Paul Schrader is one of Hollywood’s most interesting filmmakers, beginning as a writer on the likes of Taxi Driver. Although his name is often linked to that of the ‘movie brat’ generation (Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, De Palma, etc.) Paul Schrader’s background couldn’t have been more different.
Schrader’s strict Calvinist parents refused to allow him to see a film until he was eighteen. Although he more than made up for lost time when studying at Calvin College, Columbia University and UCLA’s graduate film program, his influences were far removed from those of his contemporaries – Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer (about whom he wrote a book, “Transcendental Style in Film”) rather than Saturday morning serials.
After a period as a film critic (and protege of Pauline Kael), he began writing screenplays, hitting the jackpot when he and his brother, Leonard Schrader (a Japanese expert), were paid the then-record sum of $325,000, thus establishing his reputation as one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters – which was consolidated when Martin Scorsese filmed Schrader’s script Taxi Driver (1976), written in the early 1970s during a bout of drinking and depression.
The success of the film allowed Schrader to start directing his own films, which have been notable for their willingness to take stylistic and thematic risks while still working squarely within the Hollywood system. His directorial debut was Blue Collar, followed by the acclaimed Hardcore, American gigolo and Cat People.
The most original of his films (which he and many others regard as his best) was the Japanese co-production Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985). His most recent film is Adam Resurrected, the story of a Jewish cabaret performer, played by Jeff Goldblum, in Hitler’s Germany, and a subsequent, but decidedly odd, Holocaust survivor.
This is hardly the stuff of mainstream Hollywood, but this director doesn’t seem to mind.
Question: So, you’re obviously not a director that decides to select straightforward, easy individual projects. What was it about this book that really attracted you as a filmmaker?
Schrader: Let’s see. I mean, you know, I get bored quite easily. And I find most movies kind of boring. And I said to myself, you know, ” How is this film worth making?” And so I would not have thought of myself to do this. I’m not Jewish. I think there’s been plenty of Holocaust movies, and the world doesn’t need me to make another. So I didn’t think I would respond to this. But as soon as I get that – about the man, the boy, and the dog, I was hooked. I thought, ” This is really fresh. This is really a terrific kind of dynamic.” And it was that that I always responded to. And in fact, I always described the film as a story of a man that once was a dog, who meets a dog who once was a boy. And so that appealed to me.
Question: Was it the book or the screenplay that-interested you?
Schrader: I read the screenplay. The book was – I didn’t write the screenplay.
Question: I know. But did you go back to read the book?
Schrader: Oh, yes. Yeah. And it’s a great novel, but it’s also a very experimental novel. It’s not an easy adaptation. It’s full of magic realism, and experimental writing. So in fact, the film is much more conventional than the book.
Question: In fact, structurally the book is obviously is very different. How different is it to the screenplay?
Schrader: You know – well, I mean, the story ends, in the book, about 2/3 of the way through the book, in the final scene. And it’s full of odd sort of tropes. You know, a lot of first-person stream of consciousness, and then Yoram Kaniuk, the novelist, will change the person without telling the reader. And you’re reading along, and you’re saying, ” Wait, this doesn’t sound like Adam.” And you realize, ” Oh, now, we’re in somebody else’s mind now.” So, it’s not – it wasn’t an easy book to adapt.
Question: Does being non-Jewish give you a very different perspective when you’re making a movie like this?
Schrader: I didn’t have that sort of sense of obligation to my family and my race and my background that I would have had if I were Jewish. But it also kind of freed me to concentrate on this whole thing with the man, the boy, and the dog. Because I was getting so hung up on the reverential nature of most of these Holocaust films. These – films about the Holocaust tend to be two things. One is, they tend to be factual. This actually happened. And two, they tend to be reverential. And this was neither. This never happened. There never was a hospital like this. There never was a Commandant and a prisoner relationship like this. And it’s – the book, even more so than the film, is far from reverential. And so it’s a kind of transgressive taboo-breaking book. And in fact, the producer had sent it to a number of the usual suspects, the sort of A-list Hollywood Jewish directors, and they turned it down. They had problems with it. And then my name came up.
Question: Let me ask about the casting of this. Was Jeff Goldblum on top of your list to play Adam? It’s an interesting choice.
Schrader: I was reading the script for the very first time, and I was probably about halfway through it. And my wife walked in the room – and she’s an actress. And I said to her, ” You know, I’m reading a script that Jeff Goldblum was born to play.” And I just had that hit, the very first time I read it. I said, you know, ” Jeff Goldblum has spent his whole career preparing to play this role.” And I didn’t know Jeff.
Question: Why did you think that?
Schrader: I don’t know. You know, he’s a kind of a ham. And he’s just – he’s sort of a Jewish prince. He’s sort of tall, and his kind of bearing is kind of a great entertainer. And he’s very much a chameleon. He can be different things. I just – I just felt this was the guy.
Question: What were the challenges, in terms of sitting on location for this? What were you looking for, and what did you come up with?
Schrader: Well, we built the interior of the hospital on stage in Bucharest. And then we shot for about a week in Israel. But, you know, the truth is that wherever you are in the world – a movie crew is a movie crew. And they’re all sort of the same.
Question: Did you enjoy shooting and Israel?
Schrader: Yeah, I did. I did. We were out in the desert, and it was about – I don’t know, about 130 degrees. So it was kind of hot. But it was – I enjoyed it.
Question: You said you get bored very easily. So, what challenges you as a filmmaker? You’ve been involved in some fairly important and intellectual films over the last three decades. What are you looking for as a filmmaker?
Schrader: If it’s a problem that – you know, that I haven’t figured out how to solve before. You know, how do you make a guy like Bob Crane interesting? You know, how do you make a film about somebody who’s kidnapped in a closet? You know, those kinds of things. The fact that you’ve not seen this done before, you’ve got to figure out how to do it. That really makes it exciting.
Question: Has the industry changed for the better or for the worse since you started out?
Schrader: Oh, well – much for the worse. I mean, basically, movies are dying now. And they’re becoming something else, and we don’t know what they are. And so we’re in a kind of a transition phase. And so when I began, we were in the late-’50s, early ’70s. There was a crisis of content. You know, we didn’t really know what movie were – were about. And we changed the kind of antagonists we had. We changed the themes of the movies. And out of that came ten or 15 years of interesting films. But now we have an equal crisis, only now it’s a crisis of form. Which isn’t nearly as interesting. We don’t know what movies are any more. We do know that what they used to be is going away. And we don’t know what they’re going to become.
Question: Do you have any idea how you’re going to fit into this new medium?
Schrader: I don’t know. I think about it a lot. And I’m perfectly willing to adapt. You know, I’ve been thinking now about doing a Bollywood film.
Schrader: Yeah. That might be interesting. I’m writing one right now. I made a deal with some people in India to write a script.
Question: Are you a fan of the Bollywood industry?
Schrader: I’m becoming one more and more, as I research it. And it just seems like a very interesting kind of way to go to try something fresh.
Question: Would it be a romantic musical?
Schrader: It would be a cross-cultural thriller with song and dance. And, you know, you can always strip off the song and dance numbers, or do them just locally, too, if you want.
Question: When will you look to finish the script?
Schrader: I’m writing it right now. I’m about halfway through it.
Question: And you’d go into production within the next 12 months?
Schrader: Well, it’s a star vehicle. And one of the problems with Bollywood is that they don’t have enough stars. They have, really, about eight male stars, and they make 600 films a year. So, you know – and this would require a star. So you just don’t know.