Paul Schrader
Photo by Colin McPherson

Paul Schrader: “That day is gone”

Short Profile

Name: Paul Joseph Schrader
DOB: 22 July 1946
Place of birth: Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States
Occupation: Screenwriter, director

Mr. Schrader, has the fire gone out in today’s film industry?

Well, I don’t think the fire went out, really, what happened is that we have had an evolutionary shift in the nature of motion pictures. Everything that we learned in the first 100 years of movies no longer applies. We used to know what a movie was, we knew how you projected it, we knew how you saw it, we knew how long it was, we knew how to monetize it, we knew how to distribute it — we don’t know how to do any of these things anymore, they’ve all changed.

It feels like you’ve had to start the learning process all over again.

Right, I mean, what is a movie anymore? It used to be a projected image in a dark room for approximately an hour and a half to two hours, now it could be 30 seconds on YouTube or two hours of Mad Men. Where do you see movies? How do you finance them? Oh that’s a good question, and certainly a big question is how do you monetize them? The reason movies were kind of important in the seventies, for example, wasn’t because anybody was anymore talented than they are now, it was because the culture as a whole was genius. Movies became a place where the culture could discuss its concerns, over civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, war, drugs…

“I don’t even know if films are culturally relevant at all anymore.”

And now? What has changed?

The movies back then were the center of the cultural conversation, and that is not true anymore; our culture is completely diffracted and there is no center meeting point. Movies today have a few other purposes; to entertain, to divert and things like that, but the idea of a motion picture being where a social conversation can take place — that made for a lot of good movies. But that day is gone. I don’t even know if films are culturally relevant at all anymore.

Would you say that scriptwriting or storytelling has managed to stay the same over the years?

No… I mean, we still tell stories and telling stories is one of the important ways we communicate. But we’ve also been overwhelmed by a tsunami of narratives. Just think about that a second — how many narrative stories did your great-grandfather hear? Or grandfather, or father? How many hours of sheer narrative were they exposed to? Now I don’t know the exact number but I would say that you have already logged tens and tens of thousands of narratives, where your grand-father would have maybe experienced hundreds of hours. How much plot is there? How many times can you watch narrative over and over again before the plot, the whole notion, the stories get tired and you say, “Oh I’ve seen that.”

Now we’ve invented things like reality television with the sole purpose of solving that problem.

Exactly, and it looks like it isn’t conventional narrative, but that gets tired too. So, it is not so easy for a screenwriter. It’s making it a lot harder to write when our technology has now allowed us to have access to virtually every film made in the world, both present and past.

Do you worry that we’re running out of stories to tell?

We have in many ways! Obviously you have to keep telling the old stories and trying to find fresh ways to do that, but when people have experienced such fatigue of having essentially too much narrative in their life — too much artificial narrative, entertainment narrative — it gets harder and harder to come up with something interesting.

You once said that your idea for the film Taxi Driver jumped out of your mind intact.

I think basically I got lucky in life! I suspect if I got a chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t be as lucky there the next time. (Laughs)

Is that how the best scripts are written, the ones that just come out of you fully formed?

Oh, no. I mean, that’s a big question! Sometimes you’re just writing because you like to write and you’ve thought of a good story. But in my case, that script was written as personal therapy and eventually it did find a reality, and it endured. But the impulse was therapy. That’s the purest level of which a story can exist, when you hit something that is really important to you. You always have to be on the lookout for that because that is the best stuff. If you just say, “Write my pain,” the odds are it’s not going to be very good, it’s going to be kind of simplistic, narcissistic, self-involved. “Write your pain” is not a very good recipe for success.

But drawing from that pain can be beneficial, right?

Yeah, that’s a well that you can go back to. There won’t always be water in it, but you can go back and check. As your life moves on you start to say, “What am I really confronting now? Is there a metaphor, is there a story metaphor that will express what I’m trying to understand about my life?” You have to be very calculated about how you access that pain. It’s no fun being at the mercy of destructive impulses, and the one thing that art does is it allows us to put a leash on them. I think you learn that pretty quick. (Laughs) Otherwise you end up going to jail or overdosing!

“I’m not really one of those who just works because I like to work.”

You once said, “Art is supposed to upset people.” How do you accomplish that?

Art is meant to make people think and experience. One way that you can do that is you can upset people, but you can also do it by expanding their lots of horizons. So “upset” isn’t the only thing, it is one of the things we do. And that’s really not a bad thing.

When do you think you’ve managed to upset people the most?

You try to do it a lot — every time. At least I do. I’m not really one of those who just works because I like to work. If there’s not something there, something really intriguing, a puzzle to be solved, a dilemma to be explored, then it’s very hard for me. You try to make a movie that doesn’t end when the lights come up, something that when you run into somebody out on the sidewalk, they’re still going through the story in their mind. That’s the goal.