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Exclusive: Paul Schrader talks Dog Eat Dog, Cage and Dafoe, and Taxi Driver!

11.18.2016by: Eric Walkuski

Dog Eat Dog Paul Schrader interview Nicolas Cage Willem Dafoe

If you need an introduction to Paul Schrader, you really need to bone up on your film history - if for no other reason than the man wrote one of the greatest films of all time, TAXI DRIVER (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year). He also co-wrote one of the other greatest movies of all time, RAGING BULL. Those aside, Schrader is responsible for penning the screenplays for such memorable motion pictures as HARDCORE, ROLLING THUNDER, AMERICAN GIGOLO, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. As director he has such titles as CAT PEOPLE, AFFLICTION, AUTO FOCUS and DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST under his belt. All of these titles are provocative, incendiary; Schrader's work is never run-of-the-mill. So it goes that his latest film, the crime thriller DOG EAT DOG, doesn't quite fall in line with other crime thrillers. It's hyperactive, sure to be contentious and certainly not for everyone. That it stars two of our generation's most intense actors - Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe - is completely fitting. (Also helps that both Cage and Dafoe have worked with Schrader before; Dafoe several times.)

I'll be clear: TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL are two of my favorite movies, ever, so speaking to Schrader was an absolute pleasure, even if it was only for ten minutes; I could have talked to him for 100 more. Hell, we didn't even get to talk DOMINION! Instead, we discussed his tackling of DOG EAT DOG (which is based on the book of the same name by Eddie Bunker), working with Cage and Dafoe, his own standout supporting role in the film and why TAXI DRIVER remains such a powerful piece of cinema to this day.

Dog Eat Dog Paul Schrader interview Nicolas Cage Willem Dafoe

Let me just first say it's a real honor and pleasure to talk to you. It was awesome just seeing you at the Fantastic Fest screening a couple weeks ago, outside.

Yeah. That's a cool festival.

How did this project originally come to you? Or was it something you sought out?

You know, it was sort of a back door situation. In that I'd been ... Nic Cage and I wanted to work together again after the film that was taken away from us. And I just said to Nic, "You know, we should work together again," and thought, this time we'll have final cut, this time we'll do it right. And he said absolutely. So I was kind of looking for something, and this script came along; it wasn't an offer, it was just a script that was bouncing around. I read it and I said, "Maybe this is something Nic would like." I said I can't approach Nic unless I have final cut, because of what happened before. So I did approach him and he said yes. I originally approached him with the best role, which is Mad Dog, and he said he wanted to play Troy.

So then, all of a sudden, now I'm doing this crime film. I'm not a crime film director. I really didn't set out to do a crime film; I set out to get a measure of redemption with Nic. So in order to do that now I'll have to do a crime film. Then I had to decide, what is a crime film in 2016? It's a very old and a worn down genre. You know, three ex-cons and their final big job. But it's all so tired that ... how can I make this feel like today? I realized I do have final cut, so the best way to come back ... lack of budget or lack of originality, is with imagination. So that became the challenge of this particular project, to try to figure out what a crime film might look like in 2016, and this was the solution I came up with.

That's great too, because it doesn't necessarily feel like one of your previous films; it has this very hyper-kinetic energy that is sort of feeding off of the characters who are all themselves quite hyper. That must have been kind of fun for you to try something new and different.

Yes, I mean I put together a very young group of production heads, so there's a first solo credit for each of them. And I just said to them, "The bad news is we don't have enough money, the good news is I've got final cut; we can make any goddamn film we want. So let's just be imaginative, let's be bold. And one thing we must never be, which is bored." And on that mantra, we made this kind of jazz-like riff on the crime film genre.

Dog Eat Dog Paul Schrader interview Nicolas Cage Willem Dafoe

Though you haven't necessarily directed a crime film quite like this before, you have done plenty of movies that involved shady characters and the criminal underworld. What is it about that sort of lifestyle that keeps you coming back to it?

Well, same with everyone else, I mean, this is what we like in entertainment which is to explore the dark corridors of our psyches that would not be wise to do or explore in real life. So you're always looking for people who have less control, more contradiction, than real life people do.

I'm curious when you're directing or preparing a project, is there anything different about your approach to a script that you haven't written versus one that you have?

Not so much. The end result is pretty much the same. You take ownership in a way, and you really can't tell the difference between something you wrote and you didn't. Now the exception is when you have a piece of writing that has such a strong literary signature and you want to preserve it. So that was the case with Harold Pinter, that was the case with Bret Easton Ellis. But not the case with Eddie Bunker and Matt Wilder.

Right. The movie has, I guess it's hard to describe, but I would say something of a nihilistic streak in it. Would you say that's accurate, and does that stem from the material or is that something you sort of brought to it?

Well you know, Ed Bunker was the real deal. He spent most of his life in jail. When he wrote about these characters, he wrote about himself, he wrote about people he knew. Ironically, the theme of all his books is you get into criminal life, you will never get out; and ironically he did get out. He is kind of the angel dust of crime fiction. That's what was sort of exciting about Bunker's writing. But in all honesty, I have to say the movie is not that faithful to Ed Bunker; because if it had then it would have felt like an older movie. His sensibility is from the 60's and 70's; the movie was set in the 90's. I'm trying to make a film that's set in the twenty-teens. As a matter of fact, it's really more, I think, about crime films than it is about criminals. It's kind of a riff on crime films, in a way.

Nic Cage and Willem Dafoe are both intense actors who you've worked with before; what was it like having them on the same set, especially in a movie that is so intense itself?

Well, it's nice because in a way they're both craftsmen and professionals. And you can see them ratcheting up their game to play one on one with each other. They had done a film 25 years ago; Wild at Heart, which also has mean kind of performances. So it was fun to sort of bring those two, Sailor and Bobby Peru, back together again.

Dog Eat Dog Paul Schrader interview Nicolas Cage Willem Dafoe

And speaking of, you have a nice little role yourself in the movie, as "The Greek." I had to double-check to make sure it was you because I thought it was a character actor. Are we going to see you take on more acting roles if other directors come calling?

No, no, no, no, no. "The Greek" is finished. He will never act again.

That's a shame, man. You've been in the business for so long, it took you this long to be in front of the camera.

Well it was two factors; one was I'd asked a lot of people who were striking out and then we were just out of money. And the other was I didn't do it in the past because I thought I was not quite good enough. Now I'm so fucking old, I don't give a damn. So I thought, you know, let's just do it.

Have to mention real quick Taxi Driver's 40th anniversary; it's still so powerful and influential. Is it a film you revisit often, or analyze differently now?

Hard to escape, you know, it's the film that won't die. It seems to remake itself for each succeeding generation of young men. Over and over I hear men telling me that they saw the film, usually they're about 15. It really made an impression and changed their minds. I think the reason is that at that age they're seeing superhero movies and violent movies, and this one comes along and all of a sudden they realize movies can be a little something more than just action movies. It turns a key in a lot of adolescent heads, and I think that's one of the reasons it has survived.

Well, it certainly did that to me, and again I want to thank you very much for your time and good luck with the film and everything else coming up.

Thanks, Eric. You too.

Extra Tidbit: DOG EAT DOG is available to watch now HERE.

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