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Starting out at 2 a.m. with Paul Schrader after a Toronto premiere

Paul Schrader 2007. (François Truffaut portrait by Victor Skrebneski.)

TORONTO, Canada - There is a time when a film festival looks just like a convention of hardware dealers, and that time is at 2 in the morning in the hotel hospitality suite when everyone has collapsed exhausted onto the couches and started to contemplate the possibility of dawn. Into the gloom that was enveloping him, the film director Paul Schrader poured a glass of Canadian whiskey. He was scheduled to have breakfast with me at 8:30 a.m., but now he thought it over and said it might be better if we just went ahead and talked now, because he doubted that he would make any sense in the morning.

This was last weekend at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals, the biggest and best film festival in North America, and Schrader was there with his wife, the actress Mary Beth Hurt, for the premiere of his new film, “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”. She had made her excuses an hour ago and left for their room, and now, as even Dusty Cohl, the festival’s founder, said it was time to call it a day, Schrader tucked a couple of beers into his suit pockets and borrowed a pack of cigarettes and suggested we continue the conversation in my room.

“These are my working hours,” he said. “Ten at night to 7 or 8 in the morning. When Molly, our daughter, gets up, that’s my signal to go to bed. There’s a whole drunken theory of writing. People such as myself, encumbered with prohibitive inhibitions, don’t come out until the moon does. When you are alone and have had a certain amount to drink, all your little friends come out of the typewriter and run around the room.”

He sighed and lighted a Rothman’s. “For people like myself who don’t find it that easy to get in touch with their feelings, the inducement of night and alcohol is necessary. As I get older, it gets harder. My stamina is wearing down. The next day is always harder to get through. Maybe next I will write a daytime script.”

I said I found it a little hard, looking at Schrader’s credits as a writer and director, to imagine that he has inhibitions that prevent him from getting in touch with his feelings. This is the man who wrote “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” for Martin Scorsese; who wrote and directed “Hardcore,” in which George C. Scott tracked his runaway daughter into the depths of the porno film industry, and “American Gigolo,” in which Richard Gere played a call-boy framed for murder. Schrader’s new film tells the life story of Yukio Mishima, the obsessed Japanese novelist who committed ritual suicide. These do not seem like the films of a man who is struggling to release his inhibitions.

“The ideas come out at night,” Schrader said. “I do rewrites in the daytime, cleaning up the messy feelings of the night. As a result, my films are sometimes criticized as being too structured, too stylized, not spontaneous enough. All of the prevailing criticism of my work is also the sort of criticism leveled at Mishima. He was also a midnight writer. His nickname in gay circles was ‘Cinderella,’ because no matter what situation he was in, he had to be home at his desk and writing by midnight. His writing is criticized for being too calculated. There was not a spontaneous bone in Mishima’s body. He could tell you where he’d be at 4 o’clock three months from now.

“I share a lot of that. I force myself into situations where night-time thoughts can emerge. I’ve knocked down 7 or 8 drinks in the last hour. When I talk, I’m losing my consonants. Even when I’m sober, I don’t have that many consonants. When the ‘T’ goes, I’m in trouble.”

He spoke with the sort of level, weary self-analysis of a man who has exhausted the nervous energy to edit what he says. There was the feeling that all the screens and second thoughts of the daytime had been depleted. He opened one of the beers. “Even with this much drink in me,” he said, “the inhibiting factors are still strong.”

The theme of his inhibitions has been constant with Schrader for years. He has directed five films and written at least 10 others (not counting his uncredited work, such as the first draft of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). He is in his late 30s, married, with a daughter. He is lionized in film circles all over the world. Yet somewhere inside, he is still in close touch with the first 18 years of his life, when he was raised in a strict fundamentalist home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which frowned upon such worldly pleasures as smoking, drinking, dancing - and going to the movies. It is by now an item of movie folklore that the first movie Paul Schrader saw in his life was “The Absent-Minded Professor,” and he saw it when he was in high school.

Yet his films are not a wild rebellion against a sheltered youth. There is a strong streak of morality in them -- in “Taxi Driver,” for example, where Travis Bickle plunges into a mad war against pimps in New York, or in “Hardcore,” where a young girl is lured into the Los Angeles sexual underworld, and her avenging father comes with a gun to redeem her. Schrader has suggested that both movies were inspired by John Ford’s “The Searchers,” in which John Wayne spent years searching for the abducted Natalie Wood, but it does not take a film critic to observe that the plots may have something to do with Schrader’s own odyssey from Grand Rapids to Hollywood.

“My father had a great one-line review of ‘Hardcore,’” Schrader said. “He said he was happy my mother hadn’t lived to see the film. He was being sincere. He was happy. I can live with that. I do not make films in order to win the approval of my father, who has his own life to lead. Not long ago I was back in Grand Rapids for a family reunion of people I hadn’t seen in 15 years. There were 70 or 80 relatives there, and I really enjoyed seeing them again. All of them still live within 20 miles of Grand Rapids, except for me and my brother Leonard [whose own screenplay credits include the current ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’]. Nobody talked about the movies.”

