Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader discuss their movie “Taxi Driver"
BROADCAST: Feb. 12, 1976 | DURATION: 00:49:26
Film director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader discuss their movie “Taxi Driver,” including interview from 9:04 - 9:49 of Scorsese discussing the character, Johnny Boy, from his film "Mean Streets."
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Opening the 27th in a number of theaters in Chicago is quite a remarkable film, "Taxi Driver". It's directed by Martin Scorsese, you'll recall "Mean Streets" was his film, powerful study of a community in New York, split in cultures in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" as well, and Robert De Niro is Travis Bickle. The writer is Paul Schrader, and both are my guests, the director and the writer, two I'm sure wholly different people and working together in this powerful film that will be the subject of this conversation for the next hour or so, and so in a moment, "Taxi Driver", and Martin Scorsese the director and Paul Schrader the writer after this message. I thought of these two songs as wholly different in nature, the gay song from "On the Town", Leonard Bernstein music, "New York, New York's a hell of a town," that became the basis of "Fancy Free", the ballet, and Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night". In a way, in some strange way this film "Taxi Driver" deals with this theme, does it not, the loneliness and a huge wild animal sort of metropolis, doesn't it? Paul Schrader.
Paul Schrader Yes. Thank you, Studs. The--well, we just came from New York and were--so we were accused of defaming that great city, and which really came as quite a surprise, because it's not so much a study of New York as this is a study of one disintegrating personality. And I do not believe that the New York, the city, you know, create people such as the protagonist of the film or the center of the film. I hesitate to call him a hero. He's a man of a disintegrating self-destructive personality and he is not created by the city. It is the people who have created the cities. Maybe I'm still a Calvinist, but I can't help but think that the evil is inherent in the people who create the cities rather than the cities themselves.
Studs Terkel We'll come back to the matter of this Calvinism later on, 'cause this film has a strong theological touch to it. Martin Scorsese, you well know that.
Martin Scorsese Yes. Yes. Well, mine is Catholic. So we added lots of candles in the scenes, then, Studs, that's what we did. No, I was very much attracted to it because it was almost as if I had written--it was the closest thing to something that I would have written myself, you know, about certain feelings, feelings that are feelings of repressed rage and repressed sexual things that kind of explode, you know? And it--we tried to over a period of several--two years, over a period of two and a half years, really, to try to get the picture off the ground and stuck with it all the way down the line because I was, I felt very strongly that I wanted to say those things and maybe by putting them up on the screen you exorcise them, you know, get them out and both of us kind of hope that it's the last time we had to make this kind of a picture in terms of our own feelings about ourselves, you know? And we use Travis to repre--he kind of represents the dark part of myself.
Studs Terkel Travis, this is Travis Bickle, who is a, just a, just a taxicab, we say just a housewife, you know, just a, just a taxi cab driver in New York. A certain guy is the part De Niro plays.
Martin Scorsese But that doesn't mean you necessarily get rid of those feelings. It's, I had a violent reaction in New York yesterday from a friend of mine who's a critic who shall remain nameless and an associate of his who was also a critic, who claimed to feel that they didn't want to feel those things about themselves, and they felt that it was terrible to feel those things about themselves after seeing the film. They don't want to look at that part of themselves. And I said, "Well, that's really basically, you know, what can I say? That's what the movie's about,
Studs Terkel Before we go to Travis himself and also to Paul Schrader and Paul's own background and Calvinism, because this guy Travis is a Puritan to me. He's a Puritan. Well, suppose we--we have to go a little further back. It's New York City. It's obvi--it's more than New York City, it's any large
Martin Scorsese Any large. Right. Exactly. Exactly--
Studs Terkel Where there's sort of a wildness, a craziness at work.
Martin Scorsese The reason we used a taxi cab is because New York is the best place for taxi cabs in terms of it's a [close?] metaphor for the--
Paul Schrader Yeah, and, I mean, I have never driven a taxi and I have only lived in New York from time to time. I'm not a New Yorker. The reason the film is called "Taxi Driver" is because it came, it was written at a certain point, a low point in my life when I was not involved in the motion picture industry in any way. And I was living essentially in a very manic-depressed stage where I was, found myself driving around a lot at night, drinking, not being able to sleep, going to pornography in that self-accelerating, self-destructive syndrome of depression. And fortunately, I started to get pain in my stomach which ultimately proved to be a small ulcer and I went into the hospital and broke the syndrome. When I came out of the hospital, the idea of the taxi cab hit me. I said, this is the metaphor I have been living. This is the metaphor I'm looking for. Here is a man who is totally cut off in the midst of the crowd, a man who will take anybody any place for money. The man in front of whom people will do anything, he is regarded as an automaton. Yet he is in the middle of the crowd. He is the perfect metaphor for what I was feeling being in the middle of a mass, yet perpetual--but increasingly isolated, and that is what the character is going through, and his isolation increases as the movie progresses.
Studs Terkel He becomes--he's the invisible man. You see, we think of Ralph Ellison's the Black as "The Invisible Man". There are many invisible people, and Travis Bickle is "The Invisible Man" as you were in your own life.
Paul Schrader Yeah, I think that, I mean, the period of which I'm speaking was not that prolonged, otherwise I don't think I would have even ever written a script, but it was a period of about a month, and I don't think I really talked--I mean, I can't remember anyone I even talked to during that period. You know, you just lose your desire to even communicate. You don't even hear people.
Studs Terkel Martin Scorsese, this is a theme that I know has possessed you for some time.
