By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It‘s hard to know how many people actually have gotten Schrader’s work since American Gigolo. Still, over the past two decades, he‘s managed to make nine features. The best of them -- Mishima, Patty Hearst, The Comfort of Strangers, Light Sleeper, Affliction and Auto Focus -- represent a body of intelligent work that would make the name of a filmmaker who didn’t have the glorious burden of Schrader‘s past. This isn’t to say that they‘re masterworks, but that they sought to expand the self-imposed limits of American movies -- be it with the avant-garde panache with which Mishima treats the life and ritual suicide of the gay militarist Japanese writer (now there’s a dude that Schrader can relate to) or with the acerbic portrait of the Symbionese Liberation Army in Patty Hearst, an early piece of anti-P.C. that neatly skewers many liberal pieties about the 1960s. If only those Sundance kids could be half so audacious.
None of those six films was a hit. To grasp how marginal Schrader had become by the late ‘90s, you need only consider Affliction, a wrenching adaption of Russell Banks’ novel that featured an epochal performance by Nick Nolte as a damaged small-town cop who displaces his inner chaos not into sex or drugs but into small-town conspiracy theories. Although the film is probably Schrader‘s finest, winning James Coburn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and landing Nolte a nomination (he lost to the execrable Roberto Benigni), it took well over a year to be released and was distributed with very little fanfare. Paradoxically, its power may have scared people off by confirming Schrader as a dark, non-commercial director.
“Affliction was good in terms of reputation,” he says. “It wasn’t as good in terms of marketability. I didn‘t get one single offer. It didn’t matter that the film was nominated for Academy Awards. I wasn‘t the filmmaker people wanted.”
Given all this, one understands his satisfaction at Auto Focus’ current vogue and his surprising enthusiasm for The Exorcist prequel, a project bound to tickle the nerve ends in a filmmaker raised on the sulfurous stench of hellfire. Of course, canny old pro that he is, Schrader tends to describe the new film in tactical terms:
“One of the reasons I‘m doing The Exorcist, beside all the obvious reasons -- the chance to play in the big ballpark again -- is that unless I really screw it up, it ought to do pretty well, what with the muscle of the franchise. And if it does well, I probably could finish my career standing on my own feet rather than groveling for coins.”
Although Schrader can still get revved up by seeing movies -- he speaks highly of Paul Thomas Anderson and, unexpectedly, Steven Spielberg -- he clearly finds today’s film culture far less thrilling than it once was. Over lobster salad and pouilly-fuisse, he tells me what he thinks may be the definitive story on how things have changed since the early ‘70s.
“Back in those days, Jean-Luc Godard was a god. I remember when he came to UCLA, it was unbelievable -- it was like Britney Spears coming.” He barks a laugh. “But about 10 years later, my friend [film producer] Tom Luddy was on a plane to Paris with Jean-Luc and Alice Waters [the legendary founder of the restaurant Chez Panisse]. They’re all sitting there, and then someone comes up from back of the plane and into first class. He leans right across Jean-Luc and says, ‘Aren’t you . . . Alice Waters?‘ The guy didn’t know the filmmaker -- just the foodie.”
Looking back on it now, Schrader thinks that this cultural shift was inevitable:
“I don‘t think the movement I was part of was the natural order of things. I’m now in the natural order of things. Yes, there was a brief, shining moment where films really mattered to the audience, where the audience was wanting something more because they were insecure, confused, scared -- scared about the sexual revolution, women‘s lib, civil rights, drugs, Vietnam. So it was ’Help us out here, you painters and you writers and you filmmakers.‘ And that’s the best news you can ever hear, when the need is actually coming from the consumer. That changed the rules momentarily.” He gobbles a bit of lobster. “But [studio mogul] Barry Diller, among others, soon wrestled the beast back into its cave.”
Yet for Schrader, the problem with current filmmaking isn‘t simply a question of wicked businessmen or the industry’s corrupting ways. (“Bad people come to Hollywood,” he says, “in order to be bad.”) Rather, filmmaking has become “overpopulated and bloated” with people making movies for the wrong reasons. He‘s disappointed in Richard Gere, whose stardom he helped launch in American Gigolo, but who turned down Schrader’s attempts to put him in low-budget movies that wouldn‘t pay him his usual fee: “Richard said to me, ’You know, I may make a $5 million film, but if I do, it‘ll be my $5 million film.”