Read the full transcript from BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series: Paul Schrader
Jeremy Brock: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I’m Jeremy Brock, welcome to the sixth and final event in this year’s stunning series of screenwriters’ lectures, held in conjunction with Lucy Gard and the JJ Charitable Trust. What can I say about our next speaker? Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver. I think our work here is done.
But seriously, Paul is so, so much more than the sum of any part you can give him in a sentence. He is the writer and co-writer of Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and 2017’s utterly brilliant disquisition on faith, First Reformed. Paul has written or directed over twenty-three extraordinary films, and I may well have got that number wrong. To sustain the level of excellence in this brutal industry for so many decades, to be the screenwriter of an iconic, ground-breaking film like Taxi Driver, is simply breath-taking. We salute him and we thank him for taking the time to talk to us this evening.
Paul will lecture, followed by a Q&A with film producer Tanya Seghatchian, after which we will, as we always do, open it up to questions from the floor. Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Schrader.
Paul Schrader: Is this mic working, can you hear me? Now before I begin I’d just like to take a moment to express my gratitude to someone, a friend, and someone who was an inspiration to me, which is Nicholas Roeg. And who had a long and fruitful life and there’s nothing to be sad about. I just wanted to acknowledge what he brought to this medium.
Over the years, I have taught a screenwriting workshop at various places: UCLA, Columbia University, and what this lecture is, is in fact a summary of that class. It’s a prospectus for a course not given. I’ll just sort of take you through the process of the class because I taught a method of screenwriting which I devised. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about screenwriting, and I can’t imagine ever reading one. I think one of the worst things that ever happened to screenwriting is this guy, what’s his name, Bob—who wrote this book about—Bob McKee. First act, second act… It doesn’t work that way. It’s not that simple.
So I, we’ll take the first class, in which there’s an announcement that the class is open to all who wish to see it, undergraduate or graduate or whatever. And so you get a pretty good sized room, almost as large as this. And you give an introductory lecture. And the introductory lecture essentially says ‘this is not an overview of screenwriting, this is my method. This is what I have taught myself, and the only way to teach something as fungible as screenwriting is to teach what has worked for you.’ Because there’s no way you can teach what works for everybody. And even though what I’m saying may not work for seventy-five per cent of you it still has value because it works for me. So hopefully your time will be productively spent. And it is also best suited for first-time writers.
Now this first class I say basically: art works. This is what I believe. I believe art is functional. Art is a tool. It’s like a hammer, pliers, a saw. You can use it to do stuff. And what you can use it to do is learn about yourself and learn about other people. And so, what I’m going to talk about is the functionality or storytelling, not just the pleasure of it or the commerce of it. And to understand how art works you begin with yourself. You are the raw material. Art isn’t really about anything you’re seeing, it’s about you. And this is why this course is particularly useful for first-time writers because too many students look at films and say ‘I can do a film like that.’ Well you probably can, but why in the heck would anyone want to hire you? They’ve got people who can do films like that, as proof, there are films like that. And they’ve got people who will do it on command, on deadline. Why would they fool around with a fool like you?
So you start to think, ‘what is it that I can bring to the dance that no one else can? What can I walk in the room and say I’ve got something of commercial value to you, but it’s totally my own. And if you want it you have to get it from me.’ That is Ground Zero of the creation of a script. I began writing on spec, meaning speculation; I’m still writing on spec—Taxi Driver was written on spec, First Reformed was written on spec. And when you write on spec, you are writing primarily for yourself, but you’re also writing a calculation of what the marketplace is at any given time. And so that’s a thing you learn.
Now when you are the raw material, then you need to study yourself. And in this study will come this class. Therefore, you know I’ve invited you all to the class and thank you for coming, but I can’t teach this many people. So there’s only going to be ten of you in the class. And I don’t particularly care about getting the ten most talented students. In fact, I really don’t care how talented you really are at all. I just want interesting people. I want ten interesting people because I’ve got to spend ten weeks teaching this class and I want to spend it with ten interesting people. So the next step in this class is that everyone who wants to take the class must write out in no more than two sentences their most pressing personal problem at this time. And then I will read these.
And I also want you to include some basic facts: Age, sex, ethnic whatever. I want to get a heterogeneous group and I don’t want ten white boys. But if you—and I’ll go through these statements you make, I’ll go through them very, very quickly, and I’ll just go through and pick out ten people. And a few are then invited to the class. Your problem then becomes communal property. It is the property of the class. If you’re not invited it gets discarded and for that reason I want you to write it out in longhand so I can actually discard it.
So then I get those pieces of paper and I go through them and if you’ve done it a number of times you start to realise people fall into certain categories: There’s always going to be the overweight girl; there’s always going to be the homosexual, male or female, who hasn’t told his or her parents yet; there’s always going to be the minority with a huge grudge on his shoulder; and there’s always going to be the kid who wants to kill his father. And so you get interesting people, different kinds of problem so they’re not all talking about the same problem. And then I tell them that we are in the dirty laundry business. This is the business we’ve chosen. If you have a problem with dirty laundry you shouldn’t be in here, and I almost certainly don’t want you in my class. Everybody’s interested in our dirty laundry, just not in the way it actually looks. They want us to rework it. If you have a problem with reworking your dirty laundry for public consumption, you should not be in this class.
