If film criticism is professionally accursed, there are nevertheless times when it makes for a blessed avocation; to me, the chance to talk with Paul Schrader about his brain-breaking new noir Dog Eat Dog (adapted from a 1996 novel by Eddie Bunker) was one of them.
That said, I did not particularly enjoy Dog Eat Dog, which opens today. Starring Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook as three ex-cons who stake it all on an ill-fated baby-napping, the film would appear a protracted exercise in boundary-testing, the likes of which you’d maybe expect instead from a Rodriguez or a Carnahan. Cage’s plummy invocations of Humphrey Bogart and Dafoe’s blue collar whack-dealer are ghoulish, hilarious, discomfiting: Schrader is trafficking in a nihilism here that couldn’t be further from the Ozu and Dreyer films which cinephilia has affixed to his lodestar. Dog Eat Dog does not, to my mind, rank among his best work—but then, that hardly mattered during this interview. As living legends go, Schrader appears as comfortable with his inveterate status as he is with anything else. There was no “sell” to be made in this conversation; for all the blows he’s taken in his career, it’s to Schrader’s eternal credit that the filmmaker has already moved on to the next thing.
Tell me how you came about working with screenwriter Matthew David Wilder. I first became aware of him due to his (rather active) Facebook presence.
Oh, the producer had asked Wilder to adapt this script some time back. My agent thought I might be interested in it—I was looking for something to do with Nic Cage again, I read it and thought, “This might be the one.”
Actually—let’s talk about The Dying of the Light first. Will the world ever see your director’s cut? Are you allowed to talk about it?
To the producers who control the rights, I have offered to cut, mix and score that film—all at my expense—and give any the money that comes in to them. And they have turned me down.
Are they gonna change their minds? Are they gonna have remorse?
They’re not gonna change their minds… They’re not good people. A cut of the film may emerge at some point after I’m dead, but I don’t see much future beyond that.
Damn. Okay, well, back to Dog Eat Dog, then—I’m assuming final cut was one of your conditions for coming aboard.
Absolutely. I could not approach Nic without that.
How much smoother was this collaboration?
Money was tight, but I told my group: “The bad news is we don’t have a lot of money; the good news is, we can make any damn movie we want.” Which we pretty well did.
So it was a loose, spontaneous kind of set?
People are mistaken about spontaneity. There’s spontaneity on-set, but very little actual improvisation; it usually occurs during the rehearsal process, which is wide open—very free. By the time you get on set, the financial restrictions are so rigorous that you can implement your improvisations that you did in rehearsals, but you have to start over again.
Are people outside filmmaking enamored of apocrypha when it comes to improvisation?
Yes. I mean, even Cassavetes reworked his stuff over and over and over again. Let’s put it like this: I know of no genuine improvisation in movies except for the odd line or two. When I worked with Richard Pryor on Blue Collar we would make up dialogue all the time, but it was always in a certain arena—“Paul, I’m thinking of saying something like this.” So, this idea of turning on a camera and letting your drunken college buddies pontificate, and somehow thinking you’ve got something—it’s exactly what it sounds like.
Well, but I’ve read in other Dog Eat Dog interviews that Cage’s Bogart was—we can’t call it an ad-lib, but it was an improvised idea. Right?
That’s actually very interesting. Nic wanted his character to imagine himself as a latter-day Humphrey Bogart. Which was a hoot anyway. He was doing bits of Bogie here and there, and… I wasn’t that crazy about it, but didn’t wanna pick a fight with him—in fact, I figured I could cut it out in the editing. And then we came to discussing the final scene. We had rehearsed it, he still wasn’t easy with it, he said, “I don’t get this final scene, I don’t get why I’m still alive, I don’t understand this black couple being killed…”
I said, “Well, maybe you’re not alive. Maybe it is an afterlife scene. And that’s when the penny dropped in Nic’s head; when we came to do it, on that night, and we read through beforehand, he was now doing everything as Humphrey Bogart. I said, “Whoa, that’s kinda heavy there, Nic. You sure?” Nic says, “You told me maybe he was dead. If he’s dead, he gets to be Humphrey Bogart!” I say, “You got a point there—that’s kinda interesting.” Nic says, “You’ve been telling us all along, ‘be bold’.” So I told him, “You’re right, Nic—let’s do it.”
This epilogue would appear to warrant a topical, perhaps even activist interpretation. Which is… unlike the rest of the film.
Well, who knows. Who knows. [Clears throat] My career has seen me involved in important and prestigious films; Dog Eat Dog is not one of them. This is a kind of outre film. If any political correctness got in the film, it was when I wasn’t looking—it is a kind of riff on the history of crime films. I think it’s more about crime films than it is about criminals.
Right. These three men are artifacts of a world that’s left behind, or at least they see themselves that way—Cage’s Bogart fixation being the most scannable instance.
Or they’re artifacts of the movies! Maybe Nic Cage is the Humphrey Bogart of 2016, and Willem is the psychopath. There’s an element of that in there, with references to other films too—then the ending goes kind of meta, goes into the afterworld. Here’s what it comes down to, Steve: I wanted to do a film again with Nic, to get a measure of redemption. It turned out to be a crime film, but I am not a crime director; so then, my great task was, “What does a crime film look like in 2016? How can you do it in a way that seems fresh?” That’s what I set about to accomplish. To try and make this less of an Eddie Bunker or Nic Cage film, but rather, a film that’s very much of this moment.
“This moment”? But it’s not topical.
I mean this moment stylistically—in this kind of referential, hodgepodge, post-rules kind of culture we now have. You can put anything next to anything. Bunker’s sensibility was from the 60s and 70s; the book was from the 90s; I didn’t wanna be that faithful. I wanted to be faithful to the world of our phones.
