Paul Schrader is on the final stretch of finishing his movie, “Dog Eat Dog,” for the Cannes Film Festival. On the phone from New York the week before the festival, he was ready to sign off on the final mix on May 16th, get a print on the 18th, leave for Cannes with his Blu-Ray in hand, and face the critics when the film screened on the 20th in Directors Fortnight. “Every project has this drama,” he chuckled. “But this is good drama!”
Whatever the critics will say, the writer-director was upbeat. “You know there won’t be many people left [at Cannes],” he said. “You can be killed. But I don’t worry, because we’re closing the Fortnight. Even the people with knives will be on the plane!”
Schrader is also happy because, unlike his last outing, this movie is his. “I got to make the film I wanted,” he said. “This all began with ‘Dying of the Light.’ That film was taken away from me and essentially recut and dumped. Both Nic and I disowned it. It was very traumatic for me. I thought it might be my last film and end my career in ignominy. It was an insult.”
Schrader told Cage: “If we live long enough that we get to make another film together, let’s make this right and this time, we’ll have final cut.”
Cage said: “Yes, absolutely!’
And then a script came along from Matt Wilder, an adaptation of the 1995 crime novel “Dog Eat Dog,” about three ex-cons trying to adjust to life outside of prison. The author was Ed Bunker, the former professional criminal whose work includes “Straight Time” and “Runaway Train;” he also appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”
Wilder did another draft based on Schrader’s direction. “[Bunker] was a hard-ass crime writer,” said Schrader. “Matt’s script was very edgy, evil and funny. Evil and funny is just the place I don’t like going!”
Schrader quickly lined up Cage, who is bankable overseas, as well as his other go-to leading man, Willem Dafoe (“Light Sleeper”). Cage and Schrader had one demand before making this movie: “We both said we will only do it if I get final cut,” said Schrader. “And so we did get the chance to have our redemption.”
Making the movie, Schrader was exhilarated. “We were free,” he said. “And trying to think about having to do a crime film in this era, post-Scorsese, post-Guy Ritchie, I assembled a team of younger technicians, none of whom had a solo screen credit, not the cinematographer, or the production designer, or the editor, wardrobe or composer. It was all their first film.”
“With new media, you can throw everything together and it all works,” he said. “I realize with Xavier Dolan’s films, there’s a Godard scene, a Bertolucci scene, he’s throwing them all in with a ‘CSI’ scene, and they all work together. Throwing them together is part of the fun, to do one scene like Orson Welles, another like Cassavetes.”
And it’s fun for him to be back in Cannes. As a screenwriter, Schrader attended the premiere of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” in 1976 and debuted “Patty Hearst” in the main competition in 1988. But the festival is very different now, he said: “It was very sociable then. Filmmakers could hang out together on the Carlton Terrace — Fassbender and Sergio Leone and Marty and Coppola — late into the night, talking movies. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now it’s all sound bites and hyper-schedules.
“Everything is rush-rush in this new world,” he concluded. “The freedom of not having anybody second-guessing you is just great. You just have to own it enough to not worry about self-censorship, and trust your instincts.”
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