Dog Eat Dog is like nothing Paul Schrader has ever done before. The director of films as diverse as American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Affliction and Blue Collar (and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ), Schrader is no stranger to stylistic reinvention. But in this thriller about a trio of hapless but dangerous ex-cons (Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook) taking on one last score, he delights in upending audience expectations with every scene, continually reinventing the movie. He spoke to us recently about what led him down this path, how filmmaking has changed over the years and why he let Nicolas Cage do a Humphrey Bogart impersonation.
I was struck by the constant stylistic inventiveness of this film. It never lets up, and it’s quite a departure from your work. What made you decide to go in this direction?
Every film presents itself as a new task — or at least it should. How do you make a film about the life of Yukio Mishima? How do you do a DIY film with Bret Easton Ellis and Lindsay Lohan [The Canyons]? Different task, different movies. The task with Dog Eat Dog was: I want to make a crime film in 2016. And I got involved in this not because I wanted to make a crime film, but because I wanted to make another film with Nic Cage, to redeem ourselves from the unfortunate situation we had on our previous film [Dying of the Light]. Now, I'm not a crime director, but I had a whole summer to think about it. I said, “What in the hell does a crime film look like today, after Scorsese and Tarantino and Guy Ritchie?” Particularly one with such an old-fashioned plot as this one: Three ex-cons do one final job. I mean, it can't really be a more boring or hoary kind of situation.
But I do have final cut this time, because that's the only way I could have approached Nic. And we’re not talking about a lot of money, because Nicolas Cage tends to take a large part of your budget in his salary. So you have to respond to your storytelling needs and your financial limitations with imagination rather than with production value. You find yourself in an artistic arena where novelty and imagination are the most valued things. The novel [Dog Eat Dog, by Edward Bunker] was a very kind of period affair. It was set in the ‘90s, and Bunker's sensibility was from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The film is not that faithful to the book. More than anything, I think it is faithful to the history of the crime film — it is more about crime movies than it is about criminals.
That stylization also mirrors the characters' experience to some extent. Here are these ex-cons who find themselves in this new world. They’re out of step, they're trying to adapt. Which is mirrored by the film’s search for a new language.
Yeah, in a way they know they’re in a crime movie. Nic Cage is doing Humphrey Bogart. Willem knows he's playing the psychopath — and he wants me to mention that he's really not the psychopath, even though he's playing the psychopath. So there's a whole meta quality to it, with references to earlier films, both in terms of the camera and the dialogue.
Where did the Bogart references come from? Were they from Nicolas Cage himself?
Yeah, they weren't in the script. When I first started seeing them, he would do little bits and pieces of mannerisms. I didn't care for it much. I thought, “I think it's a little corny, but I'm not gonna start a fight with Nic over it. I'll just cut it out in the edit.” But then I changed my tune. Talking about the scene at the end of the film, he’d say to me, “We rehearsed it, but I still don't know what I’m doing in this final scene. I don't know why I'm still alive, I don't know why I'm talking to that black couple, I don't know what's going on.” And I said to him, “Maybe you're not still alive; maybe it's an afterlife scene.”
So we talked some more. Then we came to shoot it — it was the second-to-the-last day of the shoot — and we're reading the lines before the camera car goes out, and now he's reading the entire scene as Humphrey Bogart! It’s the first time I heard this. I go, “Whoa, whoa!” I said, “Nic, are you sure you wanna do that?” And he said, “Well, you said to me that maybe he was dead. And if he's dead, he can be Humphrey Bogart. He's always wanted to be Bogart. Now is his chance.” I could see some logic in that.
And he added, “You know, for five weeks you've been telling everybody to be bold all the time. ‘Be bold!’ Well, I think this is a bold choice.” I said, “You're right; let's do it.” It was about a half-hour from the time I first knew he was going to do this to the time we started shooting it. I know some people will say it works, some people will say it doesn't. But if you had planned it out all in advance, and it had been the script … it probably would have never ever gotten shot. At some point, somebody would have talked everybody else out of doing it.
