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Nottingham Castle

Paul Schrader Masterclass

3 July 09 words: Jared Wilson
“You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?" Well, actually the man who wrote Taxi Driver was talking to a couple of hundred of us
 Paul Schrader - Screenwriting master
 Paul Schrader - Screenwriting master

“You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking... you talking to me? Well I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're talking to?”

Actually, I wasn’t the only one there. There were actually a couple of hundred of us. We were eager to hear for ourselves from the man who wrote the screenplays to Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), American Gigolo (1980 – which he also directed) and The Last Temptation of Christ. This is to name but a few of dozens of other great movies he’s been part of. Maybe some of his magic might rub off on us..?

So, after a ten minute showreel, at least half of which seemed to be taken up by a scene in The Comfort of Strangers (1990) where Christopher Walken punches Rupert Everett in the stomach, Schrader made his entrance from the back of the cinema.

He seemed an unassuming guy. To say he’s spent the best part of his career as part of a holy trinity with Robert De Niro and Martin Scorcese, he was relaxed and unthreatening. Also, despite the fact that he was thousands of miles from home, having just been awarded the first ever Screenlit Lifetime Achievement Award in Screenwriting, it was clear we were in his house.

Schrader explained first that he had taught before, mainly at universities in California and Columbia, but usually he does a set of ten lessons over ten weeks. By contrast this was a flying visit, so he would try to pack in as much as possible and we’d leave the practical stuff for us to practice until after the lesson.

He then broke down his philosophy of screenwriting: that it was basically born out of your own experience. He explained that he had originally got into it for self therapy, as a film critic who had hit bad times. He was living in his car with a stomach ulcer and went days without speaking to anyone. It was like he was trapped in a metal coffin that went around and around the city; he was surrounded by society, yet felt completely alone. So he wrote Taxi Driver as a personal exorcism.

“You have to expose yourself. You have to not have a choice. If that kid in the car is going to eat you up unless you write him away then you belong in my class.”

Taxi Driver - written by Schrader, directed by Scorcese, starring De Niro
Taxi Driver - written by Schrader, directed by Scorcese, starring De Niro

He then explained that his primary tool for screenwriting is metaphor. Find something inside yourself that you feel and then translate it to something else on screen, making sure to take all the emotions with you. For example what better job for a lonely man living in his car than a taxi driver – he drives people around every working hour of every day, but there is a separation between the driver in the front and the passenger in the back. By the same token the shark in Jaws could be considered a metaphor for anxiety and the monster in Frankenstein a metaphor for technology.

He then told us a little about the background of Raging Bull, about how hard it was to get made because no-one except De Niro really believed in the project early on. Also that the main character Jake LaMotta had years earlier released an autobiography where he had removed all mention of his brother from the pages. That was what made Schrader want to focus the film on the sibling’s relationship.

He then went into detail about his writing technique, how he numbers the sections of plot and estimates how many pages of dialogue should be written for each section. He also explained how all his stories are tried out on friends before he ever commits pen to paper. He looks for their reactions while telling them certain bits and begins to improvise if they are looking bored. Some of those improvisations make the final cut.

“I have gestated stories for 4-5months in my mind, but I’ve never taken more than 4 weeks to write one. By the time I put pen to paper the story is ready and has to get out.”

All in all this was a fascinating couple of hours. Congratulations to the Broadway for getting such a master of screenwriting to appear at the festival. Any chance of getting him to give us the full ten-week course this time next year?

The Screenlit festival continues at Broadway until Sunday 5 July 2009.

Screenlit Festival preview

Screenlit Festival website

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