In this extract from Schrader on Schrader, a collection of interviews and essays, screenwriter Paul Schrader tells Kevin Jackson about the genesis of Travis Bickle, working with Martin Scorsese and the link between the Coppertone advert and Crime and Punishment

by Kevin Jackson

KEVIN JACKSON: What do you think it was about the script that excited people so much?

PAUL SCHRADER: It’s a very exciting script to read. It had the same compelling urgency that the finished movie has. You read the first page of it, which is a character description of Travis Bickle, and you know you’re on a ride.

KEVIN JACKSON: Were many changes made between the draft you gave to your agent friend and the screen version?

PAUL SCHRADER: Very few. Marty wanted two things added: a scene for Albert Brooks and a scene for Harvey Keitel. I was opposed to this because everything in the movie should take place from the taxi driver’s point of view, and if he doesn’t see it, it doesn’t exist. I said, “You can’t let the audience know that there’s another world out there, otherwise, they won’t buy into this, because his is a rather unsavoury one.” And I turned out to be right, because in the end Marty did cut the scene that he shot for Albert; and for the scene he shot for Harvey, which is the one of him and Jodie dancing, he had to put in a shot of Bobby from another scene, looking up at a window, so that it looked as if he was watching them. I think the reason that the film works is that you’re given no alternative world to Travis’s.

KEVIN JACKSON: Do you think that the film caught so many people’s imaginations because of its strong sense of pent-up anger?

PAUL SCHRADER: Yes. Godard once said that all great movies are successful for the wrong reasons, and there were a lot of wrong reasons why Taxi Driver was successful. The sheer violence of it really brought out the Times Square crowd. But I have no real quarrel with that. I think that films can be extremely violent provided they understand the root causes of the violence. I think The Wild Bunch is a great film because it understands how deeply sick it is, and lets you know how sick it is; so it not only exploits your vicarious need for violence, but undermines it at the same time. I think films that analyse violence in that way are entirely justified.

KEVIN JACKSON: But the violence in Travis is not held up for analysis in a sociological or psychological way, is it? The film seems to have distinct spiritual ambitions.

PAUL SCHRADER: Yes. Travis’s is not a societally imposed loneliness or rage, it’s an existential kind of rage. The book I reread just before sitting down to write the script was Sartre’s Nausea, and if anything is the model for Taxi Driver, that would be it.

KEVIN JACKSON: And there are references to Bresson as well – the line about thinking he has stomach cancer…

PAUL SCHRADER: And the scene where he makes the gun slide, which is sort of an allusion to Pickpocket. Originally Marty shot that scene so that it lasted 10 minutes or more, dwelling on the sensuous mechanics of the process. I think that what makes the film so vivid is what has made all my collaborations with Scorsese interesting, which is that we both have essentially the same moral background – a kind of closed-society Christian morality, though mine is rural and Protestant and his is urban and Catholic; mine is North European and his is South European. We can basically agree on everything in life, but we don’t express it in the same way. I once described the film as the story of a Protestant kid from the snow country who wandered into a cathedral in the middle of New York City. That conflict of sensibilities is what makes it vibrate.

KEVIN JACKSON: Presumably there was something about Travis’s character that reflected an aspect of your own – the loneliness, the rage, the wish for a kind of purgation?

PAUL SCHRADER: At the time I wrote it I was very enamoured of guns, I was very suicidal, I was drinking heavily, I was obsessed with pornography in the way a lonely person is, and all those elements are upfront in the script. Obviously some aspects are heightened – the racism of the character, the sexism. Like every kind of underdog, Travis takes out his anger on the guy below him rather than the guy above. When they edited the film for TV I didn’t so much mind having to lose the violence, but they had to remove huge sections of narration because of the virulent anti-black and anti-women characterisations. He appeared a very silly kind of guy because there was no edge to his anger; you just wanted to slap him in the face and say, “Come on, come on.” In fact, in the draft of the script that I sold, at the end all the people he kills are black. Marty and the Phillipses and everyone said, no, we just can’t do this, it’s an incitement to riot; but it was true to the character.

KEVIN JACKSON: It’s curious that he should be so racist, given that your first impulse towards fiction came about because of witnessing racial bullying.

PAUL SCHRADER: Well. that’s really what art is about, you know. I think one is stung into progressive, positive behaviour by an awareness of the great lure of negative thought; it’s the awareness of prejudice inside you that spurs you on to rid yourself and others of it. One of the things you should do in art is lift up the rock and look at those things inside you.

