Paul Schrader Talks the Talk, Walks The Walker

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Carter Page III is a walker. A walker is a typically homosexual man who escorts elderly women to social functions and parties. Page is played to sly, quip-dispensing perfection by Woody Harrelson in The Walker, where the title professional is positioned in the heart of Washington, D.C.’s power center, where many of the women he accompanies are the wives of Congressmen and Senators. He even plays a weekly game of canasta with a cadre of old matrons, played by the likes of Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin, and Kristen Scott Thomas.

When Thomas becomes embroiled in a murder scandal, Page inadvertently gets involved and attempts to cover up events to keep her name out of the papers. When the police and FBI make Page the center of their investigation and a possible accomplice, he has to re-evaluate his life and where his loyalties should lie.

The Walker was written and directed by the legendary Paul Schrader, best known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, as well as his ’80s classic American Gigolo. In an exclusive interview, we talked to Schrader about why The Walker is something of a spiritual follow-up to Gigolo, the arduous task of making an independent film, and his next movie Adam Resurrected starring Jeff Goldblum.

ComingSoon.net: What was the original impetus for this unique character being a “Walker”?
Paul Schrader: The idea occurred to me when I was wondering what would become of a character like the one in “American Gigolo.” What would he be like in mid-life? Well, he’d be funny. His skills would be social. He’d probably be out of the closet. He’d probably be like a society walker. So I thought that’s an interesting occupational metaphor, these various members of service industries… taxi driver, gigolo, drug dealer… So I started thinking about a walker, and the idea of making a film about a superficial man struck me as something that’s interesting at this point in my life. Then I put him in Washington, D.C. and he became more interesting because it’s a city that mandates a certain amount of sexual hypocrisy.

CS: And there’s a real-life counterpart, Jerry Zipkin?
Schrader: No no no. Jerry was Nancy Reagan’s walker. John Fairchild, who started “W” magazine, always referred to him as Jerry “The Walker” Zipkin. So the term is a fairly recent coinage, but that’s where the term comes from. Now obviously there were always walkers, Versailles was probably full of them, but the term is fairly new. So I took the term from Jerry, the canasta game, the cufflinks. I have a friend from Virginia, I took a lot of his background. There’s a little bit of Gore Vidal who I knew when I lived in L.A., he comes from a Tennessee political family.

CS: Little bit of Truman Capote?
Schrader: Yeah. But I never met Jerry Zipkin. I’m told he was a rather unpleasant man.

CS: How does this connect to your other films in the “Lonely Man” series (“Taxi Driver,” “American Gigolo,” “Light Sleeper”)?
Schrader: In my mind they’re connected, but that doesn’t mean they’re really connected objectively. They’re about a certain kind of guy that floats on the edge of society, as part of it and not part of it, who acts against his own best interest but can’t figure out why. When he’s twenty he’s angry, and a taxi driver. When he’s thirty he’s narcissistic, and a gigolo. When he’s forty he’s anxious, and a drug dealer. Now he’s fifty and he’s superficial, and he’s a walker. Now those kind of themes obviously appealed to me as I grew older, and so there is a kind of connection in my mind between them, but that doesn’t mean there’s actually a connection. (laughs)

CS: The character that Kristen Scott Thomas plays has a unique relationship with Harrelson’s character, in that there seems to be something subtle brimming under the surface between them. She mentions that at one point in the ’70s he actually asked her out…
Schrader: Yeah… and my favorite exchange in the film is when he says, “How did I get into this?” She says, “Is that what you’re thinking about?” He says, “No, I was thinking about you.” (laughs) It’s like, how dare you think about yourself! I guess the theme that interested me the most is the notion that you can protect yourself by being superficial, and how well that works. As these characters get older they’ve lived longer. You have this guy that’s 50 years old, who’s lived quite a long while. How did he live all those years? He’s lived this code of superficiality that allowed him to be there and not be there at the same time.

CS: And all of your characters are trying to be a lone wolf with their own code?
Schrader: Basically it all comes down to the windshield. When I was young in Los Angeles, I came from a church environment and went right into L.A. 1968 and the whole scene there. I was very much a part of that whole world. I was working for the L.A. Free Press, this radical newspaper. Yet I felt somehow that I wasn’t there, I was still this boy from Michigan, and I was watching all this through a plane of glass, and sure enough several years later when I wrote my first screenplay there he was, watching the world pass through a plane of glass. He seems to be in society but in fact he’s not, he’s in an iron coffin, and he’s looking at it through this glass. Obviously that came out of how I felt. These characters have all to some degree been behind this plane of glass.

CS: Going back to the interplay between Woody and Kristen, when you have something like that going on under the surface do you actively engage the actors to bring the subtext out or do you let them deal with that on their own?
Schrader: You hope that the actors find it. Sometimes you have to remind them that the situation is a little more ambiguous and complex than they’re playing it, and of course they always like to hear that ’cause that’s a more interesting way to play it! Occasionally you have to tell an actor, “Look, I know he says that, but just because he said that doesn’t mean he believes it.”

CS: I saw “Mishima” a few years back…
Schrader: We’re doing the Criterion version right now. That’ll be out in the spring. We added a scene, did some sky replacement, re-did all the color and everything.