So now I get ten students and we have ten problems. And each student reads his or her statement and we begin to discuss them. You know, the ramifications of this problem, the manifestations; what have you done about it? Who else knows? All this stuff, so essentially what you’re doing is group therapy. So I’m going to do the stages here: So we all discuss these problems, what the next class will bring is a metaphor. And we begin to discuss what a metaphor is for your problem. A metaphor is not the same thing as the problem, so using myself as an example I say, you know I did a film about loneliness, young male loneliness, and this came out of a dark period of wandering and being ungrounded, and I was sort of living in my car and had a pain in my stomach and went to the hospital and had a bleeding ulcer at the age of twenty-five, because I was just drinking and driving. And in the hospital I got this image of a taxi cab. It came to me, this yellow, rectangular coffin, a metal coffin floating through the open sewers of a metropolis, and inside that coffin is trapped a young man. And it looks like he’s surrounded by life but he’s absolutely alone. The power of that metaphor just overwhelmed me and I knew I had to write that story because I was becoming that young man. And the only way I could not become him was to establish his identity apart from mine, to write about him.
So I did. And as I said earlier, art actually works. I learned about that young man and I learned not to be that young man by writing about him. I walked into the whole screenwriting business as self-therapy, not as commerce. And that script wasn’t seen by anybody for a year afterwards; it had done its job and went on a shelf. So now we need metaphors for your individual problems. And you need to come back with metaphors next week.
Now what is a metaphor? A metaphor is the stand-in, it is not the problem itself. So the metaphor for a lonely boy is not a lonely boy, a metaphor for an unattractive girl is not an unattractive girl. It’s something like the metaphor, and like the problem, but not the problem itself. It’s like two wires, you have the problem and the metaphor; and they have to get close enough for a spark to jump across. And if they’re too far apart there’ll be no spark and if they’re on top of each other there’ll be no spark. So you have to tease them and play with the spark. And great stories, throughout history, have had great metaphors. Some of the most famous stories: Frankenstein, how can you have a better metaphor than that? The metaphor essentially does the job, you know, or the walking zombies; it doesn’t really matter how good it is, the metaphor has such strength. Jaws, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby; these are powerful, functional metaphors. And if you have a good problem, and a good metaphor, a lot of the battle is won already.
The—need to make sure I’m not losing myself here—a metaphor can sometimes be an occupation—Taxi Driver—a historical moment in time—Waterloo, I suppose—it could be a certain kind of love story—Romeo and Juliet. But it has to be something that expresses your problem without being the problem itself. And I remember I was teaching this class at UCLA, and I was in analysis that time, five days a week on the couch, and one of the things I’d been talking with my psychiatrist about was the inability to express love and now I’m teaching this class at UCLA and we’re in this stage where we’re looking for metaphors, and I happened to say to the class, ‘what occupation does this person have? Are they a factory worker? Bookkeeper? Doctor? Gigolo? Lawyer?’ And boom. And as soon as I said the word ‘gigolo’ it was boom, you’ve got your metaphor. That’s the metaphor you’ve been looking for, for the inability to express love. Now I had a problem, now I had a metaphor; I was on my way.
Sometimes the metaphor you struggle for it. Years later I was looking for a metaphor for a mid-life crisis. I had turned forty and I was thinking I should do a mid-life movie. And I thought about all the normal stuff: He leaves his wife, takes off with a co-ed, buys a car and drives across country, joins the foreign service—whatever kind of whacky metaphor. It all seemed so clichéd, there was no spark. The wires were right on top of each other. I began to think—this went on for at least six months—and I thought ‘maybe I’m not going to find a midlife metaphor.’ And then one night I woke up abruptly from a dream at about five am. And in this dream a drug dealer I once knew named John was right in front of my face just right there, and I hadn’t seen him for a year. I thought ‘wow that was vivid. That was vivid. He was right in front of me.’ What were we talking about? He was asking me about the movies, he wanted to know which movies to see. I said ‘that’s it,’ I couldn’t find my metaphor, and my metaphor got sick of waiting and came and found me. This middle-aged drug delivery boy, whose boss is quitting to start a cosmetic company and has no skills, that’s a midlife metaphor, there it is. It’s a great one, no one’s seen it before, and I have my metaphor.
I went right to my office, started making notes, and by the end of the day I had tracked down the real people and said ‘I want to make a film about you,’—an aside for the Brits here: Cynthia, who was the main drug dealer said to me, ‘let me get back to you.’ She called me back and said, ‘Well I spoke to Bertolucci, I spoke to Jeremy Thomas, I spoke to Michael White and they all say you’re cool.’
So that was Light Sleeper.
So the next class commences, and everybody has brought in several metaphors for their problem and they propose them. For the most part they’re very feeble; they suffer from the same problem I had with mid-life crisis—there’s no energy in the metaphor, there’s no imagination, there’s no spark. But once they’re out there on the table, once they’re part of the communal discussion, people start talking around. Which is why it’s always handy to have a closeted homosexual in the group because you know the metaphor that will work for them, which is somebody involved in industrial espionage: Somebody who is secretly spying on his own company, getting paid by another company. This is a great metaphor for a homosexual who hasn’t told anybody because you’re actually talking about the problem without talking about the problem. You know—what is it like to live a double life in which people who trust you, you are deceiving. So you can say to that student ‘try this metaphor on for size,’ and maybe he doesn’t run with it, maybe he does, but he starts to get the idea of what a metaphor can do.
