Paul Joseph Schrader (born July 22, 1946) is an American screenwriter, film director, and former film critic. Apart from his credentials as a director, Schrader is most known for his screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Schrader was born in Grand rapids, Michigan. Schrader’s family practiced in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, and his early life was based upon the religion’s strict principles and parental education. He did not see a film until he was seventeen years old, and was able to sneak away from home. Schrader refers his intellectual rather than emotional approach towards movies and movie making to his having no adolescent’s movie memories.
A recurring theme in Schrader’s films is the portrayal of a protagonist who is on a self-destructive path or who undertakes actions which work against himself, deliberately or subconsciously. The finale often bears an element of redemption, preceded by a painful sacrifice or a cathartic act of violence.
Schrader received his BA from Calvin College, with a minor in Theology. He then earned an MA in Film Studies from the UCLA Film School graduate program upon the recommendation of the legendary film critic Pauline Kael. With her as his mentor, he became a film critic, writing for the Los Angeles Free Press, and later for Cinema magazine. His book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, which examines the cross-cultural similarities between Robert Bresson, Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer, was published in 1972. The endings of Schrader’s films American Gigolo and Light Sleeper bear obvious resemblance to that of Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket. His essay Notes on Film Noir from the same year has become a much cited source in literature on film.
Other filmmakers who made a lasting impression on Schrader were John Ford, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah. He called Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, the “quintessential movie” which represents “all of the cinema”.
In 1974, Schrader and his brother Leonard co-wrote The Yakuza, set in the Japanese crime world. Schrader became involved in a bidding war over the script and it sold for $325,000, which was more than any other screenplay up to that time. Although The Yakuza failed commercially, it brought Schrader to the attention of the new generation Hollywood directors, and in 1975, he wrote the screenplay of Obsession for Brian De Palma.
His script of Taxi Driver was turned into the Martin Scorsese film, which was nominated for a 1976 Best Picture Academy Award. Besides Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese also drew on scripts by Schrader for Raging Bull (1980), co-written with Mardik Martin, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999).
Schrader also participated in an early draft of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but Spielberg disliked the screenplay, calling it “terribly guilt-ridden”, and opted for a lighter script. His script for Rolling Thunder (1977) was reworked without his participation, and Schrader disapproved of the final film.
Taxi Driver provided the critical acclaim and consequently available funding that enabled Schrader to direct Blue Collar (1978), also co-written with his brother Leonard. Blue Collar features Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto as car factory workers attempting to escape their socio-economic rut through theft and blackmail. Schrader recalls that shooting the film was difficult, because of the artistic and personal tension among him and the actors; it was the only occasion he suffered an on-set mental collapse and made him seriously reconsider his career. John Milius acted as executive producer on the following year’s Hardcore (again written by Schrader), which showed autobiographical parallels in the depicted Calvinist milieu of Grand Rapids.
Among Paul Schrader’s films in the 1980s were American Gigolo (1980), his 1982 remake of Cat People, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985, again co-written with Leonard Schrader), for which he was nominated for the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and Patty Hearst (1988), about the kidnapping and transformation of the Hearst Corporation heiress.
His work in the 1990s included The Comfort of Strangers (1990), Light Sleeper (1992), a sympathetic study of a drug dealer vying for a normal life, which he called his “most personal” film, Touch (1997), from an Elmore Leonard novel, and the rural drama Affliction (1997), which gained wide critical acclaim.
In 2002 he directed the biopic Auto Focus, loosely based on the life and murder of Hogan’s Heroes actor, Bob Crane. It was an excellent film, however, as appears to be the case with a lot of Schrader’s work, it found no audience.
In 2003, Schrader made entertainment headlines for being fired from Exorcist: Dominion, a prequel film to The Exorcist (1973). However, the production company, Morgan Creek/Warner Bros. disliked the resulting film and had large segments re-shot under director Renny Harlin; it was released as Exorcist: The Beginning in 2004, and is an awful film. Schrader’s version eventually had its premiere at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film on March 18, 2005 as Exorcist: The Original Prequel. It received limited cinema release under the title Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist in mid-2005.
On July 2, 2009, Schrader was awarded the inaugural Lifetime Achievement in Screenwriting award at the ScreenLit Festival in Nottingham, England. Several of his films were shown at the festival, including Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which followed the presentation of the award by director Shane Meadows.
He is currently in production on The Canyons, written by Bret Easton Ellis. The project, partially funded via Kickstarter, is described as a “contemporary thriller” that “documents five twenty-somethings’ quest for power, love, sex and success in 2012 Hollywood.”