CS: Excellent. But yeah, I saw a documentary about the making of “Mishima” and I remember you talking about how lucky you were to be in the position of making a movie that everyone knew would lose money.
Schrader: (laughs)

CS: Everybody making that film knew they were making a work of art. Looking over your filmography, both before and after “Mishima,” it seems like that’s been more the norm for you than the exception. How have you been able to make these unconventional choices in an industry that thrives on conventionality?
Schrader: Obsession. Persistence. Monomania. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t get easier, but somehow if you feel it’s worth doing and you keep at it often you can get it done. We’re in the world now of international financing. Independent filmmaker is like a scavenger dog, crisscrossing the globe looking for the scraps that fall off of various national financial tables. That’s sort of how you get films made.

CS: Is it special film funds set up in countries like Germany or China?
Schrader: Yeah, or it’s money just sitting there that needs to be spent on various things like that.

CS: Has keeping things small helped as well?
Schrader: You have to. You have to. Part of the trick is how do you make a film like “The Walker” which was shot in 33 days that looks like it was shot in 50 days, and that’s one of the tricks you have to learn. You can’t leave stuff on the floor, you have to try to only shoot what you’re going to use. You have to rehearse like hell so you can operate at ultimum efficiency.

CS: You also have the luxury of several juicy parts you can give to big-name actors who only have to come in and shoot for a few days.
Schrader: Yeah. Also, when you write your scripts you bear in mind certain amount of efficiencies. We set that scene in that room, let’s set another scene in that room then we can shoot one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Make that one day rather than go to another location. Let’s take this scene off the sidewalk, put it into the house. It’ll be cheaper that way.

CS: You’ve had a lot of your scripts shot by other filmmakers.
Schrader: Yeah, a number of them.

CS: Is there something that gets lost in translation when you don’t personally make the film?
Schrader: And something that gets gained! Sometimes the losses outstrip the gains, sometimes vice versa. I’ve been in situations where the movies were better than the scripts, and I’ve been in the opposite situation. It’s case by case.

CS: Do you think there’s a constant in the films you’ve directed that has not been visible in the other director’s movies?
Schrader: I suppose there is, and if I were a critic I could probably tell you what it was.

CS: (laughs) If you were still a critic.
Schrader: I am a critic, but I try not to be a critic of my own work.

CS: That’s probably smart. You were a major critic and you were a protégé of Pauline Kael. What do you think of the state of the profession today and what blogs and the internet are bringing to the table?
Schrader: Blogs have sort of brought criticism back to life after entertainment TV kind of killed it. Of course blogs are very problematic in that the writing is not nearly as considered as print journalism. People tend to think of blog criticism the same way they think of e-mails or their diary. The writing isn’t very good at the moment, but the democratization of criticism is very good.

CS: It’s one of those things like the majority-minority in California. Eventually the ethnic minorities outnumber the Caucasians, and eventually the blogs will hold more sway than the print publications.
Schrader: The print publications are on their last legs.

CS: Premiere Magazine just folded. That was a big one. They still have an online…
Schrader: Yeah, ’cause I just did an interview for Premiere Online. But I can’t say I’m surprised. Those advertising dollars have all migrated to the web.

CS: They can focus more on the specific demographics on the web.
Schrader: You know how Google works? The advertising on your screen depends on what you type in. If you type in “cashmere” an ad for Macy’s will come up. I was just reading about it this morning. You can make a deal with Google that if someone types in “society” an ad for “The Walker” will come up! (laughs) Very clever.

CS: Do you have projects you’ve been unable to do because the budget wasn’t there?
Schrader: “The Walker” was the last big one. That was seven years, that was exhausting, but I got that made. I don’t have anything of that urgency. I’m trying to write a couple things. I’m having trouble with some ideas I’m working on, and I’m in discussions on directing a couple other things, but I won’t be finished with “Adam Resurrected” until April.

CS: Can you talk a little about “Adam Resurrected”?
Schrader: It’s an Israeli novel, extraordinary book. Extraordinary story. Takes place in Israel in an institution for camp survivors. There’s a star patient, Adam. In Weimar he was an entertainer, impresario. Had a nightclub in a cabaret in a circus. Did animal acts. The Nazis loved him. He thought he could get away with it, but he doesn’t. When he arrives at the camp the commandant recognizes him, “Adam Stein, funniest man in Germany.” He says, “Do something for us. Do a dog.” Anyway, he survives a year in the camp by being the commandant’s dog. Lives on all fours, eats from a dog bowl, entertains the Germans, sees his family killed. Then the Russians come and the commandant says to him, “You’re free to leave. You’ve been a good dog.” Fifteen years later we find him in this mental institution and at lunch he hears a sound and he goes to the head of the institute. He says, “Who brought a dog in here?” He goes out and he searches and he finds that dog, only it’s not a dog. It’s a twelve year-old boy raised on a chain in a basement in Tel Aviv who thinks he’s a dog. They look at each other and recognize each other as dogs, and then the film is about their relationship. So it’s a film about a man who once was a dog who meets a dog who once was a boy. (laughs)

CS: Are there comedic elements to it?
Schrader: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this guy’s an entertainer, he’s a comic.

CS: That’s a tough high-wire act combining comedy with the tragedy of the holocaust. Jerry Lewis tried with “The Day the Clown Cried”…
Schrader: Well we don’t know, no one’s ever seen that movie. I’ve read the script though… and the script is awful. He paid for it himself, and apparently there is a copy. Maybe after he dies… unless he destroys it, it’ll see the light of day, but I wouldn’t expect too much.

Special thanks to the people at THINKFilm for giving us the opportunity to talk to Paul Schrader.

The Walker opens in limited release on December 7th.