Interview: Paul Schrader Talks DOG EAT DOG
Paul Schrader's ultra-violent new film, Dog Eat Dog, starring a badder lieutenant, Nicolas Cage, and hyper-batshit Willem Dafoe, isn't just another crime film; it's every crime film.
With Dog Eat Dog, adapted from guru of grit crime fiction novelist Eddie Bunker's insider book, Schrader not only adapts the author's hard boiled style, but also just about everyone worth a damn who's ever contributed to the last century of crime pulp; in an effort to ride the post-new wave of what the Taxi Driver writer refers to as the 'post-rules era', where once you accept the notion that everything upon everything has been done, anything is permissible.
To help do this, Schrader recruited onto his team, already consisting of Cage and Dafoe, a ragtag batch of twenty-something neophytes, who he valued for their oblivious ignorance of all the rules he grew up on. Thanks to this low-stakes atmosphere of working with wide-eyed first-timers, as well the crucial obtaining of final cut, Schrader, Cage, and Dafoe were able to explore, risk, and play in a fashion that produced results as exciting as they are captivating. It's a work so confident in its blackly comic depravity, it won’t make a lot of friends, but that will only make the audiences who do take to it all the more appreciative.
When I spoke to Schrader in Toronto, where his unflinching film was about to have its North American premiere at TIFF's cult Midnight Madness program, he described his modus-operandi as to “get ahead of (the viewers') expectations and then just run as fast as you can.” With a singularly manic, kinetic momentum, Dog Eat Dog indeed hits the ground running, and keeps you glued to the screen as it transcends cliché after cliché, dosing the familiar world of crime fiction with bad acid until its inevitable, serenely fatalistic, bloody finish. If you can stomach the experience, it's a trip you won't forget. For a genre done to death, Dog Eat Dog is hysterically brutal and delightfully, sickly unpredictable.
DOG EAT DOG will be in theaters in LA and NY on November 4th, with a theatrical expansion, VOD and Digital HD on November 11th.
ScreenAnarchy: Congratulations on your film. I watched it twice - I thought it was just awesome. How did it come together? How did the script fall in your lap?
Paul Schrader: Well, it began with a very unpleasant experience. Nick and I had made a film that was taken away, re-cut, dumped. I was very pained by that. I said to Nick, “You know if we live long enough, we’ll get to work together again and get this stain off our clothes.
Happened pretty quickly, thankfully.
Well, yeah, he goes, “Okay”. Somebody gave me the script. It wasn't set up or anything. I thought, you know Nick might like this Mad Dog role. I sent it to him. I said here's a chance. We talked about it. This time, I'll have final cut. I couldn't go back to him any other way. He said “Yeah, I like it, but I want to play the Troy role - the straight role."
That was his idea??
Yeah, that's how it started. But then, all of a sudden, now I'm doing a crime film. All of a sudden I'm thinking, I've got to do a genre crime film, which I've never done. I've got to do one post-Scorsese, post-Tarantino, post-Guy Ritchie. Wow. Now, how do I do this?
On the other hand, I have final cut. I don't have to listen to anybody. I sat about trying to reinvent this. It ended up being kind of a meta-film. It's as much about crime films as it is about crime. We just had real freedom to do ... Did you see that picture I put up on the website?
I don't think so.
I assembled a group of young people.
I didn't see the picture but I'm guessing it's a group photo.
Yeah. We met every two weeks at a diner near my house in Chelsea. This was the first solo credit for each of them.
That was very generous of you.
I wanted people who ... I didn't want people who were thinking outside the box. I wanted people who were outside the box. I was able to say to them, “The bad news is we don't have as much money as we should have, but the good news is I have final cut and we can make any goddamn film I want. Let's just think about that, and let's just be bold and just imagine.” (looking through his phone) I got too many pictures on here.
How did you find these guys?
Well, it started with my former assistant, who is now one of these documentary gung ho cameramen - jump off tall buildings type of a guy. He shoots parkour, shoots drug raids, stuff like that. He and I - I made him associate producer - we just started looking for people who were from video games... Ah, here they are. (Showing me the photo)
These are my department heads except for music.
That's great. This is at the diner. Love it. Your office.
We just said that we would meet every couple of weeks and we said let's try anything. Don't be afraid. That's how it all kind of started. We had nobody to answer to. To give you sort of an example, we talked about things. Say, okay, we've got this strip club scene to do. Boring. Every strip club scene in every movie is the same. Same shafts of neon colored back light. The same upshots of the girls. The same guys with a dollar. Boring. Boring. Boring.
How can we not make this boring? Then we were thinking, and I said, “Well, I don't think anybody's shot a strip scene in black and white since Lenny. Let's just shoot it in black and white. Don't explain a lot. You don't have to have any reason. Just do it. Then it won't be boring.
