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Get Going:

New York Conversations:

Budd Schulberg
Paul Schrader
Richard Price
David Newman

The Storytellers:

Suso Cecchi d'Amico
Jean-Claude Carriere
Sergio Donati
New York Conversations - Paul Schrader at Hotel Chelsea
09 October 1998
by Mikael Colville-Andersen

[These interview transcripts are a part of conversations with various writers at the Hotel Chelsea in New York and at Vassar College. The interviews are published in the book 'New York Conversations', by Mikael Colville-Andersen]

Question: Tell us about Bringing Out the Dead

PS: It s about 3 nights in the life of a paramedic, an ambulance driver. Like the taxi driver, he drives around at night on the cusp of social decay. But unlike the taxi driver, he s on God s team. He s on the side of the angels, he s trying to save lives. But he still goes crazy. By the time the film starts, he s already a loony. And he gets progressively worse over this long weekend in New York.

But instead of heading for violence, I mean, it s 20 years later in terms of Scorcese and myself, and the character s not heading for violence anymore. He s looking for some kind of peace. He can t sleep, he can t these images out of his head. The dead are following him. The people he s lost. When we meet him, every major case over the last 5 or 6 weeks have died on him and so he feels that he's jinxed. And he feels that God s good angel has turned into the evil angel. So that s what he's dealing with.

His problem is that he defines his mission as a goal rather than a process. And the moment you define life as a goal, you re fucked. Because nobody gets out alive. So he comes to see himself as a failure because he doesn t see himself as part of the process. He sees himself as part of the forces of right and salvation. Not spiritual salvation but saving lives.

What he comes to at the at the end is he s respited. It s like a period of calm, like respited before the storm. A period of calm.

At the end he does two things. He kills this one guy, who he has been trying to save, but who is a vegetable, so he releases him. And the other guy, who his partner has tried to kill, who is a crazy person, he saves his life. So those two events are like the flip of what he s always thought of doing.

Question: How did you get involved with this story?

PS: It was a book, written by a paramedic. He had worked out of St. Claire s, here in midtown. The author of the book first wrote it as non-fiction and then rewrote it as fiction. Marty wanted to do the book.

About 10 years ago, or was it more, 12 years ago, Scorcese and I decided not to work together anymore.

Question: Why?

PS: We had an idea to remake Bad and Beautiful, with DeNiro. And it would sort be about our three lives: writer, director and actor. So I did an outline and a treatment and met them both and it just turned out to be very acrimonious. Constantly arguing. Marty wanted the credit and I said, "I ve done three films with you, I ve written three scripts for you, I m not going to start sharing credit".

And as the situation got more and more tense I said to him, "this is going to end up in one of two ways. Either this film is not going to get made and we re going to become enemies, or this film is not going to get made and we ll stay friends. So let s just assume the latter is true and just quit. We ve done three films, that s enough. We ll have dinner once a year." So that was the agreement that we made.

So I never thought that we d ever work together again. And then we were having dinner, just about a year ago, and he said, "well, there s this book I want to do". And I asked them who should write it and he said, "well, I gotta admit I thought of you. I m really reluctant to ask you to do this, I had to think about it." And I said, I d love to. It sounds perfect. Perfect. And fortunately, he was in the midst of post-production on Kundun, so he really didn t have time. So I just wrote the script, which is really want I like to do anyway. I m not really big on going back and forth.

Question: You just sat down and did it?

PS: Yeah, well, there were a couple of things I wanted to change in the book, so I got hold of him in the editing room and said that I was thinking of changing a couple of things in the book. I could tell his mind was elsewhere and he said, "okay". So I just did it, and changed it a little bit.

Question: How long did it take to write it?

PS: Didn t take long, about three weeks or so.

Question: Why so short?

PS: Well, you know, I don t start writing until I know the script from start to finish. Some writers find out what they re writing about by writing about it. I m of the belief that there is nothing more debilitating for a screenwriter than to write scripts that don t get made. You write four or five scripts that don t get made and you lose faith in yourself. They re not published, they re not works of fiction, and you lose faith in yourself.

I m of the belief that anything you can do to keep from writing is to your advantage. So that by the time you start to write, you re fully confident of what you re going to do. And this is what I was saying in Copenhagen, years ago.

What I do is I still use the same sort of method. You formulate a theme and you start breaking down your plot and then you start telling it. Screenwriting for me is part of the oral tradition. It s like telling a story. It s not like literature. So what you have to do is you have to start telling your story.

Question: Is that what you did in this case? Told the story?

PS: Well, in this case, there was a pre-existing book, so I didn t have to discover a lot of the plot but I would tell a story and then outline it.

Question: Do you still outline it in one page?

PS: Yeah. And then re-outline it. On this one I went right from the outline to the script. But usually, if I have any concerns about whether the idea is really going to work, I then go into a sequential breakdown.

