Paul Schrader

For the American historian, see Paul W. Schroeder.
Paul Schrader

Schrader at the 44th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, July 5, 2009
Born Paul Joseph Schrader
(1946-07-22) July 22, 1946
Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States
Occupation Screenwriter, film director
Years active 1974–present
Spouse(s) Mary Beth Hurt (m. 1983)

Paul Joseph Schrader (born July 22, 1946) is an American screenwriter, film director, and film critic. Schrader wrote or co-wrote screenplays for four Martin Scorsese films: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Schrader has also directed 18 feature films, including his directing debut crime drama, Blue Collar (which he and his brother, Leonard, both wrote), the somewhat autobiographical crime drama Hardcore (which he himself also wrote), his 1982 remake of the horror classic Cat People, the crime drama American Gigolo (1980), the biographical drama Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), the cult film Light Sleeper (1992), the drama Affliction (1997), the biographical film Auto Focus (2002), and the erotic dramatic thriller The Canyons (2013).

Schrader's upbringing and critical writing

Schrader was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the son of Joan (née Fisher) and Charles A. Schrader, an executive.[1] Schrader's family practiced in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church,[2][3] and his early life was based upon the religion's strict principles and parental education. He did not see a film until he was seventeen years old, and was able to sneak away from home. In an interview he stated that The Absent-Minded Professor was the first film he saw. In his own words, he was "very unimpressed" by it, while Wild in the Country, which he saw some time later, had quite some effect on him.[4] Schrader refers his intellectual rather than emotional approach towards movies and movie-making to his having no adolescent movie memories.[5] Schrader is of Dutch descent.[6]

Schrader received his B.A. from Calvin College, with a minor in theology. He then earned an M.A. in Film Studies from the UCLA Film School graduate program upon the recommendation of Pauline Kael. With her as his mentor, he became a film critic, writing for the Los Angeles Free Press, and later for Cinema magazine. His book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, which examines the similarities between Robert Bresson, Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer, was published in 1972. The endings of Schrader's films American Gigolo and Light Sleeper bear obvious resemblance to that of Bresson's 1959 film Pickpocket. His essay Notes on Film Noir from the same year has become a much-cited source in literature on film.

The September–October 2006 issue of Film Comment magazine published his essay Canon Fodder which attempted to establish criteria for judging film masterworks.

Other film-makers who made a lasting impression on Schrader are John Ford, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah. Renoir's The Rules of the Game he called the "quintessential movie" which represents "all of the cinema".[5]

Film career

In 1974, Schrader and his brother Leonard cowrote The Yakuza, a film set in the Japanese crime world. The script became the subject of a bidding war, and it sold for $325,000. The film was directed by Sydney Pollack and starred Robert Mitchum. Robert Towne, best known for Chinatown, also got credit for doing a rewrite.

Although The Yakuza failed commercially, it brought Schrader to the attention of the new generation of Hollywood directors. In 1975, he wrote the script for Obsession for Brian De Palma. Schrader also wrote an early draft of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but Spielberg disliked the screen-play, calling it "terribly guilt-ridden", and opted for a lighter script.[7] His script for Rolling Thunder (1977) was reworked without his participation, and Schrader disapproved of the final film.[5]

Schrader's script about an obsessed New York City taxi driver was turned into Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Besides Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese also drew on scripts by Schrader for boxing tale Raging Bull (1980), co-written with Mardik Martin, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999).

Thanks partly to critical acclaim for Taxi Driver, Schrader was able to direct his first feature Blue Collar (1978), co-written with his brother Leonard. Blue Collar features Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto as car factory workers attempting to escape their socio-economic rut through theft and blackmail. Schrader has described the film as difficult to make, because of the artistic and personal tensions among him and the actors; it was the only occasion he suffered an on-set mental collapse and made him seriously reconsider his career. John Milius acted as executive producer on the following year's Hardcore (again written by Schrader), which showed autobiographical parallels in the depicted Calvinist milieu of Grand Rapids, and the character of George C. Scott which was based on Schrader's father.[5]

Among Paul Schrader's films in the 1980s were American Gigolo starring Richard Gere (1980), his 1982 remake of Cat People, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985). Inspired by Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, the film interweaves episodes from Mishima's life with dramatizations of segments from his books. Mishima was nominated for the top prize (the Palme d'Or) at the Cannes Film Festival. Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas served as executive producers.

