Paul Schrader’s Last Stand: How a 70-Year-Old Titan of American Cinema Is Fighting to Stay Relevant
Art and Experience: Paul Schrader has the outsized personality of a cigar-chomping studio mogul, the soul of a cinephile, and the DIY filmmaking ethos of a millennial. His career stretches back decades, but he never stops living in the moment.
He wrote “Taxi Driver” 40 years ago, kickstarting a collaborating with Martin Scorsese that continued with “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and “Bringing Out the Dead.” The former film critic also has forged his own path as a director, with seminal portraits of intense masculinity like “American Gigolo,” “Affliction” and the astonishing epic “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.” He’s never really slowed down.
His latest movie, “Dog Eat Dog,” might not look like the work of a veteran director. A wacky, discursive adaptation of Eddie Bunker’s 1995 novel (scripted by Matthew David Wilder), it takes the elements of a grimy heist movie and turns them inside out.
Nicolas Cage stars with Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook as a trio of criminal misfits who reunite for one last job. Just when you think you’ve heard this one before, “Dog Eat Dog” slaps its audience across the face with abrupt shifts, ironic music cues, and outrageous violence that borders on slapstick. (Schrader himself surfaces as a corrupt lawyer.) Unapologetically messy and fun, “Dog Eat Dog” careens around with the vicious intent of a storyteller relishing an uncompromising vision. By fighting to stay relevant, Schrader may just be on to something.
Throughout his career, Schrader has endured rocky relationships with everyone from Pauline Kael to Lindsay Lohan. Eventually, even I fell into his crosshairs. In 2013, I received a Facebook message from Schrader shortly after the release of “The Canyons,” a peculiar microbudget look at vapid Hollywood types that starred Lohan and porn star James Deen. Brett Easton Ellis wrote the screenplay, but the moody inflections took on a lifeless quality that deadened the film’s attempt at a scathing tone. Some critics defended its paranoid vision of self-involved characters, but I panned the movie, calling it “an example of the failing art form it seeks to indict.”
Schrader derided me for striking a note of tabloid sensationalism and compared me to Perez Hilton. I ignored the hate mail, not wanting a social media flame war with a great director in the midst of what I perceived to be his worst movie.
Three years later, a mutual friend unfamiliar with this exchange introduced us at a party. Schrader didn’t flinch. “I like some of your writing,” he said, “but, boy, you were way off on ‘Canyons.’” As a gesture of goodwill, I offered to rewatch the movie so we could discuss it.
“I have a better idea,” he said. “Let’s get dinner.”
A Man About Town
The following week, over the course of many glasses of wine, we got into it: Schrader felt the media was piling onto his small movie because Lohan was an easy target, and I struck him as the worst offender. Then we moved on to more enticing topics. We discussed an update to Schrader’s 1972 book “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer,” written back in his film-critic days, and the “slow-cinema” filmmakers who currently inhabit that tradition. (He’s particularly fond of Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas.) We talked about the star-driven nature of the video-on-demand market, which was allowing him to finance “Dog Eat Dog” on the basis of Cage’s VOD appeal. Later, Variety’s Owen Gleiberman arrived from a screening of “Blue Velvet” and we traded opinions on David Lynch.
This turned out to be a typical evening with Schrader, a raconteur who revels in heavy drinking sessions spiced with impassioned arguments about cinema, art, politics, and whatever else happens to come up. A perennial Manhattan filmgoer who splits his time between a Chelsea apartment and the house he shares with family upstate, Schrader relishes every chance to engage with the world; at 70, he’s got a bit of a growl to his voice and squints a lot, but he remains a one-of-a-kind figure — a movie buff driven as much by the state of the art form as his ongoing contributions to it.
Not that he gets much credit for it. “Growing up in the ’70s, Paul was really one of the great screenwriters of that decade, which makes him once of the great screenwriters of all time,” said Larry Karaszewski, who recruited Schrader to make the unsettling 2002 Bob Crane biopic “Auto Focus.” Karaszewski was especially keen on Schrader’s underrated 1978 directorial debut “Blue Collar,” another crime movie that featured what many believe was Richard Pryor’s greatest performance. “It has that tone where it’s sometimes very funny, sometimes very serious, and it always has a message.”