And then I remember one class, the kid had a very interesting problem, which is he had killed somebody when he was sixteen in a car, and it wasn’t his fault but he remembered that. It was a young, fourteen year-old child ran out in the street. Obviously that is something that’s stayed with him, and we started talking about what’s a metaphor for that? And the metaphor we came up with, going back and forth, was a professional woman in her thirties who had supposedly an abortion when she was young. But she has now come to realise it wasn’t an abortion, it was a child that was delivered and went into an adopted home or whatever, the marketplace. Because she sees this girl on the street and says ‘that’s my daughter.’ Boom. Now we’re dealing with the metaphor of a man who killed a kid, because you have the woman seeing the daughter she killed and the daughter is still alive. So that’s going to work as your metaphor. At that point you flip the tables and see it from the girl’s point of view and you’re in business.
The unattractive or overweight girl metaphor, this is a standard one, the ugly duckling, the Cinderella or whatever. It’s not terribly constructive for a young woman who feels herself unattractive to tell a story about a woman who feels unattractive. She can tell that story but she’s not going to learn much. What she has to do is put herself in the shoes of someone who thinks they’re unattractive; someone who’s bulimic, someone who is injuring themselves and cutting themselves because they feel they’re unattractive when they’re not. That’s a good learning point, you can learn from that. That’s what we hash out in that third class, to get every student headed off in a certain metaphorical direction.
The fourth class then revolves around plot. Plot is simply what happens when you take a problem and drive it through a metaphor. OK, you have a problem—the problem is loneliness. You have a metaphor—the metaphor is a taxi cab driver. Shove your problem into the metaphor and what happens? Well you have a guy who’s drifting around. He meets a girl he can’t have but wants; he meets a girl he wants but can’t have; he tries to kill the father figure of one but he fails so he kills the father figure of the other and becomes a hero. That is the entire plot of Taxi Driver right there. And all that comes from is taking this loneliness and shoving it through the taxi cab and imagining what can happen.
So in this class we explore the nature of the problem by exploring the nature of plots. What could happen? There’s only a certain number of plots out there, but if your problem is interesting enough, if you’ve analysed it properly, and if your metaphor is intriguing enough, half the plots of yesteryear will live again as you push them through because they will have a new life, they will be the new wine and the old bottles. When you start talking about plot, you just hypothesise.
Now the class is then instructed the next week to come back with a five to ten minute narrative of what happens between their problem and their metaphor and the plot. Imagine events, come up with something—it doesn’t have to be qualitative but you have to come up with something. And that takes us to the next step.
I do not believe that screenwriting is part of the literary tradition. I believe it’s part of the oral tradition; it’s just be telling you a story. It’s your uncle coming back from a hunting trip and saying, you know ‘the dog ate something bad and got sick and the bird got away and we didn’t come back with anything.’ But if your uncle’s a good storyteller—hopefully he is, I had good uncle storytellers, he can tell that story for fifteen minutes. And that’s what it is, an oral tradition: let me tell you a story.
So now we have these ten students, each of whom has a little bit of a story to tell. And they’re just exploring and let me extemporise—OK a man is giving a lecture at BAFTA wearing a blue jumper. In the middle of the lecture he has orange glasses, no one knows why.
In the middle of the lecture, he promptly walks about and leaves without comment. On the street, someone tracks him down and says ‘what’s wrong, what’s wrong, what’s wrong?’ and he says ‘I got scared.’ ‘Well let’s have a drink.’ ‘OK we’ll have a drink.’ And he says ‘I don’t drink but if you come to my flat I’ve got some pot.’ ‘OK that sounds good.’ So he goes over there and now he and the flatmates are smoking pot. I’m literally making this up as I speak.
So now I’ve got this older man and two kids smoking grass in a flat and the story is starting to feel a little thin, and Raymond Chandler once said ‘if you get in trouble, have someone walk in the room with a gun.’
Because the reader will be so happy they’re there, they won’t ask how they got there. And so now I’m in a little trouble. So OK a red sports car pulls up, and two huge black men, 300 pounds each, like line-backers, in purple suits are sitting in the car. They screech to a halt and go towards the apartment. Well I’ve got you back. Boy do I got you back now. You’re all on the edge of your seats. I’ve also got these two black guys in purple suits and I have to work out what to do with them, but maybe hopefully something will come to me.
And that’s what storytelling is. And the first time you tell your story it may be five, ten minutes long. And you kind of make it up a bit as you go. You say to somebody ‘let me buy you a coffee, let me buy you a drink I want you to hear this story.’ And you don’t really care what they think of the story, it doesn’t really matter if they like it or not. What matters is the level of attention they’re paying you. You have them. What is the eye contact? What is the body language? You can feel it when you don’t have somebody, and then you’ve got to improvise just like a stand-up comic, and you’ve got to keep them, and maybe what you realise in the back of your head is that ‘I’m doing too much exposition and I should have had a comic scene in here. If I had told a comic scene right there I could have kept them, but now it’s just too much exposition.’ Now you’re making these calculations and you’re making notes as you tell a story. Then outline and tell the story again. Outline, tell the story again.
