Paul Schrader Presents 'Taxi Driver', Talks 'The Canyons'

Taxi Driver
“I think it still holds up,” joked screenwriter/director Paul Schrader while introducing his 1976 film Taxi Driver last night at The Royal in Toronto. Schrader was in Toronto to present and discuss his work as part of The Seventh Art’s Live Director Series. Taxi Driver was presented in a restored 4K digital transfer, which looked quite good for a digital projection. (Although, to be fair, I think the last time I watched Taxi Driver it was on VHS.) Schrader is indeed correct that his landmark film holds up: Taxi Driver is just as good as I remember, and Robert De Niro’s mesmerizing performance is twice as captivating when one sees it on the big screen.

Little of the post-screening conversation that followed Taxi Driver concerned the film itself, yet the violent pic still felt relevant in each of Schrader’s tangents that dominated the evening. Taxi Driver sits among a handful of films that marked a turning point in American cinema, both for the provocative stories filmmakers were telling and for the innovative approaches to style that refreshed the art form. Much of Schrader’s talking points articulated his perception on how drastically the state of film production has changed with the digital revolution, which he learned by experience working on his upcoming film The Canyons. Schrader clearly wished he could have screened The Canyons for the event and cited reasons in distribution, piracy, etc. as reasons the Lindsay Lohan pic couldn’t be seen. “I’d rather talk about the future than the past,” Schrader noted during while introducing Taxi Driver and fans of the filmmaker will be relieved to hear that he is not among the chorus of tragedians bemoaning the death of cinema.

Schrader, however, did get to show a clip from The Canyons. Promise of an exclusive excerpt from the already infamous film starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen was my primary motivation to attend the event. The clip, which included new music by Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning, was a brief one (only four minutes or so), so it’s hard to glean too much from such a small sample. The Canyons seems like a stylish Hollywood noir and I’ll certainly buy a ticket when the film is released in August. (IFC Films has North American rights.)

Schrader immediately defended the casting of Lindsay Lohan, whose behaviour and reputation prompted an unflattering article from The New York Times. “You can work around bad behaviour,” Schrader explained while saying nothing to cast Lohan in a negative light. But bad casting or miscasting, Schrader went on to say, is irreparable and a permanent imprint on the quality of a production. Schrader’s philosophy might prove the naysayers wrong, as Lohan’s performance seemed to jive with the rest of The Canyons. There’s was hint of seediness to the clip, which suggests that the experience of watching The Canyons can only benefit from the notoriety and novelty of its seeing its troubled star in such a saucy role.
The Canyons
Schrader elaborated on Lohan’s star persona by situating The Canyons as part of what screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis dubs “post empire culture”. Post empire culture, Schrader said, builds on the residue of a society’s previous cultural cycle. The residue of one society becomes art in the next. Hence the novelty of seeing culture’s trash becomes high-art in the dramatization of its own sordid behaviour. Put another way, The Canyons could be this year’s The Paperboy.

The idea of recycling and bending the rules echoed in one of Schrader’s most surprising accounts of the night. Towards the end of the evening, Schrader noted that his stylistic approach to The Canyons was inspired by the work of Québécois wunderkind Xavier Dolan, particularly his second feature Heartbeats, who embodies a generation of young filmmakers that have realized that the old rules of filmmaking have changed and have recognized how to use the malleability of film form to their best advantage. Schrader cited Dolan’s overriding style in Heartbeats of framing each scene as a nod to the distinct style of an influential filmmaker as his inspiration to use The Canyons as a project for experimenting in the changing modes of film production where rules can be broken and everything old can be new again.

The evening included a monologue from Schrader on his experience developing The Canyons as a micro-budget independent project. The Canyons was shot for a mere $250 000, with Schrader, Bret Easton Ellis, and producer Braxton Pope putting up $30 000 apiece and the rest of the funds raised through the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter. Schrader noted that IFC bought the film for a million dollars, so The Canyons has already turned a healthy profit. The laid-back, DIY approach worked well for Schrader after financing fell through for him on two previous projects. Self-financing tools like Kickstarter might not always be a good thing, Schrader observed, as he offered one of the most interesting talking points of the night by saying that the lack of a capitalist hook in self-financing removes an important element from the filmmaking process. “I like to think that I’m making films for other people,” Schrader said, but when filmmakers create their work without a concern on how they spend other people’s money, then an important element of self-awareness is lost. The problem becomes not how a film will be made, Schrader elaborated, but how a film will be seen.

How The Canyons will be seen can only be imagined until the film opens in August. Could Schrader find himself the author of another cinematic turning point, or will The Canyons prove that self-financed, post-empire drip should remain in the gutter? It’s already a financial success, though, and the question of its artistic success might be the most entertaining debate of the summer.