I haven't actually read Ed Bunker’s book, "Dog Eat Dog", but is it closer in tone to his other writing?
Yes, the whole comedy thing we brought in. He was the real deal. One reviewer called his writing crime fiction on angel dust. It was very, very hard edge.
So you brought the comedic elements to the story, but would you say you also brought the manic energy? Do you think that's in the text? And how did you go about either adapting or molding the story’s energy?
I think that came from the top down. This idea, get ahead of the viewer, which we do with that opening scene. Get ahead of their expectations and then just run as fast as you can. Whenever you think the person behind you, the viewer thinks you're going to go right, go left. I defy anybody who hasn't read about the film to know where it's going. You just don't know. They're singing "pass me not my gentle savior," and (Cage's) being Bogart. They're all colored in glorious light, and having a Peckinpah shoot out
BONNIE & CLYDE and all that good stuff, yeah. The last time you and I were in the same room, you were gracing Toronto with a sneak peak of THE CANYONS, at the Royal, many years ago. Do you remember?
You know, I was walking down the street yesterday and I said, why didn't I come to Toronto with Canyons, but I did.
Well you didn't. You came with a first look. You showed us all a scene and then we watched TAXI DRIVER at the Royal.
Oh, oh, oh, oh. This was early in the process. Yeah, that was because the composer was up here. Brendan ...
Brendan Canning. In fact that's where I spent (hurricane) Sandy, while I was up here with Brendan doing the music while Sandy hit New York.
Right. At the time you had this great speech talking about how we're in this brave new world where there are no rules and such. Finally you're reaping the benefits of that. How does it feel to be making films in the post rules/no rules era?
It feels good. The next challenge, and I like to think that every film is a new challenge, is to do something I haven't done before. The next one I'm going to see if I can go the other direction. Make a quiet film. That would be a challenge.
You have very loud and very quiet films.
I started thinking about this idea after having dinner with Pawlikowski and giving him an award. He did Ida. This was an award for The National Society of Film Critics, so I said, there's something that you film critics don't understand, that a filmmaker really understands, that it's very hard not to move the camera. It's harder not to move it than it is to move it. Everything in your instinct is moving.
I really enjoyed your performance in the film. I know playing the role yourself wasn't your first choice and that you asked a couple people, but nevertheless, I think you bring this kind of kindness to the character. I don't know if that was always there.
I don't know. I mean it was all so last minute. Then I was sick. I had laryngitis and a fever. I didn't even, never looked at the monitor. Just tried to get through the day.
Well, I think it plays very well. Can you talk about the initial conversations with Willem Dafoe and Nicolas Cage, about their characters - they're so good in this film.
You know, it was a chance... They had been, they had done this once before. It was a nice chance for Nick to sort of be the setup guy, for Willem to be the outrageous guy, but also I had another motivation which is Nick makes a lot of films. A lot of them go on to on demand, VOD. How do you separate this film from those.
By doing that, you have to give a big hunk of the film over to Willem. Nick made that easy for me by passing on the most exciting role. By giving Willem the entire opening and the entire monologue, it makes it feel less like a Nick Cage film.
Yes. I love Willem’s psychotic vulnerability.
I believe in redemption. Take little baby steps.
You start off the film by hitting the audience with a mallet and then you slowly ease them onto the antiheroes sides somehow. What was the discussion around starting off the film so violently vibrant?
The pink room and the blue room, that came from a film called Belly. All the images, that came from Requiem for a Dream. “Woo Woo” came from Kill Bill. You're just taking these outrageous elements, and that girl who played Sheila was a Vine star.
A Vine star?
Do you know what a Vine is?
Not really. I mean, I've heard rumblings about this thing called Vine, but I’ve never seen one.
A Vine is like a four to five second film.
Right, so how do you get to be a Vine celebrity?
Well she has a Vine and in her Vine, all she does is walk up to strangers and assault them for four or five seconds. That's her Vine. I love the idea that she was just bigger than Willem. Wait a second. I'm just going to try to find something. (Grabs his phone is search of the Vine)
What is her name? I tried to think of her name the other day too. The problem with IMDB is that everybody puts themselves up and they don't put themselves up in the right order.
How do you find out who played Sheila? I don't even recognize any of these people. These are all like extras. I want Sheila's name. I'm doing this because the other day, somebody asked me about her and I couldn't think of her name and I felt kind of diminished by it. Okay, that's it. Chelsea Melton!
Okay. I'll look out for her Vines. I’ll see what kind of insults she's got.
“You're my sister from another mister.” Stuff like that.
How did you even come across that VIne?
She was an extra in Tangerine. I saw her and I thought that's just like that Sheila girl. I tracked her down.