Nobody has ever gone to a Paul Schrader film—or to Schrader himself—expecting saccharine bromides and fairy tale endings. The prolific 75-year-old writer and director (credits include Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Affliction, and First Reformed) grew up in a devout Dutch Calvinist home in which as a kid, his mother demonstrated what hell would feel like by jabbing his thumb with a sewing needle, telling the little boy, hell will feel exactly like that, but for eternity. Unsurprisingly, his oeuvre, which spans 47 years, has been dependably just as dark.
In this short excerpt from Andrew Goldman’s latest episode of The Originals podcast, Schrader discusses directing Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish in his latest film The Card Counter (out September 10), the way in which he’s smarter than Martin Scorsese, plus a painful revelation about writing and directing his final exit.
This story contains graphic descriptions of self-harm that could distress some readers. Lifeline Network—800-773-8255—offers free emotional counseling 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I was particularly struck by Oscar Isaac’s performance in The Card Counter. Even before we know his backstory, there’s a deadness in his eyes that immediately tells you his head’s all messed up. And I just wondered as a director, how do you get an actor to play that? Do you just say, I want a thousand-yard stare?
It’s pretty close to that. There’s an instruction I give to most of my actors. I say, “Imagine you are a rocky shore. And every day waves and storms are going to crash against you. Sometimes we call them love interests. Sometimes we call them villains. But they go away and you’re still there and you are unchanged. And that is your job, to be the rocky shore, and don’t get seduced by the temptation to compete with these sexy, angry, funny waves. They’re going to go away.”
When you tell that to actors do they immediately get it? Or do some look at you like they don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.
They get it. But I had a situation on The Card Counter with Tiffany Haddish, which I had before with Richard Pryor [in Schrader’s directorial debut, and Pryor’s film acting debut, 1979’s Blue Collar]. People who come from the comedy world and are used to being onstage are always looking to grab the moment. That works on a stage, but it doesn’t work in motion pictures. So I sat Tiffany down with Oscar, and we read through the script and she was nailing these lines, one after another. And it was just awful, but I let her go through the whole thing. And then I said, Tiff, we’re going to read the entire script but this time without any editorializing. I want you to bore me to death. That’s hard for somebody like Tiffany Haddish to do because they’ve made a life and a career of milking a line. And so we’d run it that way and she bored me to death. And then I said, OK, I’m going to let you hit one out of five lines. Get out your pen. We’ll make little checks when you can hit a line. Let’s go through and thinking about it, what lines would you like to hit? But you can only hit those lines. You can’t hit any other ones.
Was she OK with that? I know that Blue Collar was, by all accounts, a nightmare shoot with a lot of physical brawls. I assume Pryor was not happy with your direction. Was Tiffany Haddish?
No, Tiffany understood exactly what I was saying.
The similarities between 2019’s Joker and the film you wrote, Taxi Driver, are pretty undeniable. What did you think of the film? Did you feel like it was homage? Did you feel like they stole something from you?
I thought the concept was a lazy, cheap shot.
Why a lazy, cheap shot? Do you feel like they just took Travis Bickle and put makeup on him?
The Joker is not a human construct. It’s a cartoon construct. The taxi driver is a human construct. And the very fact that you can portray human psychopathology as the Joker means that you don’t understand the depths of the complexity of human psychopathology.
You co-wrote Raging Bull. The Irishman, with Martin Scorsese directing Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, was a reunion of sorts. What did you think of it?
Marty has this where he tries to outpace technology. So, when he was doing Hugo, he was talking about how 3D was the future. Well, 3D wasn’t the future and he just stopped talking about 3D. So, you have to be careful when Marty starts promoting stuff because the mixture between self-promotion and true technological understanding gets mixed up. I don’t think he was on the cusp of three-dimensional de-aging techniques. And I feel that what did he did in The Irishman already looks old.
There was a period of time when you worked with Scorsese that there was a lot of cocaine on his sets, and then I read that there were inordinate amounts of it on the set of your 1982 film, Cat People. Could good work be done with that much cocaine around?
It depends. I think that [Scorsese’s 1977 film] New York, New York was probably inhibited by cocaine use. But I don’t think Cat People was.
I’m not sure I understand. Do you mean that Scorsese’s cocaine use made him decide to make a musical?
No, no, no, just loss of days. I was around and there were days where no work got done.
But Cat People seems to have had equivalent amounts of cocaine on it. Could you just handle your drugs better?
I’m just smarter.
Smarter how? Three lines rather than seven?
Yeah, that’s what it comes down to.
Because Robert DeNiro wore your clothes in Taxi Driver, and because back then you regularly carried around a .38 revolver, you have long been associated with Travis Bickle. I once read that the main difference between you and Travis Bickle was that Bickle was ultimately homicidal and you were suicidal. Is that correct?
I think they’re pretty close together. One is just an extension of the other.
Yeah. Travis wants to kill the father figure of the girl that he can’t have. He fails. He tried to kill the father figure of the girl he can have. He fails. He tries to kill himself. He fails. That’s all on the same timeline.
Many years ago you said that suicide was never far off for you. Are you ever suicidal anymore?
Yes. All the time.
Having had my share of therapy, there’s a distinction made between ideation and plans. Do you have plans?
I have both ideation and plans.
Can you tell me how you would do it?
[Drug name redacted.]
I’m really sorry to hear that.
[Drug name redacted] is the Cadillac of euthanasia.
Are you suicidal because of health issues, or just the ongoing pain of what we humans have to go through?
Vince Gill wrote a song 20 years ago, “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” after his brother committed suicide. And one of the lyrics of the song is, “Son, your work on earth is done. Go rest high on that mountain, singing praise for God, the father and the son.” Well, I do feel that my work on earth is done.
Well, you keep making movies, Paul. You just announced you’ll soon be making a film called The Gardener with Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton. Many called your 2017 First Reformed a capstone to an amazing career. Did you consider it then, so you could go out on a high?
I certainly did. And the next one, with Joel and Sigourney, will be even more so. But on the other hand, Andrew, if you go to sleep tonight and you don’t wake up tomorrow morning, who the fuck cares?
I think a loner like Travis Bickle could say that. But you’re married [to actress Mary-Beth Hurt.] You’ve got two kids. Your kids are going to care. Do you want your kids to go to the funeral of a guy that offed himself?
No, no, no. I’m not talking about suicide. In the night, you die, you have a stroke or heart attack, whatever. Life goes on. I had a friend who died last week. I have a friend who’s dying as we speak. [L.A. Confidential director] Curtis Hanson was an old, good friend of mine. [Silence of the Lambs director] Jonathan Demme was another old, good friend of mine. They both dropped off the scene prematurely. What else is there to say? It’s not such a bad thing to be enveloped by darkness. It wouldn’t mean a damned thing.
Just one film at a time, right? I mean, I don’t want to be a therapist here, but I mean, aren’t you going to stay alive as long as you have something either in development or production?
Yeah. I don’t think that I could be seduced anymore to make a trivial entertainment. But there are a few films that are left that are worth making.
So isn’t that enough?
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