You Talkin' To Me? Scorsese, De Niro, Keitel And Foster On The Making Of Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver saved writer Paul Schrader from suicide, cemented Martin Scorsese's reputation as a master filmmaker and made Robert De Niro a legend. But child star Jodie Foster wasn't quite so lucky. And neither was the President of the United States...
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When he first conceived the idea for Taxi Driver back in 1973, Paul Schrader was in a bad way. Not only had he lost his job at the American Film Institute, the LA-based film critic had been kicked out of his house by this wife. Schrader's homelessness and unemployment brought with it alcoholism and depression. His spirits sank so low he even considered suicide. Instead, he wrote a bleak study of urban alienation that come to define the brutality of life on America's city streets.

Taxi Driver told the story of Travis Bickle, a psychologically unstable loner whose loathing of the city's low-life inhabitants leads him to take up arms against pimps and politicians alike. Dark and unrelenting, Schrader's screenplay passed through the fingers of Scarface director Brian De Palma and producers Julia and Michael Phillips before it reached Martin Scrosese, a director from the Roger Corman school who had just enjoyed his first critical success with Mean Streets. Scorsese loved Schrader's script and knew that Mean Streets star Robert De Niro was just the man to play Travis.

Twelve months after he contemplated killing himself, Paul Schrader signed his first major film contract. But although closing the deal resolved some of the screenwriter's problems, it marked the beginning of Scorsese's. The casting of 14-year-old Jodie Foster as child prostitute Iris raised charges of paedophilia, resulting in the presence of an on-set social worker. Scorsese quarrelled with Julia Phillips over the casting of Cybill Shepherd as Travis's fantasy woman Betsy, and filming went way over schedule as leading man De Niro questioned Scorsese about his 'motivation' for everything - from how to kill Harvey Keitel's pimp to such simple tasks as setting his cab's meter.

Even after filming wrapped, questions continued to be asked about Taxi Driver. Although the film was partly inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre's existential novel Nausea, it was also informed by the diaries of would-be assassin Arthur Bremer, who shot and paralysed right-wing governor George Wallace in 1972. Ironically, the film was later cited as a key influence on John Hinckley Jr, the deranged Jodie Foster fan who tried to impress his idol by shooting President Reagan on 30 March 1981.

Schrader once explained, "There are warning signs in the film that could help to prevent someone who is isolated from becoming like Travis. If you are on the edge, this is the film that could pull you back from the precipice.

While the debates over its political and sexual agenda continue to this day, Taxi Driver's power remains beyond question. An outstanding movie from one of the most creative eras in US cinema, Scorsese's film represents a high point in the career of all the leading participants. The film also had the rather dubious distinction of being grouped in with the glut of vigilante movies that followed 1974's Death Wish, although Taxi Driver contains a redemptive quality glaringly absent from its rivals. As Schrader once explained, "There are warning signs in the film that could help to prevent someone who is isolated from becoming like Travis. If you are on the edge, this is the film that could pull you back from the precipice. It certainly did it for me."

Paul Schrader (screenwriter): In 1973, I had been through a particularly rough time. My marriage broke up and I had to quit the American Film Institute. I was out of work; I was out of the AFI; I was in debt. I fell into a period of real isolation, living more or less in my car. One day, I went to the emergency room in serious pain, and it turned out I had an ulcer. While I was in the hospital talking to the nurse, I realised I hadn't spoken to anyone in two or three weeks. It really hit me, an image that I was like a taxi driver, floating around in this metal coffin in the city, seemingly in the middle of people but absolutely, totally alone.

Martin Scorsese (director): The whole film is very much based on the impressions I have as a result of growing up in New York and living in the city.

Paul Schrader: At the time I wrote it, I was very enamoured of guns, I was very suicidal, I was drinking heavily, I was obsessed with pornography in the way a lonely person is, and all those elements are up front in the script... Right after writing it, I left town for about six months. I came back to LA when I was feeling a little stronger emotionally and decided to go at it again.

Martin Scorsese: It was Brian De Palma who told me about Paul and that he had this script and he wondered whether I'd be interested in reading it. So I read it and I thought it was fantastic: this was the sort of picture I should be making.

