím not Israeli. It was the same thing with Patty Hearst (1988) and, to some degree, with Auto Focus (2002): how do you do that? How do you make it work?

I remember I had a conversation once with Sydney Pollack. Sydney was talking about directors such as myself who come into his office (Mirage Productions) trying to get his help to get a film made. And he said, ĎThese young independent filmmakers, I look at them and I donít see much difference between us. I donít see how theyíre really any different to me.í I said: ĎWell Sydney, Iíve made two films that I knew by the time I started filming had no financial chance whatsoever. But, in both cases, I thought they were interesting films and would be worth the effort to make. So, would you ever do that?í He thought for a while and asked: ĎIf I knew a film was going to fail financially?í I said: ĎYeah.í ĎNo, I wouldnít make it.í He said: ĎI would back out if it became clear it would fail.í I knew Mishima (1985) had no financial future and I knew Patty Hearst could never really be successful. But they seemed worth making.

GK: Taking those sorts of risks also takes an enormous physical and emotional toll. And then, after the film is made, getting a distributor ...

PS: I would beg to differ. I think the opposite is much more exhausting: making a piece of shit. Talk about a toll. I donít know how they do it. I donít know how those people go out and make that same movie theyíve seen a hundred times and that somebody else has made a hundred times. Going to the factory in order to stamp out the same object youíve been stamping out all your life. How do you do that in the arts? I mean, that would drive me crazy. Going out and saying, ĎHow the hell am I going to pull this off?í Ė that keeps you awake, that makes you excited and makes you alive. So, I just donít really know how directors do it just as a job. I think everything has to be a matter of ĎI donít know if you can do this.í We may be having dinner in a few years, and Iíll say to you: ĎYou know that movie I didnít know if I could pull off? Well, I was right; you canít pull that one off. But I had to make it to find out.í

GK: It seems to me that all of your films pose the question: ĎHow do I make this film?í Or, more correctly, ĎHow do I tell this story?í How do I tell a story about a character as unaware as Bob Crane or as contradictory as Mishima?

PS: Thatís why I respect a director like Kubrick more than say Hitchcock or Ford. Iím not saying that Kubrick is a better director, but I respect him more because with Kubrick it was always ĎHow am I going to solve this problem?í Dr Strangelove (1963), thatís a solution. Barry Lyndon (1975), well thatís a different solution. So too is Clockwork Orange (1971) ... and The Shining (1980). Youíre always grappling with the material to see who will win.

GK: Is this what you meant in your interviews with Kevin Jackson when you described the importance of seeing the film? You were talking about the production of American Gigolo and how it was the first time you had a clear sense of how to visualise the story.

PS: No, what I was talking about there is the difference between visual logic and illustration. Most filmmaking is just illustration. For example, a script says: ĎMan asleep in his room.í You get a bed, you get a room, you put in a man asleep, and you shoot it. There you go: man asleep in his room. Youíre just illustrating the story. At some point, you start to see it; you start to see the images. I am not that kind of filmmaker. Iím still, by and large, an illustrator as a filmmaker. But now I have come to the point where I start to see it somewhat. Iím not like Nic Roeg, who lived in a kind of non-verbal world of images. Itís about the transition when you start to see images as ideas.

GK: Could this be one of the criteria for the canon, then, that an image is not just an illustration but that it approximates the thing in itself?

PS: Thatís what Walter Benjaminís talking about when he talks about photography freeing the image from the tyranny of the writer. But you can only talk about film in terms of multiple criteria because it is such a mixed media. Some films are best evaluated as writing; some films are best evaluated as images; some in terms of other factors. You really have to have a sliding scale of multiple criteria to evaluate film. And thatís where it gets so tricky. Some films you really want an architectural critic to write the article, and sometimes you want a poet to write the article.

GK: When you started filmmaking, you had a clear sense of who your touchstones were in terms of other filmmakers. When you mentioned architecture before, I immediately thought of Antonioniís influence on films like American Gigolo and Light Sleeper. Youíve also spoken about the influence of Bernardo Bertolucci and classical auteurs like Ford, Sirk and Hitchcock. Do you still see these directors as valuable touchstones for your current projects?

