‘Dog Eat Dog’ Director Paul Schrader on Nicolas Cage, Trashy Cinema, and How to Make Strip Club Scenes Less Boring
After over 40 years of working in film, Paul Schrader remains as challenging as he was when he first caught Martin Scorsese’s attention with his screenplay for Taxi Driver. They made three more films together, but Schrader established himself as the more unconventional of the two when he took control of the camera. Decades later, Schrader’s filmography is just as prolific with singular titles like Hardcore, Cat People, and Dog Eat Dog — the latter is his most recent effort, a delirious crime thriller starring Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe that is every bit as wild as that simple description implies, and the reason for our conversation with the veteran filmmaker.
We spoke with Schrader in September, following a screening of Dog Eat Dog at Fantastic Fest in Austin — a city that’s changed quite a bit from his previous visit 25 years ago, when Guillermo del Toro took him on a local tour during SXSW. In person, Schrader looks and sounds more like your high school biology teacher than the guy who wrote Rolling Thunder and Bringing Out the Dead. And yet he’s every bit as offbeat as his films: He casually denies that he’s ever made a genre movie, and he thinks the Hollywood studio system is about as real as Santa Claus.
A lot has changed here, but some things are still the same, which could also describe your career. Dog Eat Dog feels like a Paul Schrader movie, but it was sort of unplanned, right?
I never really set out to make a crime film. I don’t think I really ever made a genre film. But I had that other experience with Dying of the Light [his previous film with Cage], which was taken away in a rather humiliating way. I just said to Nic, “We’ve got to work together again and get this stain off our skin.” So that’s all I started looking for, and this script came along completely un-financed and unbidden. I read it and I sent it to him, and I said we’ll do it exactly the way we want and nobody will say anything to us. And he said, “Yeah, I want to do it, but I’d rather play Troy, the straight guy.” So that’s how it started. And then I was confronted with how do you make a crime film today? After Scorsese, after Tarantino, after Guy Ritchie. So I had to start thinking about how to revitalize this genre.
It starts really strong, like David Lynch totally off the rails, and somehow gets more intense and surreal from there. You have black and white sequences set in a strip club…
Yeah, how that came about; I had this young team and I said, “we don’t have enough money to do a full run but we can do any god damn thing we want so this will never be boring, never be boring.” And we met every couple weeks at a diner. And the subject of this strip club scene came up and I said, “how boring, how boring.” I said, “how in god’s name can we make this scene look less boring.” Then I thought about the green and the red backlit, and then the girls and the angles looking up at the girls — yeah yeah yeah. But then I said, “there hasn’t been a strip scene in black and white since Lenny. You know, that would be interesting, so why don’t we just do it in black and white, but never explain why. Just do it and who cares?” And then once we decided to do that, I said we can play a great visual game now. We’ll put Nic in some clothes that will look cool in black and white, but not cool in color.
That’s the kind of creative decision you probably couldn’t make as easily working in the studio system…
There is no studio system.
Okay, that’s fair.
It’s always difficult in different ways. You’ve opened up a pretty big subject. I don’t think there’s virtually anything we’ve learned in the last 100 years. We don’t know what a movie is. We don’t know how long it is. We don’t know how you see it. We don’t know how you monetize it. It becomes very easy to find movies and very difficult to monetize them. The theater business is a 20th century phenomenon, but I’m still going about it the way I started, coming up with an idea, getting some actors, getting some money, putting it together piece by piece. That’s what we did on Taxi Driver, that’s what we did on Blue Collar, that’s what I did on this one, and that’s what I’m going to do on the next one.
But you get to have some fun, at least, like filming Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe while they squirt condiments on each other in a hotel room — which is really just fantastic.
That’s a situation where you’re not miking it, so you’re in that room with all that backlight and there’s three actors, me and a camera. You talk about doing some things, but you just keep shooting and I’m talking through it all, “Hit him with the thing! Do this!” — you know, and occasionally I’m on camera. We shot that way for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Just shot and shot and tried things. Then you take all the footage, throw it in the editing room and run.
This is also the first time you’ve appeared in one of your own films.
I didn’t really choose, I just got chose. I had asked Tarantino, Marty [Scorsese] was going to do it for a while, then Abel Ferrara. I even asked Rupert Everett to do it, as a transgender gangster.
[Laughs] Yeah. We got closer and closer to it and we were just really tight on money, Scorsese said he couldn’t come because it was his birthday. Even if he did come, we didn’t have the money for the airfare anymore. Nic had been pressuring me to do it all along, so I guess I became the only one that we could afford, so I did three scenes for $900. It turned out that I was sick that day, I had a fever and laryngitis.
Pretty solid for a first time actor. Is there anything else you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do? A particular story or genre of film you’d like to explore?
Well, the next one.
I overheard you describing it as a spiritual film.
A quiet film. It’s time to make a quiet film.
And Ethan Hawke is in it?
Ethan and Amanda Seyfried, so far.
Ethan Hawke has been doing some interesting genre stuff as of late.
Yeah and he’s also really come into that body, in a very attractive way. When I was writing the script I started thinking, oh this is starting to feel like Ethan Hawke to me. Fortunately, he responded. Actually, when I was writing that script I was thinking of three actors. Jake Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac, and Ethan. It wasn’t quite for Jake, it’s not right for Oscar — it was the age thing. Ethan has 10 years on those other two actors.
You began your career as a film critic…
There’s this informal sub-genre label — “so bad it’s good” — that’s been applied to certain movies, including a few films directed by you and your peers, like Paul Verhoeven. I dislike the implication, but I’d like to know how you feel about it.
That’s an entertaining kind of aesthetic trivia. It’s like playing a trivia game, as if it’s really important that you remember the name of who the maid was. It’s interesting — this whole notion of art trash in the movies, which was first posited by Pauline Kael when she started making a case for trash in the movies. But of course she wasn’t really making a case for trash in the movies, she was making a case for a certain kind of creative vulgarity.
She was your mentor, right?
I knew her. I was one of her acolytes and I remember talking to her years later about that article and she said, “I like trashy movies, but I didn’t really think that they would get this trashy.”
Dog Eat Dog arrives in select theaters on November 4 and hits VOD on November 11.