Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Paul Schrader: Steps to Writing a Script


Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Paul Schrader clarified the screenwriting development process in an interview with Richard Thompson from 1976 when ‘Taxi Driver’ had just opened. Below are excerpted comments from that interview. 

Paul Schrader: I think there are three steps to writing a script. First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness. Then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they’re fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot.

Schrader reveals how he arrived at his plot for ‘Taxi Driver’:

Two things happened which tied the project [Taxi Driver] together: a Harry Chapin song called ‘Taxi,’ in which an old girlfriend gets into a guy’s cab; and [Arthur] Bremer shot [Presidential Candidate, George] Wallace. That was the thread which led to the script. Maybe I shouldn’t admit to this, but why not be honest? After all, there’s really nothing new on the face of the earth.

Elaborating on his method Schrader goes on to explain:

One of the problems with screenwriters is that they think first in terms of plot or in terms of metaphor, and they’re going the reverse way; it’s awfully hard to do. Once you have a plot, it’s hard to infuse a theme into it, because it’s not an indigenous expression of the plot; that’s why you must start with the theme and not the plot.

Metaphor is extremely important to a movie. A perfect example is Deliverance, where you have point A and point B, and four men going from A to B—the first time [theme] for the men, the last time [metaphor] for the river. On the strength of that metaphor, you could put the Marx Brothers in that boat and something would happen. When somebody walks up to you and says, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a Western and this is the twist,’ you know right off the bat that they’re in trouble, because they’re coming at it the wrong way. Maybe they’ll be able to write a novel that sells, make a lot of money, and live in Beverly Hills; but it’s not interesting to me; not something I really care about.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
As Pipeliner [his first script] was falling through, I got hit with two other blows to the body at the same time: my marriage fell through, and the affair that caused the marriage to fall through fell through, all within the same four or five months. I fell into a state of manic depression. I was living with someone at the time, and she got so fed up with me that she split. I was staying in her apartment waiting for the cupboard to run out of food.

I got to wandering around at night; I couldn’t sleep because I was so depressed. I’d stay in bed till four or five P.M. then I’d say, ‘Well, I can get a drink now.’ I’d get up and get a drink and take my bottle with me and start wandering around the streets in my car at night. After the bars closed, I’d go to pornography. I’d do this all night, till morning, and I did it for about three or four weeks, a very destructive syndrome, until I was saved from it by an ulcer; I had not been eating, just drinking.
When I got out of the hospital I realized I had to change my life because I would die and everything; I decided to leave L.A. That was when the metaphor hit me for Taxi Driver, and I realized that was the metaphor I had been looking for: the man who will take anybody any place for money; the man who moves through the city like a rat through the sewer; the man who is constantly surrounded by people, yet has no friends. The absolute symbol of urban loneliness. That’s the thing I’d been living; that was my symbol, my metaphor. The film is about a car as the symbol of urban loneliness, a metal coffin.

I wrote the script very quickly, in something like fifteen days. The script just jumped from my mind almost intact ...When you’re writing films, you’re dealing with a kind of nascent, primitive force that’s alive.

The Yakuza (Directed by Sidney Pollack)
Schrader goes on to recall:

Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I re-read [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s Nausea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero, that is, the man from The Stranger, Notes From The Underground, Nausea, Pickpocket, Le Feu Follet, and A Man Escaped, and put him in an American context. In so doing, you find that he becomes more ignorant, ignorant of the nature of his problem. Travis’s problem is the same as the existential hero’s, that is, ‘should I exist?’ But Travis doesn’t understand that this is his problem, so he focuses it elsewhere, and I think that is a mark of the immaturity and the youngness of our country. We don’t properly understand the nature of the problem, so the self-destructive impulse, instead of being inner-directed, as it is in Japan, Europe, any of the older cultures, becomes outer-directed. The man who feels the time has come to die will go out and kill other people rather than kill himself. There’s a line in The Yakuza which says, ‘When a Japanese cracks up, he’ll close the window and kill himself; when an American cracks up, he’ll open the window and kill somebody else.’ That’s essentially how the existential hero changes when he becomes American. There is not enough intellectual tradition in this country, and not enough history; and Travis is just not smart enough to understand his problem. He should be killing himself instead of these other people. At the end, when he shoots himself in a playful way, that’s what he’s been trying to do all along.

- Paul Schrader interviewed by Richard Thompson,  Film Comment magazine, March-April 1976.

See also my post ‘Notes on Taxi Driver’ here where Schrader further discusses the background to his screenplay for the film.

2 comments:

  1. I would love to know what "You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot" means.

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    1. well, the theme is loneliness, the metaphor is the taxi driver - i think the rest is pretty straightforward

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