Martin Scorsese Yeah. Yeah. It really has. Paul's feelings, I guess in that month period, was really like a compression of a lot of things. In my case, maybe because I am a New Yorker and because I've been brought up lower East side and because it's more of a community feeling, those feelings come and go. They come and go, and they come maybe periods of three days, maybe period of a week. I know my worst period of that feeling that's, and this is interesting, because it's one of the reasons why I grabbed the script and really wanted to really hang onto it. For my first, my first few months, first six months in Los Angeles, making a transition living in Los Angeles, was like Travis it was bizarre.
Studs Terkel It could be Chicago, too.
Martin Scorsese Yeah. Anywhere.
Studs Terkel And it could be, in fact we're talking about our society,
Martin Scorsese Absolutely.
Studs Terkel Pretty much right now.
Martin Scorsese I mean, even Rome to a certain extent right now. This is, you know.
Studs Terkel We're also talking about craziness, aren't we? For the moment. I use the word "craziness" in the general sense, and I'm thinking about Martin's earlier film, "Mean Streets", and there's a guy named Johnny Boy in it who could be classified by some as a certified nut. De Niro played this role, too. Suppose we hear you commenting about it at that time.
Martin Scorsese Okay.
Studs Terkel Just see [if we?] connect this with our friend Travis Bickle. This is an extension.
Martin Scorsese The point of Johnny Boy is very important. Johnny Boy is a guy everybody says, "Well, he's stupid, he's crazy, why does Charlie care for him?" He's not stupid, he's not crazy. I mean, if he's crazy, it may be a little crazy in terms of blowing up mailboxes, in reality we'd try to blow up a telephone booth, because that's what we used to do. We used to blow up telephone booths, see, but we couldn't get there technically because we didn't have that much money, but so we blew up a mailbox, but the point is that Johnny Boy didn't, wasn't a guy who was totally crazy, and Johnny Boy knew what he was doing. It's the old difference between being crazy and being stupid. Just because you're crazy doesn't mean you're stupid, you know. And Johnny in a way knew what he was doing and that he was lashing out against these codes, against this way of life, because he wanted to get out.
Studs Terkel Against what way of life?
Martin Scorsese Against--well, against--he's a rebel against everything. He's sort of an anarchist against everything in terms of the whole society, and even the uncle, and the uncle--
Studs Terkel And so we hear there's a lashing out. What hit me here was lashing out against what at the moment was overwhelming
Paul Schrader Well, "Taxi Driver" takes place in Johnny Boy's mind. That's the difference between the films. I mean. I had not seen "Mean Streets", I did not know Marty or Bobby at the time I wrote it, but one of the terrifying things about "Taxi Driver", and people have a tendency to think it is far more violent than it is simply because the movie exists within the space of a man who is becoming increasingly schizophrenic and crazy, and it offers you no other view of life. And so that you begin to share his hostility, to his prejudice, his racism, his sexism, and that is what is terrifying to most people. There is no sequence like at the end of "Psycho" where you pull back and say, "This is why he is crazy."
Martin Scorsese In fact, that's what the guys were arguing about, they said that "We felt complicitous in the film because we got so involved with him. We felt we were accomplices in his racism and his hostility and his anger and his murders."
Studs Terkel Before--there's something else in the film. Let's stick with this theme. There's something else in the film I find terribly important, that is need. It's a portrait of great need. We'll come--before we come to that, you said you've been attacked by this film. You've been attacked because as though you were saying, that you are proposing John--this guy Travis' solution of violence as a way of releasing his tensions. You're merely saying as--by the way, in great art this has always been the case, whether it's Dostoevsky or whether it's an early Algren book or whether it's Flannery O'Connor short story, [unintelligible] when somebody is tense and taut as Paul was in that moment, the release suddenly is almost orgasmic, you know. That's what you're saying, too, in a way, aren't you?
Paul Schrader This man has cut, has been cut, and is cutting himself off because he--it's important in the film. He's the one who's turning up the flame under his own pressure cooker, even more than the city, he is driving himself up, pushing himself to the end, and he is cutting himself off. You know, he cuts himself off from music, from news, from politics, from the people around him, he is that terrifying descending spiral of loneliness that people get into.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of that one scene, Martin, what Paul was just saying, cuts himself off. He meets this girl who is another class, she's a middle-class girl, very [all stand?] is attractive and literate, and he's semi-literate. He wants to take her someplace, everybody says, it's a pornographic movie! He doesn't take her to make her hot or anything, it's the only thing he knows! Isn't that the idea? The isolation we're talking about, this is it, this is the box he's in. He thinks it's the natural thing to take her to.
Paul Schrader That's half of it.
Martin Scorsese There's another part,
Paul Schrader The other half is in the unconscious urge, which is he creates a situation where he knows he will be rejected so he can reaffirm his own vile attitude toward himself and this society, so that he goes to a girl who is better than him, who he knows will reject him. She does not reject him initially. So then he puts her in a situation where [she?] has to reject him. This is not a conscious mechanism. It's part of the unconscious mechanism of that self-destructive personality.
Martin Scorsese And there's even another part of it, too, in the sense that subconsciously he would like to make love to her, you see, and he would--he doesn't know how to go about it, when she turns to him and says, you know, "This is as exciting to me as saying 'Let's whatever,' you know," he gets very, very upset. And he gets very upset because it's almost as if she read his innermost thoughts, but he still doesn't realize that. You know. He's still doesn't, he's trapped three ways all around.
Studs Terkel So we come to what appears to be inevitable: in his isolation from the rest of humankind in this huge city in which it's pretty wild, nobody seems to care really, something must happen, and the aspect of now actual violence by means of the gun comes into play, and suddenly he begins to come alive, doesn't he?