Schrader also directed Patty Hearst (1988), about the kidnapping and transformation of the Hearst Corporation heiress. In 1987, he was a member of the jury at the 37th Berlin International Film Festival.[8]

His 90s work included the travelers-in-Venice tale The Comfort of Strangers (1990), adapted by Harold Pinter from the Ian McEwan novel, and Light Sleeper (1992), a sympathetic study of a drug dealer vying for a normal life. In 2005 Schrader described Light Sleeper as his "most personal" film.[9] In 1997 he made Touch (1997), based on an Elmore Leonard novel about a young man seemingly able to cure the sick by the laying on of hands.

In 1998, Schrader won critical acclaim for the drama Affliction. The film tells the story of a troubled small town policeman (Nick Nolte) who becomes obsessed with solving the mystery behind a fatal hunting accident. Schrader's script was based on the novel by Russell Banks. The film was nominated for multiple awards including two Academy Awards for acting (for Nolte and James Coburn). The same year, Schrader received the Austin Film Festival's Distinguished Screenwriter Award.

In 1999, Schrader received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild of America.

In 2002, he directed the acclaimed biopic Auto Focus, based on the life and murder of Hogan's Heroes actor Bob Crane.

In 2003, Schrader made entertainment headlines after being fired from The Exorcist: Dominion, a prequel film to the horror classic The Exorcist from 1973. The film's production companies Morgan Creek Productions and Warner Bros. Pictures greatly disliked the film Schrader had made. Director Renny Harlin was hired to then re-shoot nearly the entire film, which was released as Exorcist: The Beginning on August 20, 2004 to disastrously negative reviews and embarrassing box office receipts. Warner Bros. and Morgan Creek put over $80 million into the endeavor and Harlin's film only made back $41 million domestically. Schrader's version of the film eventually premiered at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film on March 18, 2005 as Exorcist: The Original Prequel. Due to extreme interest in Schrader's version from critics and cinephiles alike, Warner Bros. agreed to give the film a limited theatrical release later that year under the title Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. The film was only shown on 110 screens around the United States and made just $251 thousand. The critics liked Schrader's version much better than Harlin's. However, Schrader's film ultimately met with a generally negative reaction.

After that, Schrader filmed The Walker (2007), starring Woody Harrelson as a male escort caught up in a political murder enquiry, and the Israeli-set Adam Resurrected (2008), which stars Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe.

After five years of trying and failing to find funding to make feature films, Schrader returned with The Canyons (2013) an erotic dramatic thriller written by Bret Easton Ellis and starring Lindsay Lohan and adult-film star James Deen. The film gained a massive amount of publicity since it was one of the very first films to use the website Kickstarter to crowd-source its funding, completely sidestepping the traditional Hollywood system. Schrader also used the website Let It Cast to have unknown actors submit their audition tapes over the internet. American Apparel stepped in to provide some wardrobe for the film. The idea behind making The Canyons was to embrace a Post-Empire sensibility, using the digital filmmaking revolution and popularity of social media and networking to finance, produce, promote and distribute the film. The filming was fraught with massive media coverage due to Lohan's notorious on-set behavior, in tandem with the films highly unusual production route. The film was ultimately made for just $250 thousand and had a limited theatrical release from IFC Films on August 2, 2013. The film was poorly received by general critics and audiences but gained much attention from film theorists and cinephiles who acknowledged the film's daring and groundbreaking production, heralding a new wave of American Independent Cinema. Lohan, despite the controversy that was reported on set, got rave reviews for her performance. The film only made $56 thousand in theaters but was a huge success when released on various Video on Demand platforms, like iTunes.

As of April, 2014, Schrader is in post-production on The Dying of the Light, an espionage thriller starring Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin and Irène Jacob.

Schrader headed the International Jury of the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival, and in 2011 became a jury member for the ongoing Filmaka short film contest.[10]

On July 2, 2009, Schrader was awarded the inaugural Lifetime Achievement in Screenwriting award at the ScreenLit Festival in Nottingham, England. Several of his films were shown at the festival, including Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which followed the presentation of the award by director Shane Meadows.

Schrader's second marriage is to actress Mary Beth Hurt, who has appeared in smaller roles in a variety of his films.

