middle-aged man with this unlikely resume: In his
20s he was a taxi driver; in his 30s, a high-priced
male prostitute; and in his 40s, an insomniac drug
dealer. As the man enters his 50s, where would an
employment agency hope to slot him?
pondered that question several years ago. As the writer of
Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, and Light
Sleeper, Schrader has led that man -- a lonely
fringe character with unusual wares to ply -- through a
series of films he sees as thematically linked.
thinking of Julian Kaye from American Gigolo
and I started wondering what would become of a person like
that in midlife," Schrader explains.
"He'd be funny, because his skills would
be more social, and he'd probably be out of the
closet. He'd be like a society walker, which
struck me as an interesting occupational metaphor for
these kinds of service industries -- like a taxi driver, a
drug dealer, or a gigolo -- that look into society but
aren't really quite part of it."
The result is
Carter Page III, a gay Washington, D.C., gadfly portrayed
by Woody Harrelson. Bristling under the weight of his
family's political legacy, Carter turns into a
Capote-like confidant to a gaggle of society wives
(including Lily Tomlin and Lauren Bacall). When one of those
wives, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, becomes
embroiled in a murder plot, Carter's attempts
to help her draw him deeper into the cross fire, where
he discovers inner strength he didn't know he had.
superficiality is like his wardrobe -- it's his
protection," says Schrader, who drives the
point home with an inverted echo of
Gigolo's famous dressing sequence: an
undressing sequence that ends with Carter doffing his
toupee. Schrader laughs, "As I said to him when
we were shooting, 'Woody, there's not much you
can do to surprise an audience anymore. You can stomp
on a baby or pull your pants down, and
everybody's seen it. But take your hair
Schrader's first explicitly gay protagonist, though
the director stands out among contemporaries like
Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola for refusing
to shy away from homoerotic themes in his work. He
still bemoans an early fight he lost to include more gay
content in his 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four
Chapters, a biopic of 20th-century Japanese author
Yukio Mishima that labored under restrictions imposed
by Mishima's widow. (Schrader hopes to remedy the
excisions with a Criterion DVD coming out in the spring.)
And while it may be hard to imagine, the straight man
who created taxi driver Travis Bickle is an unabashed
homophile, as comfortable quoting gay film critic
Parker Tyler as he is discussing his years spent hanging out
in the gay scene of 1970s Los Angeles.
"It was a
grand time," he says. "Because of my
upbringing and the fact that I had no female siblings,
I always had sort of a hard time socially with
women." Introduced to a group of gay friends by
renowned production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti --
"he knew everyone from Warhol to
Mapplethorpe" -- Schrader says those days taught him
how to be a better straight man.
suddenly realized, oh, that's what women want. They
want the same thing the boys want: They want some
attention, they want to be touched, they want to
laugh. It was a wonderful period of transition, of becoming
a fuller person, to understand all that," he
remembers. "And then that world collapsed, and
it collapsed rather quickly. I have all those
photographs that people of my generation have, where five of
the six people are dead." As he flips through
those pictures with me, pointing out his late friends,
Schrader's jovial tone suddenly changes. "When
that started happening, I left Los Angeles and went to
Japan, and that was sort of the end of that chapter.
It was..." He trails off, becoming choked
up. "I mean, what can you say? What can you say that
hasn't been said a hundred times?"
In many ways,
Schrader's identification with gay men should come as
no surprise. The son of brutally strict Calvinists,
Schrader had his own "coming-out"
experience when he left Grand Rapids, Mich., for the wilds
of Hollywood in 1968. "When I was growing up movies
were not allowed," Schrader says. "My
parents never ever spoke of what I did for a living.
When I'd go home, it was a nonsubject." Family
tensions increased in 1988 when Schrader's
father was involved in the campaign to ban The Last
Temptation of Christ -- a film for which Schrader
wrote the screenplay.
died I went up to his house, and he had purchased VHS copies
of every film I had made, but they were all in their
shrink-wrapped wrappers," Schrader chuckles.
"Never opened at all. He wanted people to see,
'Yes, my son has accomplished something -- but I
didn't watch them, I want you to
Life in Los
Angeles was considerably wilder than anything Schrader had
experienced -- "Two days after I got to L.A., I was
in a living room in Topanga Canyon surrounded by
people wearing tablecloths and smoking dope" --
and in some ways he feels that he never fully shook off his
repressive upbringing. "I always sort of felt
that it really wasn't me, that I was back in
Michigan, almost watching myself do this. It was like
watching it through a windshield," he explains.
"And sure enough, when I needed to express that
emotion in fiction, there came a windshield: the central
metaphor for Taxi Driver.
"It's the same kind of feeling in The
Walker, only in the case of someone like Carter
Page it's not so much a windshield but a kind of
Plexiglas cube that surrounds him. He seems to be part of
it, but he's not quite part of it."
interesting turn for the freewheeling Harrelson, from whom
Schrader extracts one of his best performances. Yet
it's a performance Harrelson has been shy about
trumpeting. The actor declined an interview with
The Advocate and did not promote the movie at its
world premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film
Festival. "I'll tell you what
happened," says Schrader. "He was very keen to
do the film, felt very good about it after we
finished, was very eager to see it -- and then I made
a mistake. I sent him an early cut of the film on DVD, and
he didn't like it; he didn't like
himself. He has not seen it since, although I just
heard last week that everyone likes him so much in this
that he's starting to come around."
doesn't know why Harrelson doesn't like his
performance. "Actors are mysterious," he
says. "While we were shooting, he wanted it to be a
little fluffier than it was, a little more
'gay.' He wanted to show a little more
of the pink dress." The pink dress? Schrader smiles:
"I did a film with Rupert Everett
[1990's The Comfort of Strangers], and
Rupert would always say, 'You've got to tell
me if the pink dress is
showing.' " Still, despite the
star's lack of cooperation, Schrader is
confident that Harrelson's performance -- like the
film -- will stand on its own. "ThinkFilm,
which is releasing it, had the same situation last
year with Ryan Gosling, who didn't like Half
Nelson," he says. "It wasn't
until the film started getting good reviews that he said,
'Oh, boy, I'd better rethink
As pleased as he
is with the film's early notices, Schrader is even
more excited by the audience's reaction to the
sexuality of its main character. "I've
taken the film to several film festivals around the
world now, and Carter being a homosexual is about as big a
nonissue as you can imagine," he says.
It's a big relief considering that when he
first wrote The Walker six years ago, Schrader asked
his best friend, gay producer Alan Poul (Six Feet
Under), to vet the script.
time it got made, that whole concern was completely gone --
the sense that you would need someone known in the gay
community to put their stamp on it and say,
'This is OK.' " Schrader says.
"Now it's not even an issue -- that
shows you how much things have changed."