Paul Schrader became a creative heavyweight in Hollywood’s 1970s golden age through his raw, brutal yet poetic scripts for iconic films including “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” He moved ahead as a notable director with “American Gigolo,” “Cat People,” “Hardcore” and “Auto Focus.” He has been associated with thoughtful, significant work for decades.
Yet, when he discusses his latest feature, “Dog Eat Dog,” he can’t stop chuckling.
“Absolutely none of this is intended to be taken seriously,” Schrader said via phone last week, bidding temporary farewell to his austere past for gonzo melodramedy. “I’m in a bathroom break here.”
“I haven’t made a film like this before. I won’t make a film like this again. I’ve never done anything like this before. I had to figure out what a crime film is today, after Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. It’s more about crime films than about criminals.”
His wildly unconventional crime saga virtually defies description, casting Willem Dafoe and Nicolas Cage as sad sack felons hoping to retire wealthy through a baby kidnapping. As the wretched plan is hexed by bad luck at every turn, the body count piles haystack high, as if the film is a gory sequel to Cage’s child-snatching turn in “Raising Arizona.”
“The structure of it is very loose” deliberately, Schrader said. “There’s a prologue, then the setup for a crime, first crime, intermission, second crime and then an epilogue.”
He added: “It’s kind of a jazz riff on the crime thriller,” one that he agreed to make only if he could have it released in exactly the anarchic way he shot it. “I didn’t really set out to make a crime film. I wanted to do a film where I had final cut, and it turned out to be this crime film. And we started playing with the genre,” toggling between points of view, cinema styles and standard timelines. The result is a crazy quilt of surreal proportions.
“What we were trying to do was get out in front of the audience, stay ahead and make it feel fresh again. So much of what’s in today’s crime film is obvious convections. So rather than ignore the conventions, we were trying to break the conventions and add a real freewheeling quality.”
Moving ahead, Schrader calls the 2017 project he is currently preparing “the polar opposite of ‘Dog Eat Dog.’ You always look for something to explore,” either as a screenwriter or directing scripts from others. “Each uses a different side of the brain,” the 70-year-old filmmaker said. “When I’m writing, I like directing best. When I’m directing, I like writing best. When I’m editing, I like promoting the film best.”