Art by Guy Peellaert
Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver in about ten days. He was 26 years old. He wrote continuously, intuitively, from the gut—not like screenwriters today who write for a market, an audience, a paycheck. Schrader had been living in his car, parked at night on off-roads and empty, anonymous LA streets. One day, he was agonizing pain and was admitted to A&E. An ulcer had gone bad. When answering the questions of date, birth, allergies and such asked by a nurse, Schrader realized he hadn’t spoken to anyone in over three weeks. That’s when he got the idea for Taxi Driver:
It really hit me, an image that I was like a taxi driver, floating around in this metal coffin in the city, seemingly in the middle of people, but absolutely, totally alone.
The taxicab was a metaphor for loneliness, and once I had that, it was just a matter of creating a plot: the girl he wants but can’t have, and the one he can have but doesn’t want. He tries to kill the surrogate father of the first and fails, so he kills the surrogate father of the other. I think it took ten days, it may have been twelve – I just wrote continuously. I was staying at an old girlfriend’s house, where the heat and gas were all turned off, and I just wrote. When I stopped, I slept on the couch, then I woke up and I went back to typing.
The script kicked around Hollywood until Martin Scorsese picked it up. Then it was filmed with hardly any of Schrader’s original script being changed—it was only added to by the sheer bloody brilliance of Scorsese’s direction and the perfectly pitched, disturbingly real performance by Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle. I’ve watched Taxi Driver about 50 times—and with each viewing appreciate something new and different about it—it’s one of those very, very rare films that gets better with every viewing. How it didn’t clean up at the Oscars is still one of those great unexplained mysteries, as it was the best American film of the 1970s. In 1980, the trio of Scorsese, De Niro and Schrader reunited to make the greatest American movie of the 1980s Raging Bull—which similarly should have won all eight of its Oscar nominations.
Screenwriter Paul Schrader with Scorsese and De Niro.
Scorsese and Schrader.
Personnel Officer: How’s your driving record? Clean?
Travis Bickle: It’s clean, real clean. Like my conscience.
Travis Bickle: All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ‘em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.
Cybil Shepherd as Betsy.
Travis Bickle: I’ll tell you why. I think you’re a lonely person. I drive by this place a lot and I see you here. I see a lot of people around you. And I see all these phones and all this stuff on your desk. It means nothing. Then when I came inside and I met you, I saw in your eyes and I saw the way you carried yourself that you’re not a happy person. And I think you need something. And if you want to call it a friend, you can call it a friend.
Betsy: Are you gonna be my friend?
Travis Bickle: Yeah.
Travis Bickle: I should get one of those signs that says “One of these days I’m gonna get organezized”.
Travis Bickle: Hello Betsy. Hi, it’s Travis. How ya doin’? Listen, uh, I’m, I’m sorry about the, the other night. I didn’t know that was the way you felt about it. Well, I-I didn’t know that was the way you felt. I-I-I would have taken ya somewhere else. Uh, are you feeling better or oh you maybe had a virus or somethin’, a 24-hour virus you know. It happens. Yeah, umm, you uh, you’re workin’ hard. Yeah. Uh, would you like to have, uh, some dinner, uh with me in the next, you know, few days or somethin’? Well, how about just a cup of coffee? I’ll come by the, uh, headquarters or somethin’, we could, uh… Oh, OK, OK. Did you get my flowers in the…? You didn’t get them. I sent some flowers, uh… Yeah, well, OK, OK. Can I call you again? Uh, tomorrow or the next day? OK. No, I’m gonna… OK. Yeah, sure, OK. So long.
Travis Bickle: You’re only as healthy as you feel.
Travis Bickle: Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me.
Travis Bickle: You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? Oh yeah? OK.
Jodie Foster as child prostitute Iris rehearsing a scene with Scorsese and De Niro.
Iris: God, you’re square.
Travis Bickle: Hey, I’m not square, you’re the one that’s square. You’re full of shit, man. What are you talking about? You walk out with those fuckin’ creeps and low-lifes and degenerates out on the streets and you sell your little pussy for peanuts? For some low-life pimp who stands in the hall? And I’m square? You’re the one that’s square, man. I don’t go screwing fuck with a bunch of killers and junkies like you do. You call that bein’ hip? What world are you from?
Travis Bickle: Hey Sport. How ya doin’?
Sport: Okay, okay my man, how… Where do I know you from, man?
Travis Bickle: I don’t know. How’s everything in the pimp business, huh?
Sport: Do I know you?
Travis Bickle: No. Do I know you?
Sport: Get outta here. Come on, get lost, huh.
Travis Bickle: Do I know you? How’s Iris? You know Iris.
Travis Bickle: I got some bad ideas in my head.