The traumatic story of how screenwriter Paul Schrader wrote the Martin Scorsese film ‘Taxi Driver’
Paul Schrader, an American screenwriter, director and film critic, is arguably best known for his work alongside the award-winning director Martin Scorsese.
Schrader, who wrote or co-wrote screenplays for a number Scorsese films such as 1976 effort Taxi Driver, Raging Bull in 1980, The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, and Bringing Out the Dead in 1999, has made no secret of his struggles throughout the years. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the recurring theme in Schrader’s films all lean toward the protagonist on a self-destructive path.
Schrader’s script about the obsessed and crazed New York City taxi driver Travis Bickle went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and, eventually, it won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Having spent time as the protegé of acclaimed New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, Schrader had enjoyed his major breakthrough.
However brilliant the film is, Taxi Driver remains a constant reminder of some of the darkest times Schrader has experienced. “Travis Bickle is me,” he has said in multiple interviews in a somewhat startling admission. “At the time I wrote it, I was in a rather low and bad place,” Schrader explained in an interview with the Guardian. “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,” he continued.
An old 1970s copy of Film Comment pulled out during an interview with Schrader, and it offered a fascinating insight into the mind of the writer at the time of curating the idea behind Taxi Driver: “I got to wandering around at night; I couldn’t sleep because I was so depressed. I’d stay in bed till four or five P.M. then I’d say, ‘Well, I can get a drink now’,” he explained.
“I’d get up and get a drink and take the bottle with me and start wandering around the streets in my car at night. After the bars closed, I’d go to pornography. I’d do this all night, till morning, and I did it for about three or four weeks, a very destructive syndrome until I was saved from it by an ulcer: I had not been eating, just drinking,” he added.
It was that ulcer that led him to the hospital and, during his time of treatment, he conceived the metaphor the taxi cab: “That is what I was: this person in an iron box, a coffin, floating around the city, but seemingly alone,” he explained.
Schrader has publicly stated that his decision to write the script was more a sense of self-therapy than the drive of success, “I wrote the script very quickly, in something like fifteen days. The script just jumped from my mind almost intact,” he explained in the past.
“As soon as I finished writing – I wrote it for no commercial reason, just because I saw that was the need — I gave it to my agent and I left L.A. and bummed around the country.”
“Taxi Driver was written when I couldn’t really distinguish between the pain in the work and the pain in my life,” he said in the ’70s. “I hope I’ll continue to write stuff that is as good.”