All a sequential breakdown is.... let s say in an average movie there are anywhere 45 - 55 - 60 things happening. That s your outline, the list of things that happen. That s not the list of shots, or the list of scenes and drive-ups, just the things that happen. Like, they meet at the Chelsea Hotel, returns to office, make phone calls, whatever.

So you take each one of those items on your outline and make it into a paragraph. So now you re starting to include dialogue.

Question: 5 - 8 lines?

PS: Yeah. So now, instead of a one page outline, you have about a 15 page, single-spaced breakdown. And if your idea still survives all of that, then there s a pretty good chance it ll work. I ve had idea that have worked at an outline stage, but died at the breakdown stage.

And when an idea dies on you it is, in fact, one of the best things that can happen. Because you ve just saved yourself an enormous amount of time and grief. Some ideas just don t want to be written. They don t want to be written by you. Some ideas have fooled you into thinking that they have more power than they, in fact, do. If you find that out after writing a first draft, you ve wasted a lot of time and you ve also lost faith in yourself because you believed in something and you couldn t pull it off.

Which is one of the great problems when you take money to write scripts. I wrote a script last year that I thought I could pull off, but I couldn t. I was very, very angry with myself and I couldn t quit because I d taken the money. And I have finished the script.

So this year, I ve written a different script. I said to the studio, "look, I don t want to get into a horrible experience - development hell - of doing an idea I can t pull off and then you re angry with me and I m angry with myself and then you want a rewrite and I don t want to rewrite it because I don t think it s any damn good. And I ve already taken the money,"

So in this case I said, "here s what we ll do. I ll give you a sequential breakdown of every single thing that happens in this movie, and the dialogue in the scenes and a page count - you know, how long each scene will be and when this scene will begin... like scene 42 is 3 pages long and will begin on page 75. I will give you the document. You pay me 100 grand for the document. And that will be the movie. We can talk about that document, but you sign off on that document. Then I ll go on and do the rest of the script.

Question: But before that, no money?

PS: Before that, I told them what I was going to do. That I m going to take this to the next stage. In this case, it was a high-priced deal, about a million dollar deal. There s no way I wanted to get trapped in a million dollar situation where the script is no good and they re blaming me and I want to quit. So for a 100 thousand dollars I gave them a breakdown. About exactly what the trip is going to be. Then we ll discuss that and make some changes, but you ll sign off on that and then I ll deliver you the script. You ll get it and you won t think I cheated you.

So I did it in this case and it worked out very well. I knew it s what I should have done on the other one. I went into the other one bluffing, I was lying to myself. It was a biography for ____. I convinced everyone I could do it and I couldn t.

Question: You knew you couldn t do it?

PS: Not until I was into it, and then I couldn t quit. So what I try to do is I try not to ever start until I know what it is. Until I have the entire story in my head. Often line by line, action by action. Then the writing itself becomes quite quick and fun. You know exactly where you are, what you re doing, you know what you re going to write next.
Every time you re sitting there and you write a scene from your breakdown and you look at the next scene and you start sketching out how you re going to write and then you quit for the day. When you back to it the next day, there s no writer s block.

Question: Like the old Hemingway trick?

PS: Yeah, you re ready to go again. Boom. So therefore the writing goes very fast. Often, you end up writing the last stretch in one sitting. Bringing Out the Dead, I wrote the last 40 pages in one sitting.

Question: 40 pages in one day?

PS: Yeah, I started about nine in the morning and finished about midnight. I just cruised on through, because I could see the end of it.

But that s all because of intense pre-planning and preparation. My feeling is that if you can tell me a story and hold my interest for 45 minutes, then you have a movie. If you would tell me about "Festen" (The Celebration. The Danish film which won the Jury Prize at Cannes 98 - ed.). And you d say there is a family reunion, a patriarch turns 60, various people are coming. You d start telling me the story. This guy is walking down the road, his brother passes him in the car and he asks the wife and kids to get out and he gets into the car with his brother. You d tell me the story.

As you tell it, perhaps certain things start to go flat. You think, oh, maybe they should have a letter from the dead sister. Next time I tell it, I ll add that. Because right at that point, as I was telling it, I was losing them and I had nowhere to go.

So you outline it again and then maybe add something like... the Christian character, they should take him out into the woods and beat him up. Next time I tell it I ll add that. Or sometimes you think of it right as you re telling the story, if the listener is not very attentive. So you try to get their attention and you say, "they take him into the woods and beat him up" and everyone is listening again. And you think, "I ll keep that!"

The best advice I can give, and do give, to writers is to think of your scripts as yarns. As long kind of ... just stories. Make them more on a person to person basis, rather than thinking of them as literature. So that you go back to Copenhagen and say something like, "I want to tell you about something that happened in New York. I was in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel and a man came up and he thought that I was an old girlfriend of his. And I wasn t. But we got to talking and he asked me out to dinner." Now you re all of a sudden telling me a story. That s really all it is.

Question: It s not 45 minutes the first time you tell it, is it?

