On January 2, Paul Schrader (AFI Class of 1969) — legendary director/writer and member of the very first class of the AFI Conservatory — opened the new semester with a seminar to discuss his latest film FIRST REFORMED, and in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Conservatory.
Joining him as moderator of the seminar was his classmate, Jeremy Kagan (AFI Class of 1969), with whom Schrader spoke about FIRST REFORMED, writing TAXI DRIVER and much more. Two days later, Schrader was honored at AFI AWARDS 2018, where he received a standing ovation for FIRST REFORMED, which was among AFI’s 10 most outstanding films of the year. The film has now earned Schrader an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Below, read excerpts from Schrader’s conversation with Kagan.
Schrader on writing TAXI DRIVER as a form of therapy:
TAXI DRIVER was my first script, and I wrote that as self-therapy. I was in a dark place, drinking and driving. I didn’t have a place to live. I had a gun in the car. I had a pain in my stomach, and went to the hospital. It was a bleeding ulcer at the age of 26, and I realized in the emergency room that I hadn’t spoken to anybody for weeks. I’d just been drifting through the city of Los Angeles with all this anger. The idea of this taxi cab came to me, this yellow, metal coffin floating through the sewer of the city with this boy trapped inside who can’t get out, who looks like he’s in a crowd but he’s desperately alone. I said, that’s who I am, I’m the kid in that cab. I wrote that story as self-therapy because I figured if I can write about it, I don’t have to become him, and it worked. As I wrote about him, he became more and more detached from me.
I thought it was completely logical when I wrote it. It was later I realized it was quite crazy. But I didn’t write it to sell, in fact, as soon as I finished it, I left Los Angeles for six months and just drifted around the country. I wrote it purely as self-therapy. It’s very strange to say that in today’s world because most people want to get in movies for other reasons. But it does work. The very same method that I used in that case and it’s the screenwriting method I teach, which I don’t do anymore because we have too many writers, which is this type of self-therapy.
On the inspiration of FIRST REFORMED, and how the ghost of Travis Bickle inhabited it:
Three years ago, I was at the New York Society of Film Critics’ dinner and I gave an award to Pawel Pawlikowski for IDA. He had read my book, and I had liked his film. All these years, whenever somebody tried to connect that book [“Transcendental Style in Film”] with my films, I said, no, I am not that guy. I am too interested in action and empathy and sex and violence and psychological realism, and these elements are not in the transcendental toolkit. I walked uptown to my place in Chelsea and I said, “You’re gonna be 70 next year. It’s time to write that script that you swore you would never write. It was nine blocks uptown, and by the time I reached home, it was already going, and 50 years of refusing to write that script started exploding. As you all must know, none of us do anything that’s terribly original. If you think that, you’re mistaken.
I started re-watching all the films of this type that I liked, and I started picking things up. I took the main character of DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST by Bresson, the setting from WINTER LIGHT by Bergman and then I took the ending from ORDET by Dreyer, I took the levitation from Tarkovsky, and then I took all these elements and wrapped them in the barbed wire of TAXI DRIVER. Strangely enough, even though all my reference points were 50 years old, I didn’t feel like I was doing an old film. That was a revelation to me, because I had set out to make an old film. Somehow, the ghost of Travis Bickle had inhabited it and that heartbeat of obsessiveness.
On making the same movie over and over again:
Most artists have one life, which lasts about 10 years, and then they live on from that. Occasionally you have an artist with a second life, a third life; Picasso had three lives, Rossellini had three, Bergman had two. For most of us, you are in the zone and you’re magical, and as Renoir said, “Every director has one film to make; he just has to figure out how to keep making it.”
[FIRST REFORMED] is either the third or fifth iteration of this story. It starts out with TAXI DRIVER, then in the middle is LIGHT SLEEPER, then there’s this one. There are two others sandwiched in — AMERICAN GIGOLO and WALKER — but they don’t have narration. All five of those films are about two characters: one is a man, and the other is his room.