And it grows in length. If you can tell a story for forty-five minutes, you have a movie. The way you know, if you’re uncertain, is take someone to a pub and start telling your story. And then about thirty minutes in go ‘excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom,’ and when you come back you start another conversation, another tangent. If they don’t ask you how the story ends—
you don’t have a story. This is actually, I think, a very, very productive way to develop a story. Often stories fall into three acts, that’s the way life tends to be. You know, past, present, future. It doesn’t have to be three acts; some stories are two acts, some are one act, some are five. It will find its own shape and it will find it as you tell the story. And what begins to happen as you tell your story repeatedly and re-outline it: One of two things happens, and they’re both good things. One is you get sick of the story, it dies, it withers and you walk away. This is a very good thing. It means you have just saved yourself six months writing a story nobody wants to read or make. It’s a good thing that happened to you, you protected yourself. Because there’s nothing quite so debilitating as writing three or four scripts in a row as a beginning writer and none of them people are interested in. You’re done, your spirit is broken. Don’t write until you know somebody is going to be interested in that story.
The other thing that can happen while you tell the story is the story gets sick of being told. You’ll feel it as you tell the story; the story will start saying to you ‘I want to be written now. I’m done with this phase. I’m fully-formed. I want to go into print.’ That’s also a happy day because there you are with a fully fleshed story in your head, full of dialogue and pacing and everything, and then you can go to work.
So what exists between the oral tradition and the script phase is the outline.
And I’ve brought some outlines to show you. An outline begins just as a list of things. In a given film, usually about forty to fifty things happen. As you tell your story, your outline expands. Maybe it begins with fifteen things that happen or twenty things, and gradually it expands. That’s always the best way to write. You’re much more creative when you’re going larger. The worst thing to do for me as a writer is to start with 150 pages and figure out how you can do 100. I’d rather start with seventy and figure out how to do 100.
So here are my outlines from American Gigolo, actually the ones I was using. You can see this is an earlier outline and on the outline I made a note to myself ‘add something at sixteen, add something at twelve. Reverse these two scenes, move this scene over here,’ and so I’m reworking my outline and then I will tell it again, and then rework it again. And until you get to this level of outline, which is pretty close to what you need when you need to start writing, and that is a list of everything that happens and it’s also a list of a projected page count.
So let me see, OK, something—ok Julian and Leroy, scene forty-two, happens on page 102. I’m doing a running page count so I can tell you 102 minutes in—if you’re using a page a minute—I can tell you what happens 102 minutes into a film. And that is because film is a fixed timeframe, and a scene that is good on page thirty-five is not necessarily good on forty-five, the same scene.
And so you have to be very aware of the calibration of your time. It’s like a long distance runner who’s running along and says ‘when I pass the coffee shop, I should be twelve minutes, thirty seconds into the run. And if I’m too quick I should evaluate why am I only twelve minutes into the run, or if I’m thirteen minutes in, why am I slow?’ Calculate. Same with having to write a script. I’m five pages off my outline—was my calculation wrong? In which case I need to recalculate. Or am I just adding stuff that’s unnecessary? So you’re always thinking about that and so here’s a—this is from Raging Bull—you can see here, OK, flight I predicted it to be on page seventy-seven, I predicted it to last two and a half pages—it fell in at seventy-four. So I was in my parameters, I was hitting my mile markers. And then as I—and I like to do these outlines on a single sheet because you can carry it around with you and you can look at it.
So here’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the entire film on a single sheet of paper. Every scene, the length of every scene, the projection of every scene, and then when the scene is crossed out a list of what the real page count was. If I projected Jesus was scourged by Pilate—I projected it at eighty-one, it came in at eighty-five. So just like storytelling is spontaneous, it’s also extremely calculated. How do you get from that spontaneous moment in the coffee shop where you’re literally making stuff up, through that calculation where you know what’s going to happen on page eighty-four? Well you do it through the outline, then you re-outline back and forth. Usually, it’s usually in terms of a detailed outline I do four or five of them before I’m at that point where it’s ready to be written. And sometimes you get very complex and you’re making notes all over the place—there’s Light Sleeper.
So that, more or less, completes the process. So we are now six classes in out of ten, and the students are now permitted to write. And they have to have a script done in ten weeks. Obviously none of them are going to do this and so the script’s straying in over the next year or so. But I don’t want to let them write before we get to this point. So now they’re writing and I fill out the remainder of the class with some exercises: I’ll do an exposition exercise, I’ll do a dialogue exercise, and then I’ll have a class about formatting and more-or-less technical things. And then the last class I like to bring in a fellow screenwriter who works in a method totally unlike mine and for whom everything I have said is wrong and inappropriate.
And I just want to bring in someone to see that I’ve been convincing you of something for ten weeks—here’s a working screenwriter who happens to be even wealthier than I am—
And he doesn’t believe a word I’ve said. So just bear that in mind as you move on in life. And I guess that—you know, in every class there’s usually one script that gets made. I remember I had a student at UCLA, it was a Japanese student, Nisei, and he was trying to write about his family and everything about it was so hackneyed and so predictable in their family dynamics. And in the LA Times that morning there was an article about the low-riders, the car club gangs in east LA. It was very fascinating and I said to him—his name was Desmond O’Connell, he’s still a working writer—I said go down there and hang out with those guys. What’s the worst that can happen? You tell them you’re a student and you’re interested in writing a script about what they do. What’s the worst that can happen, they’ll tell you to fuck off, that’s all. So go give it a shot, that’s my assignment to you. Don’t come back next week if you haven’t.
