While still best-known for his screenwriting collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ), Paul Schrader has carved out a long, not entirely consistent, endlessly fascinating directorial career, the highlights of which include American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and Light Sleeper — not to mention his delirious, Bruckheimer-produced Cat People remake. His latest — the “film of a free man,” so to speak — is Dog Eat Dog, whose ostentatious nihilism and political incorrectness may seem like a relic of the post-Pulp Fiction quirky-crime-film boom, but by the time it seemingly homages Seijun Suzuki in its finale, you know you’re in the hands of a pro.
In Toronto for the North American premiere, Schrader sat down with us to discuss the making of the film, the changing industry, and, of course, Nicolas Cage.
The Film Stage: Going into this festival, there were all these pieces, be they in Variety or the Hollywood Reporter, about how the industry was in this state of crisis because how hard it is to turn a profit these days. As someone who’s managed to make a number of films in the past few years, and I believe you just announced a new one, do you feel this armageddon is coming or not?
Paul Schrader: Well, the 20th-century notion of film has gone away. That essentially means the theatrical, the projected image in a dark room with an audience, that is becoming more and more of a niche experience. The concept of audio-visual entertainment is still exploding, but it is getting very hard to monetize. Cinema was always a product of capitalism; it was linked to capitalism. If you pay to see it, they’ll make it for you. And such, it sort of stood apart from the other arts. But now technology has democratized film and made it so inexpensive that you can lose money on film just the way you lose it on painting and music and novels and short stories.
Just because you are a painter doesn’t mean you make money. Just because you’re a filmmaker doesn’t mean you make money. That’s the big thing that has changed, and, as they say: if you want to be a filmmaker, you better have a day job; if you want to be in a band, you better have a day job. Because only one band in a thousand is going to make a living. The rest of them are just going to be playing on the weekends for chump change. Film has now assumed the profile of the other arts, and that, I guess, is what you call a crisis, but it’s only a crisis for a certain economics, which no longer exist. The beauty of the new film world is you can make a film for $100,000; you can make a film for $50,000. The tragedy is you can lose money on that $50,000 film.
I remember, in a Film Comment article you had written, that a producer on one of your recent films insisted, “Shoot close-ups! We need people to be able to see this on a phone!” Making this film, did you feel that?
Well, that’s changed now. When that first started happening, people were saying that. Now, people have gotten more sophisticated. I mean, you look at something like I, Robot, you can watch that on your phone, so that’s not quite the same. I don’t mind watching it on a phone. I mean, I watched all of Mad Men like this. [Holds phone very close to face]
But you didn’t feel any restrictions making this film?
I did this totally free. I mean, there were a lot of producers on this film, but none of them had any say. That was part of the deal. I had done a film with some bad fellows, that had taken the film away from me, recut it and dubbed it. Nic and I were determined to make that situation right, so we had final cut on this. Like, a wonderful example: we were shooting the film one day, and we’re falling a little behind. It’s this scene with a girl, and Nic’s like “I don’t know why I’m being so nice to this girl. I think I should be rougher to her,” it being the mother of a baby they just kidnapped. So I said, “Why don’t you hit her?” And he says “That’s good. I think I should hit her” And I say, “Why don’t you shoot her?” And he says, “Yeah, that would be good. I should shoot her!”
We brought the actress in and said, “Nic and I have been talking, and we decided that he should shoot you, so, in the middle of the scene, you run up the stairs and he’s gonna shoot you.” And then I said, “We’ll be ahead of schedule, because we won’t have to shoot the scene right after this,” because of another scene they had, and she wasn’t too happy — she lost a scene. But we did the scene, she ran up the stairs, and he did that line from Point Blank: “Lady, I don’t have the time.” And the producer comes by, and he says, “I see you’re on schedule, but what happened?” And I was like, “Well, we shot her,” and he was like, “What? That girl in the scene? Well, now we’re on schedule!”
The Canyons was on Kickstarter, and you could obviously say was a pretty well-documented production, and the previous film, The Dying of the Light, was kind of publicly, or “silently,” protested. Is it strange to be kind of making films in public now, due to all these social media tools?
It’s different, yeah. And it’s exhausting, in a way. When I began, if you could hit those six-to-ten spots, you could cover the media. Now it’s six-to-10,000.
You’ve talked about the experience of making Blue Collar and directing people with different styles of acting, like one that would be best on their first take, and one that would be best on their tenth take. Acting in this film, what was your mentality working opposite very seasoned actors?
Well, I have no experience, and every take was different because I couldn’t remember all the lines, so I was just sort of talking a lot. But Nic was very tolerant. But I knew, because I had an editing pattern in my head, so I could do it in bits and pieces.
There’s been onscreen, lately, these places like Detroit, New Orleans, Atlanta, that you could essentially call tax-credit cities. How was Cleveland as a setting? Was that in the script?
No, it was in Los Angeles. We picked up a million bucks from tax credits going into Cleveland. The original thought was, “We’ll leave it in Los Angeles and shoot interiors in Cleveland,” but then I got to Cleveland and thought it would be more efficient to just move the whole show to Cleveland.
I remember you writing a Facebook post about directing Cage. I couldn’t find it, but I remember it being along the lines of there’s a medium-Cage, there’s a high-Cage.
Maybe it was somebody else. I don’t remember that. Nic is extremely prepared; he has everything worked out. He tries to act unprepared, but he is. When he does something spontaneously — like, he’ll say, “I’m going to do something different in this scene”; like, he kisses the maid — that wasn’t in the script, but he just did it. And then I realize, “He’s been thinking about it for days. It wasn’t spontaneous at all.” More than anything else with Nic, I would kind of shake him up a little bit, because he tends to be over-prepared.
Is he aware of himself as an internet presence?
Oh, yeah. We did that meme, where he copied himself. We were on set, and there was that line and he’s like, “That’s just like the meme,” and we were like, “It won’t be in the film, but let’s shoot it and put it on the social media.”
I think there’s kind of a text to this film about Nic as a fallen leading man, in a way, like how throughout he’s imitating Bogart. Is that intentional?
Well that was his idea; it wasn’t in the script. He started doing that Bogart thing, and I wasn’t that crazy about it; I said I could cut around it. I didn’t want to start a fight with him about it and say he can’t do that. But then, as we were going along, and we did the last scene with the cop, and Nic said, “I don’t know how I want to play this scene, and how did I get away? How did I get here?” And I told him, “Maybe he didn’t get away; maybe he’s dead.”
Then we came to shoot this scene, and he’s doing the whole scene as Bogart. And I said, “Whoa, Nic, we’re not going to be able to shoot this twice. If you do this in Bogart’s voice, stay Bogart.” And then he said, “Well, I was thinking — if you said he’s dead, maybe he’s dead like in a noir.” Well, I said, “But that’s risky. That’s the end of the film. You sure you want to do this?” And he told me, “Well, you said we were going to be bold, weren’t we? Well, this is bold.” So we did it. He certainly didn’t ask anybody’s permission, and, if we had, we wouldn’t have gotten it.
Dog Eat Dog opens in theaters in LA and NY on November 4th, with a theatrical expansion, VOD and Digital HD on November 11th.