That same description could apply to “American Gigolo,” which pivots from workplace satire to unnerving thriller with ease. But Schrader’s probably never been better than 1985’s “Mishima,” which profiles the Japanese writer Yuko Mishima through his dramatic ritual suicide, all while conjuring up majestic mini-adaptations of his novels.
Nearly all of Schrader’s movies fixate on how fierce men see the world, but his experiments with form are astonishing for their range alone. Nevertheless, he’s had a rough couple of years. “Paul is a cantankerous fellow,” Karaszewski said. “There’s nobody better at writing tortured characters.”
An Act of Revenge
While Schrader stands by “The Canyons” as a satisfying “experiment,” the negative publicity surrounding Lohan’s on-set behavior and the critical response took a toll; critics weren’t the only skeptics. “My wife and kids begged me not to do ‘Canyons,’” he said. “They thought it was going to be such a debacle.”
Then came an even more frustrating experience: With the police drama “The Dying of the Light,” in which Cage stars as a tortured detective suffering from a brain disease, financiers took the movie away from the director and released a cut without his approval. Legally barred from speaking publicly about the situation, Schrader had to stew in private. He tackled “Dog Eat Dog” with Cage as a kind of comeback.
“It’s a personal film because it began as an act of redemption — or, dare I say it, revenge,” he told me. “I was determined not to let those fuckers block the last film of my career.”
He recruited with Cage again by putting it in those terms. “‘If we live long enough together, we have to work together again,’” Schrader recalled telling the actor. “‘We have to prove these motherfuckers wrong. We have to get funding and get this stain off my shirt.’”
Schrader was sitting at the Rail Line Diner, the Chelsea eatery near his Manhattan home where he regularly meets with cast and crew. He was a bit under the weather from festival travels to promote “Dog Eat Dog,” but that didn’t stop him from downing two glasses of red wine with ease.
Despite his new movie’s nostalgia for classic Hollywood — it closes with a delirious Cage doing a prolonged Humphrey Bogart impersonation — Schrader insisted he had made a very contemporary work. While the modern reference points in “The Canyons” were literal, “Dog Eat Dog” barrels ahead with an ADD-riddled quality readymade for audiences attuned to the bite-sized moving image experiences of the viral video age.
“I think it feels very much of this moment,” he said. “I don’t think it feels like a ’70s film — or a ’90s film. It’s very deconstructive … a kind of free-associating, disjunctive quality that is quite similar to our society. The fact that you can be looking at your texts, while talking to me, and watching a screen all at the same time — that’s us.”
Schrader’s drawn to actors as keen on strange gambles as him. In Cage’s case, that has resulted in challenging times as well, with roles that have turned him into something of a prolonged joke. “He’s terrible with money, and he loves to work,” Schrader said. “A lot of these actors think they’re broke because they want the excuse to work. Actors are like farm animals — they’re never happiest unless they’re under the harvest.”
During the Cannes Film Festival, shortly after the film premiered at Director’s Fortnight, Cage told me he reveled in the opportunity to play a two-bit criminal who aspires for something more. “The tragic aspect of the character is that he’s trying to aspire to something he’s not,” Cage said. “He likes old movies and sees himself as an old movie star. He gets this one moment of bliss where he’s channeling the person he never could be.”
Shot in less than a month, the production schedule forced the actors to improvise and insert plot details when needed. “You’re working fast, you’re working loose, on this small team of friends,” said Dafoe, who also starred in Schrader’s 1992 urban drama “Light Sleeper.” “But there’s no interference. Paul has final cut. We’re just not afforded the luxury to sit on anything.”
Schrader has embraced the necessity of his low budgets to influence the way he works. His crew on “Dog Eat Dog” was largely comprised of recent film school graduates. “I really respect how Paul was able to pivot from all these open ideas to a clear vision and concise shooting plan,” said cinematographer Alexander Dyan, who made his feature-length debut here. “It’s one thing to open the floodgates. It’s another to make a movie in 25 days.”