Theatre career

Schrader has written two stage plays, Berlinale and Cleopatra Club. The latter saw its premiere at the Powerhouse Theater in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1995 and its foreign language debut in Vienna in 2011.[5][11][12]


A recurring theme in Schrader's films is the protagonist on a self-destructive path, or undertaking actions which work against himself, deliberately or subconsciously. The finale often bears an element of redemption, preceded by a painful sacrifice or cathartic act of violence.

Schrader has repeatedly referred to Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, The Canyons and The Walker as "a man in a room" stories. The protagonist in each film changes from an angry, then narcissistic, later anxious character, to a person who hides behind a mask of superficiality.[5][13][14]

Although many of his films or scripts are based on real-life biographies (Raging Bull, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Patty Hearst, Auto Focus), Schrader confessed having problems with biographical films due to their altering of actual events, which he tried to prevent by imposing structures and stylization instead.[5]





Feature films

Year Name Director Screenwriter Notes
1974 The Yakuza Yes Directed by Sydney Pollack. Co-written with Leonard Schrader and Robert Towne.
1976 Taxi Driver Yes Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Obsession Yes Directed by Brian De Palma.
1977 Rolling Thunder Yes Directed by John Flynn. Co-written with Heywood Gould.
1978 Blue Collar Yes Yes Co-written with Leonard Schrader.
1979 Hardcore Yes Yes
Old Boyfriends Yes Directed by Joan Tewkesbury. Co-written with Leonard Schrader. Producer.
1980 American Gigolo Yes Yes
Raging Bull Yes Directed by Martin Scorsese. Co-written with Mardik Martin.
1982 Cat People Yes Written by Alan Ormsby. Original screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen.
1985 Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters Yes Yes Co-written with Leonard Schrader and Chieko Schrader.
1986 The Mosquito Coast Yes Directed by Peter Weir.
1987 Light of Day Yes Yes
1988 Patty Hearst Yes Written by Nicholas Kazan.
The Last Temptation of Christ Yes Directed by Martin Scorsese.
1990 The Comfort of Strangers Yes Written by Harold Pinter.
1992 Light Sleeper Yes Yes
1994 Witch Hunt (TV) Yes Written by Joseph Dougherty.
1996 City Hall Yes Directed by Harold Becker. Co-written with Bo Goldman, Nicholas Pileggi, and Ken Lipper.
1997 Touch Yes Yes
Affliction Yes Yes
1999 Forever Mine Yes Yes
Bringing Out the Dead Yes Directed by Martin Scorsese.
2002 Auto Focus Yes Written by Michael Gerbosi.
2005 Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist Yes Written by William Wisher and Caleb Carr.
2007 The Walker Yes Yes
2008 Adam Resurrected Yes Written by Noah Stollman.
2013 The Canyons Yes Written by Bret Easton Ellis.
2014 The Dying of the Light Yes Yes
2016 Dog Eat Dog Yes Also actor. Screenplay by Matthew Wilder, based on the novel by Edward Bunker.
TBA The Jesuit Yes Post-production. Directed by Alfonso Pineda Ulloa.

Short films


Music video director


Stage plays

Short documentary appearances

Documentary feature film appearances

Television appearances

As himself



  1. Paul Schrader Biography on, retrieved 2002-11-06.
  2. Harmetz, Aljean (August 24, 1988). "How Studio Maneuvered 'Temptation' Into a Hit". The New York Times.
  3. "Ageing bulls return". The Guardian. London. October 31, 1999.
  4. John Brady, The craft of the screenwriter, Simon & Schuster, 1982 (0-671-25230-5).
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Kevin Jackson (ed.), Schrader on Schrader and Other Writings, Faber & Faber, 2004 (ISBN 0-571-22176-9).
  6. "Paul J. Schrader".
  7. Joseph McBride, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, Faber & Faber, 1997 (ISBN 0-571-19177-0).
  8. "Berlinale: Juries". Retrieved 2011-02-27.
  9. Interview with Paul Schrader on The Hollywood Interview, originally published in Venice Magazine, November 2005, retrieved 2011-11-06.
  10. Short profile of Paul Schrader on, retrieved 2011-11-06.
  11. Production history of the "New York Stage and Film" company, retrieved 2011-12-9.
  12. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Frankfurt), February 3, 2011.
  13. Schrader: Indies are scavenger dogs, scouring the planet for scraps – Interview with Roger Ebert in Chicago Sun-Times, December 11, 2007, retrieved 2011-11-22.
  14. Interview with Paul Schrader on, retrieved 2011-11-2.

Further reading

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