Julia Phillips (producer): Paul Schrader always scared me. After I read the script, I refused to be alone in the house with him. And when I first met him, he was so shy he talked into his armpit.

Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver was almost like a commission. Robert De Niro was the actor, I was the director and Paul wrote the script. The three of us just came together. It was exactly what we wanted; it was one of the strangest things.

Paul Schrader: Taxi Driver was as much a product of luck and timing as everything else - three sensibilities together at the right time, doing the right thing. It was still a low-budget, long-shot movie, but that's how it got made.

Martin Scrosese: That year, 1974, De Niro was about to win the Oscar for The Godfather Part II. Ellen Burstyn won an award for my movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Paul had sold The Yakuza to Warner Brothers, so it was all coming together. Michael and Julia Phillips, who owned the Taxi Driver script, had won an Oscar for The Sting and figured they had enough power to get the film made, though in the end, we barely raised the very low budget of $1.3 million. In fact for a while, we even thought of doing it on black-and-white video!

Paul Schrader: At one point we could have got the film financed with Jeff Bridges in the lead, but we elected to hold out and wait until we could finance it with De Niro.

I worked with a pimp for a few weeks in creating the role of Sport. We wrote nearly all of the dialogue, me and this pimp.

Julia Cameron (Martin Scorsese's second wife): In Martin, Robert De Niro found the one person who could talk for 15 minutes about the way a character would tie a knot in his shoelaces. I saw them go at it for ten hours non-stop.

Julia Phillips: I think Travis is someone people should know about. I know he is out there, created by American culture and etched in stone by the Vietnam War.

Robert De Niro (actor, Travis Bickle): There are underground things about yourself that you don't want to discuss. Somehow these things are better expressed on paper or on film.

Jodie Foster (actor, Iris): At first I didn't want to do the part, but only because I was worried my friends would tease me about it. I thought it was a great part for a 21-year-old, but I couldn’t' believe they were offering it to me. I was the Disney kid!

Martin Scorsese: I never had any doubts about Jodie. She's always very fresh and very clear in her personality. She takes direction exceptionally well and has a natural craft, a natural capacity when acting, which is a delight.

Jodie Foster: I spent four hours with a shrink to prove I was normal enough to play a hooker. It was the role that changed my life. For the first time, I played something completely different. But I knew the character I had to play - I grew up just three blocks from Hollywood Boulevard and I saw prostitutes like Iris every day.

Harvey Keitel (actor, Sport): When we did Mean Streets I was living in Greenwich Village, and by Taxi Driver I’d moved to Hell's Kitchen. I had seen a lot of pimps in my neighbourhood. I just put a number of them together and out came Sport.

Julia Phillips: Marty's misogyny was apparent from his casting of Cybill Shepherd as Betsy. We had interviewed just about every blonde on both coasts and still he kept looking. I liked Farah Fawcett, her fine bones, her aquiline profile, her big teeth and thin body. Marty picked Cybill for her big ass; a retro Italian gesture, I always felt. In the end he had to give her line readings and De Niro hated her.

Martin Scorsese: The process of making the film, for me, was more important that the final result.

Paul Schrader: Bob was so determined to get the character of Travis down, he drove a cab for a couple of weeks. He got a licence, had his fingerprints taken by the police and hit the streets.

Martin Scorsese: I drove with him a couple of nights. He said he got the strangest feeling when he was hacking, like he was totally anonymous. People would say anything, do anything, in the back of his cab as if he wasn't there.

Robert De Niro: I am normally a fairly quiet man, but I chatted with my passengers, keeping within the character I was about to play.

Martin Scorsese: One time he picked up a guy who happened to be an actor. The guy was like, "Jesus Christ, one year you're winning an Oscar and now you're driving cabs! Guess it's hard to fine a steady job." So Bob explained what he was doing. The guy just put a hand on his shoulder and said, "It's OK, Bobby, I've been there too."

Harvey Keitel: I worked with a pimp for a few weeks in creating the role of Sport. We wrote nearly all of the dialogue, me and this pimp. I recorded the improvisations we did. He'd play this pimp and I'd play the girl; I'd see the way he'd treat me, then I would play the pimp and he'd play the girl. We did that for a few weeks over at the Actors Studio.

Jodie Foster: There was a welfare worked on the set every day and she saw the daily rushes of all my scenes and made sure I wasn't on the set when Robert De Niro said a dirty word.