He goes down there and starts meeting these guys and starts hanging with them, and they take him into their social lives and he starts writing a script with them. Well it’s the same script he was trying to write about his parents and his brother and his sister. Only now he was far enough away from it that he wasn’t getting locked up, he was freed. And everything he wanted to say about his immediate situation he was able to say about this metaphorical situation. And usually in every class, there’s usually somebody that it works for, but as I just mentioned there’s always a fair number it doesn’t work for. But hopefully they’ve learned something.
I was trying to keep it to forty-five minutes, I didn’t quite make it, but I once gave this lecture in New Delhi at three hours.
So do I sit? Or you were going to screen something.
Tanya Seghatchian: Can I ask you to swap seats?
PS: I guess I was in the female seat.
TS: Paul, thank you very much for that absolutely brilliant lecture and for the clip—for those of you who haven’t yet had a chance to see it—from Paul’s latest film, the magnificent First Reformed.
I’m buzzing with ideas from what you’ve just outlined for the audience here. And I’d like to go back and ask you a few things you haven’t included there and also to take this opportunity to talk about First Reformed, not least because I think—
PS: Can people hear you?
PS: I’m having a little trouble hearing you and you’re three feet away.
TS: OK, is that better?
TS: OK. I was just thanking Paul for the brilliant lecture and also letting you know that the clip you just saw on the screen there is a clip from Paul’s latest feature film First Reformed, and I’m going to take the opportunity to talk to him about both the lecture and First Reformed if I can, and there will be a chance for you to also ask questions.
Paul, what you haven’t talked about in your lecture there is three or four of the other things I always think are really important for screenwriters to tackle: Tone, dialogue, character and endings. I wondered if I might ask you about all of those—
PS: Well dialogue—after I’ve finished the beginning section we do one class on dialogue and I give an example. I say ‘OK a man’s in a supermarket, he meets his ex-wife, she has a young child.’ Maybe not that. Two people are around waiting for a subway, a mother and a daughter. And this is sort of what they talk about—write some dialogue for me. Everybody comes in with some dialogue. And every time, people—dialogue usually doesn’t work because it’s so linear, and the mind is not necessarily engaged by linear dialogue. And what I often do at that point is I instruct class members to read the scene—first we read it through, then we read it through backwards: Last line first, second to last line second, third…’ Read it in reverse so that the answers are appearing before the questions. That’s always more interesting. And you know, students begin to understand Harold Pinter’s thesis, which is that language is the tool we use not to communicate. Language also does that—I do it with dialogue and I also do it with exposition, which is always such a killer. You give an expositional exercise that is impossible and see how people get around it.
And the end I always know the end. I can’t start a script unless I know the title and the end. The idea somebody could write a script and not have a title for it—I can’t imagine it.
TS: I’ve noticed with your titles you often keep the character out: First Reformed, Taxi Driver… I think you once said of Bresson and Pickpocket, it isn’t a pickpocket, it’s Pickpocket. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why you choose to do that.
PS: Well I mean, you know a title has to have a certain resonance and a certain mystery to it. I hate gerunds in titles, Breaking Away, Running Home—all that sort of stuff is terrible. And also it needs to have preferably a consonant in it, a hard sound that can arrest the progress so that it’s not all soft sounds. Yeah, I was just working on a script—I’ve now abandoned it but I couldn’t think of a good title, but then I came up with a good title and had nothing to do with the script at all, it was called This Burning Wheel, but it still didn’t work, I gave up.
TS: And you don’t start without the ending, I think probably because looking at your body of work the ending is always a rumination or a mediation on some form of redemption in the broadest and loosest sense of the word. Is that part of why you write?
PS: Part of what?
TS: Why you write. Is that part of why you tell stories?
PS: I’m not quite sure why I tell stories. I’m not sure if I were eighteen years old now I would tell stories. It was a time and a place and it seemed to be the thing to do. Maybe I should be writing code if I were in my teens. But this idea that art is functional, that it has—that it can get you through life, it can make you learn, it can make you survive, and at any point in all our lives we have two or three problems that are running around, whether it’s problems about relationships or sexual needs or career crisis, whatever it is there’s something going on. You’re always floating around looking for metaphors and sometimes they arrive and sometimes they don’t.
TS: But I think when you started writing it was a time when cinema afforded the opportunity for people to have answered the questions that were in the ether and somehow they looked to the big screen to address those questions. I wonder whether you would agree with that and—
PS: Well you know, there are people who talk about the American cinema of the ‘70s as some halcyon period. It was to a degree but not because there were any more talented filmmakers. There’s probably, in fact, more talented filmmakers today than there was in the ‘70s. What there was in the ‘70s was better audiences.