PS: No, the first time is usually 10 - 15 minutes. Then as you tell it, you start to realise the areas that are interesting. Not only to the listener, but to you. Areas that capture you.

In fact, when I first started writing... and I figured this out by doing it myself, not by doing a class... when I outlined a first idea, I outlined it in colour code, so that I used different coloured pens. Action in one colour, exposition in another colour, comic relief in another colour, love story in another colour. So when I look at the outline I could see how the different elements of storytelling interacted. I could see that there was a huge block without any comic relief. Or two love story scenes were put together so close that nothing interesting happened in between. They had nothing new to talk about.

Question: And they couldn t develop their love?

PS: Yeah, so the second scene would have to drop down five minutes, you know, and something new would have to come in there. So that the lovers have a new bit of information, a new bit of emotion to discuss.

These are things that I now know just by instinct. Although back then I was very pedantic about it. But as I say, this is a method that, more or less, works for me. I have friends who write and rewrite. A person like Jim Brooks, for example, he rewrites to find out what he s writing about. It s not better or worse, it s just a different method.

Question: The fact that it was three nights, did it help you?

PS: Well, it was three nights in the book and he had a different partner on each night, so it fell into a kind of natural three-act structure. Movies don t have to be three acts, but more often than not they sort of tend to be three acts. But not necessarily. Some stories are two, some are one act.

Question: Taxi Driver?

PS: Taxi driver is two acts. Others are four or five acts. So any of those books that tell you that certain rules apply, all they re speaking about is some kind of generalisation. If your idea doesn t fit into the pattern, it doesn t mean that you re wrong. It means that you gotta find a different pattern, a different structure. More often than not, finding a different structure will make a more interesting story.

Just thinking of "Festen", I guess the three moments of the story are the three times that Christian speaks. Every time he speaks, it all starts up again. And those are the structural bridges.
In the case of "Festen", those Dogma 95 restrictions ended up being helpful. But they re not necessarily helpful. You can tell a story where you realise that you need to go into five acts.

Question: You had a strict guideline in Bringing Out The Dead. Three nights. Nice, strict framework.

PS: Three nights, three partners. The first night he s with a kind of happy, go-lucky partner, John Goodman. The second night he s with black guy who is a born-again Christian. On the first night they run into one of his other partners, who is a psycho, a violent man. And he ends up as the partner on the third night. On the third night, they end up driving around, taking adrenaline, taking uppers, looking for people to beat up.

In between they re all woven together by the daughter of the man they pick up right at the beginning. Whose father is dying. Played by Patricia Arquette. She becomes the thread through the story.

There are two female images. One is this real girl who has a lot of guilt about the daughter she has been, the fact that she hates her father and was a druggie for many years and that she can t ask her father s forgiveness. And then there s another girl, which is the girl who is following him. A girl he has lost. She is a phantom. Only that she s not a ghost, but he sees her face in other people. He ll see a hooker, his partner will yell something to her and she ll yell back. He ll look back and it won t be her anymore, it ll be Rose.

He was responsible for her death because he put the tube down the wrong throat. So that s the one who is following him at the moment. At the very end, those two images merge. The daughter of the dying man and Rose become the same person and that gives permission to live on.

In the book there were many ghosts. All the people who died on him, but in the script we refined it down to the one ghost. It would be too confusing.

Question: Did you write for Nicolas Cage, or did he come into the picture later?

PS: Actually, no. The only time I ve ever really written for an actor is when an actor has hired me. I don t think it s a good idea to write for an actor. What happens is that it makes you lazy as a writer. You start seeing that performer doing it. You start hearing his voice. And what you need to do as a writer is write a role and not direct a performance. You start directing a performance as a writer rather of writing a role. You just have to write a terrific role that an actor will come to.

In the case of Bringing Out the Dead, I was opposed to Nick Cage because the character I had written was about 27 years old and Nick can t really, plausibly be less than 35 on the screen. I thought that this was really a young man s thing going on here.

But it was a very tough story, in terms of Hollywood. Scorcese likes to take his time. He likes to spend money shooting. Last night they were doing a shot that I would do in a hour, and they were spending six hours on it.

That shows up on screen, but it costs money. So, a film that I could have made for 8-9 million dollars here in New York, they re spending 30-35 million. So financial justifications come into play, because you have to justify that 35 million dollars. Nick Cage, at the moment, gets around 20 million dollars a movie and he s one of the highest paid actors at the moment. He s had a whole series of successes. But Nick read this and the idea of doing Schrader and Scorcese and a night in New York again - he agreed to do it for a million dollars.

That protected Marty. He knew that once he had Nick in his pocket for a million bucks, nobody would touch him. There wouldn t be no studio interference, there wouldn t be talk about changing the script, talk about having a different ending, or whatever.

So he opted to go with Nick, so that he could make the movie he wanted to make. If he went with an unknown, he would have had a lower budget or he would have had to make some script changes.

Filmography for Paul Schrader

© Mikael Colville-Andersen 2006-2011