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Schrader: Indies are scavenger dogs, scouring the planet for scraps

by Roger Ebert

Reading over my notes after interviewing Paul Schrader, the writer-director of “The Walker” and many other splendid films, I heard his voice coming through so loudly and clearly that it struck me the conventional form of an interview (“He paused,” “he said,” etc.) would only obscure his style. In London, the newspapers sometimes string together quotes and present them as if the subject has written them for publication. I thought I would try something like that.

All you need to know going in is that Schrader’s film stars Woody Harrelson as an unpaid gay escort of rich society women in Washington, D.C. One of his friends, a senator’s wife, finds the dead body of her lover. My review appears Friday.

Paul Schrader speaking:

This film started with my “American Gigolo.” I was wondering what that character would be like in middle age, and I realized he would be funny; that his skills would be social. He’d be like a society walker, and that struck me as an interesting occupational metaphor. All of my man-in-a-room films are occupational service metaphors: a taxi driver, a drug dealer, a gigolo, now a society walker. It fit rather neatly into a kind of age 20, 30, 40, 50 progression. If in “Light Sleeper” I took him out of the front seat and put him in the back seat, in “Walker” I took him out of the closet and put him in Washington, D.C. In my mind those four films are linked. I don’t think I’ll do another one. It was too hard to finance this one.

It’s a character piece, and one of the reasons that I had trouble getting it financed was that everyone wanted me to hype up the Washington thriller aspect. But that’s such a set genre, the Washington thriller, that I figured if I went into that, I wouldn’t have a character piece anymore. Movies are about things that happen and people who do things and this guy’s mantra is, “I’m not naïve, I’m superficial.” So he’s not the stuff of which movies are financed. I knew I needed to have some plot because otherwise people would tire of these ladies talking. So I created a kind of a plot but I tried to keep it far enough in the background so that you wouldn’t think, oh, this all about the plot, because it’s really about this guy, Carter Page. It’s similar to “Taxi Driver” or “Gigolo” or “Light Sleeper” in that way; they all have a plot but you don’t really remember the plot so much as you remember the character.

Woody Harrelson arrived as a surprise to me because I when I wrote it I had sort of financed it with Steve Martin and Julie Christie and then that fell out. Now I was looking for an actor. Woody’s agent called me up and asked, “Have you thought about Woody?” I said no. I mean, nothing Woody’s has done would make me think about him for this role. He’s not on any list I’ve ever made up. Jeremy, his agent, said, “Well, I was talking to him. He wants to do something really different. Would you like to meet with him?” I said of course I would, because I’ve been looking for an actor who could do comedy and Woody is a good actor despite his public persona of being a kind of a doofus. And so we met and he was plugged into it and off we went. There was some trepidation; there was a point in pre-production where I felt I might be jumping into an empty pool, but he finally got into it and took off.

He worked out. He really did. I’ve got a friend in Virginia who this character is based on in some ways. His father was a general and a professor at VMI, his grandfather was in politics in Virginia; he’s kind of like this character. I hired him as an associate producer on the film, in London and on the Isle of Man, and he was with Woody a lot and a lot of what Woody is doing is this guy, and it really helped out.

The term, “The Walker,” is fairly new. It was coined by John Fairchild of W Magazine and Women’s Wear Daily to describe Jerry Zipkin, who was Nancy Reagan’s walker, and Fairchild always used to call him, Jerry (“The Walker”) Zipkin. When Nancy wanted to go to some event, Jerry would take her.

Getting a picture financed, you have a problem with a passive protagonist, you have a problem of a character study, you have a problem of a non-plot driven film. These films are getting harder and harder to make. One of the ironies of my career is I tend to be working overseas more often. “The Walker,” a solid, all-American film, was financed out of the UK. No money from America. “Adam Resurrected” was financed out of Israel and Germany. “AutoFocus” was financed out of America but “Affliction” was financed out of Japan. “In Touch” was financed out of France. The role of the independent filmmaker is like a international scavenger dog, scouring the planet for the scraps that have fallen from various tables. And that’s what we do. But now with the dollar completely in the toilet, I think opportunities are gonna be better. Canadian films are gonna start shooting here before long.

Working with Lauren Bacall was an experience. Betty is a tough old bird. She has a reputation, which she has earned, as being a tough lady. My initial response to her was to play her game. She wants a lot of praise and after a number of days, I realized that there was no praise that was enough, and she wanted to be praised in the presence of other actors so that you got stuck if you had to tell her how great her last take was and there would be Kristin Scott Thomas sitting there, Woody there. And no matter what you said to her, it wasn’t quite enough. So I decided after about a week to just be real professional, basically: “Good, very good, Lauren, thank you, let’s move on,” and not get into the effusive flattery.

She didn’t like that and Kristin told me that I was the main course for dinner on a number of evenings as Lauren launched into me. But I think her work started getting better when it wasn’t all this courtship and flattery. It’s interesting about Lauren, because she’s just 83 now. She is the same age as Sidney Lumet, younger than Arthur Penn, yet you think of her as being older because she was famous so young. She was 19 when she was married to Humphrey Bogart, so you think of her as somehow an actor from the 1940’s which she was, you know, in a way.

She has some of the best lines, I collected all those bon mots over a period of years. Somebody asked me I would be interested in writing a TV series based on this character. I said, look, it took me years to collect all those funny lines; you expect me to write a show every week? I’m not that good.

The Woody character genuinely sympathizes with the women. It’s not a job. These guys who do this, for the most part, don’t do it for money. They may get gifts. They love girl-talk. It’s a very ancient profession. I’m sure Versailles was full of them. And the kinds of things that would make a heterosexual man whither in agony, endless talk about fabrics and who’s done what, is endlessly entertaining. What makes Carter interesting is that he’s using it as a protection against the legacy of his father and grandfather. He can’t compete with them except as a black sheep, so he can become the guy that’s whispered about. That’s why he’s still in Washington, D.C., and that’s what makes the character interesting to me, because he shouldn’t be in Washington anymore. He should be somewhere else. But he’s still there because he’s still tied to his father, he’s still tied to the notion of being a black sheep. The essence of character is contradiction. Why is he still in Washington? Why is he both in and out of the closet? Then you start to have an interesting character.

When Kristen discovers her lover’s body it’s instinctive for him to make that call to the cops for her. She couldn’t afford the scandal. That’s the kind of guy he is. Woody was a little uncomfortable with that and we added a moment when someone sees him, so he sort of has to make the call. But Carter is a well-mannered man and he realizes that she can’t be the one who finds that body and somebody else should find it. He doesn’t think that it’ll be a big deal. I walk into my friend’s apartment, see a body, call the police. What’s the big deal? Well, turns out to be a big deal.

The thing is, you should stand up for your friends even after they desert you. Somebody said to me after seeing the film that his question to Kristen at the end -- “Why didn't you stand up for me?” -- is one that’s unique to movies because you don’t usually hear that. Usually a movie makes it clear. Why didn't you stand up for me? She can’t understand it.

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