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How Paul Schrader inspired himself to write ‘Taxi Driver’

Martin Scorsese’s 1976 neo-noir masterpiece Taxi Driver is regarded by many as the definitive meditation on modernity, masculinity and our fundamental societal isolation. Starring Robert De Niro as a lonely cab driver, Scorsese constructs a haunting vision of human filth out of the brilliant screenplay written by Paul Schrader.

Brian De Palma was the one who introduced Scorsese to Schrader, which resulted in the creation of cinematic history. For Taxi Driver, Schrader drew inspiration from a lot of sources, ranging from Arthur Bremer’s diaries to Alfred Hitchcock films like The Wrong Man. However, the atmospheric disillusionment and contempt was directly borrowed from Schrader’s personal experiences.

“At the time I wrote it [Taxi Driver], I was in a rather low and bad place,” Schrader recalled. “I had broken with Pauline [Kael], I had broken with my wife, I had broken with the woman I left my wife for, I had broken with the American Film Institute and I was in debt.” His health was in terrible condition as well. Forced to live in his car, Schrader suffered from chronic insomnia which led him to midnight visits to pornographic stores.

After being diagnosed with a stomach ulcer, everything suddenly shifted into place. Schrader had a clear vision of what he wanted to write about, and he wanted to translate the feelings of loneliness, cynicism and decay that he had experienced while hopped up on drugs.

Schrader elaborated on the exact relationship between his condition and the film’s narrative: “When I was talking to the nurse, I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks…that was when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me. That is what I was: this person in an iron box, a coffin, floating round the city, but seemingly alone.”

For many years, Schrader continued to claim that his life was the primary source of inspiration for Travis Bickle.

Schrader, under the influence of his own miserable state of being, wrote multiple drafts of Taxi Driver within 14 days in order to “exorcise the evil I felt within me.” One can only imagine how intense the writing process was since the film is evidence of the brutally visceral nature of Schrader’s work.

As a peripheral method of motivation, Schrader also kept a loaded gun by his desk which helped him stay on task due to the subconscious threat of death.