Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader Biography

Paul Joseph Schrader (born July 22, 1946) is a U.S. screenwriter, film director, and film critic. Schrader has directed 18 feature films, including his 1982 remake of the horror classic Cat People, and critically acclaimed dramas American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Affliction (1997) and Auto Focus (2002). Schrader also wrote or cowrote screen-plays for the Martin Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

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. Schrader's family practiced in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, 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. Schrader refers his intellectual rather than emotional approach towards movies and movie-making to his having no adolescent movie memories.

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, Yasujir? 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".

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, which was more than any other screenplay up to that time. 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. His script for Rolling Thunder (1977) was reworked without his participation, and Schrader disapproved of the final film.

Schrader's script about an obsessed New York taxi driver was turned into Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver, which was nominated for a 1976 Best Picture Academy Award. 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.

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.

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. 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 smalltown 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 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 Exorcist: Dominion, a prequel film to The Exorcist (1973). Production company Morgan Creek Productions/Warner Bros. disliked the resulting film and had large segments re-shot by director Renny Harlin, whose version was released as Exorcist: The Beginning in 2004. Schrader's version eventually premiered at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film on March 18, 2005 as Exorcist: The Original Prequel. It received limited cinema release later that year under the title Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.

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

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.

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.

In 2012 Schrader directed The Canyons (released 2013) with an original script by Bret Easton Ellis, starring Lindsay Lohan.

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.


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 and The Walker as "a man in a room"-films, which form a tetralogy closing with The Walker. The protagonist changes from an angry, then narcissistic, later anxious character to a person who hides behind a mask of superficiality.

Although many of his films or scripts are based on real-life biographies (Raging Bull, Mishima, 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.


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

Unproduced scripts (partial list)

  • Pipeliner
  • Covert People
  • Quebecois
  • Eight Scenes From the Life of Hank Williams
  • Investigation
  • The John Gotti Story

Short films

  • For Us, Cinema is the Most Important of Arts (1970)
  • Tight Connection (1985, music video)
  • New Blue (1995)

Stage plays

  • Berlinale
  • The Cleopatra Club


Writers Guild of America, Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement (1999)

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