I love the fact that it comes in near the end. By that point, the film has gone through so many different moves that you're thinking, “Why the hell not?” You once said something that I really like: that the real ending to a movie should take place in the street outside the theater. This seems like the kind of thing that will prompt us to talk about it afterwards.
Yeah. If two people walk out of a movie and the first thing they say is, “Where shall we eat?” you know you've really not quite done your job as a storyteller.
The stylization and surrealism also highlights the film's quieter moments; I think my favorite scene is still the one in the hotel room between Diesel [one of the lead trio, played by Christopher Matthew Cook] and a random, beautiful woman he meets in a hotel bar — which is possibly the most naturalistic, restrained scene of the film. But I don't know that it would stand out as much if sort of the rest of the movie wasn't so crazy.
Yeah, probably not. It was just a scene in a hotel room with a guy and a girl. But now there’s sort of a respite here, because you've been watching a film without any women at all. Now they each get a scene with a girl — and each [of these scenes] is more frustrating than the last — and you're ready to take off again.
You're no stranger to violence in films. The way Dog Eat Dog opens — with Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) and his girlfriend and the daughter — is really shocking, and it colors the rest, even though it’s tangential to the plot. I was constantly waiting for things to explode as they did in that opening.
It’s a real palate cleanser. You know, you've just cleaned out your mouth and you're ready for anything now. The idea was to get ahead of the audience, to surprise them and then to stay ahead. And also, to make sure they knew what kind of movie this was. I was trying to convey the message, “If you're taking this movie seriously, you're in the wrong theater. We need to get all those people out, and then we can show the movie.” [Laughs]
But you also get inside the utter confusion in his head. It’s actually strangely poignant. Almost like a challenge, right at the beginning: “Okay, here's this guy doing something unspeakably monstrous. And now watch, I'm gonna make you care about him.”
Well, you've got to believe in redemption after all! [Laughs] Yeah, Willem had a good time with that. Willem is the kind of actor who likes to pour himself into a role. So when you ask him to do something, you're not thinking that this would be a good Willem Dafoe role; what you're thinking is, “What will Will bring to this?” Because he will bring something to it, and he doesn't necessarily know either. He will inhabit the character, and then it’ll start to go in a certain direction. And if you want to know exactly what you're going to get before you get it, then you shouldn't hire him.
I'm struck by the vivid sense of place in your films, whether it's the early ones like Blue Collar and Hardcore, or later stuff like Light Sleeper and Affliction, all the way up to The Canyons and now Dog Eat Dog, in which you changed the location to Cleveland. Even if you’re not doing a lot of establishing shots or cutaways, we always get a real sense of the locale.
Well, when I began, I did the whole establishing-shot thing, but film language has changed so radically that you don't even need them anymore. It used to be you always had to do an establishing shot, you always had to do a master — you don't have to anymore. I'm changing the point, or I'm pivoting from your question, as they say in today’s world. [Laughs] But here’s an interesting example. If you have a character with a red jacket who walks into a restaurant, and you shoot him from the exterior, and then you shoot him from the other side and suddenly he has a blue jacket on … In the past that would be called a continuity error; today it's called a choice. Because the audience knows. They say, “Oh! Why did they do that?” The audience doesn't say, “No, they made a mistake.” They say, “Why would he change his jacket?”
Why is that?
Because we have entered into a kind of “post-rules” generation and a lot of concepts that we believed in we don't necessarily believe in anymore — like a unified style, like certain forms of narrative progression, certain definitions of character likability. There’s the generation that made the rules, then the generation that codified the rules and the generation that broke the rules, which was my generation. Then you have the generation that laughed at the rules, which was Quentin [Tarantino]. And now we have a generation that doesn't know there ever were rules. And that's who I want to collaborate with. I've put together a very young team. I didn't want people who were going to think outside the box because that means they're already in the box. I was looking for people who didn't know where the box was.