PS: Well, you find yourself referencing them in some way. On Dominion, I went on a research trip to the Turkana district in Kenya where the film is set Ė even though we didnít shoot it there. I was right by the Sudanese border. Itís pretty wild country. And once I got out there, it really struck me like the American West. And thatís where all the Western imagery started coming from. All of a sudden, I realised the script is like Shane (1953), and the images are like Ford. Itís not that you say, ĎIím going to make a film like John Ford,í but you look at the problem and as you think about the problem you say, ĎWow, this is really like a Western.í The question then is: ĎWhich Western is it like?í It comes in that way; it doesnít come in the other way. It comes in after youíve defined the problem. So, if youíve defined the problem of one of alienation then, of course, youíre going to scoot back to Antonioni and look at those films. If youíve defined the problem as one of one of sexual obsession, youíre going to look at different films.

GK: In a way, the canon is also part of the problem-solving strategy that youíve talked about in terms of Charles Eamesí work. The canonical film can be seen as a way to think about and visualise a relationship to the world, whether itís Craneís relationship to the world in Auto Focus or whether itís LeTourís relationship to the world in Light Sleeper. The canon presents relationships perhaps.

PS: Fortunately, whatever problem youíre dealing with, there are laundry lists of films or books or paintings that have dealt with the same thing, and you need to reference those.

GK: Do you ever find that the laundry list can, at times, be suffocating?

PS: Well, there is that desire in the arts to burn down the academy and to kill your father. In some ways, the best example of this is Jules and Jim (1961), where itís shaking up all kinds of notions of storytelling. A lot of interesting filmmaking is just breaking the rules. [Jean-Luc] Godard once said: ĎPeople thought we had a style. But, for the most part, we were doing what they said we couldnít do. If they said you couldnít shoot a close-up with a wide angle, weíd shot a close-up with a wide angle. If they said you couldnít do a tracking shot hand-held, well we did a tracking shot hand-held.í And so, part of the so-called style was just the arbitrary perversity of breaking the rules.

GK: The problem was that, by the end of the í70s, Godard reached a point where he had no more rules to break. So, he either had to reinvent the rules or find practices where there were rules that he could work against. Hence, he turns to painting in Passion (1982).

PS: Itís amazing. There really are no rules now. There used to be a lot of rules. You can do anything in a movie now. And itís very hard to throw a viewer, very hard. These kids who have been raised on multi-channel TV and video games, well you canít throw them. You can juxtapose almost anything Ė different film stocks and mismatches and time sequences Ė and theyíll just sit there and watch it. (Laughs) And theyíll put it together. Audiovisual literacy is so much more advanced for my childrenís generation than it was for my generation.

GK: Do you think thatís true in terms of issues like duration? Nothing can throw this generation ... except time, except having to deal with a narrative that takes its time.

PS: Yeah.

GK: This is particularly relevant in the case of a film like Affliction that is all about the weight of time, the weight of the past. In Light Sleeper, as well, thereís a strong interest in how people deal with time.

PS: You have to figure out a way to slow the audienceís metabolism down. I mean, look at the credit sequence of Affliction, thatís all it is: slow down. And you have to find a way, once they get in the theatre, to keep them interested and let them know they can relax and just sit back. One of the things I loved about [Ingmar] Bergmanís Saraband (2003) was just the hauteur of the film. The way it starts: it says basically, ĎIím a serious person and this is a serious movie, and if youíre not a serious viewer, you can get the fuck out now because this movieís not for you.í (Laughs) No pretence toward anything else.

GK: Another way that time works in your films is by returning to characters. In Light Sleeper, for example, time is a key theme Ė something the character is trying to deal with. But itís also something that operates on a broader level in terms of our sense of the filmís connection to other films and characters, namely American Gigolo and Taxi Driver. And with The Walker, as well, one canít help but sense that this character has an age or history that may be outside the immediate story but floating somewhere in the background.