And a lot of what was happening in the world had people in consternation: Women’s rights, gay rights, sexual liberation, drug liberation, anti-war. All of these things were rolling on top of each other and people were turning to the arts, specifically movies, for what should we feel about this? Bob and Alice about wife swapping, and coming home about Vietnam veterans, unmarried women about female liberation. So almost one a week, films were coming out to address these things that were on people’s minds. When people take movies seriously it’s very easy to make a serious movie. When they don’t take it seriously, it’s very, very hard. We now have audiences that don’t take movies seriously so it’s hard to make a serious movie for them.
It’s not that us filmmakers are letting you down, it’s you audiences are letting us down.
Because if audiences are receptive to a quality movie, believe me they will get it. We’re all just waiting to make it. At that time, that period about ten, twelve years, every single week there was some kind of film coming out addressing a social issue in a fictional form.
TS: And clearly with First Reformed you have taken on the subject and problems around climate change as one of the themes that underpin the story. I wonder how you feel your audiences have responded to that aspect of the story?
PS: I lost you after climate change.
TS: How do you think your audiences have responded to that aspect of the story?
PS: Well you know that’s a big question because there is no response. There is no response. As a species we have made our decision, it’s pretty clear. Now it’s a question of how long it takes for that decision to be fully effective. But you know, there is no—whatever tipping point there was, we’ve passed it and it is—you know, it’s very hard to—a friend of mine wrote an article for the New York Times calling on raising a child in a doomed world. And my adult children do not have children and they don’t feel they should, and that is a question that begins First Reformed: Should I bring someone in to this world knowing what kind of life they will have? So it would be nice to say the movie has a positive effect, but our gorilla brains are not going to get us out of the problem. Evolution has taken us as far as it can. The next stage will be some other form of evolved intelligence, but us gorillas, we’re not equipped to solve this problem.
TS: But you do have Ethan Hawke’s character Toller tell us it’s better to have hope.
PS: Albert Camus said ‘I don’t believe, I choose to believe.’ That’s where we are. I don’t hope, we have no reason to hope, but you can choose to hope. And that can be a way to live.
TS: Although if we look at some of the choices in First Reformed and go back to The Yakuza or the suicidal tendency in many of your films, your characters often use suicide as a method of action. And I think you said—one of the lines in The Yakuza was that in Japan when the character is cracking up they take it out on themselves, but in America they open the window and take it out on everyone else. I wonder if you could elaborate a little about that.
PS: It’s interesting, a couple of weeks ago someone watched Mishima, and I watched the opening of it and the initial voiceover comes from a book Mishima wrote Sun and Steel, and it’s talking about his decision to take this course of action. He says, you know, ‘words are no longer sufficient, so I have found a new form of expression,’ and that new form of expression was militarism.
And then thirty something years later, I’m sitting in my office writing the script for First Reformed and I write a line and he says, ‘I have found a new form of prayer,’ and I thought ‘oh that’s a good line.’ I didn’t realise I had written it thirty-five years ago.
So it does all kind of circle around.
TS: Well it feels to me as though First Reformed is the state of grace from the state of nature that we discovered you with at the beginning of your career. I could talk to you all evening but I’m mindful that the audience may have questions, so can I open it to the floor and see if there’s anything anyone here would like to ask Paul? Down here in the front row. I think we have mics.
Q: Hi Paul. A pleasure to hear you speaking. I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about your process of writing and how—did it change at all when you collaborated with directors, Martin Scorsese for example, or do you stick to your process throughout?
PS: I’m not a very good employee.
I wish I was because there’s a lot of money to be made by being a good employee. I wrote four scripts for Scorsese, but we never talked about it. I would do it, I would do it again, but there was only one person in the room when I was writing. And the last film we did together Bringing Out the Dead, I realised that we would not work together again, that it was over because there were now two directors in the room and one of them was calling himself a writer.
And the other one was sort of pissed off, so I realised there can only be one director in Scorsese’s script development, and that has to be him. It’s not me. So I have not been very good at collaborating. I’ve never held a job in my life; every single job I’ve had I’ve been fired from. It’s always at some point where somebody says ‘do it this way,’ and you say ‘no, that’s not the way you do it. You do it this way.’ And then they say ‘who’s the boss here?’ and you get fired.
That’s really probably the reason I’ve worked and I’ve spent all these years—because I used to get jobs but I always got in trouble and I got a bad reputation as somebody who was not cooperative, who was not a team player. I sort of realised that the only way I could make a living is to do my own thing and then go out and find somebody to finance it.
TS: How did you behave, then on Comfort of Strangers, when you’re the writer but you’re really acting as a director and you’ve got Harold Pinter and Ian McEwen to contend with?
PS: Well most scripts I’ve rewritten. I even go to the point of retyping the entire script so I can feel full ownership over it. So I can stand there on the set and say ‘oh I remember when I wrote this.’ I didn’t actually write this, I just retyped it, but I wrote it.
Two scripts I had that I didn’t really want to touch, one was by Bret Easton-Ellis and one was by Harold Pinter. And we were in Rome—it was a four-hander, Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Chris Walken and Helen Mirren. And Pinter’s script was quite elliptical and all the actors were on me and they wanted changes and I liked this script quite a bit and I didn’t want to make changes. But of course I’m a writer and they pressured me. So I called up Harold and I said ‘let’s do it this way. You come down from Rome and we’ll do a two-week rehearsal. You rehearse the first week, I’ll rehearse the second week. And I won’t say I thing the first week, I’ll just sit in a corner.’ So he came down, and his rehearsal method, essentially, was reading and re-reading and reading the script over and over. And at one point Natasha said to him, ‘now Harold, I’m in Venice with my boyfriend. My two children with another man are staying with my mother in England. What is my relationship to those children’s father? Is he alive? Do I know him? Are we on good terms?’ And Harold said, ‘Natasha, I have never answered a question like that and I’m not going to start now. Read the text.’
