Though he was raised in a strict Calvinist household where secular diversions were forbidden, Paul Schrader has spent his adulthood leaving an indelible mark on American cinema. Schrader began his career as a critic, but moved into filmmaking with 1975's The Yakuza, which he co-wrote with his brother Leonard. That film's screenplay netted the siblings a then-record payday, but Paul Schrader had much more impact with his follow-up project, Taxi Driver, a nightmarish depiction of urban alienation that launched a combustible, fruitful working relationship between Schrader and director Martin Scorsese. The two next collaborated on the classic boxing drama Raging Bull, and by that time Schrader was directing films of his own, beginning with 1978's well-received Blue Collar. He teamed with Scorsese again for 1988's The Last Temptation Of Christ and 1999's underrated Bringing Out The Dead, while carving out a career as the director of such offbeat, challenging fare as 1985's Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, 1991's Light Sleeper, and 1998's Affliction. Schrader's latest directorial project is Auto Focus, a comedy-drama about the life and death of Hogan's Heroes star and home-pornography enthusiast Bob Crane. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Schrader about sex, religion, and film.
The Onion: Were you curious about popular culture during your childhood?
Paul Schrader: No. When you live in a closed community, that's the world you know. Our church at that time prohibited what they called "the worldly amusements," which were dancing, drinking, card-playing, theater, movies, and the like. I didn't really mind it. If no one else you know is going to movies, you don't think about it. The truth is, now that my children are grown… Hell, if I could give them a world where they didn't have to watch television and movies, I'd do it in a second. [Laughs.] It's much more interesting growing up discussing social and religious issues with your family than watching goddamn TV, which is a kind of passive ignorance par excellence.
O: What was your initial experience with film like?
PS: I came to film as an adult college student, and you never forget your first love—in life or in the movies. My first love was the European cinema of the '60s. I walked into the room at a very exciting time and fell in love with movies, and those are the movies that have served as the touchstone of my sensibility.
O: Your thesis was on Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer. What appealed to you about those filmmakers?
PS: I went to a seminary at the undergraduate level and took religious training both in college and all through my childhood. So I had those tools, and then I fell in love with movies, and that was another sensibility. That book was an attempt to merge those worlds before they would forever fall apart, while I still had all of that religious thinking in my head. It was an attempt to bridge that gap before I could really walk away from that world.
O: How did your family feel about your interest in film?
PS: They never approved. They never saw any good in it, never thought any good could come of it. In that kind of closed society, if you leave town, it's like you fall off the edge of the Earth.
O: One of the prominent figures in your early career was Pauline Kael.
PS: Pauline was my mentor. I met her through happenstance in New York, and she got me into UCLA film school. She got me into film criticism. I was one of her acolytes. I would not have ended up in this business were it not for Pauline Kael.
O: Did your being a filmmaker and her being a critic ever cause problems with your friendship?
PS: When I knew her closely, I was also a critic. I was sitting at her knee. As I became a screenwriter and then a director, our relationship became progressively more strained. We had two falling-outs, and 10 years ago we reconciled, which was very good. We were on good terms for the last eight years or so of her life.
O: Taxi Driver has had profound cultural resonance.
PS: Yes, it has. It's a strange thing. I think it's because it's the genuine article. I think that Scorsese, [Robert] De Niro, and myself were so in that mindset when we made it that we made a film that was absolutely true. That's not the easiest thing to do. Only rarely do you ever really stumble across a movie or get involved in a movie that's the real deal.
O: You've said that a big part of Auto Focus is about the effect that being a celebrity had on Bob Crane's life. You became fairly famous early on because of Taxi Driver. How do you think that fame affected you?
PS: Not in the fucking slightest. [Laughs.] It wasn't enough! It wasn't enough to really change my life. I still had to be the scavenger dog scrounging about to get financing for independent projects.
O: What drew you to the story of Bob Crane?
PS: I think there are a number of elements to the film that I enjoy. It has four or five different handles that you can grab onto and talk about. I think the primary one is his relationship with John Carpenter [no relation to the filmmaker —ed.], which struck me as an American, heterosexual, middle-aged, television-star version of a movie I liked called Prick Up Your Ears, about Joe Orton and his lover. I thought I could work in that same dynamic, and maybe in a more fascinating way. That's what drew me into it. And then there were many creative pleasures that evolved from there.
O: A key element of Auto Focus is the loosening sexual mores of the time. What kind of impact do you think the sexual revolution had on society at large?
PS: Well, you say the sexual revolution, but I think the more important part of it is women's liberation. It's a historical change. People tend to think of women's liberation, but it obviously didn't occur in a vacuum—men were involved, too. All those Rat Pack smoothies had to quick put on beads and bellbottoms if they were going to keep scoring chicks. For that Bob Crane generation, the Hugh Hefner generation, it was a pivotal thing, because they didn't get it, but they knew something was changing. But then again, Bob Crane didn't get a lot of things. He basically didn't get his whole fucking life.