PS: Thatís the hope, yeah. Thatís the hope.

GK: I want to ask you about Forever Mine (1999) as well. This is probably the film of yours that is the most underrated.

PS: Maybe I shouldnít have made it. Maybe I waited too long. It was a long time between when I wrote it and when I made it. When I wrote it, I was very much that kind of obsessional, romantic young man. By the time I came to direct it, I wasnít that much any more. So, it was a little bit away from me. But I always wanted to do it.

GK: In terms of the figure of the obsessional romantic, the film that Forever Mine reminded me of in terms of your career was Mishima. There is a line in Mishima that, when I saw Forever Mine, immediately came to mind: ĎMy need to transform reality was an urgent necessity, as important as three meals a day or sleep.í And itís the same with Alan. There is something about his obsession that wants to transforms things, that doesnít believe in the way things are and, instead, is convinced that things can change. Forever Mine goes back to Mishima but without the same investment in violence as a means for individual transformation.

PS: Well, Iím trying to remember it as youíre speaking. I know I wanted to make it pretty badly. And I had given up on ever making it and then it came together. But, by the time I made it, it was so unhip, it was so uncool. Forever Mine was so old-fashioned passionate when it was made. At around the same time, Todd Haynes did Far From Heaven (2002). And Toddís film was very contemporary and hip and deconstructivist, and mine was just too, you know ... The film I wanted to make should have been made ten years before. It had lost its historical slot.

GK: Itís interesting that the historical slot for something like Auto Focus is much more consistent. Your chances of finding an audience for that type of strange detachment, contradiction and cluelessness are always going to be much greater. Then you go to a character like Merrin in Dominion, and his agonies are going to be much riskier to depict.

PS: Particularly since horror has not worked as a period film since the í30s and í40s. Ever since the rebirth of the horror genre with The Exorcist (1973), nearly every successful horror film has been contemporary. And Dominion was never really a horror film. I have to be careful because I get confused between my desire to see that film exist Ė my struggle to complete it Ė and how it exists. My cold assessment of the film: I donít think it should have been made. If I had known where it was going to take me, I certainly wouldnít have done it. I wouldnít do it again. It was not a journey worth taking. It wasnít my film. It wasnít my idea. Doing a prequel to The Exorcist wouldnít be something that I would come up with, an idea that I would argue: ĎThat should be done.í

GK: But it did offer you the opportunity to work with a $40 million budget.

PS: Oh yeah, yeah ... It was grand. It was great fun and I think the film has some value. It will interest some people. And of course, its real value now is going to be for film students to look at the two versions. (Laughs)

GK: Did the experience of making the film and the ensuing struggle to get your version released clarify anything for you regarding what the next phase of your career should be about?

PS: Well, I donít have that many films left. As much as I want to work, I think that with the films I have left I should try to do only something of value. Thatís why I was really very pleased that Adam Resurrected came by. This is a substantial book, a substantial script. I would rather do something really small of some value than do what Marty Scorseseís doing. I donít see the fun in that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Soon after the interview, Schrader was able to confirm that Woody Harrelson had been signed to play the role of Carter Page.

 


Part II: 20 September 2005

GK: Thanks for the script [The Walker]. I really enjoyed reading it. It put what you said yesterday into context, answered some questions and opened up other questions. When I was reading it, I kept thinking of Kevin Kline. Thatís not going to happen, I take it.

PS: No. I had four actors originally: Steve Martin, and then I couldnít close the deal with Steve; and then I had Kevin, and then Kevin decided to do Cole Porter [De-Lovely, 2004] Ė which is the same character; and then I had Tim Robbins Ė that was last year. Tim didnít want to go to Berlin, which is where I had it set up. And then I had Michael Keaton, who just dropped out six weeks ago without explanation. When I say I had these people, that means theyíve agreed to do it, one-on-one, orally. But no money has changed hands. Nothing has been signed. So then you get to the next step and you say: ĎOK. Hereís the deal, hereís the start date.í And then, things happen ... But, I have the money and I talked to the producer yesterday. He said, ĎLetís go into pre-production the end of October and weíll make it with somebody.í (Laughs)(2)

GK: Was Dafoe interested?