Paul Schrader One very gratifying review we had in New York was in "The Wall Street Journal", where a woman said that this film was the closest thing to "The Stranger", the Meursault hero of "The Stranger" that American movies had created. And like I said, it was very gratifying because part of the model that we were trying to create in the film is to try to take that existential hero, the stranger, the hero from "Notes from the Underground", Roquentin from "Nausea", certain heroes of films like "Le Fou Folie", life upside down, and say what happens to him when he comes into the urban street environment of America? The dilemma of should I exist. And I don't want to rob too much of this for Marty, but I think that what did happen, what happens when the problem was should I exist, he's not aware enough to solve that problem on his own terms. The European at the end of "Le Fou Folie", when he finally decides, I should not exist, simply puts the gun to his head and kills himself. This man forces society to answer that problem for him. He creates his drama not on his own body, but on the stage of human society, and he tries to die in a stage of politics or in a stage of a fight. And the irony of the film is that society cheats him out of the thing he wanted most. You know, he does not die.
Studs Terkel He tries to, but does not. Society--your ending, of course, is ironic. We'll come to that in a minute. I felt there were two endings, of course, you know, we'll come to that. But the, there's an irony here at the end when he is recognized for an act of violence that he committed. See, Paul speaks of an existential hero and he speaks of Camus. Long before that was written, Bigger Thomas, you know, Richard Wright, the first serious Black novelist, about Bigger Thomas, who is not recognized, who is nobody. Just as Travis Bickle is nobody, but when he committed the act of violence everything was trained on him. The police [light? life?] suddenly he says, "I'm alive. They know me." This is also part of it, isn't it?
Paul Schrader You know, you get down to proving it, a certain act becomes definitive. It is really rather terrifying. I think it's a reflection of the relative youth of our culture that he cannot act out this drama on himself. The--you know, if he was a Japanese, you know, he would--the difference between an American and Japanese at this level, the Japanese would close the window and kill himself. An American, when he cracks, up will open the window and kill someone else, and he's not mature enough to act out the drama on himself. So he acts it out on the rest of us.
Studs Terkel Martin, I was thinking about yourself, you know, this film attracting you and Paul's script, and this whole idea of a huge mass gathered the city, New York is the great metaphor and the reality of it, could be any city, or our society and the loneliness, the isolated single non-person really, in a way.
Martin Scorsese Yeah. The whole thing with the city [vote?] for me, of course again as you say it could be any city, but New York for me is obviously very special. You know, it's something I know completely inside out, so it's--
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of something else for personal reasons, because of past work: the job and the person, the work and the person. He's a taxi cab driver and he becomes as you point out--you don't, but it's there in the film. The machine, he is not there, so things happen in the back. He's not there. The Black domestic at home. He's not there.
Martin Scorsese That's why, Studs, the first time you actually see the cab, is in a series of shots that a kind of cut the cab off from strange angles that makes the cab almost some sort of a special monster in itself like a, it's always disorienting, too. You see the outside window first, you see over the hood and it passes theater marquees, you see wheels, and then it combines the whole picture of him driving the cab and the shots of him are like mugshots, police mug shots for him driving a cab, and he's talking about all the animals coming out at night, you know. So it's almost like there's a monster created the machine, he becomes part of it, literally is part of it.
Studs Terkel You know, as the film opened, I didn't know what was. I saw the smoke. It could have been a turbine. It was a machine, it was something--a result of technology. You see, we're talking about--it's a machine, isn't it?
Martin Scorsese It
Studs Terkel And invariably you find the machine. It's polluting, we know that, we are aware of that, of course, and the guy in it is there, and he's part of it. And so the very opening sets it almost, doesn't it? He's almost an automatic.
Paul Schrader We did a very interesting TV show in New York last week where they had brought in 15 cab drivers who had seen the film and the function was, of course, to put us on the spot, and they are all, word to say, one or two things. What surprised us all was that what came out of these cabbies was primarily hostility, anger, you know. I mean, whether they liked the film or not, they were just angry, and they spoke about the conditions in which they work, you know, it is a terrible job, that's how the garage smelled, it stinks. You know, the door of my cab is broke. Nobody cares about me. They'll do anything. You know, when you're in the cab, nobody likes you.
Martin Scorsese Just like that.
Paul Schrader And I was sitting next to Ben Sardi, who was there representing the Hospitality League of New York.
Studs Terkel This is a very funny scene you describe. Black humor.
Paul Schrader And during the break he leaned over to me and he said, "It's the same thing with waiters." He says, that all people in service positions have enormous hostility.
Studs Terkel You got it. See, how obviously this is a film called "Taxi Driver". It's a film about more than a taxi driver. It's a film about all the repressed hostilities and the needs and the loneliness and this in isolation, isn't it? That's the, that's interesting about the cab dri--well, of course, which proves you hit the target. You were going to say something, Martin.
Martin Scorsese No, no. I was just, I was agreeing. I was agreeing in the sense of the--the more, the more they--the more they were complaining about the hostility, the more angry they got. It's very interesting.
Studs Terkel You know, we're also talking about a fantasy life here too, aren't we? This guy Travis Bick--to make him, we open with the song "Help Me Make It Through the Night", it's Kris Kristofferson, I know of whom you're fond, he was in "Alice", and even here his album appears.
Martin Scorsese His album appears. That was from the original script, that's why it was so odd.
Studs Terkel Yeah, that's interesting. Oh, you didn't know that he--
Paul Schrader It was put in the original script because she uses the line from the song about "a man of contradictions," and we wanted to put that line in the movie because the movie is full of contradictions and it's just a way of telling the audience, "Look, folks. There's going to be some contradictions selling"
Martin Scorsese Don't get started, right.
Paul Schrader Don't let them bother you.
Martin Scorsese Right.
Paul Schrader Because, you know, nobody goes, nobody goes insane logically.