O: Do you feel like the misadventures of Bob Crane represent the underside of the sexual revolution?
PS: I think they represent the clueless side of the American male. It's not a very flattering portrait of men.
O: I remember seeing an ad on television for "natural male enhancement," and it made me think of Auto Focus, where Bob Crane has penis-enlargement surgery, and it's still this far-out thing.
PS: Yeah, there was an article in The New York Times yesterday about the enormous amount of money that penile enhancement has made on the web. I didn't know that every other guy was walking around wanting to have his dick be bigger, but apparently that's so. [Laughs.]
O: Do you ever feel that society is becoming too permissive?
PS: Well that's an interesting question, because mankind was not born in the 19th century. We are not, by nature, Victorians. What we are seeing now is the final tidal wave of backlash against the Victorian sensibility. We're taking our sexual attitudes back to an earlier time, almost to a pre-Christian time, to a kind of morality that existed in the Greek and Roman times. We're not quite there yet, but we're on our way. So when you say "too permissive," we're not going to a place we've never been; we're going to a place where we used to be. It has its pros and cons. Christian prudishness has a very positive role, and also a very negative role. As you roll it back, you get good and adverse effects.
O: At the same time, there's still a strain of Puritanism in American culture.
PS: We're grinding it down, I'll tell you that much. [Laughs.]
O: On one hand, you have commercials for penile enhancement on television, but you also have Ken Starr wanting to impeach the president for sexual misconduct.
PS: What Bob Crane was up to would not be as scandalous today. The Internet is full of porn. There are thousands and thousands of web sites of "Come watch me and my wife fuck." "No, thank you." [Laughs.] It has loosened, and it has unleashed that kind of exhibitionism.
O: Bob Crane's interest in home pornography seems like a kind of narcissism.
PS: Well, you're right. There was an element of exhibitionism and voyeurism at the same time, sort of being the object of his own sexual desire, watching himself and being turned on. But I think toward the end, it began to fall into the classic model of addiction, which is a pattern of behavior that's counterproductive, and that in and of itself becomes a justification for living that blots out all your other problems. It's like, "I used to have a lot of problems, and now I only have one." I think the need to constantly get new women into bed every day and videotape them became a consuming addiction that distorted all the other acts of his life.
O: There's a scene in Auto Focus where Bob Crane and John Carpenter [played by Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe, respectively] are watching a tape they've made, and Crane sees Carpenter's hand on his ass, and he freaks out.
PS: [Imitates Crane.] "Whatcha doing in there? You've got your hand up between my cheeks!" [Laughs.]
O: He takes pride in crossing sexual boundaries, but he obviously he has a real problem with that one. Why do you think homosexuality was such a big deal for him?
PS: Well, he was of that generation and that mindset where he was a red-blooded American man, and homosexuality was not in the picture at all. But of course it was in the picture, because it's in everybody's picture. People are not binary when it comes to human sexuality. We're all a little bit of everything. We move up and down the scales in the course of our lives. Whatever homosexual impulses Bob had came out in other ways, but never in a blatant way. It reminds me of a quote from a friend of mine, Susanna Moore, who's a novelist. She saw the movie, and she said, "Whenever there's more than one penis in the room, any act is a homosexual act."
O: Later in the film, when they're both masturbating to their home movies, it seems like his attitude has shifted at least a little.
PS: But that's still not homosexual. In the film toward the end, he edits this little video making fun of John for being gay. But obviously, the lady is protesting too much.
O: You mentioned that Taxi Driver worked because it was true. Do you generally identify with the protagonists of your films? Do you think it's important?
PS: I identify with them. That doesn't mean I necessarily like them, or that they're valuable. But they are very interesting in that they're part of me, part of all of us. I don't subscribe to the notion that movie protagonists have to be likable and possess some sort of dramatic value. You don't need to give [Taxi Driver's] Travis Bickle a dog in order to make the movie commercial.
O: When I was in college, a lot of people had posters of Travis Bickle with a mohawk and gun in their dorm rooms. Does it bother you that there's a cult of personality built up around him?
PS: No, because I think the film is good and true, and it is about that pathology—you know, the pathology of suicidal glory. I think about The Wild Bunch. It's very violent, and it can be misinterpreted, but at the end of the day, it's truthful in what it has to say about that kind of man. Its truth outweighs any distortion of it that can be made.
O: Speaking of the way films are perceived, there's been a movement of filmmakers retouching films they've made, like Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now and George Lucas with the Star Wars movies. Do you think that's valid, or is there a point where you have to let the film belong to the audience?