PS: This characterís funny. Heís suave. Heís funny. Itís not Willem. I could get Willem to do it in a second. Itís just not Willem. This is a social butterfly. Willem is not a social butterfly. And [Richard] Gere is not funny. This is someone who hides himself by being funny. If The Gigolo hides himself by being physically beautiful, The Walker hides himself by being funny. I shouldnít be talking about this because itís been so frustrating for so long, and I swore I wouldnít talk about it anymore until I knew it was getting made.

 

 

 

GK: I do have questions about the script in terms of its relationship to the rest of your work. Around the time it was released, you described Light Sleeper as a response to your own sense of encroaching nostalgia, and falling prey to the temptation of thinking it was better before. This script seems to be about the temptations of an encroaching superficiality, a sense that now ...

PS: ... nothing really matters.

GK: The Walker seems to be about the dangers of growing old gracefully. And for the central character, Carter Page, this means shutting himself off from personal commitment or engagement with the political realities around him. Do you think thatís a fair summation?

PS: Yeah. Itís a comment not only on my age but on the age we live in. You know these sort of disengaged times where itís getting harder and harder to rouse people, to ignite them because the level of public cynicism is just so, so high.

GK: In the script thereís a direct response to the standard justification for disengagement: namely, that no matter who you vote for or who gets elected, nothing really is going to change. What this script shows is how much things have changed and that, clearly, we are in a different and much harder time ... I was quite struck by how direct the script is in terms of addressing these sorts of issues.

PS: It does a bit, but itís not really a political document. Certainly, there are a lot of very pointed political films around now. This stays within the bounds of a character study.

 

3. Schrader in John Powers, ĎThe True Believerí, LA Weekly (16 October 2002), p. 30.

 

 

 

 

GK: In the past, you said that, in terms of your own work and career, itís important to be energised by a sense of opposition Ė ĎThe day that stops being your cup of coffee, the game is over.í (3) Is this still the case? Is the need to provide a voice of opposition still the thing that drives you to decide on a particular project?

PS: Thereís always been something adversarial and evangelical about my interest in film. It really began that way as a kid. Being interested in film was a measure of revolt. It was a measure of confronting the status quo, the machinery of the community you lived in. It doesnít seem like much of a revolt in todayís eyes, but it was back then ... And my love of film, even before it was a love of film, was probably a love of troublemaking first. The films I fell in love with were troublemaking films. We showed Viridiana [Luis Buñuel, 1961] on campus. What is this film but an act of aggression? Itís pretty undisguised.

 

 

 

GK: Do you think films still offer young people that?

PS: No, no. In fact, precious little does, you know, which is unfortunate ...

GK: Music, perhaps, which was also something that you were very interested in.

PS: There are so few rules left. I mean, itís getting harder and harder to break the rules. You really almost have to self-destruct to break the rules. Certainly, all the sort of traditional things like sex or deportment or language are pretty hard to get to offend much of anybody anymore.

GK: If you see that it becomes harder and harder to break the rules, then, the other way to look at it is: what should we maintain? What should we treasure? What should we value? Which gets us back to the question of the canon.

PS: In the end, you have to believe in the same thing all humanists have believed in and religions have believed in, which is basically a variant on the golden rule: Love thy neighbour as thy self.

GK: This leads us to the issue of community in your films. Right from Blue Collar (1978) and Hardcore, you seem to be interested in linking your dramas to very specific community settings. More recently, a film like Affliction develops a strong sense of community, complete with all its traumas and dark histories. In Light Sleeper, I was fascinated by the way you created a sense of community out of the remnants of New Age spirituality, the trade in white drugs and a failed counter-culture moment. It seems to me that, as much as all these films are character studies, they are also concerned with looking at where and how communities form Ė even if theyíre not the traditional ones.