Martin Scorsese That's right. People are looking, people are looking for him to go insane logically. Say what, it doesn't make, the narrative doesn't make any connective tissue. Why? I said, well, did you ever deal with a person who had been going through a breakdown or a person who is leading towards violence of this kind? You can speak to a person. A very interesting picture was "Titicut Follies", Fred Wiseman, and you listen to some of the fellas from the insane asylum talking, and
Studs Terkel He's coming here tomorrow.
Martin Scorsese They talk for maybe two or three minutes and you say the guy's perfectly sane, is fine, then at the end of it suddenly he'll say something that is totally off the wall, like the United States is a grand--
Studs Terkel You know, as you're saying this, I have to add something, you say this guy is having a breakdown. The very thing you're talking about takes place in the minds and fantasies of those of us, when I say us, what we call normal, whatever that may mean today, normal people. The very nature of the way we think and talk today. I mean, would you say that some of the candidates for president are more rational or more enlightened than Travis Bickle?
Martin Scorsese I doubt it very much.
Studs Terkel Okay, so you've answered the question. Okay.
Martin Scorsese You know, you're talking about the fantasy life, and the fantasy life, too, is, it's very important, it's the old code system, too, in a way it's very puritanical in the sense he looks at Cybill and she comes out of the mass of people, Cybill Shepherd--
Studs Terkel Cybill is this upper-class girl. Cybill Shepherd.
Martin Scorsese And, you know, she's, she is, it's the old goddess and the whore complex, the old thing, you know, and he just adores her like a goddess. He just adores her like a goddess, you know. Therefore she isn't a human being.
Studs Terkel But as Paul said, knowing very well he'll fail.
Studs Terkel That he must fail. So this leads to the goddess and the whore. So we come to something very interesting here, and that's this little girl, a remarkable thing. There's this 12 and a half year old hooker, this little girl. Now here we come to needs, don't we, see, here is this guy who is violent, at the same time we come to his standards, his values, that which he doesn't have: family, life. A little girl's in the big city.
Martin Scorsese Right.
Paul Schrader He wants her to have all the things that never worked for him. You know, he obviously came from a small town somewhere and then he didn't fit in that small town either, and he's come to New York where at least he won't be noticed for not fitting in, and he tries to tell this girl that she has to go back and have all those values and virtues that didn't work for him. But it's also involved with the self-destruct mechanism because she is a whore, and he does at first meet her as a client, yet he has chosen to befriend the whore of such an age that he psychologically could not have intercourse with her because she is just too young. And the, this is not unrealistic. There are baby whores in New York and the girl who played the role, Jodie Foster, was that age at the time. But if he had chosen to fixate on, say a 18-year-old prostitute--
Martin Scorsese Yeah, it might
Paul Schrader It would've been much different. He wouldn't have been able to justify his own abstinence in the way that he justifies it now, and therefore just puts more pressure on himself.
Martin Scorsese I was just saying, he goes with the goddess to the child goddess in a sense, you know. It's very interesting, again, except, again, that he feels unclean in himself, that he isn't good enough to get, you know. He isn't good enough to touch.
Studs Terkel We come to that now, before we take this slight break, this question of lack of sense of worth as part of it, key too, that he is not good enough. That he's no good.
Martin Scorsese Right.
Studs Terkel And it's when that act of violence is committed, for which he is honored, we'll come to this ironic, too, here, suddenly he has no need. Or it seems for the moment. But this man is not good and that's part of what, again, this pervasiveness inside--a feeling of worthlessness. That's also one of--there are many dimensions to this, aren't there?
Martin Scorsese We found every year we worked on it we learned more.
Paul Schrader Yeah.
Martin Scorsese It was one of those was fortunate projects that grows in your mind. The more we think and talked about it, the richer it got.
Studs Terkel Even as I think about it, during this conversation this morning or the afternoon after the night I saw it, and so now as I start thinking about the--more and more dimensions to it. I shall see it again of course, but let's think about this for a moment. We'll take a slight pause, return to Martin Scorsese the director, and Paul Schrader the writer of "Taxi Driver", the film that will be opening in Chicago February 27th in a number of theaters. One momento. Resuming thoughts about the film "Taxi Driver". We talked--you know what would be good here, because I'm interested in Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, it's not accidental. That this project came--you came from an interesting back--I think of this guy as a Puritan. This guy who is [unintelligible]. You yourself came from a very--
Paul Schrader Well, I came from the north of Chicago, from Grand Rapids, and the Christian Reformed Church which was a Dutch Calvinist church. At the time I was raised there, it was a very, very strict city. The church almost ruled the city. The media has broken down the rule the church is not quite what it used to be. But I see the character as a kind--I felt the character was a kind of Midwestern Protestant young man who had wandered in from a frozen wasteland of Michigan by mistake into the heated, fetid atmosphere of a Catholic Church. And he kept looking around and saying, "What's happening here?" And that's part of the tension of the film is that my tastes are much more aesthetic and abstract than Marty's, and the tension is that the character is isolated and cut off, yet he's forced and is [surrounded?] and enveloped by the mean streets, and is a very felicitous combination because we both felt the same thematically about the film and our styles then could merge.
Martin Scorsese In fact, as you know, it applied, it felt when you talk about the sense of not being good enough. I mean, "Mean Streets" opens with the main character talking to God and saying, "I'm not even worthy to, in a sense, take communion," you know, he says, "I'm not worthy to eat your flesh, not worthy to drink your blood," and I guess it was the old Jansenist thing, where they wouldn't even go to communion, that kind of a feeling, that was the sense of--
Paul Schrader Jansenism was the Roman Catholic version of Calvinism.
Martin Scorsese Yes.