Returning to His Roots
From Scorsese to Spielberg, Schrader stands out from a generation of filmmakers still at work. Only he has attempted to adapt to the realities of the marketplace to make movies on his terms. More recently, he found support from Christine Vachon’s Killer Films for his next project, “First Reformed,” which stars Ethan Hawke as a minister who inadvertently causes a man to commit suicide. Schrader plans to shoot in black-and-white with a constrained aspect ratio. He considers it his first movie made in the transcendental style, drawing on the movies of Bresson and Bergman, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the work done.
“They’re coming hard at me on the budget. They just asked me to cut my salary in half today,” he said. “So I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I’m gonna cut my salary in half. I’m not gonna shoot some goddamn scene that I’ll have to cut out later.”
Schrader was inspired to make “First Reformed,” which he calls “my spiritual film,” after meeting with Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, whose own work favors austere narratives. Fresh from winning the foreign-language Oscar for “Ida,” Pawlikowski was considering an offer to make a movie starring Angelina Jolie.
“He said, ‘You know, if I can make a film for under $2 million, I’m gold. But they’ll never let me make a film with Angelina Jolie and be in control,’” Schrader recalled. “And I left that dinner thinking to myself, ‘Well, it’s time for me to make one of those films.’”
So it goes with Schrader, who describes each project as if he were on the brink of a pilgrimage. “What’s interesting about late-period Paul,” Karaszewski said, “is that he doesn’t want to go quietly into the night, which is a very good thing for an older director. He still wants to push boundaries and discover new things.” In other words, he’s less compelled by perfection than challenge.
Karaszewski admitted that he wasn’t a fan of “The Canyons,” but “I totally appreciate that they made it. Paul and Brett looked at those mumblecore films being made for no money by the same 10 people. They said, ‘What if we made one?’ That’s what makes Paul a true artist.”
Schrader’s obsessive personality leads him to linger on projects that left him unsatisfied, particularly “The Dying of the Light.” After our latest meeting, he wrote me to explain how he recently offered to recut the movie for a new edition with the rambunctious style of “Dog Eat Dog,” but the producers wouldn’t budge. That hasn’t deterred him. “I will edit my redefined version of ‘The Dying of the Light,’” he wrote. “It will most likely never be able to be seen in my lifetime. But it will exist.”
Considering the Past
Schrader’s isolation from the industry has less to do with his talent than the state of the business. “Right now, we have a studio system making a certain kind of movie,” Karaszewski said. “Scorsese has that lifetime get-out-of-jail free card where he can make his arty films. Few people can. Either you give up, move to television, or figure out how to make movies at a lower budget. For a lot of those guys, the lower budget isn’t an option.”
All of this has left Schrader reluctant to advise newcomers. “I don’t know how helpful it is to encourage people to be artists,” he said. “I think it can be irresponsible. The killer is that we’re living in a world where that loud popping sound you hear that is getting louder is multiple bubbles bursting … People are making all this crap, there’s no market for it, and nobody can see it.” He has one goal for “Dog Eat Dog”: make it the number-one new release on VOD. “That’s the only number that matters right now,” he said. It was the rare occasion where he sounded a bit wistful.
Otherwise, he struck a ferocious note. He still wants the world to wrestle with his creativity. “I was raised in a proselytizing environment,” he said. “The goal was to go out and convert people. Once the religious component goes away, the proselytizing urge doesn’t. It’s just a different soapbox. Instead of being the pulpit, I’m on the movie screen.”
At that point, he begged off another round and announced that he needed to drive upstate. He wanted to rest up for the weekend, where “Dog Eat Dog” would premiere at The Metrograph alongside a retrospective of his earlier films. The series had forced him to confront his past work in its entirety.
“I have a tendency to go one of two ways,” he said. “You look at something and say, ‘That’s no good, I never had any time.’ Or you look at something and go, ‘That’s pretty good. Boy, I used to have talent. What happened to it?’” He let go with a dry laugh that turned into a cough, then asked for the check.
“Dog Eat Dog” is currently in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. It expands to other theaters and VOD on November 11.