So here comes Paul Schrader — father to America‘s craziest taxi driver and its unhappiest gigolo — off to do the DVD commentary for his new movie, Auto Focus. He’s clad in a yellow polo shirt, s
“You have to be happy with that,” I venture, and he just shakes his head:
“Yeah, but he murdered my last one” — a dud called Forever Mine that only Schrader really seems to like. “He stabbed it in the back and then kicked it and kicked it.”
He flips the page and finds a favorable review of Todd Haynes‘ Far From Heaven.
“I’m really happy for Todd,” he purrs, then snaps the paper shut. “But I‘m even happier that my review is first.”
He clearly means it — it’s been a long, long time since a Paul Schrader movie has been any kind of headliner — but he‘s also putting on a show. You don’t survive as a maverick filmmaker for three decades without learning the value of providing colorful copy.
We‘d met a few hours earlier at a hotel on La Cienega where Schrader had just finished a morning of gang-bang-style interviews. He had squeezed himself into a business suit that clearly made him uncomfortable. (“I have a meeting later,” he said sheepishly, “and they lost my other luggage.”) In person, Schrader is thick, even bullish, with a goombah’s neck and broad German features — he could star in a Teutonic remake of The Sopranos. Indeed, there is about him more than a whiff of the thug (when the waitress brings us bread at lunch, he instantly dunks a slice straight into the butter dish), and one suspects that a certain aggression is necessary armature in a film business mistrustful of brainy, rebellious directors over the age of 30.
Back in the 1970s, Schrader built his rep writing iconic screenplays about run-amok masculinity — “You talkin‘ to me?” — and was himself often notoriously out of control. Now 56, he has learned (as, say, his old running mate James Toback never did) that the bad-boy act can wear thin, especially in aging filmmakers who are no longer making hits. Still, Paul Schrader is not going gently into that good cinematic night. Even as most of his contemporaries have lost their sense of mission, settling into wineries or well-paid hack work, he remains a true believer. Schrader thinks that movies are obligated to grapple with life’s pulpy profundities — sex, politics, madness, violence, the eternal wrestling match between the sacred and the profane.
This conviction pays off handsomely in Auto Focus, Schrader‘s most entertaining movie in years, which is garnering terrific reviews, playing prestigious film festivals and spawning talk of Oscar nominations for Greg Kinnear and co-star Willem Dafoe. It’s also serving as a launching pad for Schrader‘s next project, an Exorcist prequel, his first big-budget showcase in years.
A ’60s sitcom gone terribly wrong, Auto Focus tells the funny, sordid (“in a good way,” says Schrader) story of Bob Crane, who‘s best known as the amiable star of Hogan’s Heroes and the victim of a grisly murder with overtones of sexual kink. The movie charts the life trajectory of Crane, wonderfully played by Kinnear, from his days as a cool radio DJ with a fondness for photographing nudes, through his rise to dizzy TV stardom with its celebrity-bedazzled groupies, and into his grim final years as a warped has-been whose sex addiction had a visionary twist — he was one of the first people on the planet to videotape amateur porn. Along the way, he plows through oodles of women, shucks two families and oils his queasy bond with John Carpenter (Dafoe), a fellow swinger and needy hanger-on. Awash in joyless womanizing (Schrader makes lovemaking seem about as appealing as gum surgery), the movie is less about sex than about absolute selfishness — for Crane, it appears, other people scarcely existed. Like Nick Tosches‘ biography of Dean Martin, Auto Focus shows how all-American likability can mask inner bankruptcy. But Schrader also uses this story to offer a sly commentary on voyeurism, technophilia, changing ideas of masculinity — Crane embodies the reductio ad absurdum of Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” — and the pathology of a culture that goes ape over the mingiest of celebrities.
Much early coverage of Auto Focus has focused on the behind-the-scenes story of Crane and his family. When I ask Schrader about the legal battle between Crane‘s sons (from different wives) over the movie — a topic covered at great length in both the L.A. Times and The New York Times Magazine — he sighs and gives me a look suggesting that he’d expected better of me: “I‘m bored with the whole Jerry Springer of it all.”
