Schrader enjoys working on a small scale with people he trusts

September 04, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Even legends catch cold, and over the phone from his apartment in New York, Paul Schrader sounds as if he's broadcasting from within a tub full of Vicks Vapo Rub.

"Ub, yop, ibba cobe," he says, which seems to mean, "Oh, yes, I've got a cold."

But no amount of fluid in his thoracic cavity can stifle the man's deep pleasure in his circumstance. He's back.

Back from where?

Back from nowhere to the center of film culture.

The vehicle of his deliverance is "Light Sleeper," which seems to be catching the wave as it hauls its writer-director along on a crest of great reviews and media attention.

Schrader most famously wrote Martin Scorsese's epic "Taxi Driver," of 1976, a movie that made the career of everybody associated with it, including stars Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster, director Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, soon to be director Paul Schrader.

From there, Schrader went on to a great run in '70s and early '80s Hollywood: "Hardcore," "American Gigolo," the screenplay of "Raging Bull," and finally "Cat People."

But somehow, it went away. Of late, Schrader has been directing small independent production of his own work, like "Mishima" and "Patty Hearst." He's even directed other people's scripts, like the chilly "Comfort of Strangers" from last year.

"It wasn't that I left Hollywood," says Schrader with a laugh. "Hollywood just left me. The studio system just doesn't make these kinds of films any more. It's addicted to high rolling. Every time at bat, it's trying to hit a home run. I'm a singles hitter."

Schrader says he even showed "Light Sleeper" to a studio chief in hopes of securing the studio's backing in releasing the picture. But the executive said sadly, "It's great . . . but we don't distribute films like this any more."

But that's all right, he says. No pain, no bitterness. He likes to make movies this way, with independent financing, working on a smaller scale with people he trusts. He can still attract big stars like Willem Dafoe and Susan Sarandon and he can still get mini-major distributions, as from Fine Line. He has, in other words, returned to where he started: writing scripts on spec.

"It's not so bad. There's a lot of money around the world, but you've got to work the whole industry now, on a kind of global basis. And you keep a lot of projects going, so that when one dries up, you move on to a next."

"Light Sleeper" came at the end of a creative dry spell; it just popped into his head one night as a part of a rejuvenation that has also seen him finish two other original scripts and two screen adaptations.

"I begin with the character. But then I realized that the character had some connection with feelings I had about something I saw in the social fabric. It was a sort of moment where your personal 'feelings'" can somehow touch on a larger mood -- in this case, that sense of loss of possibility that seems to check in when you reach your 40s. And at exactly the same time, the country seems to be awakening from 12 years of Reaganite sleep."

Schrader acknowledges that he's basically writing about the same character that's appeared in his early works.

"Yeah, it's him. Different guy, but it's him. In his 20s, in 'Taxi Driver,' he was angry; in his 30s, in 'American Gigolo,' he was a narcissist; now, he's edging into his 40s and he's anxious. But fundamentally the same: He always has some kind of job servicing other people, and when they need him, they really need him desperately. But once he's met their needs, he's disposable. He's a marginal character, who floats in and out of other people's lives.

Schrader said the details on the upscale drug business as practiced in fashionable Manhattan are all authentic.

"It's just like that. These are people who got into the life when it was all glamorous and now they can't quite tear themselves away. They've quit drugs but they have what might be called post-addictive personalities. They have this morbid nostalgia and any given moment they'll start yapping about the good old days. And they have this difficulty facing the future; it takes an act of courage for them to make a plan."

When compared with John Updike, who also has tracked a single character over the passage of three decades in his Rabbit Angstrom books, Schrader laughs.

"At least I'm fortunate in that I'm able to recast the character each time."

Which does he like the best, the writing or the directing?

"The writing is fun. You're omnipotent. You say what you want, you have all the money in the world, no budget problems, great cast. But it's lonely. The directing offers the pleasures of being with people and working in a community. The ideal situation is to jockey back and forth between them."

And sometimes he still gets offered those big Hollywood movies.

"But the films I'm offered have been turned down by every other director in that town. I'm the last stop before the train goes over the cliff," he laughs.

And that's why he always says no.

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