By Daniel O'CarrollPhoto Credit: Perry Curties
When you imagine the man who wrote ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’, the man with a strict religious upbringing and a fascination for stories of the depressed and desperate, you’re likely to conjure up a brooding individual. But when Paul Schrader arrived for the interview he was all smiles. It’s a charming, funny man who brought Travis Bickle into the world.
We were there to talk about his new feature ‘The Walker’ starring Woody Harrelson. It’s a film that reminds us how underestimated Harrelson can be. It’s also a role that might just change the direction of Harrelson’s career.
He plays Carter, a socialite whose function is to escort, or ‘walk’, politicians’ wives around Washington D.C. (the term was first coined by W Magazine to describe Jerry Zipkin, the man who accompanied Nancy Reagan). When a politically sensitive murder takes place, Harrelson nobly steps in to protect a friend, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, only to find himself becoming prime suspect.
“I wouldn’t have cast him,” says Schrader “had I not gotten a phone call. He was not on any list, we were sending the script out, and his agent called me and said “Have you ever thought of Woody Harrelson?””
“The role had been offered to Kevin Spacey but he didn’t want to do it. He and John Travolta have the same sort of issue with gay characters. Kevin had done it in ‘The Garden of Good and Evil’ and I think that’s a very good reason not to do it again. It’s like the film I just finished (‘Adam Resurrected’); I offered a role to Kenneth Branagh, but the character was a Nazi, and Branagh had already played a Nazi - you’re only allowed one. It’s the same thing with playing homosexuals, if you do two, you’re typed.”
‘The Walker’ is being compared to Schrader’s 80’s classic American Gigolo, and he considers it the fourth installment of his male psyche films, starting with ‘Taxi Driver’. “I think it is better overall than American Gigolo. It actually came out of Gigolo. I was wondering about that character. What became of him? What was he like at 50? He’s probably come out of the closet. From that came this metaphor of the Walker.”
Schrader is having fun with the connections to his earlier work too. “I referenced the dressing sequence from Gigolo at the beginning of the film, just as a signal to the aficionados, to say “If you think this is connected then you’re right” But here’s the difference; I end this one with him taking his hair off.” The idea still makes him giggle.
“I decided to put Carter in Washington DC because he became more interesting when he was set in the context of hypocrisy. Because Washington is one of the last two cities in America where sexual hypocrisy is mandated, and I didn’t want to shoot it in Salt Lake.” Though the dirty side of politics is in focus, Schrader doesn’t want to make any reference to his own industry. “There’s a lot of two faced behavior in both politics and film making. But then again there’s a lot of two faced behavior in every fucking business. I don’t think we have a monopoly on that kind of duplicity.”
When Schrader recounts working with the female cast, it’s a mixture of pain and humour. “Lauren Bacall wanted a lot of attention, and it seemed like the more she got, the worse she got. So I kind of went cold turkey and stopped giving it to her. And in fact her work got better because all of a sudden she got scared. With Lily Tomlin you learned very quickly to take all the props out. She will wear a prop to death. She’ll be like “Should I do this? Or have it here? Or hold it like this? Or maybe not at all?” Just worry you sick. “Or there? Maybe not this one… how many more of these do you have?!” All day.”
Schrader’s never been afraid to take risks. The only time he played it safe and embraced the studio system, directing the Exorcist prequel, it turned out to be the biggest risk of all - the film was shelved and reshot. His next film is no exception. He’s currently editing ‘Adam Resurrected’, starring Jeff Goldblum. It’s being made with German/Israeli money and according to Schrader, will be thematically bigger than ‘The Walker’. Goldblum plays a man in an asylum for holocaust survivors during the 60’s, who survived concentration camp by acting like a dog for the commandant. He meets a feral boy in the asylum who behaves like a canine, and they recognize each other as dogs. “This is a story of a man who once was a dog, who meets a dog who once was a boy.” The project was offered to Schrader because other directors thought it unfilmable. “They were afraid they might fail, whereas I feel if there’s no daring it’s very hard to stay interested.”
“I read the Resurrected script and I said there is only one actor born to play this role. In many ways Jeff has spent his whole career preparing for it. A year before we started shooting I wanted to do a read-through to see if we were on the same page. When we met in a hotel he didn’t bring the screenplay with him, because he’d committed the entire thing to memory. It will be the best performance you’ve ever seen from him.”
‘The Walker’ will be released on August 10th in selected UK cinemas, and December 7th in the US. ‘Adam Resurrected’ will be out in 2008.THE WALKER - TRAILER