And the first time this occurred to me was about 10 years ago; I was watching a film by Xavier Dolan, the Québécois wunderkind. And he did a scene very much like Cassavetes, then he did a scene like Godard, then he did a scene like Bertolucci; and he was 19 years old at the time. Watching this, I said, “Hasn't anybody told him he can't do that?” Then I thought, “No, of course they haven't told him. Because he can.” And he's young enough to know that it doesn't matter anymore. So in this film, there's an Orson Welles scene and then there's a Michael Bay scene and there's a Cassavetes scene. We’re just throwing them back and forth.
To get back, why does setting always come through so vividly in your films? Maybe it’s not a question you can answer.
I pivoted away 'cause I don't know the answer! I don't even know if you're right, because I never really gave it any thought in that way. You do get into a location and you try to make it fresh. When I did American Gigolo in Los Angeles, the problem was how to make Los Angeles fresh. Well, the answer I came up with the Europeanization of Los Angeles — using an Italian production designer and an Italian musician to overlay all the visuals. So you got a kind of Italianate look at Los Angeles. And every time you go to a location, you're not thinking, “How can I best capture this location?” but, “How can I make it interesting?”
This struck me particularly when I was recently re-watching Light Sleeper, which is one of my favorite films of yours. That captures a very specific period in New York, when the broken city of the '70s and '80s was transforming into the more gentrified, sanitized New York of the '90s and 2000s. Even the plot kind of reflects that. Susan Sarandon’s character is getting out of the drug business and wants to get into cosmetics. And she and Dafoe are selling drugs to yuppies and finance people. It’s a movie about drug dealers, but the atmosphere really captures that transformation happening in New York.
His apartment in that movie is at 25th and 9th, which is now of course high-rise Chelsea. I guess the film reflects the moment that it’s in. I came up with this idea as my metaphor for a midlife crisis. I was trying to find a midlife character, and I couldn't find one. I went through all the usual suspects. And then I had a dream in which this drug dealer appeared to me very, very vividly, named John. I woke up from the dream at 5 in the morning and said, “Oh my God! Why was he so vivid?” And I thought, “What were we talking about?” I realized he was asking me about the movies. I said, “That's it. I couldn't find him, so he's finally hunted me down. And he's asked me about the movies 'cause he wants me to make a movie about him. This is my midlife guy.” So I started researching the next day.
You talked a little bit about how film style has changed. I do feel like in your films, very often the story takes a backseat to other concerns. Certainly in the earlier films: In Blue Collar, it's something like 40 minutes before the guys decide to rob the union; in American Gigolo, the murder subplot doesn't come in until more than half an hour.
That's because they’re character studies and they’re about interesting people. Or about an interesting person whose soul is drifting around, and at a certain point, the viewer requires some traction under the wheels. They let you get away with this drifting for a while, and now it's time for you to deliver. It's now the time for you to take that clock and put it on the set, or to take that bomb and put it under the seat.
Starting off as a screenwriter, were you ever cognizant of the rules of writing screenplays, or of structure?
I actually never did. I still don't think there are. Some movies have one act; some have two, some have three, some have five. Some are endlessly episodic. This whole thing about the rules of screenwriting is just a scam that a number of people — and in particular people named McKee — made a lot of money on. There is only one rule that I know of: Screenwriting is not writing at all; it’s part of the oral tradition, and if you can tell a story for 45 minutes and keep somebody interested, there's a movie there.
That’s the way that I worked when I was young, and how I still work: Tell the story, and then outline it and re-outline it and tell it again. Your story either grows and becomes something, or it dies. Either way, that’s a good thing — because if it dies, you're freed from taking the time to write a script that you shouldn't be writing. But if it grows, then it grows to a point where it says, “OK, enough of this. Let's get to work.”
“If you can tell the story for 45 minutes, you’ve got a movie.” That actually sounds like a pitch meeting.
That's what we used to do! Back in the ‘70s, you’d go in and pitch for 45 minutes. And you'd just create drama for 45 minutes, and they'd buy it or they wouldn't buy it. They don't want you to do that anymore. I didn't see movies or TV as a kid, but there's a lot of storytelling in my background. And the secret of a good story is not so much the plot, it's the storyteller. You know, if George Burns is telling you a story or Jimmy Stewart is telling you a story, the story could mean nothing, but you’ll still find it immensely entertaining.