Beyond Fest opened with a Paul Schrader double feature. First, his new film, Dog Eat Dog, starring Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe, based on the novel by Eddie Bunker. Second was a screening of the Scorsese/De Niro classic, Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote.
In between screenings, Schrader and Cage did a Q&A about Dog Eat Dog. Schrader actually got more questions from the audience of film lovers who wanted to know some of the tricks of the trade. Here is the Paul Schrader Q&A from Beyond Fest.
How did the Eddie Bunker book first come to you?
Nic and I had done a film several years ago which was taken from my hands. It was a very unpleasant experience and I said to Nic, “If we live long enough, we should work together again and get this stain from our clothes, do it right.” He said, “Yes, we should do it.” I didn’t know what it could be. Somebody asked me to read this script and I read that opening sequence with Mad Dog. I said, “Maybe this is it. Maybe Nic and I could do this one.” I sent it to Nic. He said, “Yeah, I do want to do it, but I want to play Troy, not the crazy one.” That’s how it all started. All of a sudden, now I’m making a crime film. I’m not a crime film director. I said, “Oh my God, I’ve got a crime film now with Nic Cage and Willem Dafoe. How do I do this?” Then I had to figure it out. I wanted to make it feel like 2016 so it’s not really that faithful to Eddie Bunker.
The last time I worked with Willem, he did a day job for me and he said, “Look, I did this as a favor but don’t ever ask me again. You want me to work for you again, give me a real role.” I said, “Point taken.” Then I was able to call him up and say, “Willem, I’ve got a real role for you.” So it worked out.
How did you get everybody on board with the tone?
It wasn’t written as a comedy. It evolved. I kept thinking, “This shit is funny.” It kind of evolved that way. The whole Bogart material was not in the book, not in the screenplay. That was something that Nic started evolving actually while we were shooting. We come to shoot the scene and we’re reading it through, Nic’s doing it all as Bogart. I said, “Are you sure you want to do this, Nic? We don’t have time to do it twice.” He said, “Look, you’ve been telling me for five weeks now we have to be bold, and I think this is bold.” I said, “You’re right” and we did it.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of the limited resources with which independent films are made these days?
It’s half the time but more footage because you’re never stopping. You’re just run and gun. You never get to your trailer because by the time you reach the door, the PA is saying we’re ready. You make decisions much faster. I’m not so sure it was better when it was slower because a lot of that time was not spent very creatively. A lot of time was just spent in your trailer doing drugs. Maybe it’s better.
Was working with this newer crew an economic or artistic choice?
It was both but more artistic than economic. I was having this theory. There was a generation that made the rules, there was a generation that codified the rules and then there was a generation that I was a part of that broke the rules. Then there’s Quentin’s generation which laughed at the rules. Now we have a new generation that doesn’t know there were rules. I said, “That’s who I need. I need these kids who grew up thinking you made films on your phone, whose only context is that.” I don’t want people who are going to think outside the box. I want people who are outside the box and who couldn’t find the box if you asked. That was my thinking on bringing on people who weren’t from film, didn’t have a film credit. The bad news is we don’t have enough money to really do this right. The good news is I know how to cut it and we can make any fucking film we want.
Where did you find Nicolas Cage’s blue suit?
Actually, it’s a kind of visual pun. When I was talking with my crew, I said, “Oh my God, we’ve got a strip club scene. Boring.” Every strip club scene looks the same. No matter how much money you have, the same bad light, the same fog, the same cuts. How in the hell do you make a strip club scene interesting? Then I said, “Wait a second, there really hasn’t been a black and white strip club scene since Lenny. Let’s just do it in black and white, never explain why. People will be wondering why it’s black and white.” Once I knew I was doing black and white, I knew I could play that visual pun and have Nic in a super slick suit. When it goes to color, it’s this gaudy pastel.
Do you still believe what you said in Film Comment that film as an artform peaked in the 20th century and it’s coming to the end, and that you have 10 years of films left in you? But if you were starting now you wouldn’t turn to film?
I do think that’s probably true. All the talented writers are all migrating to television but I have a few films left in me. That old broken down horse still has a few miles in it. I will finish it out that way. If I were starting out, I would be writing code.
What is the best advice you can give writers and directors today?
Well, there really are no rules. You are not constrained. In the end, I think writing is part of the oral tradition and not part of the written tradition. You have to be able to tell. You have to be able to sit there and tell. That’s my one bit of advice.
What was your toughest scene to write in Taxi Driver?
Taxi Driver, I got into screening for the best of all reasons which is I was presented with a life crisis. I felt something quite terrible coming over me. I felt this character, I was becoming this character. I realized if I didn’t write him, I might become him. So I wrote it as therapy and it worked. So the only reason I wrote a screenplay rather than a novel is because I was a film critic. The impulse was therapy. It actually works. Art is as functional as a hammer. You can use it to ameliorate your life.
Do you still use it that way?
This next one, yes. Not this one obviously. The next one, yes. You can’t do it on every film. Maybe once every five years or so you can feel that need to reach into the well and pull up ugly stuff inside yourself. If you do it every year, it’s kind of exhausting.
What happened to the baby in Dog Eat Dog?
I kind of forgot about the baby. It was my assistant’s baby.