American Film


TAXI DRIVER opened on February 8, 1976 and a little more than two months later screenwriter Paul Schrader was at the AFI Conservatory, speaking to Fellows about the film, which had become an instant classic. Robert De Niro’s harrowing performance as Travis Bickle earned him an Academy Award® nomination. Here, Schrader, who started out as a divinity student and film critic, shares the origins of his creation and compares Bickle to other classic film characters with a violent streak.

“I came out to Los Angeles and started writing. A series of personal problems swept over me and I ended up being more or less transient, and out of that experience came TAXI DRIVER. I didn’t write it thinking it would be made. I wrote it because if I didn’t put something down on paper I was going to end up doing something my protagonist was imagining...

I think it’s part of the job of a writer or anybody worth his salt to explore his closets. We’re all in the dirty-laundry business. An artist gets to a certain point where he says, ‘I’m not afraid to explore my Jewishness.’ ‘I’m not afraid to explore my homicidal tendencies,’ ‘I’m not afraid to explore my sexual deviations,’ ‘I’m not afraid to explore racism.’

I mean, the takes place in his head. New York consists of a lot more than 42nd Street and Broadway. All you see of New York is his very peculiar vision of it, and he has a very sordid view of things. You only see blacks through his eyes, and the only exception is the black he works with, who he borrows money from. You are given no alternative view of reality.

One of the rare things about TAXI DRIVER is that this character, Travis Bickle, has been in a lot of movies, but you’ve always been given another perspective on him. In IN COLD BLOOD you see him through John Forsythe’s eyes. In PSYCHO you see him through Martin Balsam’s eyes. In WHITE HEAT you see him through Edmond O’Brien’s eyes. But this is as though you see WHITE HEAT solely through [James] Cagney’s eyes, which makes for something very different, because Cagney is very mentally disturbed in that film. You have the same situation here. You’re getting Travis’ perceptions of the world, which are very distorted and unrealistic.”

Jack L. Warner believed that the scene in WHITE HEAT (1949) in which Cody Jarrett goes berserk in the mess hall after learning of his mother’s death would be too expensive to film and asked director Raoul Walsh to film it in a chapel instead. Walsh, however, realized the dramatic potential of the scene and assuaged Warner's budgetary concerns by shooting it in three hours.

For more on WHITE HEAT visit the AFI Catalog of Feature Films.