Studs Terkel But it seems like--what interests me, of course I'm fascinated by the fact that there's a creative tension here, that the styles of you two is exactly the opposite. Even the [unintelligible] of talking, the volatility of Martin and the sort of a casual throwaway way--I'm sure there's a great deal of--underneath him--tremendous [passion?], but this is, and to me this is terribly exciting, that's what makes the film. This is--you know, it's funny--Flannery O'Connor, her short story was so fantastic, has this thing.
Martin Scorsese Which
Studs Terkel It's the theology and the--well, "The River" is one. "The River" is with the three kids.
Paul Schrader Where they have that wonderful monologue where he's preaching about going down
Studs Terkel And the preacher. But the three kid--and I like that in connection with this film in which the three poor kids are the sitter for this little boy who's of a different class. They just tighten, tense, they say nothing, and they throw him into the pig pen. And he [grunts? runs?] screaming and then they're kind of relieved a little. They're not happy but they're kind of a tautness and so this, in a sense, is Travis at the very end, too, isn't it? See, it's this--crazy--
Martin Scorsese We got into a whole thing, too, about the religious aspects for me you know, in a sense he's, you know, he's got to have a kind of sacrifice, and in the Old Testament it's a blood sacrifice and there has to be blood sacrifice, too. In the Old Testament it was lambs and you know, whatever, and this sort of thing, and the New Testament is Christ coming down and saying, "Well, listen, you don't have to, I don't want lambs or whatever, just yeah, I'm doing it myself, I'm son of God, I bleed for everybody and that's it, and I'll resurrect myself for a day, and we're all going to be very, very happy, just believe in me and thing'll be terrific." And this is what Travis comes in like the God of the Old Testament, it has to be a blood sacrifice, but at the same time he has to die himself. He knows he's going to die before he goes in. But of course he blows it, he doesn't die.
Studs Terkel Yeah, he doesn't.
Martin Scorsese So it's very frustrating for him. That's why the violence has to be so graphic, because it's like a sacrifice.
Studs Terkel You know, the reason I--I'm sure this has come up many times. I thought--and this is not giving the film away because you see the film it's a remarkable experience seeing the film. I thought it would end at a certain moment after this horrendous slaughter. The three policemen are there with the guns and I said, "What are they protecting?" That was a marvelous ending! However, you two guys had something else in mind. Oh, I'd forgotten for the moment Travis Bickle, and that's what about him, you see. And, so, his purge or his whatever comes through his act of violence that is now--he's honored by the society because he did the good thing, he saved the 12-year-old girl from the nice middle-class background. Then you wonder about the girl, the voice of her father reading the letter. What you going back to?
Martin Scorsese Exactly. She didn't want to go back.
Paul Schrader Of course it made no difference to him. He was ready to kill the presidential candidate, and through some quirk of fate he ended up killing a Mafioso instead. But to him, the film is not saying pimps are equal to presidential candidates, it's just saying that to that frame of mind, the target is not as important as the need to attack.
Martin Scorsese What's so frightening is the arbitrariness of it.
Studs Terkel Now we come to another word, and that's what we're coming to: need. Need. Need in a perverse way and need in a tremendous--everybody needed in a way in this film. He had a great need to connect somehow or to say, "Look at me," or "Recognize me." The girl evens up the middle class girl, you know there's something missing there. She had a neat track to this rather interesting, rather in contrast to the dull of her own class [person?], but then comes a tremendous scene to me. And that's the little baby whore and the pimp--played very beautifully by Harvey Keitel--he's using her, when suddenly as they're dancing--they need each other.
Martin Scorsese That's
Paul Schrader And you realize that the pimp can give his baby whore something that the main character Travis never can. He can hold her, he can embrace her. And strangely enough, he can make her feel loved, and that is what the main character lacks, is that ability to just reach out and hold her.
Martin Scorsese That was the thing, because some people think, they thought the scene was just a pimp doing a hustle on a kid. I said, "No, no, no, no, no." I said, "The whole point of it is, the whole point of it is that he's serious about it. He's deadly serious about it, and she feels it. You know? He says, "I need you, and I need you in, it's, every man should have a woman like you," and that's why he's almost reciting lyrics to a song in a sense, almost like a musical sequence
Studs Terkel The funny thing is, it might have been in the beginning an act, at this point, it might have been, but no longer is.
Studs Terkel So this is another undercurrent of the film, isn't it? The tremendous need of connecting. Connecting, isn't it?
Martin Scorsese Yeah.
Paul Schrader Well, I mean, Travis is drawn to the city because the city can accelerate his own isolation and drive him into this frenzy. But the same kinds of patterns are reenacted in Steubenville and in Lima and wherever else.
Studs Terkel This is the point. Again, answer to provincial New Yorkers think this film is an attack on them as say Ford would attack New York. It isn't. On the contrary, you chose the most theatrical and dramatic
Martin Scorsese Exactly. As a New Yorker, I love New York, you know,
Studs Terkel It could be easily could be, could be Grand Rapids, too, could it not?
Paul Schrader During one attack at this film where a person was saying, you know, "Why did you do this to our city?" I became very agitated because I was sick of hearing this attack, and I stood up and I said a story from Picasso, that Picasso had once painted a picture he called "Fish", and a woman came up to him and said, "Mr. Picasso, that doesn't look like a fish." And he said, "Madam, that is not a fish. That is a painting."
Studs Terkel Yeah. It's the work itself. You know, one thing we touched on haven't--this hits me a lot, this amount of fantasy, fantasy life. The fantasy life of this guy helps him in a way. See it through the night, survive the night for better or for worse. And he's watching TV. Now we come to ersatz fantasy and real fantasy. He's watching TV and there's fantasy, but it's phony fantasy, and he in his violence he kicks the set over. But his own fantasy is much more richer and horrendous in every way than the phony fan--which is much more full of life. We come to that, don't we, too?