PS: In The Walker itís the canasta game: Carter Page and his ladies. They form this little black sheep community that sort of collapses.

GK: And itís a community that, at first glance, can transcend political differences. You write at the start of the script: ĎItís not yet certain who is who, who is left, who is right, who is more or less powerful; one thing, however, is certain Ė theyíre having a heck of a good time.í Then slowly you see that, in fact, it does matter. And if you think about the central characterís place within this community, he, like a number of other characters, is something of an anachronism: heís from another, more genteel time. Yesterday we spoke briefly about the various ways that time figures in your films. This might be another way: through the presence of characters who donít belong to their time or whose time has passed.

PS: Well, they are out of sync in some ways ... The thing that really makes a character interesting is when the character is working at cross-purposes. You know that wonderful phrase of Freudís: ĎThe representation of a thing by its opposite.í In other words: ĎI loved her so much I hit her.í Whenever youíre trying to make a character interesting, youíre always looking at reverse behaviour: the man who is so lonely that he does things that make him lonelier still; the person who is so desperate for love and community that he does the things that cut him off from those things. That makes for interesting characters. And itís also the heart and soul of self-examination. When you spend time on a couch or in a therapistís office, in the end itís going come down to: ĎIf I desire X, why do I do Y?í And that is the great mystery of every individual. And I think it makes interesting characters.

GK: What you love to explore, it seems, is not only the capacity for self-delusion and contradiction, but also the capacity for characters to surprise themselves. Iím thinking here of the penultimate line in The Walker: ĎStrange how things work out,í which is a slight variant of the line spoken by Ann in Light Sleeper: ĎStrange how things work.í This line seems to capture the idea that we will never really know ourselves.

PS: Yeah, and itís a variant of the last line of Pickpocket (1959): ĎWhat a strange road Iíve taken to come to you.í In other words: I thought I was going in one direction and all the time I was going in this direction.

GK: In the script, Page comes up with a classic piece of self-assessment: ĎIím not naive, Iím superficial.í For someone who is so sure of himself and so polished, itís quite a turnaround at the end of the film for him to admit: ĎIt was what I wanted. I just didnít know it.í In other words, he has taken himself by surprise.

PS: Sometimes, thereís a kind of divine intervention in your life and you have to sort of accept it or not ... When I came to New York, I was using drugs. I was still trying to affect reconciliation with the relationship I had screwed up in Los Angeles. And Mary Beth got pregnant. And she wanted to have a baby. My first response was panic. Meaning, that was the end of my old life. I would never get back with the girl in Los Angeles. I had to change. And then it occurred to me that this is what I really wanted to do, what I hadnít been able to do on my own. God had reached down and said ĎOK ... Iíll make it real simple for you; Iíll give you the means and the motive to change.í (Laughs) And so, then, I did get married. She and I headed off to Tokyo, my daughter was born there and another life began. And so, sometimes in your life, itís not so much about doing the right thing but recognising it.

GK: This leads directly to the big issue in your films that no one has really spoken about, although itís right there in the prologues of the scripts to American Gigolo and Light Sleeper: the issue of love. In terms of the way it is presented in these two films, and what you have just said, love is something that comes to us with a choice we have to make. While love has been central to your films, it has also really changed. Early on, it was a kind of big romantic Beatrice-type scenario ...

PS: Yeah, it was an adjunct of the superego. It was another mountain to climb, another trophy to win. It was much more aggressive. Whereas the secret of it is, in fact, quite passive. Itís a lot harder to accept something than it is to take it. Itís relatively easy to take something. Weíre all trained, especially men, to take things, and weíre not so well trained to accept things.

GK: It definitely seems as if your later characters are learning how to accept love and its potential to transform things. This is whatís happening at the end of The Walker. While Page has not exactly reinvented himself, he does seem to have found a way not to fossilise or curdle as Bob Crane does.

