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The Storyteller

Photo by Kathleen Clark

Paul Schrader once said that his script for Taxi Driver "jumped out of my head like an animal." Then as now, you got the impression that for Schrader, writing was less an act of creation than of exorcism. Perhaps it’s because the voices that so often have come out of the writer-director are like none other in American film — urgent, isolated, furious. Terrifying.

Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man. This is Schrader’s most essential voice, the voice of a man alone in his head, alone in the world. A voice that, for better or worse, speaks to a late-20th-century rage (against what, though — God? Man? Death?), that seems, somehow, uniquely American. Travis Bickle speaks with this voice; so too does Theodore Kaczynski. Over the years, Schrader has made a desperate art out of channeling such voices, though they no longer seem as raw and pulpy with the violence that once made him famous. Now, increasingly, there is a melancholy in his voices, a clumsy tenderness. In Light Sleeper (1992), Willem Dafoe’s narrator scribbles in one composition book after another, only to throw them away after they’re filled up — a haunting metaphor for the futility of creation. In Schrader’s new film, Affliction, Dafoe returns, this time as an impassive witness to his family’s self-immolation. "You will say that I was responsible," he announces, echoing the lingua franca of recovery.

What happened to the voice that with biblical wrath told of a rain that would wash away the street scum? What happened to Travis Bickle? What happened to Schrader?

Paul Schrader likes to talk. Fortunately for his listeners, he is a very good storyteller. "I remember I was over at Paramount, and Warren Beatty and I had been fooling around, doing this Howard Hughes thing. He had made the film Reds and he was showing it on the lot, and he wanted me to come. I was so tired. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll sit way in the corner, way in the back. If I fall asleep, I’ll fall asleep, and nobody will know.’ Nobody told me there was an intermission. So the lights come up, everybody from Barry Diller on down is in the room, all of Warren’s friends, and I am sound asleep. Afterward, one of Warren’s minions came over to me and said that Warren had expressed his displeasure. And I said, ‘Look, I know it took Warren 10 years to make this movie, but it took me three hours to see it, and I can guarantee you that three hours of my life mean more to me than 10 years of Warren’s."

I first heard the Beatty story last January in Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival. Schrader was there with Affliction and as a juror for the dramatic competition. For some reason, he had decided not to wait for one of the special vans that ferry jurors around the resort town and was standing alone on a corner. A friend introduced us, and the three of us shared the short ride back to our various hotels. Schrader told the Beatty story then, along with another one about a successful studio executive who embodies Hollywood’s ignorance about its own history. He clearly took as much pleasure in telling them as we took in listening. I heard the Beatty story again last month, in the main dining room at the Four Seasons. Schrader didn’t remember that he’d already told it to me; he barely remembered that we’d met before. It didn’t matter. He was telling a story about Hollywood, and few people tell as good a story about Hollywood as Paul Schrader.

Schrader’s own story has the drama we have come to expect from our filmmakers; artfully nurtured by the writer-director himself, it is a biography to place alongside Scorsese’s Little Italy asthmatic and Spielberg’s suburban nerd. It plays something like this: A deeply religious Midwestern boy grows up to become a film critic, a screenwriter and, finally, a director. His friends become rivals, then legends. Some of his screenplays are lurid masterpieces. Sometimes, they’re nothing but lurid. His third script, a Japanese gangster picture called The Yakuza written with his brother, Leonard, sells for $325,000, an unprecedented sum in 1973; according to a new book by Peter Biskind, Leonard got 20 percent of the money and a shared story credit. During a three-year fever, Paul, sometimes with Leonard, writes Taxi Driver, Obsession, Rolling Thunder, Old Boyfriends, a draft of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blue Collar, American Gigolo and Hardcore, among others. He directs three of the scripts himself; his former mentor, Pauline Kael, pans them all. The Hollywood golden boy begins making art movies that neither critics nor audiences much like — Cat People, Patty Hearst. He and his brother have a falling-out during the making of Mishima. Schrader marries actress Mary Beth Hurt, has a couple of kids, directs The Comfort of Strangers, Light Sleepers, Touch. In January 1998, he arrives at Sundance with the best American film of the festival, and what will turn out to be the best American independent film of the year. At a festival that makes a fetish out of the young and the unknown, he remains invisible. He is too old, too familiar, too unpredictable, too uncommercial. Maybe, finally, he is just too good.