By which he simply meant if you read it enough, you will answer that question and whatever answer you have is going to be a better one than I can tell you. And so after Harold left we all came down and I said ‘Big Daddy went back to London and let’s all discuss the script,’ and Chris Walken said, ‘you know, I kind of like it the way it is.’
And we made no changes.
TS: I think there’s a question over there on the corner.
Q: Paul thank you so much for an enlightening lecture, it’s sort of helped me as a writer. I wanted to ask you about Cat People because looking at the time when you made the film—of course today everything seems to be remade left, right and centre… How did you interpret that? Did the studio give you a specific mandate or was it something you wanted to do on your own way?
PS: Well it was—I was doing the film with Daniel Scafiari, so It was very much a visual exercise, and I—the script, the original script, had a kind of traditional horror arc and at the end of the script the protagonist shoots the monster, kills the monster, the old house burns down. I thought I had an inspiration—I said, ‘what if instead of killing the monster, he fucks it?’ and then he built a shrine to it and comes and worships it. Wouldn’t that be a more interesting ending? And that’s what we did.
And I remember we had a screening in Westwood with Jerry Bruckheimer, who was the producer and there were two teenage girls in front of us and it comes to the ending when John Heard is tying up Nastasia in bondage and David Bowie is intoning this ritualistic music and he’s tying up Nastasia so he can fuck her to make her back into a leopard, and the two girls in front of me, one turned to the other and said, ‘oh my God.’ And I turned to Jerry and said ‘Jerry I think maybe we went a little too far.’
But you know, looking back at it that’s probably why the film has a shelf life, is because not a lot of competition for that.
TS: There’s a lady down here at the front. Sorry those at the back I can’t see your hands so wave aggressively if you have questions.
Q: Hello. Can you hear me?
PS: Yes I can hear you.
Q: What I love about your films is that the scripts lie somewhere between cynicism without ever being cynical and sentimentality and they’re never sentimental. You get to really human feelings, sometimes awkward but always we can identify with. And one of the brilliant expressions of that was in First Reformed, and I knew that if I could vote for the Academy Award I would’ve at this moment: When he’s showing around the tourists, the family, and he says, ‘we have a little gift shop here.’ And he looks at them and says, ‘the only thing we have left is a small size…’ Knowing of course how Americans are so obese, of course that’s all that would be left. But the fact that this man, after all that we’ve seen him go through, is reduced to saying that—I just thought it was brilliant. How did you ever think of putting that in?
PS: Well in that particular case, wardrobe provided the t-shirts and being cost-effective as they were they only did extra-small because no one was going to put them on. And so extra small looked the same size as extra large. And so I was looking through and I said ‘those are all extra small,’ so we did that on the fly.
But that joke in that scene, that was a joke that I heard growing up in the church—about the minster and the choir mistress. She chased him around the church and caught him by the organ and that was a joke I heard as a kid and finally found a place for it.
TS: A question up there at the back.
Q: Hi, this might be quite a quick answer, but do you ever write different versions of script for financiers or actors? Do you ever kind of change them based on who you’re sending them to?
PS: The only reason you would change is request. I had a meeting two days ago about this film I want to do with Willam and Ethan and the antagonist is this 300-pound Mexican. And the financier said ‘I think we can get more money if you make the antagonist a woman.’ And so I’m going to try that and make her sort of Mercedes McCambridge-like. But—often when someone makes a suggestion like that it throws you for a loop but it often fires some neurons up there and you say, ‘I can actually do that.’ But I would never write something specifically for an actor. That’s the door to hell. It makes you a lazy writer to begin with, because you’re now hearing the words as spoken by Al Pacino and you're saying ‘wow that’s a great speech.’ It’s not a great speech, Al Pacino’s a good actor, that’s all.
You have to try to write dialogue in scenes almost actor-proof, so that if it so happens that the only way they’ll finance that movie is with a lug of an actor—you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger—your script should be good enough to still work without him. So that’s how you have to think as a writer.
TS: There’s a question down here.
Q: Hello. In First Reformed you shoot the movie in a particular aspect ratio, which is very focusing, and it changes at one point later on in the film, and I was wondering about that in terms of the process of writing the story. Was that something you conceived as you wrote it, how it was going to be viewed, or was that later on as a director that you looked at that?
PS: No, I said this yesterday. I have written a book of theological aesthetics as a film critic, but I never thought I would make a film of that nature. And then about three years ago I was having a conversation with Pawel Pawlowski who had done Ida. After that conversation I walked uptown and realised it was now time. It’s time for you to write that spiritual script the one you swore for decades you would never write. And Ida was 1:33 black and white, so I thought ‘OK I’m going to do a film just like that, 1:33, black and white.’ Eventually I ended up making it in colour, but that was the template. Since I was dealing with spiritual style, you immediately engage yourself with holding devices. You immediately start giving less. Well one way you can give less is to have a smaller image. You know, withhold music, withhold acting, withhold editing, withhold camera moves, withhold foreground background. It’s just one of a buffet of withholding devices.