I’m sorry…. Our phones?
Yeah. This world we’re in now where there does not seem to be any norm. Anything can kinda go—you can do one scene one way, one scene another way. In some way I’m playing a jazz solo with this film, trying to keep ahead of the “listener” so they won’t know which way I’m going musically.
Tell me more about the phones. There’s a disparity between how your leading men view themselves and how the rest of the world views them—it’s made especially clear after they get out of prison. Does that have anything to do with this phone-world?
By phones I just mean, this click-happy, multitasking world we live in. I’m having a conversation with you right now on the phone. I’m also looking at my phone—another phone—and… Facebook. And I’m also getting text messages. That’s the world we’re living in.
Since you brought it up… your Facebook posts have, at times, stirred controversy within online cinephile circles. How do you use Facebook?
I mean… The only friends I have there are people I already know, and a lot of them are in the film business, or they’re critics. That’s become a kind of early warning system for me. How I can hear about movies or TV shows I should be seeing; if I see something, I can tell others. Because of this massive product tsunami we are drowning in. It’s almost impossible—no, it is impossible—to keep up with anything. There’s 400 scripted TV series and 30 movies a week, and that’s just the United States. That, I find useful about it: you hear about stuff you’d normally only hear, say, in the cocktail room at a film festival.
When you’re putting a new project together, the prerogative is… evolve with the times? Deliver a “signature”?
I don’t quite know what a Paul Schrader film is. I’ve certainly never made a film like Dog Eat Dog before, and I don’t know that I ever will again. What you just try to do is, keep it new, keep it interesting—would it be possible for Bret Easton Ellis and I to self-fund a movie and make it with Lindsey Lohan? Would that, in fact, be possible? And it was. And we made money! So, the fun of this particular movie is, how do I make one of these boring crime films, but for today? Three ex-convicts who want to have one last big job? I mean, that’s so tired—how do I make it un-tired?
There are some tracking shots, some pans and tilts in Dog Eat Dog, that I found very traditional, stately even. But then you also go off sticks, sometimes to jarring effect. What were your motivating impulses?
Some years ago I was watching a film by Xavier Dolan, the Quebecois wunderkind. And he does a Cassavetes scene; then he does a Godard scene; then he does a telenovela scene, then he does a Bertolucci scene—and he’s 19 years old! I’m saying, “I guess nobody told him he couldn’t do that.” The reason nobody told him is because, in the world we live in now, you can do that—you can throw all this stuff together. The audience is processing information so quickly now that they will just process it with you. That’s when I started thinking about a genre film: the idea of stylistic consistency is not necessarily a good thing.
There’s a sequence in Dog Eat Dog that’s black and white: the reason is, it was a strip club scene, and I was so bored with watching strip club scenes—the same lights, the same fog, the same shots, a really tired genre of visual filmmaking. So then I said, wait: I haven’t seen a strip club scene in black and white since Lenny. Why don’t we just shoot it in black and white, we won’t explain why, and the viewer will sit there, trying to figure out: “Why is this in black and white?” Maybe then he won’t be bored.
In Film Comment, you had a number of op-eds on the evolution of cinematic form. In terms of where the eye is expected to go and what it’s supposed to retain, where do you find yourself at this moment?
There’s not much we have learned in the last hundred years of cinema that even applies anymore. I used to believe we were entering a period of transition, but now I think we’ve entered a period of constant transition; there never will be a “normal.”
Does that mean there never was…?
Of course there was—movies were more or less static for a hundred years. A dark room, a projected image, and an audience. But that’s gone.
There has to be a reason classicism is such a vaunted quantity among my colleagues. How do you feel about it?
I’m into tossing the vase on the floor and only just beginning to pick up the pieces—that’s what strikes me. At least, that was the case with Dog Eat Dog; I am now preparing a film which will be the opposite style. It’s just what interests me, what I think is right for the moment.
Describe “the opposite style.”
The opposite style is quiet and meditative! I don’t think either of those words describe Dog Eat Dog.
Somewhere in between, maybe, is Light Sleeper—a quiet and meditative noir that nevertheless goes full 90s action thriller in the last 20 minutes.
I’m not going back to that, but rather an even more extreme version.
Let’s return to the tsunami you described earlier, because what’s true for “content” is equally true for opinions: throw a rock in this town and you’ll hit an arts critic, or aspiring arts critic. Many of us are quite happy to write for free, at least starting out. Criticism is decentralized in its own uncanny way.
Yes, everybody is a film critic. We’re all faithful film critics. It’s kind of invigorating; on the other hand nobody can make a living at it, you can probably count the people making a living off their film criticism on your fingers. I’ve been working the last several years on a piece called Rethinking Transcendental Style, which will take the book I wrote 45 years ago, and bring that movement through the last four decades—you know, through Tarkovsky, slow cinema, et cetera. It’s going to be published as an intro to a reissue of the old book; it’s been out to peer review, and now I just have to find some time to rewrite it—look for it sometime next year.
Wow—that’s exciting! Last question: in your inaugural column at Film Comment, you mentioned writing to stave off your depression. I’m fond of joking that writer’s block is just a dog whistle for depression. Tell me about your writing habits?
I’m not a real writer.
… I consider you a real writer.
I’m a binge-writer. A real writer writes every day; they say you should do 500 words in some format or another, at least. So I’m not a real writer.
How long is a binge?
Oh, 4-6 weeks.
Or a period of something else. You might be into, say, giving interviews. [Chuckles] Or you’re editing a film, financing a new film, you know?
You’re almost making these sound like ways of keeping distracted.
You get an idea, you let it build and build and build, and then you release it. But that only happens every several years. A real writer can write a book for years on end; a screenwriter does something in six weeks.