PAUL SCHRADER: The words in Taxi Driver, both the dialogue and Travis’s voice-over, are terrific. Are they as you wrote them, or did they come about from improvisation?

PAUL SCHRADER: The narration is as I wrote it. The dialogue is somewhat improvised – not to the extent of Raging Bull, say, but the most memorable piece of dialogue in the film is an improvisation: the “Are you looking at me?” part. In the script it just says, “Travis speaks to himself in the mirror.” Bobby asked me what he would say and I said, well, he’s a little kid playing with guns and acting tough. So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the time as the basis for his lines.

KEVIN JACKSON: Was the black comedy clear from the outset, or did that also develop from De Niro’s performance?

PAUL SCHRADER: Both Marty and I were very attracted to the perverse singularity of vision – someone who says, “I’ve gotta get healthy” while he’s swallowing pills – and to the self-contradictory nature of the character, which is where a lot of that humour comes from. Travis can’t see that he is the one making himself lonely. He is the one making the world sordid, and you come to realise that the gimmick of the movie is to make you identify with him for simpler reasons, such as feeling oppressed by the city, and then gradually you’re made aware that you have identified with someone you don’t want to identify with, but now it’s too late.

KEVIN JACKSON: One of the most disturbing qualities of Travis is his feeling of sexual disgust and rage. Does his attempted relationship with the Cybill Shepherd character amount to an attempt at health which just happens to fail, or has he somehow willed that failure?

PAUL SCHRADER: He wills it, though not consciously. Taxi Driver‘s plot structure is fairly simple. You have this pathologically lonely man confronted with two examples of femininity, one of which he desires but cannot have, the other of which he can have but does not desire. Now, obviously he’s chosen objects which will exacerbate his own pathology – he doesn’t really want a girl who will accept him, and when it seems as if the Cybill Shepherd character may, then in that unconsciously destructive way he takes her into an environment that will show her his real ugliness so that she will have to reject him.

KEVIN JACKSON: Taking her to the porno cinema isn’t just naivety?

PAUL SCHRADER: It plays like naivety – the character would say, “Oh, stupid me, why did I go there?” – but there was something in him that really wanted to shove her face in the filth that he felt, to dirty her, to say, “Look at this: this is what I’m really like. How could you love someone like me?” And then, from that step where you have these two feminine figures who must be unresolved, you just move on to the two father figures. He decides to kill the father figure of the girl who rejected him, which of course is a reflection of his own father figure, and when he is thwarted by that he moves on to the pimp, the other father figure. That isn’t meant to indicate that a pimp and a politician are one and the same, but in his mind they are identical as father figures. Of course the irony of the film is that society puts value on one and not the other and says he’s a hero. But it didn’t really make any difference to him which one he was going to get.

KEVIN JACKSON: Does the end of the film indicate that he’s purged himself and is now safe and sane?

PAUL SCHRADER: No, I think the syndrome is just going to start all over again.

KEVIN JACKSON: Did your feelings about the film change after the Hinckley affair at all?

PAUL SCHRADER: No. I’m not opposed to censorship in principle – we can all agree on censorable things like child pornography – but I think that if you censor a film like Taxi Driver all you do is censor a film, not confront a problem. These characters are running around and can be triggered by anything, most often by advertisements or innocuous images. A few years ago they did a study about incitement to rape, and one of the things that cropped up most often was the old Coppertone suntan oil ad – it had a little puppy tugging at a girl’s swimsuit. It had just the right mixture for these rapists of adolescent sexuality, female nudity, rear entry, animals, violence… So I think that if you do get involved in this kind of censorship you will end up having Raskolnikov, you just don’t have Crime and Punishment.

KEVIN JACKSON: But Taxi Driver now seems a different kind of film than it did before – more prophetic, more diagnostic.

PAUL SCHRADER: When I talk to younger film-makers they tell me that it was really the film that informed them, that it was their seminal film, and listening to them talk I really can see it as a kind of social watermark. But it was meant as a personal film, not a political commentary. There was a very good feeling around the making of the film; everything felt right about it, and I remember the night before it opened we all got together and had dinner and said, “No matter what happens tomorrow we have made a terrific movie, and we’re damn proud of it even if it goes down the toilet.” And the next day I got up and went over to the theatre for the noon show. There was a long line that went all the way around the block, but I absolutely had to be let in. And then I realised that this huge line was already for the two o’clock show, not the noon show! So I ran inside and watched the film and everyone was standing at the back and there was a sense of exhilaration about what we had done. We knew we’d never repeat it.

Republished in Premiere. Film Cuts. Classic Movie Writings, Premiere‘s magazine supplement, November 1994 issue


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