PS: For the most part, those versions aren't necessarily better. I think the original Apocalypse Now is better than the new version. It's a gimmick to make money. But on the other hand, The Exorcist benefited from having that one scene put in that couldn't be made because the technology didn't exist—the spider-walk scene. In The Conformist, the blind man's ball scene is fabulous. I'm glad they put that back in. So it's a case-by-case thing. Sometimes, like in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, the film is so truncated that when you put stuff back and put it in its proper order, the result is an extraordinary film that I'd never really seen.
O: The Last Temptation Of Christ recently came out on DVD. Do you feel like the passage of time has allowed people to see the film for its own merits rather than just in relation to the controversy it provoked?
PS: I would like to think so. At the time, it was quite clear that the controversy was not about the film at all, and that there was a pitched battle over cultural hegemony and who controlled the culture, whether it was arguments about flag-burning or abortion. Those cultural battles weren't really about flag-burning. I mean, how many people are injured by that? It became a symbolic issue, but people die over symbols.
O: Were you personally affected by the backlash?
PS: No, but my office at the time was right next to Marty's, and there were a lot of police around because of threats, and I remember Marty being very upset. So I walked to his office and said, "Marty, we set out to make a movie that would upset people, and it's now upset a lot of people." He said, "Well, I didn't think it would upset them this much!"
O: When you say that you set out to upset people…
PS: Well, that's what art does, at least for me. I'm not in the business of validating people's preconceptions and stroking their mindset and giving them an hour and a half of diversion. I like to rock. I like to get in there and fuck with their heads.
O: At the same time, Last Temptation is a reverent film.
PS: Well, certainly it is. It was a spiritual book, and it was turned into a spiritual film.
O: It seemed like what really bothered people was taking the story of Christ seriously, and not treating it in a Sunday-school fashion.
PS: Actually, the whole issue of blasphemy is interesting, because technically, the film is blasphemous, but not in the way people think. The film uses Jesus Christ as a metaphor for spirituality. And, under a technical definition of blasphemy, if Jesus is regarded as something other than holy God incarnate, you're being blasphemous. And so the film takes the character of Jesus and uses Him as a metaphor for our spiritual feelings and says, "What if this happened, what if He yielded to temptation?"
O: Why do you think you and Scorsese have made such powerful films together?
PS: I think we're not that dissimilar. We both have the same sort of moral asthmatic sensibility. It's just that there's a cultural difference, in that he's an Italian Catholic big-city kid, and I'm a Dutch Protestant country boy. Even though we're quite similar, we have different contexts, and I think that's enough to allow us to speak the same language, but with different dialects.
O: Who do you think is more important to a film, the writer or the director?
PS: The director. He stands at the gate. In the end, it all passes through him.
O: How do you think writing has affected your work as a director?
PS: Not a lot. Writing is one mindset and directing is another. You write as a writer, and that's a kind of literary logic, and you direct as a visual artist. It's two different sides of the brain.
O: You figure prominently in Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Have you read it? What do you think of it?
PS: I read most of it. It's chockablock with hearsay and gossip, and unfortunately, the book is gossip-driven. It's fortunate for the economic ledger of Peter Biskind and the publishing house, since that was the way to go. I think it was an important subject that was trivialized by its fascination with gossip.
O: The book posits the late '60s and '70s as a golden age when Hollywood was willing to take chances and make films it wouldn't make before or after. Do you think that's true?
PS: That's partially true. There was a window that was opened there, and some interesting things happened. It was an aberration in film history, and then the window closed. But another part of Peter's thesis, which I violently disagree with, is that when that era ended, all those people were wiped out. I said to Peter, "I don't think I'm dead as an artist. I just did Affliction, and it's as good as anything I've ever done. I think it's as challenging as Blue Collar." I couldn't get him to see that, because it didn't fit into his thesis.
O: Related to that is the idea that Jaws was a big turning point in cinema. It changed the way films were distributed and marketed, and it helped create the current environment, with its emphasis on opening weekends and box-office grosses.
PS: But you have to understand that this was kind of an aberration. It started around 1965 and lasted until 1978 or '79, and was a freakish period in film history. It wasn't as if there was a wonderful world and it ended. There was a bump on the commercial road, and some interesting films got made because of it, but then the people who control film economics got back the power and made sure that didn't happen again.
O: Were you surprised by the reaction to Taxi Driver? It's not exactly Jaws in terms of commercial appeal.
PS: It's hard to know when you look back that far. I was just reading an interview I did with Robert Bresson. I was on my way to Cannes when Taxi Driver was in competition, and the last line of the interview was Bresson asking me, "Do you think Taxi Driver will win the big prize?" I said, "Yes, I do." And it did. I look back at it, and when I read it, my jaw sort of dropped at my own naïveté and arrogance as a young filmmaker.