I am a product of the Christian Reform Church, which is a Dutch Calvinist, Protestant sect. That was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The community was predominately—I would say, exclusively—Dutch. I went to West Side Christian growing up—it was a Christian high school—and eventually Calvin College, which is also a seminary. At that time, motion pictures were proscribed by decree against what they called the "worldly amusements," which included things like theater, dancing, card playing, drinking, smoking, and so forth. So, in fact, I grew up in a community that was movie-free. Didn't see a film until I was a bit older and I was able to sneak out—when I was, I don't know, maybe fifteen or so. I didn't feel particularly deprived, because no one I knew was seeing movies. It was outside the cultural loop. It was still possible at that time to have a kind of closed community, but television eventually came and completely destroyed that concept. That closed community no longer exists, even in Grand Rapids—or anywhere else, for that matter.
Looking back on it, I feel that it was a very, very gratuitous upbringing, because I was raised around essentially the world of ideas—because that's what religion is, or at least that type of Calvinism. And every Sunday after church all the uncles gathered at my grandmother's house to discuss the sermon. Understand, now, that these are farmers, and that was their world. And when I look at the world my children are growing up in—one hundred channels of television, video soccer as opposed to outdoor soccer, and the Web—I have to admit I had a pretty good upbringing.
I fell in love with movies in college. A lot of it had to do with the fact they were forbidden to me when I was younger. It was also the time of the intellectual cinema of Europe in the 1960s. So, I fell in love with Resnais, Bergman, Godard, and Truffaut. A filmmaker never forgets his first love, just like everyone else. And so, a lot of my subsequent work has come out of that first love.
I started a film society in college, and we were showing films on the sly. Then I needed to know more about films, so I spent a summer at Columbia University studying film. Fortuitously, that summer, by coincidence, I happened to meet the film critic Pauline Kael, who subsequently became my mentor. And, she said, "You know, you don't want to be a minister. You want to be a film critic." When I graduated, she got me into UCLA film school, simply by her recommendation, because I really didn't have the credits to go. That was 1968, and things were much more freeform. It was sort of a wonderful time to be a film critic, because at that time you were part of the movement, you know. Everything was seen as part of the color culture.
I was under Paulines tutelage. Pauline got me the job at the L.A. Free Press and I was set—that was going to be my course. I corresponded with her weekly and sent her my reviews. There was a whole group of us—we sort of called ourselves "The Paulettes." There had been generations of Paulettes over the years. But in my first group, there was myself, David Denby, Steve Farver, Gary Arnold, and Ebert was in there for a bit. I think without Pauline, I would have never ended up in the film business. That connection would have never been made. I'd probably be much wealthier, but I wouldn't have been in the film business.
I had written a book of theological aesthetics that was published by UCLA Press, and I had a film magazine I was editing, and I was doing criticism. Then I fell into a period of my life where nonfiction was not addressing certain personal needs. My marriage had broken up. I had been at the American Film Institute as a fellow the very first year they opened. But I'd had an argument with George Stevens, who was the head of AFI, so I left.
I was in debt, and I was wandering, and I fell into a very evil kind of black, transient space. It was about that time I started having pain in my stomach, and I went to the hospital and found out I had a bleeding ulcer. But while I was in the hospital, the metaphor with Taxi Driver occurred to me, and I realized that it was sort of what I was, in a way. I was this person in this steel box, floating around in the city. The city was not New York. The city was Los Angeles. And so, I wrote that script rather quickly. I wrote continuously while sleeping on the sofa at a place I was borrowing, because I didn't have a place of my own. Write, sleep, write, sleep. I wrote two drafts of that script in about ten days.
I left Los Angeles to regain my mental health. I drifted back to Michigan, and then to Montreal, to Maine. And then I was in North Carolina and I got a letter from my brother, who had gone off to Kyoto, Japan, to be a missionary and a teacher. His marriage had also collapsed, and he had taken to watching Japanese gangster movies, Yakuza films. He wrote me this long letter about the Yakuza genre. This was shortly after the Bruce Lee phenomenon, and I thought that this would be very commercial. A friend of a friend lent us some money, and we went to L.A. and wrote that script, and it sold for more than any script had sold at that time. All of a sudden, I was up and running. Then, it was after that that I was able to get Taxi Driver together. So, Taxi Driver was the first one written. The Yakuza was the first one sold.
I seized on Yakuza and just wrote, wrote, wrote, and progressively moved forward. But while I was writing Yakuza I was also doing film criticism. I was interviewing Brian De Palma because I had just reviewed Sisters, and it turned out Brian played chess, so I started playing chess with him on a regular basis. He lived out at the beach, and I gave him Taxi Driver to read, and he gave it to Michael and Julia Phillips, who were living up the beach from him. He also gave it to Marty Scorsese, and they all wanted to make it, but it took another three years before anyone would finance that script.
Let's go back a bit. When I wrote The Yakuza, it was a strange and unique situation. It was the first script that I sold, and part of my deal was that I was to select the first three directors it was submitted to. The first one was Francis Coppola, who turned it down. Then it was Franklin Shafner, who also passed. And then I put in Nick Roeg's name. I knew Nick because I had done an article on Performance. I had put Nick on the cover of my film magazine, so I was sure Nick would take it, but he shocked me by not taking it. So, then it was up to the studio to pick the director, and they sent it to Sydney Pollack.
Bob Towne rewrote the script. I won't claim that the script was ruined. I think that's sort of a gimmick or an excuse that writers fall back on. But the original script was meant to be more of a hardcore gangster film. Then the rewrites started moving it toward a gangster love story. In the end, it never really defined which genre it was most comfortable with. I don't think Sidney was really that comfortable with doing a hardcore gangster film. He wanted to use Redford, and I was opposed to Redford, because he wasn't the right age to have been in World War II. Now, as great as Robert Mitchum was, I think that if Sydney had put Redford in there it probably would have been much more successful.
I think that writing is a lot of fun, because you're really in control, you know. Anything you want happens. But it's also quite lonely. With directing, you don't have the kind of freedom you have as writer, because you're restricted by weather and by budget and by the limitations of your cast and whatever. But directing is also communal, and it's wonderful to go out in the morning and have a hundred people there asking you what they should do that day. It's a real luxury to go back and forth between writing and directing. A lot of the films that I have directed are films that are very, very hard to finance, films that I've had to direct for essentially no money. I can then use my writing skills to supplement my income to allow me to keep making these films.
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