Paul Schrader was born on July 22, 1946 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Much like his longtime collaborator Martin Scorsese, Schrader was raised in a small God-ridden enclave separated from the American mainstream. But instead of the priests and gangsters of Scorsese’s Little Italy, Schrader was fed with the fire and brimstone of the fanatical Christian Reformed Church, a Dutch Calvinist breakaway sect. His parents regarded movies, TV, and rock ‘n’ roll as the work of the devil.
The abuse heaped upon Paul by his parents would later show up in his dark screenplays like Taxi Driver and Hardcore. Their father would make the family arrive at church an hour early so he could be sure that they would sit in the same spot in the same pew. If Paul or his brother Leonard made any noise, their father would elbow them in the ribs.
“The third elbow meant you were gonna get whipped. I got whipped six, seven days a week. Just to be a normal human being for twenty-four hours, breathing, eating, going to the bathroom, having a normal life, meant I was going to break twenty rules a day, and three of them were worth a beating. I took off my Sunday shirt and, my father leaned me over the kitchen table, took the extension cord from his electric shaver, and he whipped my back with the plug, so I’d get little pinpricks of blood, a nice little pattern of dots up and down my back.” – Leonard Schrader
Their mother wasn’t much better. In an effort to show Paul what hell was like, she would jab his hand with a needle. When he cried out, she would say, “Remember that feeling, that is what hell is like all the time.” Their mother’s favorite weapon was a broom handle, sometimes she swung so hard that it would break over their backs.
Paul and his brother were not allowed to watch movies and he didn’t see his first one until he was 17, but he was immediately hooked. “I fell in love with movies because they were forbidden,” he later said. Paul dropped out of Calvin College, where he was studying to be a minister, and he began to take film courses at Columbia in New York. In 1966 he met legendary film critic Pauline Kael at a bar and they talked about films long into the night. She later got him a job reviewing movies for the L.A. Free Press (which he would eventually lose for panning Easy Rider) and she got him enrolled into UCLA Film School.
But Paul flunked out of UCLA, and it quickly became obvious that he was an emotional bomb waiting to go off. Already somewhat deranged by the time he got to L.A., he began to use his reputation as a wild man when he realized he could make it work for him. He quickly adopted the standard uniform of an Army surplus jacket and combat boots. Guns also became an important prop to his own legend. One of the first things he did when he came to Los Angeles was to go to a sporting goods store and buy a black Smith & Wesson .38. In the store he saw a girl over by the tennis racquets, aimed the barrel of the unloaded gun at her head and tracked her around the store as she moved, clicking the trigger a few times. He would later put this incident in Taxi Driver. Paul always wrote with his gun by his side, sometimes putting it up to his head or in his mouth when he had writers block. He constantly fantasized about shooting himself in the head.
After getting kicked out of UCLA and fired from his job, his girlfriend left him. In early 1972 Schrader decided to leave L.A., but realized that he would never forgive himself if he didn’t try to write a script first. The result of this was Taxi Driver, which he feverishly wrote in 10 days (seven for the first draft, three for the rewrite) in his girlfriend’s empty apartment.
Each day I waited for the food to run out and the power to be cut off…These violent, self-destructive fantasies that one normally holds at bay started to prey upon me. I drove around all night drinking scotch and going into the peep shows…I finally went to an emergency room in enormous pain and I had an ulcer. While in the hospital, I had the idea of the taxi driver, this anonymous angry person. It jumped out of my head like an animal.
He finished the script and left Los Angeles on a road trip across America.
Paul eventually reached Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he met up with his brother Leonard, who had just returned from Japan. While in the Far East, Leonard had become intrigued with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and he and Paul collaborated to write a screenplay about it. They rented a tiny apartment and wrote around the clock, sitting at a table facing each other, Paul with his gun by his side. They subsisted by stealing ketchup packets from restaurants and making tomato juice. After writing several drafts, they were wiped out, but knew they needed one last jolt to finish the script. Paul proposed that they go to Las Vegas and bet all the money they had. They would play until they were rich enough to not care about the script or until they were broke and needed to finish it in order to survive. They ended up winning $500 playing blackjack and then put it all on a single roulette number. They lost, hitchhiked back to L.A., and finished the script.
The Yakuza ended up selling for $325,000, the highest amount ever paid for an original screenplay. The brothers were ecstatic, unlike their parents. Every week their mother would send them letters containing the sermons from Sunday’s service at their old church, she also wrote “Father and I will miss you in heaven.” Paul acquired a crown of thorns fashioned out of brass. Sometimes he would press it down on his head and the thorns would cause a ring of pinpricks of blood that trickled down his face. He considered it the perfect accessory, a memento from his youth, and it was always on the table next to his beloved .38.
Although The Yakuza did not do very well at the box office, it and his dark Taxi Driver script established Paul as a formidable screenwriter. He quickly became friends with Martin Scorsese and they decided to collaborate on Taxi Driver. When that film became a hit, Paul Schrader’s stock rose even higher, he was hired to write the 1978 Brian DePalma movie Obsession and was able to move into the director’s chair for the films Blue Collar and Hardcore.
As Paul moved though the 1980s he managed to shake off both a cocaine addiction and his suicidal thoughts. Although his continued collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) were successful, most of his other films had trouble finding an audience. He split from his brother Leonard due to difficulties that arose during the production of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
After achieving critical acclaim with his film Auto Focus, Paul was hired to direct Exorcist: The Beginning, a prequel to the classic horror film. After completing production, Paul was fired before he could begin editing it. The producers stated that the film wasn’t gory enough and demanded that he do reshoots that added more blood and guts, Schrader refused, stating that he thought it was better as a creepy psychological thriller. As a result, he was fired and schlock director Renny Harlin was brought in to reshoot 90% of the movie. In an unprecedented occurance, both Schrader and Harlin's versions will be made available on DVD.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind