On the wall, a large Manny Farber painting; on the bookshelves, many volumes of Freud; on a square, soft chair in the spacious living room of a sprawling Upper West Side apartment, Paul Schrader, fondling an affectionate terrier who’s trying to find a comfortable position on his lap.
For a director-writer with three films to deal with at once, Schrader is noticeably relaxed. Gone are the nutso days when he carried a gun, even to film conferences. Today, he cultivates the calm of a tough old pro. He’s currently in preproduction for Forever Mine, which he describes as “a flat-out undying love story that’s 19th century in heart but set in the present.” It shoots in February with Joseph
Fiennes and Gretchen Mol. He wrote the script for Bringing Out the Dead, the Martin Scorsese movie filming through New Year’s in Manhattan. (It’s his fourth collaboration with Scorsese.) And, after sitting on the shelf for about a year, Affliction, the 11th film he’s directed, opens this week. Adapted from Russell Banks’s novel, it’s closer to tragedy than melodrama and more unguardedly personal than any film he’s made before. If there’s any justice in film history, it will rank with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (for which Schrader wrote the screenplay) as an American classic.
“I read the first 20 pages of the novel standing in the bookstore, so I figured I should buy it and take it home. I was captured by a number of things. The use of language, the character of Wade Whitehouse, who’s the type of character I’ve always been drawn to—a self-destructive male who acts against his own best interest—and then a narrative that pretends to be one thing and reveals itself to be another. Oddly enough, the theme—the violence that’s passed from father to son—was probably the least pressing and personal thing to me. I grew up in a winter landscape, and I had a strong father and an older brother, but my father wasn’t an abusive drunk. The father in Affliction isn’t even Russell’s father, it’s his grandfather.”
Schrader called Banks and arranged to option the novel. Then he wrote the script on spec and sent it to Nick Nolte. “It had Nick’s name all over it, but it took him five years to accept the fact that we couldn’t pay him what he should be paid. The only way to finance this movie, given the material, was at $6 million. A film called Affliction can only play in 50 or 60 markets. Of course, if Nick got a nomination [for an Oscar], that would increase to 500 or 600.”
For Schrader, directing a film is usually a process of diminution. “You have certain things in mind and then on the set you see the reality and try to make the best of it. But working with Nolte, I was just dumbfounded at the level and complexity he took this character to. It was more than I expected. I just tried not to fuck it up. It was like he had a transparent skull and you could see all those rusty old cogs cranking around. It was almost as if you could see him think.”
In casting an actor to play Wade’s father, Schrader wanted someone who was even bigger than Nolte as well as someone who loomed large in movie history. James Coburn fit the bill in some ways, but he came, says Schrader, “from the stand-and-deliver generation—where’s my money, where’s my mark. He has that great voice and he’d just let the voice do it. So I had dinner with him, and I told him that I wanted to warn him about Nick, that he would pour himself into the character, that he lives through the character, so that if you, James, just walk through this film, by the second day Nick will be all over you. And there was a pause, and then he said, ‘You mean, real acting. I can do that.’ So I got rid of his protective facial hair, but then, in rehearsal, I sensed him slipping back into that voice and not being the character anymore. I asked him if he ever worked in falsetto. And he said yes, as a kid, on the stage. I said let’s try it. And the moment he went into falsetto, all that protective cover, all that manliness went away, and he saw himself as an unpleasant, shrew-y person, and so he had no place to hide but in the character.”
And the character that results is exactly what the film is about: men who are terrified that they aren’t men. “It’s a much larger book than it is a script. I view this as a genuine collaboration. I would call it a Banks-Schrader film rather than the other way around. But subplots and nuances had to be dropped. It’s different from other scripts of mine in that Russell is a community-based writer. My characters have been more the classic kind of outsiders, loners like Travis. But this script is something like Taxi Driver in the way it appears to be random, but it’s all ordered underneath. And there’s also an underlying metaphor. At first it seems to be Wade’s sore tooth, but that’s a red herring. It’s the shooting in the woods that Wade is convinced was a murder. Somebody died and someone’s responsible. Someone has to pay. But the person who died was Wade. He gravitates to this hunting accident because it’s a way to solve his own murder, and just as the hunting accident is cloaked in mystery, so his own death is mysterious. Because no one ever knows how a spirit is crushed.”