Which is to say he wants to talk about the movie. Schrader got into the film business writing reviews in the late 1960s, and he still thinks like the trenchant critic he once was. Unlike directors who fear that analyzing their work might diminish its power, Schrader is a walking Cliffs Notes. He explains his movie’s meaning in the press packet. He explains it in his interviews. And he explains it on the DVD director‘s commentary, where he also elucidates the film’s color scheme, increasingly jagged mise en scene and the meaning of the title Auto Focus (it has nothing to do with cars).
“Who really gives a shit about Bob Crane or Hogan‘s Heroes?” he says as we head into the dubbing studio. “In themselves, they’re not interesting.” And indeed, for all Schrader‘s Freudian fascination with the dynamics of bad behavior, the movie deliberately makes no attempt at all to take us “inside” Crane or offer us a histrionic psychodrama about addiction. Quite the contrary — which is why he cast Greg Kinnear.
“You know,” he says, “there were no dark nights of the soul for Bob Crane. It was very hard to go that deeply into him. It couldn’t be The Lost Weekend. It couldn‘t even be Leaving Las Vegas. You had a glib, kind of clueless guy, so you had to get a glib actor. If I had hired someone like John Cusack, it would’ve been a much different movie. It would‘ve been, Let’s go to this dark place together and have a dark night of the soul together. With Greg it‘s, Let’s pretend we‘re normal.”
Schrader’s detractors have long insisted that he talks a better film than he actually makes, and you can see what they mean. He‘s a riveting conversationalist who can happily hopscotch from the films of Yasujiro Ozu to rock & roll to the Belgian Congo under King Leopold. He is widely thought to have a big mouth, especially after a couple of drinks (“My, that’s good,” he says, sipping a glass of pouilly-fuisse), when his inner censors weaken and he grows expansive. Then, he‘ll start telling you how clever Steven Soderbergh’s people were to have passed off Traffic as an original film instead of a remake. He‘ll say that he’s looking forward to seeing About Schmidt but that he‘s worried about Jack Nicholson’s performance — “He‘s such an old warhorse, it’s hard to imagine him doing something new.” Or he‘ll chide longtime colleague Robert De Niro for greedily frittering away his talent:
“He’s never done me any real favors. Bobby used to agonize over roles, and [superagent] Mike [Ovitz] said, ‘You know, if you’ll let me control your life, I will remove this from you.‘ And that’s where it all started. Bobby wasn‘t so discriminate anymore — he did one film after another. And he still has not, to this day, ever cut his price for anybody for anything, and that price is now, what, 8, 9 million bucks? When your motivation as an actor is to get your food, your creative language is in trouble. Maybe if you’re Tom Hanks you can get your fee doing only what you a wish to do. But if you‘re De Niro, you get your fee by doing what they offer you.”
Just from listening to Schrader’s brutal, sometimes self-serving frankness about old friends, big stars and the film business, you can tell that he understands — from very deep inside — how seductive it is to break loose of all constraints and let ‘er rip. Even if the things you do come back and bite you.
“The greatest thing for an artistic enterprise,” he says, “is the exploration of self-destructive behavior. Bob Crane was a guy who wanted to be one thing, and his behavior was doing the opposite. When a guy’s living this contradiction large, like two bright headlights coming at you — well, I‘m crazy about that character all day, every day.”
On a good day, Hollywood can be the most cheerful place on the planet (just ask Bob Crane). As we enter the dubbing studio just off Melrose, we’re greeted by the affable Brit who‘s making the DVD extras and by a beaming exec. They smile as Schrader jokes about the penny-pinching of Sony Pictures Classics (which is distributing Auto Focus) and laugh when he gets going on company co-president Tom Bernard: “He’s a hockey player, and he has a hockey player‘s take on interpersonal relations.”
I dutifully write all this down, but don’t doubt he‘s said worse to Bernard’s face.
Moments later, Schrader‘s whisked into the recording studio, the tape starts to roll, and he’s explaining the film. Again. Driving over, he told me he wanted to get in and out in an hour, but he quickly grasps it‘s hopeless. “At this rate,” he grumbles over the loudspeaker, “I’m talking through the whole fucking movie, right?”
