Paul Schrader: On Screenwriting

In the following extract Paul Schrader discusses the screenwriting process in relation to his work on the seminal films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ – each directed by Martin Scorsese. 

You wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver in about ten days, and I know you’re of the school of thought that the faster you write a screenplay, the better.

You have to understand that the gestation period could be months, or even years, and the idea of writing fast is to keep from writing as long as possible, so that it just endures time and obstacles. By the time it comes out, it comes out almost fully formed. Then you write in approximately a time frame that’s like viewing a movie. You can sort of feel the experience as you’re living it, it doesn’t get attenuated, it doesn’t get threshed out. But I’m also of the school of I’m not going to write unless I know what I’m going to write. I pretty much know what’s going to happen on page seventy-five before I sit down and write.

So you have to have the whole thing in your head before you write it? 

Yeah, and outlined. It moves and shapes itself as you go along, but it is pretty well worked out, and it has endured numerous tests before it is written. By tests, I mean the oral tradition, telling people. You sit down and you tell people the story. You say, ‘Look, I wanna tell you a story. Man walks into a bank. There’s a robbery going on….’ There you are, you’re off and running, and you can watch people. It doesn’t really matter what they say, it’s what they do with their eyes and how they sit. You can see whether or not this story has a resonance, and as you tell it, sometimes you have to make changes. Because like a stand-up comedian, you realize you’re losing your audience, you gotta do something drastic. I think it was Chandler who once said, ‘If you ever get in trouble, introduce a character with a gun. Your reader will be so glad he’s there, he won’t ask where he came from.’ The same thing with telling a story; you realize you’re losing your listener, then you say, ‘All of a sudden, a red car pulls up, and these two guys in black coats come out.’ Boom! You got your listener back. Of course, you’ve also got a red car and two guys in black coats, but that’s one of the things you do when you work the oral tradition. By the time you write that script, you’re pretty confident that it’s worth writing because you have seen it work. If you can tell a story for forty-five minutes and keep people interested, you have a movie.

Who would you use as a sounding board? 

Anybody. The more ordinary someone is, the better, because they’re not going to give you arcane points, you’re just going to see if they’re interested. It’s like telling a joke – you know when it works. Obviously, certain material is very sophisticated, and it’s not going to work that way. I’m not going to sit and tell Mishima to somebody at the 7-11! But in general, if you’re dealing with a kind of a narrative, you want to get that kind of feedback. Also, another good thing about it is it stops you from writing a lot of scripts, because you see them die, and you see yourself getting stuck. It is very discouraging to write scripts that don’t get sold or made. If you can stop yourself from writing those scripts, you can prolong your career. Because all you have to do is write five or six of those scripts, and you’re about beat up. So if you have a bad idea, you can catch it in time. You haven’t lost a script, you’ve saved yourself four months. I lecture from time to time on screenwriting, and when I lecture, it’s a five-point program. It goes from theme, to metaphor, to plot, to oral tradition, to outline. That’s the progress of an idea. It all begins with a theme, and another word for a theme is a personal problem. In Taxi Driver it was loneliness, the metaphor was a taxicab. Bing-Bang-Boom, it starts to move.

When you sit down to write an original screenplay, where do you begin?

At any given time in your life, there are a number of problems running around. Problems that have a lot to do with where you are in your life cycle, whether it’s a mid-life crisis, problems with parents or children. You’re always looking for metaphors that will somehow address that problem. And once you find that metaphor, particularly if you’ve written as much as I have, it’s like a factory is standing there, fully manned, ready to go. All it needs is the raw material. The metaphor is the raw material. Once they get that, they can go to work.

But your last few projects have been adaptations? 

About four years ago, I ran into a little dry period. Like so many others I turned to books. I did some adaptations where I originated the projects: Touch and Affliction. For about a year now I sort of fell back into the groove and have been doing a lot of writing again. That feeling of not having anything original to say has sort of gone away. I think I’ll be good for a couple more years.

It goes through cycles. 

Yeah. I don’t think anybody has something fresh to say every year. You just don’t have an original script every year.

You adapted ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, which was not an easy novel to turn into a film. How did you approach that adaptation?

I do the same process in terms of problem/metaphor. You look at the book, and you say, ‘Where’s the problem?’ And it’s not necessarily the problem in the book, it’s your problem that you find in the book. ‘What part of me exists in this book that I can address?’ You have to personalize it, and therefore in a book like Last Temptation, there were probably five or six different scripts that could have been written from that. You have a 600-page philosophical novel, and it’s going to become a 110-page script. What I did in that case was I listed every single thing that happened in the book – there were probably 400 or 500 things that happened in the book – then I did columns. Did they address my problem? Were they important for expositional needs? Did they address any of the sub-themes? I went through all the scenes and put checks behind them to the degree that they were useful to me. And then I just took the top fifty scenes, because only between forty to fifty-five things happen in a movie anyway, and said, ‘Okay, what do I have to add?’ Or, ‘How do I make this meld all together?’ That way I was able to take three- quarters of the book, and just wipe it off the table in one grand stroke and reduce the size of the book. Then I went back and picked up from those pages I had swiped off, whatever little bits and pieces I might need.
ou did a rewrite on the film ‘Raging Bull’, and Martin Scorsese said that your version of the script was the breakthrough that helped get the film made. What exactly did you bring to the script for ‘Raging Bull’?

Well there was no Joey La Motta. Jake La Motta had written a book called Raging Bull with Pete Savage, and he cut his brother out of his book because he didn’t like his brother! So I started doing research, and I started hearing about the fighting La Motta brothers and that they were boxers together. I interviewed Vickie [Jake’s ex-wife] and Joey, and I realized you had a sibling story. The movie was about these two brothers who had this contract. Basically the contract was, they were both boxers, but one of them had the gift of gab, and the other one didn’t. So Joey basically said to Jake, ‘Here’s the deal. You get the beatings, you get the fame, I get the girls, we set up the bookies, and we split the money.’ Well that contract is fraught with dangers [laughs]! That was the implicit contract between these two men. Jake would be the headliner and take the beatings, and Joey would be the pretty boy who got the girls and they would split the money. You know that there’s going to come a day that someone doesn’t agree with that contract! So without Joey, you didn’t have a movie…

From – Paul Schrader Interviewed by Jim Mercurio and David Konow: Creative Screenwriting, vol 6, #1 (Jan/Feb 1999) and vol 9, #5 (Sept/Oct 2002).


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