Park City 98: A Veteran Returns to Sundance: An Interview with Paul Schrader
by Anthony Kaufman
No stranger to the independent film scene, writer/director Paul Schrader has
traversed the edges of indie and industry for over 23 years. The man who
inspired thousands of college students to poster their walls with taxi driving
anti-hero Travis Bickle is at this year’s Sundance with a new film fittingly
titled “Affliction.” Based on a novel by Russell Banks (“The Sweet Hereafter”),
Schrader finds in the Northeastern novel a cold story of generational violence
and masculine confusion.
Nick Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, a “damaged man” trying to overcome and
obfuscate an abusive childhood and a bad marriage. Nolte’s father in the film
is played by James Coburn, the high testosterone pairing perhaps one of the most
approprotiate and powerful casting decisions in recent film history.
Schrader speaks in a gruff voice, his eyes rarely meeting mine, but his answers
are honest and his experience in the movies comes across in a language that is
both intellectual and production savvy. During the interview, he fidgets with a
silvery sharp letter opener that (if in one of his movies) I would expect to end
up in my gut.
indieWIRE: Can you talk about your decision to take “Affliction” to Sundance?
Paul Schrader: We’re still jerking around with the distribution situation. We
have a couple offers, but they’re quite low and the company that financed it
[Largo] is hoping that Sundance will improve that. . . What I’m worried about
is that it’s conceivable that they can put together a relief package that got
them more money non-theatrically.
iW: What about foreign?
Schrader: Foreign has been mostly sold off. It was easier to get the numbers
they wanted foreign. The number they wanted domestic was quite optimistic.
iW: Do you think it has anything to do with your aesthetic?
Schrader: It could be. It’s always so strange. England has always been a very
good country for me, yet we haven’t sold “Affliction” in England yet, even after
being in the London Film Festival.
iW: Are you cynical at all about the fact that you take these films on the
festival circuit. Would you rather have the deal done?
Of course. Who wouldn’t want it to be easier? But you know, the first five films
I made were studio films and the rest have been independents and I’m still
making the same film. It’s just that the industry has changed. All I can do is
keep struggling on. It doesn’t get any easier. There’s less money. In
independents, you have to learn how to work faster, more efficiently, and
you have to browbeat actors to work for less. It took me five years to get
Nolte to drop the price. Yet there is a point where the money starts working
against you, because at a certain point, when the budget gets up to a certain
level, you can’t afford the complexity anymore, you can’t afford the audience
to be confused, on who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. And then you have
to make things quite simple, so that it plays around the world at that budget.
iW: The use of voice-over has always been important to your work? Can you talk
about how you used the device in “Affliction”?
Schrader: I’ve always loved voice-over. I’ve liked it in other films, in my
films — when it’s done right. And that’s when its done at the script stage.
Usually, when it’s done badly is when it’s been added during post-production
because of certain story problems. But when it’s conceived of in the script
stage, it’s another level of information, and it’s often a kind of intravenous
feeding. That is, the audience is getting nourishment, but they don’t really
taste it. It’s coming in straight into the vein, therefore you can slip things
in through narration that determine the mood.
iW: What’s interesting about “Affliction” is the Voice Over is not spoken by
Schrader: One of the nice things about “Affliction” is that there is a submerged
story in there. The narrator, which is Willem Dafoe, the younger brother of Wade
Whitehouse (played by Nick Nolte) is telling you this story. And he tells you,
“In telling this story, I tell my own story as well.” Yet he doesn’t tell his
own story, so you have to figure out what is his story and why does he feel
compelled to tell this story about his older brother and why will he be telling
it his whole life. Banks said to me earlier on, “You know, of course, the main
character is the narrator.”
iW: How did you use the landscape and geography to establish that mood you spoke
Schrader: I wanted a continuity of snow because this is a kind of drama that
plays itself out in the cold. You wouldn’t play it out quite this way in a more
tropical environment. I wanted a continuity of white, so we ended up shooting
the film in Quebec to get a nice deep winter, which we got. That also effected
camera movement a bit, because I wanted to lock down and keep the camera firm.
So I stayed away from the Steadicam as much as I could, so when the camera was
stopped, he would be fixed, he would get a locked-off world, a determined world.
These films that use Steadicam start-to-finish bother me quite a bit because
they never really lock off and you’re watching a single and you see the frame
iW: What about Scorsese, and his famous use of the Steadicam?
Schrader: He uses the Steadicam for his bravura shots, but he doesn’t use it for
iW: In “Affliction” what do you consider a “bravura” shot?
Schrader: I’ve done some fancy shots, but this was not a film that I think
really called for them.
iW: What about for substance, for depth of meaning?
Schrader: The most memorable shot is the shot toward the end [with the fire]
where you find an image that sort of sums everything up and you just sit there
for two minutes and watch it.
iW: How did you come up with that image?
Schrader: At first, I was fooling around with trying to do something like the
end of “Sacrifice” by Tarkovsky, a complicated remote camera move with a
burning building, but Tarkovsky had seven characters to deal with and two
vehicles and he could choreograph a lot of interesting things while that
building was burning. I just had one character and no vehicles. And so,
whatever I choreographed, started to feel arbitrary, he walks there, why
does he walk there? And then it was the operator who said to me, “Why don’t
you just use the remote camera to get him into the house and put a second
camera in the kitchen and just let it sit there.” As soon as he said that (snaps his fingers) I knew he was right.