This past year, Schrader’s biography was on the minds of a lot of movie lovers I know. To his evident displeasure, he had inadvertently become a featured player in Biskind’s compulsively readable exposé on ’70s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Among the book’s many weird tales is the occasionally humiliating and deeply strange story of the Schrader boys. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Leonard and his younger brother, Paul, were raised in the Christian Reformed Church, a small, fanatical branch of Dutch Calvinism, by religious parents who rarely spared the rod. Leonard told Biskind he was whipped "six, seven days a week." More than once, Paul has volunteered how their mother jabbed a needle in his thumb, then asked, "Do you remember what it felt like the moment it hit your thumb? Well, that’s what hell is like, all the time." By the time they were adults, the brothers had developed a fascination with suicide and a thing for guns. Leonard would stick one in his mouth in order to fall asleep — "like some infant’s pacifier," he told Biskind. Paul kept a loaded gun under his pillow.

Schrader didn’t see his first movie until he was in high school, but made up for it in college by becoming a ravenous lover of film. He got into the production department at UCLA on the recommendation of Kael, whom he’d met while a student at Columbia. He got kicked out of the department and snared a job as a critic for the L.A. Free Press; he was fired from the paper after giving Easy Rider a bad review. ("The characters of Easy Rider will become a joke too because [director Dennis] Hopper has not taken the first step to protect them from the ravages of time, he has not withdrawn them from the puppet world of propaganda and made them real human beings.") Like a shark, he rarely stopped moving: He hung out with Jean Renoir, struck up a friendship with Charles Eames, became an AFI fellow, edited a well-respected film magazine and wrote his first script. In 1971, he penned a landmark monograph on film noir for Filmex, and broke with Kael that same year. She wanted him to take a critic’s position in Seattle; he wanted to stay in L.A. and write movies. He did, and in the process made lots of money. He was profiled in magazines, owned a blue Alfa Romeo with an "OZU" license plate (in dubious honor of the legendary Japanese director) and, if you believe the Biskind book, endured some very bad times.

Schrader doesn’t think much of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. "It’s the revenge of the gossip culture on the counterculture. I said to Peter, ‘You know, the book is disappointing in many ways, but it’s most disappointing for you, because you had a wonderful theme, you had original material, you had unprecedented access, and you wrote a trivial book.’" Schrader insists that Biskind, a former editor at American Film and Premiere, published off-the-record stories. "He would do interviews, and you would dish your dirt and promote your film, then that would be over and you would move into a kind of generalized Hollywood conversation. That would never turn up in the article, but he saved all that material. It was all off the record at the time it was said, and a lot of it is unsubstantiated, third-party hearsay."

"None of it was off the record," counters Biskind. "Everything I used was on the record or unattributed. Nothing was off the record with Paul, because he always shoots from the hip. As far as ‘revenge of the gossip culture,’ that’s just a lot of nonsense. One person’s gossip is another person’s texture. The reason that there’s so much personal material in the book is because this was an era of personal filmmaking, and it was impossible to understand these movies without understanding people’s personal lives. And it was certainly impossible to understand what happened to these people without understanding their personal lives, because their personal lives, in many cases, essentially destroyed them at the end of the decade. That was certainly true of Schrader, or nearly true of Schrader.

"Paul enjoys talking," says Biskind. "He opens his mouth and it comes out uncensored."

Spend any time with Schrader, and that much becomes quickly obvious; it’s part of his enormous charm, and the reason even a crank such as critic David Thomson can call him "one of the most likable of film directors."

"What I really like about Paul," says Schrader’s friend, novelist Bruce Wagner, "is that he’ll say anything. And he’ll not only say anything, he’ll say anything articulately, whether he’s savaging someone very close to us or not. It’s always bracingly entertaining and noxious."

Over the years, some of Schrader’s most bracing and noxious comments have been reserved for himself. That too is part of his charm. He has a gift for balancing his self-aggrandizement with self-effacement — over the course of an interview he gives the assistant cameraman on Affliction credit for the film’s most powerful image, Nick Nolte credit for his towering performance, along with coaching some of the other actors’ performances, and author Russell Banks, on whose novel it is based, credit for the film itself. "Affliction is a Banks/ Schrader film. I really believe that," he says unblinkingly. "They’re Russell’s themes. I found a place for myself inside them, but it’s still more Russell’s film than it is mine. I certainly recognize the configuration. Two male siblings in the snowy environment with a strong father. But I do not have an abusive, alcoholic father, and James Coburn is not playing my father, you know? He’s Russell’s father, or more accurately, Russell’s grandfather."