PS: And heís been hiding, hiding for a long time. Hiding under this sort of notion of being a black sheep, being the ... the empty chair. Do you know what I mean by the empty chair?

GK: No, I donít.

PS: If youíre having a dinner party and someone canít make it, the empty chair is the sort of man you call at the last minute. Heís very entertaining, something like that.

GK: Iíd like to ask about the way the later characters are figured in terms of the issue of passivity. On one level, this term defines them well enough. But, on another level, it really doesnít do justice to the kinds of emotions these characters are struggling with or their sense of melancholy and introspection. Itís almost as if passivity, especially in an American context, is a bad word. Itís something an actor or spectator doesnít want to find in a character: ĎHe or she was too passive ... í Whereas, in your films, you have taken that negative stance and turned it into a chance to really explore all these other dimensions.

PS: Itís interesting that when I came to Dominion, Liam Neeson was going to do it. And I had lunch with Liam and he was trying to get out of it and he eventually did. And the thing that was bothering him was that the character was too passive. And I was thinking, ĎWhatís wrong with that? Passive characters are really interesting too.í But Liam wanted Merrin to be more in charge, and I was sort of surprised by that, because thatís not something I really think of in terms of an interesting character.

GK: Did Nolte have problems with that aspect of the script of Affliction?

PS: I donít know, youíd have to ask him. You know, it took him a long time to come around. But I think one of the reasons was money. I mean, that was the stated reason. It took him a long time to accept the fact that he wasnít going to get paid what he was getting at that time. But he gave an interview afterward and he said, ĎIf I had known this was going to be one of my most important roles, I would have done it a lot sooner.í So, Iím not quite sure, it could very well have been.

GK: What he does with that character is extraordinary.

PS: What I really like about actors like Nick, like Stellan [Skarsgård], is you can actually see their minds working. Itís like they have a transparent forehead and you see those rusty wheels cranking around in their heads. You see them trying to put something together. (Laughs)

 

 

 

GK: I wanted to ask you about your work with actors, because in Affliction you managed to coax such an extraordinary performance out of Nolte. The performance of Dafoe in Light Sleeper is also a fascinating variation on the passive protagonist. When youíre working on a script, do you give your actors a fair bit of room to interpret the role?

PS: Tony Perkins once said that he thought acting was seventy-five percent casting. I think itís about ninety percent casting. You get the right actor at the right time of his life, the right theme, all you have to do is modulate. Nick walked into rehearsals fully prepared Ė not only for his character; he had prepared the other characters in his head too. And in rehearsals, I started changing how I was thinking about directing the film and how I was going to direct him. I said: ĎThis guy is so in the zone on this character that I have to be careful not to fuck it up: donít get on him too much. The most interesting thing Iím seeing right now in rehearsals is watching Nick, and thatís what I should do with the camera. Letís just watch this performance. Letís forget about all those tricks that you were thinking about. Just watch this performance.í So ... if youíre lucky enough to have the right actor, right role, right time, then youíre home. Providing, of course, the role is an interesting role.

 

4. Quote taken from The Directors: The Films of Paul Schrader (2001), written, produced and directed by Robert J. Emery (American Film Institute).

 

 

 

 

 

GK: A few years ago you said: ĎI donít have the passion for filmmaking the way Marty does. I have a deep passion for telling stories and addressing moral issues. If the filmmaking tools were taken from me today, I would find other tools.í (4) I was wondering what these other tools could be.

PS: Well, Iíve always had respect for Elia Kazan for being able to step away from directing and write books. I mean, they werenít great novels, but he was alive and he was still creating. For me, I donít know what it would be. It would probably be some form of writing or study.

GK: What about the theatre?

PS: Oh well, yeah ... although, I donít know. I donít know if my sensibilityís young enough for the theatre thatís happening right now. But, who knows?

GK: Strange how things work.

PS: Yeah.

 

 

  This interview was conducted for the forthcoming book Paul Schrader (Illinois University Press).  

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