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An honest bloke

Screenwriting is ‘campfire story-telling’ not literature. That’s the iconic Hollywood scriptwriter of Taxi Driver speaking, writes Paveen Donthi.

india Updated: Jul 18, 2008 23:00 IST
Paveen Donthi

Life imitates art. On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan, the then American president, survived an assassination attempt but suffered a punctured lung. The mad assassin, John Hinckley Jr, was only imitating Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro of Taxi Driver) to impress Jodie Foster who had played a role in the film. Hinckley had seen the film at least 15 times and could relate to Bickle completely.

One of the people interrogated by FBI on that day was Paul Schrader, the writer of the film. Such was the impact of the film written by him when he was 25.

This master writer of films — like Raging Bull, Affliction, Mishima and The last Temptation of Christ — was in the Capital this week delivering two lectures at Osian’s film festival, one of them called Masterclass on Screenwriting. It wouldn’t have been a mistake to call it The Master’s Class.

For someone who saw his first film as late as 17, his first script, The Yakuza, sold for a record-breaking $325,000 and his first three scripts were filmed by no less than Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma.

Today when scripts are poised to brush shoulders with pure literature on bookshelves, he declared with authority: “Screenwriting is no literature, it is campfire story-telling.” As a kid growing up in a strict Christian family, the only amusement for him was story telling and that’s what he brought to films. The only reason why he saw films was because there was an embargo: “Other college kids had to vandalise government buildings. All we had to do to rebel was go to movies.”

For him, “story telling is a form of therapy”. What kind of therapy was the violent Taxi Driver? “At the time I wrote it, I was in a bad shape. I had broken with Pauline Kael (his mentor), I had broken up with my wife, I had broken with the woman I left my wife for, I had broken with the American Film Institute and I was in debt.” He was on the road for 45 days, travelling and eating junk food. “There was a need to create fiction, and a character like Travis Bickle, for myself to get out of the self-imposed loneliness and depression.”

Bickle was a deranged loner prone to violent misanthropy and nobody would have dared to say that he could see himself in Bickle. But Schrader did: “I even gave Bob (De Niro) my jacket and shoes to wear.”

Schrader has no qualms talking about his influences for any particular script. For him, being original is being honest about one self.

“All stories have been told in the Bible and Greek mythology, etc. What you can do is reach deep into yourself, pull out something unique and meaningful to you, then take that raw material and make that into a screenplay.”

If not for his uncompromising persona, he would have tasted a lot more commercial success than he did. When he wrote the script for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he modelled his protagonist on St. Paul and Spielberg found it too deep and religious.

“I didn’t want my protagonist to go in a spaceship somewhere only to set up a Mc Donald’s and Steven said ‘that’s exactly the kind of character I want’.” The script was rewritten completely and Schrader remained peripheral in the film credits. “In a way, it explains why today Spielberg is sitting on his golden throne, while I’m here, talking to you.”

The second time he was airbrushed out of the credits was an incident that assured Schrader ‘his place in movie trivia’. He was fired by the Morgan Creek Studio after completing the prequel to The Exorcist (1973). Schrader had deviated completely from the original and gave it his own twist.

The film was shot again and Schrader’s version was released in 2005 as Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.

His approach to screen writing is this: the most important thing is identifying the problem. Then finding a metaphor that’s not too close to the problem holds the key.

The plot is derived then from the metaphor and from that the outline. In Taxi Driver, the problem was the self-imposed loneliness of Schrader and the metaphor was the yellow cab.

Never one to believe in the Church, today he has lost faith in God. “I am at stage where I don’t want God to deal with my fears and insecurities.” And that translated into a thriller about an FBI agent on the verge of retirement and a jihadi — both losing faith in their ideology. Art for him is all about life. His very own.