Herewith, highlights from Scorsese and Paul Schrader riffing and reflecting on the germination and production of their classic film in a moderated discussion before the U.S. premiere of the new 4K restoration of Taxi Driver:
Kent Jones: You told me backstage, Paul, that this is the first time since Cannes that you and Marty have been together for a screening of this film.
Paul Schrader: Well, the caveat is that we’ve talked about it many times over the years but the last time we were at a podium together was at Cannes in 1976. In the intervening 35 years, I’m sure that we have both developed our own mythology about the making of this film and I’m not sure they in fact coincide with each other.
Martin Scorsese: (he smiles broadly and shakes his head).
PS: I of course defer to him on the final word.
KJ: Let’s start at the beginning—where did your script begin?
PS: This script was essentially written as self-therapy. I was in a desperate place and this character was starting to take over my life. I felt I had to write him so I wouldn’t become him. I wasn’t a screenwriter at the time, I was a film critic, but I wrote this as a script and not a novel because I knew scripts. I had been living in my car and had been drifting around and had been in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer, at the age of 27. When I was in the hospital this metaphor occurred to me, this taxi cab, the idea of this man in this metal coffin floating through the sewers of the city who seems to be in the middle of society but is in fact desperately alone. I think it actually worked. After I wrote the script I drifted around the country for about six months, came back to LA and ran into Brian DePalma and then connected with Marty.
KJ: What was it about the script that magnetized you, Marty?
MS: Brian introduced me to Paul, but I think he had given me the script to read and said I should do this picture. I was still editing Mean Streets at the time.
PS: Well, I don’t know if I gave it to your or Brian gave it to you.
MS: I think you did but he told me about it first.
PS: Well then, Brian has a piece of this picture then.
MS: He does?! (laughter)
PS: Ah come on, give him a little piece (more laughter)
MS: I don’t know, I read it and the character and the precision and power of the prose was like poetry. It was so strong. The voiceover was like poetry, the scene descriptions but ultimately, it is truthful and honest and I certainly identified with it later on. Of course De Niro, when he gave his reading—and this came from a life essentially spent watching films—that there were strong parallels to Notes from the Underground. I didn’t really think, literally—in other words, it took me a year or two after making the film—that this was the source. But at the time it was just a visceral reaction to the power of the writing and the character.
PS: I know when I got this idea that there were two books that I wanted to reread. I had recently read Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground so I reread L’Étranger and Nausea. That’s where I got the character. The characters in these novels were Travis Bickle’s parents and grandparents.
MS: I get the Camus (The Stranger) reference but the hook for me was more Russian in a way.
KJ: It’s also true that the movie Pickpocket (1959; Robert Bresson, dir.) influenced you, too.
PS: Yea, OK, so I had reviewed this film Pickpocket and I had never thought that I would be anything other than a film critic. Then I saw this movie and I loved it and I went back to see it repeatedly and I said to myself, ‘I could make a movie like that. It’s just some guy in his room and then he goes around and he writes in his diary, then he goes back to his room. I could definitely do that.’ So when I finally did write the script, I thought, well what should I do with this guy? I’ll have him write in his diary.
KJ: Let’s move forward to the actual shooting of the film.
MS: Everything was going on in New York at the time. It was the hottest summer (1975). It was an extraordinarily hard shoot. Apparently there was a garbage strike and apparently the government had told us to go to hell. We were shooting mostly on Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 57th street. It was perfect. The violence in that area in the summer at night was palpable. You could just feel it in the air.
PS: There was no studio work on this film.
MS: No, even the shoot out at the end, we used an abandoned building.
KJ: The city has changed, ever so slightly. (laughter)
PS: Fran Lebowitz, who just made a delightful film with Marty and is here tonight, spoke in that film on this very subject, saying: “We built it for you, and if you don’t like it, we’ll change it!”
KJ: Your film is a kind of “Lost New York.” So many of the locations are gone.
MS: I never thought that would happen. When we were shooting on 89th Street and Columbus in that abandoned building, all those buildings were in the process of being taken down, and there were all these cookie and stores were going up….and I thought, ‘What’s happening?’ Frankly, we shot 47th Street and it was a horrible, horrible place. It had a lot of character but it was a miserable place.
KJ: How did Robert De Niro find his way into the part and his interpretation of the role?
MS: He didn’t say or do much to get it, but there was a lot of rehearsal.
PS: This is my take on it, Marty: I talked a little bit about Travis with him, but none of us really talked that much to him about the role, right? We were all wired into this character. One of the reasons I suspect the film has an ongoing resonance is the serendipity of three young men in very similar place coming together at the right time.
MS: Literally, it was on set, where I was talking to Bob about the fact that the whole picture is about how he holds his head and his whole body straight. We made sure that certain gestures didn’t become too much—I wanted to keep it lean. But we did rehearsals two or three weeks in a hotel.
PS: I was back in Los Angeles doing another film and Bob called me and said, ‘We’re doing this scene tomorrow and do you think Travis would say this?’ That was the last time Bob ever made that call. And I said, ‘Bob, you’re working with Marty, you’re living the life: if you think Travis could say this, he will say this.’
KJ: How did you have the idea for Bernard Herrmann to do the score?
MS: The films I admire greatly have wonderful scores and it comes from a tradition of film scoring and foreign films. But with Mean Streets, that type of filmmaking wasn’t for me and I felt that the score had to be created from bits and pieces that I heard in my head and I lived with. And in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore a similar thing was done. But with Travis, he just didn’t listen to music, I didn’t feel, so it didn’t seem like the way to go.
PS: That decision of yours, Marty, one that caught me by surprise, I feel is really the genius of the film. I thought you were just a needledrop kind of guy. Then when I heard that Bernard Herrmann was going to do the score, I was amazed, and realized what an inspired decision it was.
MS: Whenever I thought of sort of B films from the 50s and 60s, it was always the music that stood out and made them better. Even pictures like White Witchdoctor, with Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward, which wasn’t very good at all, but the mood and tone in the music just propels the characters in a whole new way.
PS: Was he surprised when you asked?
MS: Yes, I called him on the phone, through a connection, and I said “I really admire your work, sir.” He was in London at the time. “I have this picture about a taxi driver,” I said. “I don’t do pictures about cabbies,” he shot back. “It’s more than that,” I said. “No cab driver pictures!” But we sent him the script and we met him in London and he loved the character and he loved that he ate cornflakes [actually bread] with brandy. That did it. I see him all brass—all strength. When that first cue came up, it surprised even me.
PS: Even though we’re involved with it, we can both say that that was a real moment. Well, it goes back to Country Priest for me. The wine and bread just becomes the cornflakes and brandy.
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