American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Grand Rapids, Michigan – “I like to fire a movie like a bullet,” Paul Schrader was explaining, as if he were making death threats, not screenplays. “Then I stay with it until it hits its target.”
Could this be the same Paul Schrader whose mother had patted him on the head just a few hours earlier and gently reminded him that he hadn't been fired from every job he'd had as a kid? “Oh, yes, I did, mom,” Schrader had said. “The only job I didn't get fired from was at dad's company.”
There are two Paul Schraders, and he's had an enormous success by keeping it that way. The first Paul Schrader is one of the hottest young (31) filmmakers in Hollywood, and his writing credits read like a checklist of the most violent, blood-soaked movies of recent years: “Taxi Driver,” “Rolling Thunder,” “Obsession” and “The Yakuza” (that was the one where Robert Mitchum took on the Japanese Mafia in what resembled a Consumer's Reports lab test of samurai swords).
As a writer-director, Schrader made his debut with “Blue Collar”, in which one character was spray-painted to death in an auto factory. Then he went to his hometown of Grand Rapids to shoot the opening scenes of his next movie, which stars George C. Scott and was allegedly titled “Pilgrim.” After the week in Grand Rapids, though, the film moved to California and underwent the quickest title change – to “Hard Core” – you've ever seen.
It's the Grand Rapids business that helps explain the other Paul Schrader – that part of his creative personality that seems to sit back and view the violence in a moral context. Schrader has been involved in some of the goriest movies of our time, yes, but that seems to be because he's against violence, and because he's so fascinated by the kinds of personalities drawn to it.
Schrader was raised as a strict Calvinist in a city where, for many people, fundamentalism is a way of life. He remembers the long dinner-table conversations on family holidays, when his parents and relatives discussed some of the finer points of grace, virtue and sin. He did not attend a movie until he was 17 years old. That ban included all movies: It wasn't just the bad movies that were sinful, you see, but the very idea of films itself.
At last, one historic day back in the innocent early 1960s, Paul Schrader slipped into the Majestic Theater in downtown Grand Rapids and saw his first film. Other directors have recorded their similar experiences: Francois Truffaut, for example, remembers seeing Orson Welles' “Citizen Kane” and then sneaking back that night to steal the poster from in front of the theater.
What was the first movie Paul Schrader saw? “The Absent-Minded Professor,” by Walt Disney. What did he think of it? “I was very greatly disappointed.”
He was also apparently something of a disappointment at Calvin College, where he was fired from the campus newspaper for printing his unorthodox views (fired at the same time was Chicago author William Brashler, the sports editor). Schrader was by now aiming for a career in movies, not journalism, anyway; he followed his older brother, Leonard, to Los Angeles – and in one of the more stunning writing coups of 1972 they sold their original screenplay of “The Yakuza” for $300,000. They were on their way: Leonard as a writer, Paul as a writer-director.
One thing their movies have in common is a very strong, visible sense of sin: The Robert De Niro character in “Taxi Driver,” for example, goes on his berserk killing spree in outrage because pimps are exploiting a young teenage girl. “Blue Collar” pits workers against what it sees as the immorality of big labor.
And “Hard Core” will deal directly with the conflicts between places like Grand Rapids and what Schrader calls “the other side of the American white picket-fence morality.” It stars Scott as a fundamentalist Christian whose daughter takes a bus tour to California for a church youth convention – and never returns. At first, Scott's not successful in tracing her. Then, one day, he sees her in a hard-core porno film, and sets off for California to find her and bring her home.
Schrader returned to his hometown to shoot scenes in churches, a school and a small white frame house. He used the temporary title “Pilgrim” because he doubted that Grand Rapids would much take to the title “Hard Core.” For Scott, the trip to Michigan was also sort of a homecoming; he was raised in Detroit and went to public schools there.
“Parts of the movie are autobiographical for me,” Scott said, “because I come from a pretty religious background. I can understand this guy, the way he feels. I've personally never seen a porno film, or had any desire to – it would be like invading someone's privacy.
“But I can get into the character's mind… You always flesh out a character, think about his background. It's so much second nature I don't even think much about it anymore. And then it was probably a good idea for Paul to start us out in Michigan to set the mood. We were up to our asses in snow, which certainly succeeded in bringing the whole Midwest back to me.”
Schrader, sitting at a kitchen table in the rented frame house, said he didn't know exactly how hard core the movie would be. “We do have to show something resembling a porno film, but we can't have an X rating,” he mused. “What we show will be between myself, the studio, and the ratings system…”
It was a minor miracle, he said, that he was directing the movie at all, and that Scott was starring in it. “When I wrote it, I had Scott in mind. But you know how he is, announcing his retirement every year. Warren Beatty wanted to buy the screenplay, but he wouldn't take me as a director. And in his version, it would have been his wife, not his daughter, who split for the Coast. No good. I held out. I turned down a very large sum of money. I went after Scott and I got him. One of the greatest actors in the world.”
He looked around the room, which contained maybe 30 technicians, actors, old schoolmates and his parents, who were still enthusiastic about meeting George Scott. (“What a power that man has!” said Paul's father, Charles, who's retired from business to devote time to church work. “In those scenes in church the other day, he stood so ramrod-straight with his soldier's back, his arms behind him, that he just dominated the scene.”)
Schrader had one more scene to do before the day was over: He wanted to record a satirical version of the Calvin College song, to be sung over the opening titles. To play the piano and lead, he'd recruited an old school friend named Reinder Van Til. I asked Van Til how the local citizens regarded Paul's success.
“I'd say the Calvin people basically hate him,” he said, “because they wonder if he's making fun of their values. He's not – this is basically a very moral movie – but they hate him all the more because he's been successful. If they reject you and then you become a success, that's what hurts…”
After the scene was finished, we all piled into a car to drive back to the Pandlin Hotel, where Schrader, almost inevitably, was occupying the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Suite. We went instead, though, to the Pandlin Bar, where Schrader had a dry Manhattan and speculated that when word got out that his movie's real name was “Hard Core,” his parents might have to take a long trip.
What do they think about your films, I asked him – especially about the violence?
“There are some things I don't discuss with them,” he said. “Violence, sex, religion. You have your own interior gyroscope and that's the important thing. You have to be ruthless with yourself, much less the people you love.”
An attractive young woman across the room, and Grand Rapids' second most famous native son sighed. “Ah, yes, the beautiful Debbie,” he said. “Where were we? Oh, yeah – talking about morality.” That's what's so interesting about a Paul Schrader movie, I found myself thinking: How the two Paul Schraders manage to give each other equal time.
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