As he discusses the parallels between Auto Focus and the film Prick Up Your Ears (another story of a celebrity killed by a friend), I find myself pondering the parallels between Crane‘s career and Schrader’s, even though he‘d earlier brushed off that comparison with a smile: “I wasn’t that kind of minor celebrity.”
Despite all their similarities — both men enjoyed show-biz success, both had personal lives that spun out of control, and both faced the challenge of sustaining a career long after they‘d gone out of fashion — Schrader had a point. For what makes Crane’s story distressing is his relentless descent into sexual scuzziness and, if I may be allowed an oxymoron, ever-deeper levels of shallowness. There‘s no redemption, no self-consciousness, no search for transcendence, just the endless quest for more pussy — “A day without sex,” Crane liked to say, “is a day wasted.” In contrast, Schrader put himself right. He married actress Mary Beth Hurt, started a family and learned to shoot movies on budgets vastly lower than those he’d grown accustomed to in his glory days. He may not have conquered his obsessions, but neither did he let them devour him.
Of course, Schrader might easily have been sucked into the psychic whirlpool just like Crane. He grew up in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, family so doctrinaire in its Calvinism, that most joyless of faiths, that he was pondering damnation when other kids were grooving to Elvis. Almost predictably, the rigors of his upbringing rocketed him into rebellion. The young Christian who didn‘t see his first movie until he was 15 had, by age 22, moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in film school at UCLA, landed a job as a movie critic for the L.A. Free Press (he got canned for panning Easy Rider) and become a protege of the late Pauline Kael, a crusty old broad who had no time for highfalutin spiritual guff.
Like one of those tormented souls in a Graham Greene novel who commits adultery in order to find God, Schrader has always been drawn to the debased and the sinful — he’s turned on by the fallen nature of Man. Once he and brother Leonard had sold the script to The Yakuza for a then-record of $325,000 in 1975, he spent years arm-wrestling his demons. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind‘s dishy saga of ’70s Hollywood self-destructiveness, we see Schrader doing coke, getting depressed, pondering suicide, flirting with S&M and homosexuality. He is also the butt of some of the book‘s most memorable punch lines. When Nastassia Kinski suddenly broke off the affair they began during Cat People, he pursued her to Paris, where she told him: “Paul, I always fuck my directors. And with you it was difficult.”
Of course, nobody in Hollywood cares if you’re a nice guy as long as the industry thinks you can catch lightning in a bottle. And early on, the bolts seemed to shoot from Schrader‘s fingertips. In the years between 1975 and 1980, he scripted two fabled films for Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Ask him now which is better, and he doesn’t miss a beat:
“Taxi Driver. I‘ll tell you a dirty secret about Raging Bull. Michael Chapman, who shot the film, and I went to a screening at Paramount and saw the movie. We walked out, didn’t say a word, got out to our cars, and Michael said, ‘Well, Marty fucked that one up, didn’t he?‘” He laughs. “And I said, ’Yeah, I don‘t know what he was thinking.’ And that was the last time I saw it.”
Even as Schrader was turning out scripts for other people, he was writing and directing three films of his own. He calls Blue Collar, his 1978 debut, a Marxist movie, and in a loose sense it is, though its story of autoworkers and crooked unions is most remembered for tackling the bugbear of race as few studio films have ever dared to. His follow-up, Hardcore — essentially The Searchers set in the world of pornography — suffered from a campy tag line (“Oh my God, that‘s my daughter!”) but remains an impressive picture. It honorably portrayed the kind of devout small-business man that Hollywood normally condescends to, and offered an X-ray of Schrader’s own moral ambivalence at that time: He clearly identified both with the daughter corrupted by L.A. and the righteous father seeking to rescue her.
While these movies admirably looked into neglected corners of ordinary American life, Schrader hit his commercial peak in 1980, by going in precisely the opposite direction with American Gigolo, the shotgun wedding of Robert Bresson and Giorgio Armani. Thanks in part to its title, it remains Schrader‘s most famous picture and our culture’s most iconic portrait of fetishized consumerism. Who can forget Julian Kaye‘s stylish shirts and cool Westwood pad? Or a remember what actually happens? Roll me in designer sheets, indeed.
