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Screenwriting Role Models: Paul Schrader

April 6, 2017
5 min read time

Paul Schrader is one of the most important screenwriters of the twentieth century and helped to define the New Hollywood of the 1970s. Unlike most filmmakers, Schrader didn’t grow up loving movies. In fact, he had not seen one until he was in his late teens. He grew up in a deeply religious household in the Midwest and movies weren’t considered a priority.

Initially, Schrader went to college for theology and planned to be a minister, but a growing love of cinema led him to a fateful meeting with renowned film critic Pauline Kael. After a long conversation about movies, Kael convinced the young man that his calling was in film criticism rather than organized religion. Schrader, thanks to a recommendation from Kael, transferred to UCLA and studied film. With Kael as a mentor, it wasn’t long before Schrader was writing film criticism and essays for the Los Angeles Free Press as well as Cinema and Film Comment magazines.

It was only a matter of time before Schrader attempted to write a screenplay.

Doing just that, Schrader’s first spec script, Pipeliner, told the story of a dying man who returns to the Midwest and destroys the lives of the people around him. The spec failed to sell, but it became his calling card. Literary agent Michael Hamilburg liked the screenplay and took on Schrader. During this period, however, Schrader’s personal life was falling apart with a broken marriage and a subsequent failed relationship. For a few weeks, Schrader was living in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment and then his car. He was suffering from severe depression and was spending his nights frequenting bars and other seedy establishments. He had hit rock bottom. It was during this period that Schrader came up with his next spec script …

Taxi Driver.

The screenplay’s troubled protagonist, Travis Bickle, was a Vietnam War veteran and taxi driver, but Schrader was clearly modeling the character on himself (he’s also confirmed as much in interviews).

Written more as a cathartic exercise than anything else, Schrader didn’t pen the script with the hope of monetary reward. He gave it to his agent and then left Los Angeles. Schrader needed a break from the town.

As Taxi Driver was making the rounds, the writer had relocated to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was at this time Schrader received a letter from his brother Leonard, who had been living in Japan. Having his own experiences on the wild side, Leonard had been interacting with the Yakuza criminal underworld. He told his brother and suggested they write a script based on his unique view into the world of the Yakuza. Paul ran the idea past Hamilburg, who loved it and said he’d pay the brothers to come to L.A. to write the screenplay.

They did just that: Paul and Leonard rented a place in Venice Beach and pounded out the script in a month.

It was titled The Yakuza.

The script quickly became the center of a bidding war, which resulted in Warner Bros. purchasing it for a then-record of $325,000. Sydney Pollack ended up directing the film, after a Robert Towne rewrite. The movie wasn’t a success, but it awarded the Schrader brothers with a big script sale and their first film credit. Paul was now a professional screenwriter. Leonard also went on to write other films, most notably 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, which earned him an Academy Award® nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

After the Yakuza sale, Paul Schrader wrote the film Obsession for director Brian De Palma. He also wrote an early draft of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which Steven Spielberg didn’t use.

Released in 1976, De Palma’s Obsession was a critical and commercial failure, but in forging a relationship with De Palma, the film led to one of Schrader’s biggest successes. De Palma gave the Taxi Driver screenplay to his friend and fellow director, Martin Scorsese. The intense, New York City-based script spoke to Scorsese, and he decided it would be his next movie. Released in 1976, Taxi Driver was a critical and commercial success, not only cementing Scorsese’s status as a filmmaker but also making Robert De Niro a full-fledged movie star. It would also be the movie that forever defined Schrader as a screenwriter. To this day, it’s considered one of the greatest and most important films ever made.

After the triumph of Taxi Driver, Schrader had enough clout to direct his next script: another collaboration with his brother titled Blue Collar. Released in 1978 and starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto, Blue Collar didn’t make an impact at the box office, but it was praised by critics. Dealing with the struggles of three working-class men with much wit and insight, the film has aged well and seems just as relevant today as it was in 1978.

Schrader quickly followed Blue Collar with 1979’s Hardcore (starring George C. Scott). A deeply personal film, Hardcore finds Schrader wrestling with his religious background while being drawn to the darker and seedier side of life. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to Taxi Driver.

On a creative streak, Schrader wrote and directed his third film, 1980’s American Gigolo. Starring Richard Gere, the movie was a big hit and is perhaps Schrader’s most accessible work. But despite its slick style and sheen, American Gigolo is just as dark as any Schrader film. Like Taxi Driver and Hardcore, it’s also about moral crisis and seedy subcultures.

The same year, Schrader collaborated with Scorsese and De Niro on another film, Raging Bull. Based on boxer Jake LaMotta’s memoir, the first draft of the screenplay was penned by Mardik Martin and failed to impress De Niro. Schrader was brought in to rewrite it, adding more focus to Jake’s relationship with his brother and manager Joey. The script’s quality no longer in dispute, the film went into production. In 1980, Raging Bull was released to critical praise but a less-than-stellar box office. De Niro was awarded an Oscar® for Best Actor and further established his stature. Today the film is considered a classic and, like Taxi Driver, it’s often listed as one of the greatest movies ever made.

Paul Schrader wrote and/or directed many other acclaimed films throughout his career: 1985’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, 1986’s The Mosquito Coast, 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, 1997’s Affliction, 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead, and 2002’s Auto Focus.

Still making independent films today with a defiant spirit, Schrader never allowed his success to change him as an artist. His writing is possessed with an unflinching eye, exposing the ugliness of our society while seeking some kind of transcendence. Even when his characters fail to do so—sometimes profoundly so—we all grow from their experience.

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