Martin Scorsese: I was accused in Mean Streets of just showing the garbage on the streets. When I was shooting Taxi Driver it was filthy because there was a garbage strike and everywhere I aimed the camera there were mounds of garbage. I said, "They're going to kill me! Guys, take some of the garbage." In LA, with Mean Streets, we had to put garbage in the street to make it look like New York.

Jodie Foster: I think it's one of the finest films that’s ever been made in America. It's a statement about America. About violence. About loneliness. It's just classic.

Paul Schrader: The dialogue in Taxi Driver is somewhat improvised. The most memorable piece of dialogue in the film is an improvisation: the "Are you talking to me?" part. In the script it just says Travis speaks to himself in the mirror. Bobby asked me what he would say, and I said, "Well, he's a little kid playing with guns and acting tough." So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the same time as the basis for his lines.

Martin Scorsese: Victor Magnotta [an NYU friend of Scorsese's] came back from Vietnam and we went with him one night for dinner. He told us some of the things he had done or that had happened to him. Bob asked him questions about Special Forces. Victor told us that, in Saigon, if you saw a guy with his head shaved - like a Mohawk - that usually meant those people were ready to go into a certain Special Forces situation. You didn't go near them. They were ready to kill.

Jodie Foster: I think the only thing on Taxi Driver that could have had a bad effect on me was the blood in the shooting scene. It was really neat, though. It was red sugary stuff. And they used Styrofoam for bones, and a pump to make the blood gush out a man's arm after his hand was shot off.

Martin Scorsese: I never thought Taxi Driver would make a dime.

Paul Schrader: I remember the night before Taxi Driver opened, we all got together and had dinner and said, "No matter what happens tomorrow we have made a terrific movie and we're damn proud of it even if it goes down the toilet." The next day, I went over to the cinema for the noon show. There was a long line that went all the way around the block. And then I realised, this line was for the two o'clock show, not the noon show! I ran in and watched the film and everyone was standing at the back and there was a sense of exhilaration about what we had done.

Martin Scorsese: I was shocked by the way the audiences took the violence. I saw Taxi Driver once in a theatre and everyone was yelling and screaming at the final shoot-out. When I made it, I didn't intend to have the audience react with that feeling.

Paul Schrader: Jean-Luc Godard once said that all the great movies are successful for the wrong reasons. There were a lot of wrong reasons why Taxi Driver was successful. The sheer violence of it brought out the Times Square crowd.

Jodie Foster: I was literally skipping across the Yale campus with my friend when I heard Ronald Reagan had been shot.

Julia Phillips: John Hinckley Jr had three obsessions: Jodie Foster, writing and Nazism - he's once of the few people to have read Mein Kampf cover to cover. Before he shot Reagan, he'd planned to shoot Jimmy Carter.

Martin Scorsese: Movies don't kill people. People kill people. I do not regret having made Taxi Driver. Nor do I believe it was an irresponsible act - quite the reverse. Bob and I are at one on this.

Julia Phillips: I ran into [Easy Rider producer] Bert Schneider one time. "See, Taxi Driver wasn't such a bad movie," I smiled. "If it was really great, Hinckley would have killed him," Bert replied.

Paul Schrader: I'm not opposed to censorship in principle but I think that if you censor a film like Taxi Driver all you do is censor a film, not confront a problem. These characters are running around and can be triggered off by anything. A few years ago, they did a study about incitement to rape and the thing that cropped up most often was the old Coppertone suntan oil ad - it had a puppy tugging at a little girl's swimsuit. It had just the right mixture for these rapists of adolescent sexuality, female nudity, rear entry, animals, violence...

Jodie Foster: Taxi Driver completely changed my life. It was the first time I realised that acting wasn't just this hobby you just sort of did, but that there was actually some craft.

Paul Schrader: When I talk to younger filmmakers they tell me that it was really the film that informed them, that it was their seminal film, and listening to them talk, I really can see it as a kind of social watermark. But it was meant as a personal film, not a political commentary.

Jodie Foster: I think it's one of the finest films that’s ever been made in America. It's a statement about America. About violence. About loneliness. It's just classic. I felt when I came home every day from the set that I'd really accomplished something.

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