Paul Schrader Yeah, I mean that, you know, society constantly reminds us and him of how out of it we are. The media propaganda, the advertising which has now dominates our society in a way it didn't 25 or even 50 or even 25 years ago. It's a constant reminder to everyone how sexually inadequate, how lonely and how cut off we are.
Paul Schrader I mean, 50 years ago people didn't feel this kind of pressure because they didn't have advertising with the media constantly telling you you're unloved, you're not attractive enough, and now every time you walk down the street you see these beautiful icons on billboards saying, "This is what you don't have." And it's a very destructive society in that way.
Studs Terkel And there's Travis Bickle. Now, perhaps, let's talk about the world he lives in. This is interesting, 'cause the character--by the way, Martin Scorsese is a hell of an actor. I didn't recognize him. The director at this moment and this is strange little crazy figure who's watching that silhouette a woman who may be his wife up there with her lover. "I'm going to kill her"--and this guy gets everything, he hears everything, there's Travis Bickle. It's all poured into him, either he's ignored or secrets are told and everything. And this also adds to his growing burdens, doesn't it?
Martin Scorsese And interesting, too, that the character in back in the cab who's talking to the cabbie about how he's going to kill his wife, what type of gun he's going to use, who she's up there with, that sort of thing, is obviously, well, as much as possible, he obviously doesn't need, after talking about it, he doesn't need to kill her. You know what I mean? So we just leave the scene that way.
Martin Scorsese Two of them just sitting there looking at a silhouette in the window, and then she cuts to the next scene. You don't have to see the ending of it, because
Paul Schrader The man in the back seat who is verbally accosting the cab driver, using words as if they were instruments just hitting and attacking him with obscenities, and the cab driver just keeps taking it in, ingesting it, and at the end of the scene you realize that the man in the back will never have to kill anybody. He'll be able to go back to work tomorrow. But the main character in the main scene, you know, he still--he's talking--
Martin Scorsese He's taking it all in, it's still there.
Studs Terkel Because this was the purge, this is the catharsis for the guy in the back seat, the talking. I mean, when this guy's getting it, he doesn't, he gets his own purge later on.
Martin Scorsese He can't get rid of it, right.
Studs Terkel By the way, so many [laughs?]. We talk of--reflects the way we live--selling. The guy who sells him the guns. I think this is quite a scene. But he didn't sell him anything! He couldn't. Because he [threatened?] to sell the Cadillac, too. And it's this--he's a good salesman. Let's put that. This guy is a very--it was a good lesson in salesmanship, was it not? It was a primer in salesmanship, was it not?
Paul Schrader Absolutely. And the scene had to be cut for length.
Martin Scorsese But we had more in there.
Paul Schrader But in the original scene, he was selling everything, you know, he would have sold anything that
Martin Scorsese He had down, my God, he had besides drugs and Cadillacs, he had other scenes where it was really terribly funny. And the fellow who acted the part was, never acted before. Steven Prince, he's a road manager for Neil Diamond, actually.
Studs Terkel So therefore he was involved
Martin Scorsese He knew, he knew what to sell, how to do it, where to go, he knew [unintelligible], do your routine, you know. There was really a lot of fun.
Studs Terkel That was, throughout we have this, all of a sudden we're looking at ourselves, the world we live in, every aspect through this one figure. What happens to him, and things boun--two things are happening or many things, things are bouncing against him, at the same time affecting him and he bounces back.
Paul Schrader Yeah, just like we said before, the horror of the movie is living inside that man's mind, and it's a very closed-off terrifying place to live, and for the most part you don't really escape his view of things. You know, he--cab drivers all don't work around 42nd Street, it just so happens that's his view.
Martin Scorsese That's his view. In other words, we show 42nd Street. He stays on 42nd Street. Somebody once mentioned, how many times can you make a metaphor of Eighth Avenue? By between 48th, 42nd, 48th, that's where he goes.
Studs Terkel So that world--by the way, this has so many implications. That world, that street becomes his area, just as the pornographic film is the only kind of film there is, a certain kind of book only kind of book there is, you know, kids in ghetto streets, I'm sure the ghetto's also in suburbs, too, middle-class ghettos. You know, many kids in Chicago didn't know there was an escalator downtown. We're talking about that too, aren't we? They didn't know about Lake Michigan. They knew the block, that block, two blocks is their world.
Martin Scorsese Right.
Paul Schrader Well, see I, way I was raised, I was cut off, too. I mean, like I didn't see movies until I was about--I snuck off, saw my first movie when I was 18, but I never felt deprived as a child because I was told that this was the whole world. There was only our church and our church society, and everybody else were sort of misfits, and there were a few of them, but they weren't interesting and you didn't talk to them. And so that kind of isolation, religious isolation is, I think, this sort of isolation that this character is oriented to.
Studs Terkel Martin? This last thing that Paul said is fascinating. Each of us, it seems, has lived this narrow in different ways, in different ways.
Martin Scorsese Absolutely. In my case, of course, it was downtown Little Italy and I, first time I really ventured into Greenwich Village, it was only four blocks away, was when I went to NYU in 1960 as a freshman, literally, and became, came into contact with different nationalities, different groups, Jews, you know, people who are totally different financial strata, they're completely different
Studs Terkel You know, just as you say that, I'm thinking you used, obviously, a certain voice as the voice of the girl, the little baby hooker who finally goes back home thanking Travis for rescuing her, and there's a flat, dead voice.
Martin Scorsese Yeah.
Studs Terkel What is she going back to? We come back to that again. Grand Rapids.
Paul Schrader Yeah, well, I mean, it is slightly ironic. What is she going back to? I mean, she actually tells him, you know, "The reason I don't run away is that I have no place to go."