TS: Do you regret that you made it in colour?
TS: Do you regret having made it in colour?
PS: No, no I don’t. Because I saw Pawel’s new film Cold War and I was just talking to him and he was saying how great it was in black and white and I was like, ‘I don’t know, I thought it should have been in colour.’
And then, you know, you can’t shoot in—you can now shoot in black and white digitally, two years ago you couldn’t. So a film like Nebraska was simply shot in colour and then they dialled it down. It’s one of the reasons black and white is so unattractive. But now they have dedicated black and white digital cameras, so you can shoot in black and white, but what that means is you can’t do both. You have to design your sets and your palettes for black and white or for colour.
Then the task simply became how little colour can we use and how minimal can we make everything? So you know, red is used for the Pepto Bismol and the blood and that’s it. And that becomes one of those constraints that’s very, very useful because limitations in any art from are inspirational. If I tell you that I want you to make a fibreglass chair for a 500 pound person but it has to be really stylish, your mind is going to jump and say ‘oh how can I do that?’. Whereas if I tell you I want you to make a stylish fibreglass chair, your mind isn’t going to jump. So those kinds of limitations inspire you.
TS: There’s a question down there.
Q: You were mentioning that you need to know the ending of your script before you can start writing. Is that ending dialogue or is it an actual final visual shot?
PS: Sorry I missed that.
TS: The question is down here.
Q: Sorry hello. It’s just so, for example, at the end of Blue Collar where you have the freeze frame, did you decide on that shot and that image before you wrote the whole script, because you were saying you need to know the ending before you start the writing process.
PS: You know it was part of the script process. When I came to that ending in the course of the script, it probably must have been fairly early on, because I was creating a situation that could not be resolved and had to just be stopped in a dialectical way, but that ending was always there. It’s not like Harvey takes the wrench and is going to hit Richard—well he didn’t actually hit Richard, I said ‘Cut,’ so I knew I was going to freeze frame.
TS: There’s a gentleman over there.
Q: Hi. You mentioned there was a script you abandoned recently, have you got lots of abandoned scripts or has that become rarer over your career?
PS: Not really. Because of this process I use, I try not to write until I know it’s going to work, and I was writing a script about my late brother—a very, very personal script, and I thought I had it and I wrote it and I knew I somehow—I missed it. And because it was such a personal subject it was time to put it on a shelf and see if it comes back to life again. But I’m not going to go to the marketplace with something that personal that I don’t believe in.
TS: There’s a lady down here in the front row.
Q: Hello. So yes first of all thank you for being so entertaining as well as so helpful at the same time. My question is kind of a follow-up from that and also a response to what you were saying about what audiences are and aren’t interested in. if the demand was there, are there particular areas you would like to go into that you’re just kind of waiting for a sign for; stories you want to tell or subjects you want to broach that are still burning a hole inside you?
PS: Erm. Well I mean I talked earlier about the problems one has along this journey. Well obviously the last problem you have is your own demise. And I tried to do a film about that some years ago, it was taken away from me and I disowned it, a film called Dying of the Light with Nic Cage, So it’s still out there, I haven’t yet solved that one so maybe I should swing back around.
One of the problems with doing a film about old age is that, you know, it’s harder to sell tickets because everyone wants to sell tickets to the younger audience, so you have to be very, very careful about that. I would love to do a film about new intelligence—but again you have that same problem. Someone says ‘I’m going to do a film about the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons, but—and the homo sapiens—and how the homo sapiens advanced, but you can only sell tickets to the Neanderthals. That’s a hard sell.
It’s hard to make a movie in which the failed species is the one that’s watching it.
TS: We only have time for one more question because we’re going to show a clip from First Reformed at the very end, but there’s a lady over there on the right with a microphone.
Q: Thank you Paul. My quick question is: Have you learned or have you experienced writers’ block?
TS: Writers’ block. Have you had it, have you learned from it?
PS: Usually with this method you don’t have it because you don’t start writing until you know everything. If you—so you never stop not knowing what’s going to come next. One of the secrets of writers’ block is you always have to finish writing for the day before you’ve completely finished the scene, so you immediately jump right back in and know where you are. The longest period of writer's block that I had, I used to be a night writer. I’d start at eleven and write until five or six in the morning and that was a kind of cascade of alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and cocaine. You can get a lot of writing done.
There were certain spelling errors, but for the most part it was quite good. And those little people who live inside the typewriters, they need some inducement to come out. They just don’t come out on their own. So you have to say ‘come on out, come on out,’ and then they come out and they climb out the typewriter and start running all around the desk. Then I had a child and the idea of going to bed at six was no longer a feasible one and I didn’t want to be in that condition when my child woke up. So I said it was time to become a day writer. And that took almost a year to retrain myself. I got an office and I’d go there and just sit. But I refused to write at night until finally it started to come and I could write during the day. And now I can’t even write at night.
TS: Well Paul, thank you very much. I’ll ask the audience to hold back their applause until we’ve seen this final clip from First Reformed, but may I just say it’s been a real pleasure talking to you and thank you for teaching us today and for the last decades. Thank you.