Interview: Paul Schrader on Dog Eat Dog, Nicolas Cage and Getting Final Cut

Paul Schrader’s kinetic black comedy shocker Dog Eat Dog opens in limited theatrical release on November 4th

The name Paul Schrader is synonymous with deep-delves into the underbelly of society and American life. As a writer he is, after all, the man who invented sociopathic antihero Travis Bickle for Martin Scorsese’s gritty 1976 psycho-thriller noir Taxi Driver. He’s also the writer and director who sent George C. Scott into a porno nightmare in 1979’s Hardcore, made Richard Gere the object of busted lust in 1980’s American Gigolo and turned Nastassja Kinski into an incestuous shapeshifter in 1982’s Cat People.

These are but a handful — though a vital handful — of films that Schrader helped steer to screen in his over 40 years in the business. And while his frequent collaborator Scorsese has stayed firmly ensconced in the mainstream, Schrader has always existed on the fringe, all the better for him to rage and rock the status quo, making movies that refuse to behave.

On November 4th, RLJ Entertainment will release Schrader’s latest gonzo effort Dog Eat Dog, an edgy, go-for-broke crime drama/ black comedy that stars Nicolas Cage (previously of Schrader’s Dying of the Light and Schrader/Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead) and Willem Dafoe (from Schrader’s Light Sleeper) as lowlifes (one lower than the other) who accept a ludicrously risky assignment from a gangster named Grecco (played by Schrader himself) and end up falling into a state of bloody, manic delirium.

Dog Eat Dog is ultra-violent, surreal, spastic and often quote funny and most importantly its evidence that Schrader is still — despite his advancing years — very much one of cinema’s enduring enfants terribles.

We had the honor to speak with the iconic filmmaker in Toronto last month, on the eve of the North American premiere of Dog Eat Dog at TIFF‘s “Midnight Madness” screening. It was a blast to see you show up in the film as “Grecco The Greek”…

Paul Schrader: You know, I tried very, very hard not to do this role. I asked Tarantino. I asked Abel Ferrara. I asked Chris Walken. I asked Nick Nolte. I asked Rupert Everett to do it as a transgendered gangster. And there was always one thing or another and really, we just didn’t have much money. Marty (Scorsese) was going to do it at one point too, but it was his birthday so he decided not to do it. But then I realized that even if he had wanted to come up, we didn’t have enough money to pay for his airfare! We were right down to the end of the budget so I said, well that’s it, I guess I gotta do it! On top of that, I was sick that day and have this very laryngitis voice in the movie but, hey, I got $900 for three scenes…

CS: I love the fact that you had to go back to your indie roots. Necessity being the mother of invention, do you feel this struggle made your fire up your creative juices?

Schrader: Yes. I absolutely do. Now, as you know, this came about because I had a very unpleasant experience with the movie The Dying of the Light. And I said to Nic Cage — who was the star of that film — that if we live long enough, we have to do another movie together to remove this stain from our clothes. And so this came along. And of course, I couldn’t go back to Nic unless I had final cut. So I got final cut and then I started putting together a crew of people from outside films and this is actually the first solo credit from each of my department heads. I said to them, okay, here’s the deal. The bad news is that we don’t have enough money to make this film the way it should be made. The good news is that I have final cut and we can make any f**king movie we want to make. So let’s just be bold and outrageous and we can do whatever we want and not ask anybody permission to do anything. So we started having these meetings and just started throwing around ideas. And there was no idea too outrageous to not to be considered.

CS: Do you see it as a sort of experimental movie?

Schrader: Well, it is in some ways sort of a “meta” film because it’s as much about crime films as it is about crime. And it’s a reflection on how you make a vital crime film in the twenty-teens, after Tarantino, Scorsese, Guy Ritchie… how do you do it? And so we just started walking down this path. It wasn’t written as a comedy but that just started happening. The Bogart thing wasn’t in there, that just started happening as we were shooting. So we were just creating an environment where nothing was in bad taste or too outrageous to try.

CS: I think it would be fair to say that this is a loose adaptation of the Edward Bunker source book…

Schrader: No, it’s not very faithful really. We used the novel as the starting point for a different movie. And the fact that the author is no longer living, made it easier in a away because no one had to say “what would Eddie say?”

CS: I have had some experiences with Cage personally and after this one time, where he tried to get me to eat a conch snail’s penis, his agent called me because he was worried that he was acting “too weird.” Is Nic’s energy hard to corral on set?

Schrader: (laughs) Well, I mean we’ll see what happens now. After he married his wife Kim and then later when he turned 50, he really changed his life. He stopped drinking. He became hyper organized. He became unsocial. He doesn’t go out. He changed in a way that people didn’t believe. But now that his marriage has broken up, I hope he doesn’t go back to being the old Nic Cage.

CS: The first Paul Schrader movie I saw was Cat People, which was on this Canadian cable channel literally every day when I was a little boy in 1983…

Schrader: Did they play it uncensored?

CS: Well, yes. I presume so. I mean, Ed Begley Jr. got his arm ripped off, like normal…

Schrader: And all the nudity was in there? Because in Germany they cut out 15 minutes…

CS: No, no. There was tons of nudity. I remember that well. But more importantly, I remember your use of music, the Bowie song and the amazing use of the Giorgio Moroder score, who you previously worked with in American Gigolo. Dog Eat Dog also is filled with music and songs…

Schrader: Well, we decided to do some needle drop music for the sheer irony of it.  Then the composer we had wasn’t a film composer, he was more an experimental music guy of the John Cale variety and so, what has happened in the world of composing is that the world of sound effects and music has merged. Really, today, there’s not much difference between the two anymore. So to counterpoint the needle drops we had that experimental music, we used the Porter Wagner song “Satan’s Got a River,” which is how I saw these guys, three guys going down Satan’s river.

CS: You’ve seen the movie with an audience, presumably…

Schrader: Well, it’s only screened at Cannes (editor’s note: the film has since screened at TIFF and Fantastic Fest) and that was a very good reaction and I’ve screened the film plenty of times for friends in my living room and I became aware of where the trigger moments where and how to get a reaction and how younger people respond to it.

CS: I feel as though doing this movie – especially in this rogue way – has kind of rejuvenated your passion for cinema.

Schrader: I feel that too. And I’ll tell you that the next one I’m doing in January is going to be 180 degrees different from this one.

CS: And will you have final cut?

Schrader: Yes I will.

CS: Good man.


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