Paul Schrader The ending, which some people have accused--say is a justification. It to me is multifaceted. And you spoke of two endings of ,the film and there are two endings, and I think the reason for the second ending is that it opens the film up again, because the film is becoming narrower and narrower, and finally it closes down, it's like shutting off an iris, and then you open up the film again and you say, there are other ways to see this, you know, and it's really healthy to hear people giving different interpretations to the end of the
Martin Scorsese And it's also very interesting, too, that at one point towards the end the protagonist is called a hero for what he does. And people all said, "That's outrageous," said no, no, no, said go back and now look at heroes through the ages and think of them in these terms. Think of them the way they were presented to us and think about the actual real stories that might have actually gone on, or saints.
Studs Terkel Think of the actual real--that's right, what is the real story of Travis Bickle?
Martin Scorsese You know, a saint going about whipping himself and cutting off people's arms, God knows what, you know, madness of a madman or something, but yet he was a saint. See, so--but go back and look at the different heroes, I mean, it's very interesting to see all, like the line in "The Longest Day", when Curt Jurgens as a Nazi general sits down, he says, "Sometimes I wonder whose side God is on." You
Studs Terkel Because what Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader are doing, really, is saying, here is the way it is, situation. We're not saying this is the way it should be. This is the way it is. Now, what should be is something you leave. I'm sure this is what works of art are about, that they're made--that indeed if we are not nuts, and we are quote unquote civilized, there has to be another way. You're saying this is how it is.
Martin Scorsese Right.
Paul Schrader I mean, the ending--we had three different opinions, all of which I think are partially valid. The one which Marty and I adhered to was that he through irony is cheated out of the thing he wanted most, which was glorious self-destruction, and now is forced to re-enact the drama, and the movie has to start all over again. Everything is in place. We'll start it over. Someone else told me, he says, "This character will never again in his whole life do anything interesting. He has done his one definitive act and he will now merge into the crowd and become a total nobody. And that's the interesting interpretation. And the third interpretation is that he has somehow become a better person, which I don't agree
Martin Scorsese Which I don't agree with at all.
Paul Schrader Which I don't agree with at all, but people do make a kind of case for
Martin Scorsese An interesting thing, a priest, an old friend of mine saw the film and said, and leaned over me and says, "Well, I'm glad you didn't end it on Good Friday. You waited 'til Easter Sunday."
Studs Terkel What was your first interpretation?
Paul Schrader Our interpretation was what I mentioned which is that now the movie must start over again.
Martin Scorsese It's like a time bomb starting--
Studs Terkel Because he might. Then as you leave I remember the shot his eyes again. The girl leaves, this upper-class girl, he doesn't need her. They didn't even charge her, it's okay. she--there again! She is a part of a phony world. He's now a celebrity. Finally we haven't talked about that. A new aspect in--he's a celebrity. "I read about you in the papers." Right.
Martin Scorsese Right.
Studs Terkel Suddenly she looks at him differently, doesn't she?
Martin Scorsese Yes, she does.
Paul Schrader I mean, there is this thing in our culture which says, to be well-known is to be good, is to be important. It doesn't matter what you are well-known for. And that is a very dangerous insidious result of mass media where it is possible to become well-known in communities where people don't know you. Whereas in the old small communities, if so-and-so did something and everybody knew about it, everybody knew him too, and they'd say, "Oh, you know, crazy Joe, he's just a troublemaker," but now crazy Joe behind the cover of "Time", "Newsweek", and everybody says, "Well, he must be an important
Studs Terkel You know, when Momo Giancana was still alive, I knew this would be so. Every now and then I'd run into him vaguely, see, he could wander into a cocktail party, Momo Giancana, alleged head of the Syndicate, he could--remember, after all the CIA called upon him, so he could wander into a cocktail party during the Vietnam War saying [unintelligible], "Hey, that's Momo Giancana." Comes with the smoked glasses on and everything, "What'd he say?" He said, "Bomb Hanoi." "Did you hear what he said? Momo Giancana said 'Bomb Han--!'" Well, now, someone important said it, because he's celebrated, he's known. Who is that? Momo Giancana. He said "Bomb Hanoi." Well, that has to be taken seriously. That's what you're talking about.
Martin Scorsese There's another element, too, in that last scene with Cybill as she gets in a cab and that is more of a human element in the sense that I don't necessarily think that the character would be so shallow that she'd be really talking and pleased to see Travis and say, "Gee, I read about you in the papers." I think she's yes, there's that element there. But basically, you know, she was afraid of him, she escaped from him in a sense, and she really is in a very, very awkward situation. Very often in New York you get into taxicabs, very often you get the same driver all the time, it's happened to me. It's happened a lot of friends of mine, but she's trying to make conversation, she has nowhere else to go, and there is that touch of yes, he's a celebrity, but still there is, it cuts to his eyes, the way she looks at him. She doesn't know what to say. It's kind of a--we played it for both ways, we played it for a kind of tension and of fear in her part
Studs Terkel Yeah, there's that,
Martin Scorsese But, Of course, he smiles a lot. He has a very winning smile.
Studs Terkel The other aspect is, we haven't talked about the gathering place. This is interesting. Where the cab drivers gather, the different ones, and the part Peter Boyle plays, who I think knows, because that's the inarticulateness of all of them, is it, in a way.
Martin Scorsese Of course. Yeah, Peter Boyle's speech about he tries to help Travis and Travis asks him for some psychological, some philosophical advice of some sort, he says. In fact, he can't even get the words out. But Peter goes into this long diatribe about people growing up, people dying, people getting born, some people live on Park Avenue, some people have--then he says, you know, [unintelligible] and he can't commit himself to anything. It's just, I think a marvelous little
Paul Schrader It's what the cabdriver needs to survive, and it's what Travis can't settle for. And, you know, Travis can't settle for that superficial cynicism that allows us to go about our business. He wants to have a right, a wrong, he wants to cut through, he wants to mean something, to be somebody, and he--so therefore he can't settle for a normal life.
