If you’re a true cinephile, Paul Schrader really shouldn’t require an introduction (but you’re going to get one anyway): scribe of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ for Martin Scorsese, the New Hollywood maverick also crafted his own impressive directorial oeuvre. Blue Collar, American Gigolo and Hardcore proved that Schrader had a voice behind the lens all his own, drawn both from semi-autobiographical detail and his interactions with various walks of life while pursuing his artistic endeavors. In short, the guy’s an utter legend – possibly the greatest screenwriter of all time – and having the opportunity to sit in a room and pick his brain is one of the greatest honors any film writer could be graced with.
Schrader’s latest is Dog Eat Dog – a sordid, stylized adaptation of Eddie Bunker’s '90s crime novel revolving around ex-cons portrayed by Nic Cage (often channeling Humphrey Bogart) and Willem Dafoe (often channeling pure neurosis). Our too brief chat covered his newest gift, and dipped into the past regarding a lost meeting between the main characters of Taxi Driver and what is easily the best bit of exploitation ever made, Rolling Thunder…
BMD: We’re big fans of Eddie Bunker and have championed Straight Time (which is based on one of his novels) for many years. Did you know Eddie?
Paul Schrader: Nope – never met him. Willem did a film with him called Animal Factory. But he was dead by the time we decided to do this movie, which was fortunate, because he had written a book that was somewhat antiquated in its outlook on life. He had a real '70s mentality, wrote the book in the '90s, and now it’s the twenty-teens. I wanted to make a film that felt like today, which meant that I had to do some minor injustice to Eddie Bunker, and felt freer to do that since he wasn’t around to see it.
BMD: So you wanted to make a movie that felt like today, and it indeed does feel “modern”, as opposed to some of your other work. What’s the motivation to update your style and continue to push your voice into contemporary times?
PS: It all started with Nic and I. We’d been involved in a bad situation together.
BMD: Dying of the Light?
PS: Yes – it was taken away from me, and I promised Nic if we live long enough, we gotta work together in order to get this stink off our skins. So this script came along, completely unattached to anything or anyone, and I read the opening scene with [Willem Dafoe’s character] Mad Dog* and thought “maybe this is the one”. So I sent it to Nic, and he liked it, but he didn’t want to play Mad Dog. He wanted to play [more reserved leader of the gang] Troy. But once he signed I said to myself “now, wait a minute. You’re going to get this movie made. It’s a crime film. You’ve never made a crime film.” But I had a whole summer to think about this, and watch films, and put together a group of young people who – more or less – were new to the business. It was going to be the first screen credit for all of them.
What our job became that summer was we would meet together at a diner in Chelsea where I live. And we’d talk about movies, and watch clips from movies, and I told them, “the bad news is, we don’t have enough money to make this movie the right way. The good news is: I have final cut, so we can make any fucking film we want.”
BMD: That was going to be my next question, actually. I figured final cut was going to be of utmost importance to you after Dying of the Light.
PS: Exactly. So what I said to them was, “the only rule is: there are no rules. Just never be boring.”
[Shows me a picture on his phone of a group of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed creatives at a fluorescent-lit greasy spoon.]
Those were my department heads.
BMD: A youthful lot.
PS: I didn’t want people who were going to think outside of the box. I wanted people who literally were outside of the box. I needed that to break free of the encrusted techniques I had developed over forty years. That became the fun and the challenge of the project. As a result, it became a movie about crime films as much as it is a movie about criminals.
BMD: What were some of the movies you guys watched? Give me some key titles in the creation of Dog Eat Dog.
PS: The red and the blue [color palette that dominates much of the film] came from a movie called Belly.
BMD: The Hype Williams film?
PS: Yes. That one. The multiple screens [displayed using split editing techniques during an early drug trip] came from Requiem for a Dream. The ketchup and mustard fight came from Hyena. The forced compositions came from the Mr. Robot television series. I had a Movi [stabilizer] for the camera, which allowed me to get many shots you wouldn’t be able to with a dolly or Steadicam.
But there was a lot of improvisation on set as well. We had this one actress, who was just not getting the job done, and we were falling behind schedule. Nic came to me and was like, “well, what should I do with her?” And I was like, “I dunno, keep her moving. It’s not working.” But Nic was getting really frustrated and, if you’ve ever worked with Nic, you know that he’s just in it all the time – ready to kill every scene. So then I think “why am I being so nice to this woman? I need to be rough with her.” So I was just like Lee Marvin in Point Blank and said “lady, I don’t have time for this.” So we shot her, and Nic just couldn’t have been happier. Suddenly, we were caught up on schedule and ready to do a bunch of scenes in a row. And I remember Willem coming up to us, because he knew we were having difficulties with her and said “well, how’d you handle it?” I told him we killed her. [laughs maniacally]
BMD: You killed the dead weight – the wonders that come with having final cut.
Now you said that you’d never made a crime movie, but you’ve obviously worked in genre movies before…
PS: I don’t know that I’ve ever made a “genre movie”. Cat People is probably the closest.
BMD: But you co-wrote The Yakuza for your first screenwriting credit...
PS: Well, yeah…
BMD: Then there’s Rolling Thunder, which you obviously don’t like.
PS: Well, no. I just think they miscast it. Tommy Lee should’ve been the lead of that movie. Even the producer, Larry Gordon, said to me “we cast the lead as the friend…”
BMD: Why the aversion to crime movies then?
PS: I just never really saw myself as a genre artist, but here I am.
BMD: Personally, I saw “Paul Schrader directing an adaptation of an Eddie Bunker novel” and instantly wanted to know where I could sign up. But you’ve got Bunker’s text which, with your updates, becomes about these antiquated men in a modern age. Nic Cage is even doing Humphrey Bogart at certain points!
PS: The irony of Bunker’s career, and the theme that dominated most of his novels, was that once you’re in a life of a crime, you never get out. But Eddie did get out. He was the exception to that rule. Over the end credits we play a song called “Swimming Down Satan’s River”, and that’s really what this movie is. It’s about these three guys drowning in an evil body of water they can’t escape from.
BMD: Now this is your fifth collaboration with Willem Dafoe?
PS: Willem and I are friends, which is rare due to the care and maintenance that comes with actors in general. Once you’re done with each other, you usually want to get the hell away from one another. But Willem doesn’t have that issue. He doesn’t need any of that shit. But the last film he did for me (Adam Resurrected), he only did one day, and it definitely was a favor. And at the end he was like “don’t ever ask me to do one day again. Next time you ask me to work, give me something with meat on it.” So when Nic chose not to play Mad Dog and Mad Dog was the best role, there was only one choice in my mind.
BMD: Before I go, I have a question that I always promised myself I’d ask should I ever be lucky enough to meet you. In your original script for Rolling Thunder, there’s a scene where Travis Bickle and Charles Raine see each other at a porno theater. Did you always envision them as being two sides of the same coin?
PS: Yes. The original ending of Rolling Thunder revolved around suicidal glory, as you obviously know, just like Taxi Driver, and they were both men who came home from war and created their own missions. So essentially, in that scene, they were merely two gunships in the night, silently signaling one another.
*In which Mad Dog blows coke, shoots heroin, and murders a woman within a two-minute span.
Dog Eat Dog hits select theaters and VOD November 11th.