While Schrader is a born screenwriter, he’s never been a natural director (“Visual logic is not my first language,” he says). Following on the triumph of American Gigolo — which helped set the stylistic template for the Simpson-Bruckheimer era — he lost his bearings in the deliriously loony Cat People, of which his onetime idol Kael crushingly wrote: “Each shot looks like an album cover for records you don‘t ever want to play.”
An expensive, high-profile flop, Cat People marked the beginning of the end for Schrader’s career as a popular filmmaker. Although he would occasionally be involved in high-profile films — including screenplays for The Mosquito Coast and The Last Temptation of Christ — he would spend most of the next 20 years wandering the indie-film wilderness. Gone were the director‘s trailer, the fat expense accounts, the bankable actors, the sense that one’s movie was going to rock the whole culture. After Cat People, he would make small movies and live from picture to picture.
“It‘s a very adversarial process,” Schrader says, “and that isn’t fun as you get older. You wake up in the morning and you realize no one wants you to do what you want to do, and that has to be your cup of coffee. The day that stops being your cup of coffee, the game is over. So you have to be energized by opposition. And I am. The nice thing about a low-budget film is, you realize you‘re not going to get rich, so what’s in it for you is to do something really moving, something that you haven‘t done and that will catch people in a way they haven’t been caught before. But you‘re not making it for the mass audience. You’re making it for people who get it.”
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.”
Nor is Schrader impressed by the much-touted indie-film scene. As a juror at Sundance a few years ago, he spent the festival indiscreetly mocking the competition films for their banality. He can’t understand why anybody would go through the pain of making a low-budget movie “just so it can be middlebrow.” When I bring up My Big Fat Greek Wedding, he smiles and reminds me that its producer, Rita Wilson, plays Bob Crane‘s first wife in Auto Focus: “Rita told me about her movie while we were shooting.” He laughs. “She told me I wouldn’t have to see it.”
Personally, I‘d love to read Schrader’s review of that film. He has always been a walking contradiction — both a headlong sinner forever diving into the mosh pit of carnal weakness and a righteous inquisitor whose baleful eye registers the world‘s transgressions. When he talks about the movies, you feel the weight of his strong religious background.
“Well, it does tend to make you a little judgmental when you’re raised to believe that there are moral certainties and actions of consequences, and that at the end of your life you will be called to account and judged for how you have used your talents. You can run away from that, but you can‘t run far.
”I remember when I went to [producer] Don Simpson’s wake. Don and I had been very close at one point, very close, and all those people were saying these silly things about him, like, ‘He was a good skier.’ I was walking out onto the floor next to [studio honcho] Dawn Steele, and I said, ‘Dawn, I believe that when one’s life is over, it can be called into account and put on the scales. And if you put Don‘s life on the scales, he is a loss. He did not live a good life. He’s an immoral object lesson, not anything else.‘ As much as I liked him, I had no reservation about putting his life on the scales, as I would not have about putting my own life on the scales.“
How, then, would he judge himself? Is Paul Schrader a good guy? The question takes him a bit by surprise, and he’s momentarily skittish.
”Well, if you use the analogy of the talents from the Gospels, I feel I have made good use of the gifts I was given. I‘ve used them appropriately and responsibly and I feel good. And this has simply to do with self-worth — it’s nothing about awards, nothing about box office. All things considered, I feel that I have lived a very meritorious artistic life. I‘ve failed, of course, but that’s almost a predicate: You can‘t succeed unless you fail.“
Which could almost be the lesson of Bob Crane’s long, thoughtless roller-coaster ride from public triumph to pubic catastrophe, to weird immortality as the anti-hero of Auto Focus. What‘s Schrader’s verdict on him?
”I was talking to Steve Martin, and Steve remembered hearing Bob on the radio. And that‘s who he wanted to be. Part of the great Crane appeal was being in on the joke — the guy who coughed over the smoking commercial, the guy who made fun of the sponsors when no one was doing that.“ He shakes his head. ”Imagine being a comedian who specialized in being in on the joke, then having the big joke become your own life — and you just don’t get it.“