Martin Scorsese In the '50s, in the '50s my friends, the film I made about them in "Mean Streets", the guys, the characters, when Vietnam started they were still my friends, and the Vietnam situation started, and we grew up in the '50s and one time one of my friends turned to me, one of the characters that the film is based on, Joey, and he turned to me, he says, "Isn't it simpler set in the '50s? Everything was either black or white. You know? That's it. Now all of a sudden, you know, somebody's wrong, another guy's right, but he's half right, and this guy's wrong but he wants to do this, it's impossible. You know, black and white in the '50s was much easier." You know.
Studs Terkel But Travis Bickle is a moralistic. We come back again, see. He can't accept the--what the--lack of standards and his own moral standards. That's part of it too, isn't it?
Paul Schrader And he can't accept is own attraction to it. I mean, he's a man--he's a man, one of his first lines in the movie is in his diary. He says, "I do not believe one should devote his life to [solving?]--to morbid self-attention," and then proceeds to do that for the rest of the movie. He assails phonography, yet can't stop watching it. He can't, he wants something to be right or wrong, yet he can't straighten the two out.
Martin Scorsese He can't deal with what's human about him. You know, what's really, he can't face his own feelings and deal with what's human about him. That's the same thing with a few of those critics were telling me, you know, they were very, very upset by it, because they didn't want to face that. I said, well,--so they have to.
Studs Terkel There again we come to this aspect. Another, another dimension. Paul.
Paul Schrader There was a letter in the current issue of "Playboy", I showed it to the producer, I said "Travis Bickle has written in to 'Playboy'."
Paul Schrader And it was a letter, a guy attacking oral sex and saying how terrible it was, and then went on for five or six sentences to describe why it was so terrible. The sensation, the smell, everything. And that's exactly the problem. A man who feels it's terrible, yet then relishes it in describing it.
Martin Scorsese Yes. My feelings are very strong about Travis, because it gets extremely personal in a sense that, we were at a dinner party recently, and somebody was talking about the sexual goings-on of a late president. And I was sitting there, and Washington, D.C. and I get very upset about Washington, D.C. when I think of Vietnam, when I think of everything, and I literally started to say, "Someday, someday, it's going to be all cleaned out. It's going to be all cleaned out." And the person who was with me said, "You mean a real rain is going to come and really wash it off the street," was the line Travis Bickle says in the film. It's exactly that, you hear the whole time like "Playboy" syndrome right down the drain. "Take them all down, take them right down with us," and suddenly begin to realize that's a part of me. It's what I feel, that's what
Studs Terkel Of course, you know, the thing is, this is of course what, isn't this what the censor, the censor is all about? Their obsession with it. One little anecdote, it's very quick, we have time and it's during the time James Baldwin wrote a book, it wasn't a very good one, "Another Country", but some adult education teacher in town suggested it, optional for the Class. A 26-year-old woman student showed it to her father, who objected. It was a horrible book. And so a number of us were called down to the city council on behalf of the Civil Liberties Union. The book is not very good novel, but the point is to fight naturally for its right. And so it's my turn. I'm going to read something from it. Meantime, a whole lot of old women are there, and some guys, young guys with buttons: "Literature, yes. Smut, no." They had all the books marked, the book all marked. I said, "Page 324," or whatever it was, 220 I'm going to read from, and they turn to it, and one alderman says, "You're not going to read that," and woman says, "It's no dirty word," so I read it, and it's a sermon, a eulogy on behalf of this dead kid by the preacher, and they're turning, and they're disappointed. And I said, "You're disappointed, ain't you?" And they're furious! They want to hit me, they want to slug me. This is what it's about, too. Isn't it?
Martin Scorsese Of course. Of course.
Studs Terkel This is what it's about, too, isn't it, the very--and also the question of morality. Martin's talking about that conversation with those people. Immorality is somebody going to bed with somebody but nothing to do with B-52's falling on people is what you're talking
Martin Scorsese Exactly. Exactly. The man's--people are dead, let them rest. They're human beings, you know.
Studs Terkel But this is what we're talking--so where does this leave us now with this film? We've come to--there are about ten different faces we've looked at, aren't we, now, of this film?
Martin Scorsese It just amazes me that sometimes people look at the character and they say, "Well, he's illogical. He doesn't seem to have any consistency as he goes"--well, that's the point. That's something you were talking about before, the schizophrenic, the Bobby, we're talking, you know, Bobby attitudes.
Paul Schrader What the film is about is a dilemma and not a problem. Problems have solutions. Most movies are about problems because that's fantasy, that's what we enjoy. We--movies love to be about problems because then they can be solved and the movie can be over, and you can go out thinking something has been accomplished. This is not about it, it's about a dilemma. Therefore, the only thing you can do with the dilemma is explain and explore, and therefore you can never solve it, so you walk out of the movie saying, "Oh, I know the dilemma better, but I don't know the answer," and, I mean, to pose a solution to the dilemma is to lie.
Studs Terkel Well, that to me is a pretty good challenge right there, and also a work of a very exciting and, I think, important film. The very fact that we're talking about it this way, and I'm sure the audience will, too. There'll be discussions and there'll be arguments, which is marvelous, which is wonderful. Imagine then forgetting a film, talking and talking about something else. You know it's not worth it. This is, obviously, this "Taxi Driver", and I had the delight of talking with the director Martin Scorsese and the writer Paul Schrader. You know, and it'll be playing in a number of theaters in Chicago starting February 27th on a Friday. And we opened with those two, so maybe the close with the same idea. See how it sounds now after this hour. Thank you very much and congratulations.