With “Mishima,” Schrader has made another film that will probably not be discussed at his family reunions. It is a big, bold, controversial film, audacious in its vision. The film combines black and white with color, realistic sequences with others that are staged on highly stylized Japanese sets. It begins on the last morning in the life of Yukio Mishima, whose novels included "The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea" and "Temple of the Golden Pavilion," and whose philosophy was that post-World War II Japanese society had been splintered into two parts -- force and beauty -- when it should be one.

He tried to combine the two in his own life, becoming a poet, playwright and novelist, and a fierce militarist who pledged his life to the emperor, campaigned for the rebirth of the Japanese armed forces, and founded a private army. In the film, Schrader alternates between Mishima’s last day, scenes from his life and dramatized, heavily symbolic scenes from his novels. The film ends as Mishima and a group of his followers occupy an army garrison and one of them, following his instructions, beheads him as he disembowels himself.

The film has been seen at the Cannes and Toronto festivals, and will open nationwide in October. Critical opinion is divided between those (like myself) who think it is very good, and others who do not; their main objection is that the stylistic formalism prevents the audience from ever identifying for very long with anything.

“People say, ‘It’s not really a movie, is it?’” Schrader said. “I won’t be restricted by that view. Movies can offer formal pleasures - pleasures based on the way the story is structured, as well as on what happens to the characters. In any event, I don’t have to worry about whether ‘Mishima’ will be a great commercial success. One of the great liberties of doing this film in a foreign language is that I went in knowing the market was limited. So my question was, not how to make it more popular, but how to make it better.”

The film took two years of Schrader’s life, and came after the critical and commercial failure of his previous film, “Cat People,” which starred Nastassja Kinski and John Heard in an apocalyptic fantasy about a prehistoric race of cats who mated with humans; Kinski was one of the last survivors. Schrader believes that he stood at a turning point after the release of that film.

“I began to see a future stretching out in front of me, of taking assignments to direct films, and getting rich, but not making the films I wanted to make. The box office failure of ‘Cat People’ wasn’t detrimental to me in the industry. It was a solid, potentially commercial film that failed. Hollywood understands what a crapshoot it is to make any movie. I could have run out and gotten another job, been an employee. But that was not really why I got into directing. It became clear to me that it was time for a major sea change in my life. So, I moved to New York, got married, became a family man, spent two years without a paycheck, and made ‘Mishima,’ which was a long-desired labor of love.”

Marrying Mary Beth Hurt, he suggested, was a meeting of the minds. Although she has appeared in a lot of films (most recently, “Compromising Positions” and “D.A.R.Y.L.”), Schrader says “she’s a theater actress who plans to work in the theater all of her life. She’s not a star-type actress. I respect that. Hypothetically, I would never have thought of marrying an actress. It is a terrible profession and it spawns monsters. Not Mary Beth.”

He sipped on his beer, and fished for another cigarette. “I’ve had a number of opportunities to get rich,” he said. “Of course, if I wanted to get very rich, I probably wouldn’t have gone into the movies. But that wasn’t what I was after. For example, it’s clear to me that ‘Miami Vice’ was inspired by ‘American Gigolo.’ But I don’t have a taste for producing television. My screenplay for ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ was a project with Bruce Springsteen, and he took the title and made it his, and the project still hasn’t been done. It’s about a working-class rock band in Cleveland. With ‘Close Encounters,’ I disagreed with Spielberg. I thought the first human being in space should be a superman, a towering figure. He thought it should be someone like Richard Dreyfuss. So I pulled out of the project. I couldn’t write the kind of screenplay he wanted, and he couldn’t direct the kind of screenplay I wanted.

“The shining example for me, as a director, is Stanley Kubrick. Every time he makes a film you know it will be an outrageous forage into an original world. That’s much more interesting than to keep refining the same movie, over and over. Already, I’m getting screenplays that are described as ‘Ramboesque.’ Who cares? Movies are at least 10 years behind the times. ‘Rambo’ as a movie should have been made a long time ago. I tried, with my screenplay for ‘Rolling Thunder’ [a box-office flop that starred William Devane as a returned Vietnam vet who went on a killing rampage]. ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ is a project I started on five years ago -- now I’ll have to find a new title, since Springsteen’s got that one. But it will be my next project. ‘Mishima’ is as stylized as I can get, so it’s time to return to a street-level screenplay. Rock and roll in Cleveland.”

It was nearly 4 a.m. in Toronto. The beers and the cigarettes were all gone. Paul Schrader yawned. “I have chosen my own fate,” he said. “I could be a rich studio director, or an idiosyncratic director who is not rich. It was not even a choice. All my life, I’ve been able to walk away from what I didn’t want to do anymore. A long time ago, when I was the film critic for the L.A. Free Press, I walked away from that when it was the only thing I had going. It’s easy to walk away. Something will come up. Right now, I can’t see myself becoming anything other than an interesting cusp of the commercial film industry. That’s just fine with me.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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