Schrader’s audience could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. "Many of Paul’s films are made out of his own life," says Biskind. "It’s very clear. He should be the first person to recognize that." Affliction is about two brothers, Wade and Rolfe, living with the scars of their father’s brutality. The film’s central focus is the emotionally tortured Wade, played by Nolte, though the narrator is his younger brother, Rolfe, played by Dafoe. Schrader believes Rolfe may be the more important character, in part because of the bad advice he gives his brother. "He bears a lot of culpability, and he tries to apologize in the course of the narration," says Schrader. "When you have two children of an abusive parent, one of those children will be selected out for the violence. And the relationship of the younger sibling to the older sibling is very complex, in that the younger sibling is very grateful to his older brother for taking the beatings. On the other hand, he’s also jealous, because attention equals love in that family configuration. There can be almost no better recipe for passive-aggressive behavior than to simultaneously be grateful and jealous, so you’re being told this story by someone who has a very conflicted and guilty relationship to his story."

It’s a stunning read of the film, all the more so for its autobiographical intonation. But for all the evidence, all the clues and the hints, Schrader remains emphatic that any resemblance between his life and his movies is metaphoric rather than literal. "I never confused it with being my story," he says of Affliction, sounding as if he really believes it. There is a long pause. "I tried to write that story once, Light of Day. I tried to write that sibling story, and I didn’t quite get it right. Maybe it was too close. The truth is, given my druthers, I would much rather write about drifters, you know? The movie I have in my head is the next installment of that male loner. He’s now in his 50s and he’s homosexual and he lives in Washington, D.C., and basically, he’s Jerry Zipkin." Schrader laughs, obviously delighted with himself. "That’s what happened to the American Gigolo."

That’s what happened to Julian Kay, the beautiful hustler with the model physique, Armani wardrobe and Kafkaesque last name. And Travis Bickle? Maybe he got too old, too tired, too comfortable; it takes so much energy to stay that angry. Besides, for now, at least, the existential loner seems to have been supplanted in the popular imagination by what Schrader has called the "ironic hero" — the guy who asks not Should I exist? but Who cares? Which is why his next movie is a love story, Forever Mine. An obsessive love story, true, but a love story nonetheless.

"When I first saw Pulp Fiction," says Schrader, "I leaned over to my wife and I said, ‘Everything I have done is now obsolete.’ I mean, I had that very strong hit that the existential hero was over, you know? In some ways, why I’m making Forever Mine is that I think in this climate maybe the best thing is to go even further back and make a kind of 19th-century contemporary film. To take the soul of the 19th century and put it in a contemporary context and see how that works. Lack of irony, lack of cynicism. Just naked, naked emotion. Just commit to a world of unlimited horizons, you know? That crazy kind of end-of-the-19th-century belief in the future and in love and possibility."

This, then, is what happened to all the voices in Schrader’s head — they found a way to survive. What happened to Paul Schrader is this: He became a great American director.

 

Schrader on

James Coburn, Nick Nolte and Paul Newman

"I needed someone who was bigger than Nick. Both physically and iconographically. That didn’t leave many actors. Lee Marvin is dead. Paul Newman felt he was too young to play a grandfather. He did not want to play a bad guy — a vanity thing, I think. And also I think he still sees himself as the leading man. It’s a supporting role and it’s a bad guy. So I asked Coburn. He hadn’t been working that much, because his hands are kind of shriveled up from arthritis. He had the same problem with his knees for a while, had a hard time walking, but his knees have gotten better, and he was starting to act again. But I was concerned that Coburn might try to walk through the film, because he comes from that generation of actors — you know, stand and deliver: ‘Where’s my money, where’s my mark?’

"So after I hired him I went out to Los Angeles. He was wondering why I had come out all the way to have dinner with him. I said, ‘James, I just want to warn you in advance of the nature of the actor you’re working with. You know, Nick takes these things very, very seriously. He’s deeply imbued with the character. He reads, researches. You go in his room and it’ll be full of notes. He’s of that school of actor who lives through the character. So that if you try to just walk through this film, you know, it may not happen the first day, but I suspect by the second day, Nick’s going to be all over you. And I wanted to warn you, because when that happens, I won’t be there to help you.’

"So Coburn looked at me and he said, ‘You mean like real acting?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Like real acting, James.’ He said, ‘I can do that. They don’t ask me much. But I think I can do that.’"