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Legendary Filmmaker Paul Schrader Told Us Some Pretty Good Nicolas Cage Stories

"He was doing this sort of Bogart schtick, and I didn't care for it much, but I didn't want to pick a fight with him, I knew I could cut around it."

Image via 'Daily VICE'

As someone who grew up in the 90s watching visually "trippy" films like Natural Born Killers, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Crow far too many times, seeing the opening scene of Paul Schrader's new film Dog Eat Dog was a bit of a weird flashback. In it, a tweaked-out Willem Dafoe goes through several stages of chemical-induced aggression in a trashy living room, all of which is bathed in sickeningly oversaturated lighting. The scene culminates in some fairly graphic and unnecessary killings, with Dafoe crazed and sweaty. I knew right away that Schrader was onto something interesting—maybe not exactly Oscar-worthy, but definitely interesting.


Which makes sense, really. Schrader's resume speaks for itself, and it says a whole lot of contradictory things. The 70-year-old filmmaker wrote undeniable classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, and directed underrated curiosities like Hardcore and Cat People. He also made the oft-maligned The Canyons with Lindsay Lohan, and the nonsensical The Dying of the Light with Nicolas Cage (though, to be fair, the studio fucked that last one up).

So it's kind of great to see Schrader double down on that recklessness and make a film like Dog Eat Dog. He lets Nicolas Cage go full-on into "caginess," with Dafoe following closely along. There's even a ridiculous drugged-out hotel scene, where the three main characters mix coke and booze and ketchup in an orgiastic mess that plays like an alt-rock music video from 1994. VICE met up with Schrader during Toronto International Film Festival to talk about criticism, filmmaking freedom, and, obviously, the genius of Nic Cage.

VICE: My main takeaway with Dog Eat Dog was that these are unlikeable and sort of pathetic characters, yet they're compelling to watch.
Paul Schrader: You know, you don't like these characters, but you like watching them, and that's because of the charisma and life experience of Nic Cage and Willem Dafoe. They know how to do that, they know how to make themselves watchable.

What's your attraction to unlikeable characters? That's a theme in a lot of your films.
Those to me are the most interesting characters. Characters with flaws that you like for the wrong reason or dislike for the wrong reason—some disconnect in there that makes it a more interesting experience for the viewer. If everything lines up one to one, good person does a good thing and you feel good about it, that's not very interesting.


Are there redeeming aspects of these characters? There's a scene with Willem Dafoe where he gets into that a bit.
I believe in redemption, I do. But it takes a lot of baby steps. Over the ending credits, I play this Porter Wagoner song "Satan's Got A River," and that's how I saw these guys: they're swimming in Satan's river. And they're never going to make it across.

What's the deal with the Humphrey Bogart fixation in Nicolas Cage's character?
That whole Bogart thing, that's not in [Edward Bunker's original] book. In fact it wasn't even the script.

Image courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

So that's a Nic Cage thing?
Well that's an interesting story: He was doing this sort of Bogart schtick, and I didn't care for it much, but I didn't want to pick a fight with him, I knew I could cut around it. As we started getting to the end of the film, he said, "I don't know how to do this scene with the black couple. I don't get it. Why am I still alive? What's this scene about?" And I said to him, "I don't know, maybe you're not alive, maybe you're dead." Then when we were reading it on the set, all of a sudden he started doing the thing as Humphrey Bogart. And I said, "Whoa, whoa, what's this all about, Nic?" And he goes, "Well you said maybe he's dead, and if he's dead he could be Humphrey Bogart couldn't he?" And I said "Yeah, but we don't have time to shoot it two ways. If we do this we're stuck with it." And he said, "Well, you've been saying for weeks that we've got to be bold, and this is bold." And I said, "Yup, it is bold. Let's do it."


Speaking of Cage, I'm a big fan of his work because he's such a compelling and varied and amazing actor. This is your second time working with him, so what's that relationship like?
He's hyper professional, works a lot, extremely prepared. He makes you think from time to time that he's doing something spontaneously, when in fact you realize either then or later that it's been thought about a lot by him, and calculated. If another actor with him isn't prepared, he has very little tolerance for that. Now, he used to have kind of a wild personal reputation, and then it started about ten years ago that he married, I can't remember her name, [Alice Kim], that he came down enormously. He stopped drinking and going out so much, and became a much more private person. But now they just broke up, so who knows what the next chapter is.

Image courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

You mentioned earlier that it is set in the 90s, and there are definitely some 90s visual touchstones in the film. The drug scene, and the opening scene reminded me of that sort of style from the 90s, with way more going on visually. What was the inspiration for that?
You just try to do something different. How can you bring some life to this tired genre. How can you, after Scorsese after Tarantino, after Guy Ritchie, just constantly thinking how can we make it different. And I put together this young team and we would brainstorm. So the idea of the red and the blue came from a movie called Belly. The idea of the multiple screens came from Requiem for a Dream. Just throwing this stuff in there. Because I had final cut—and I had final cut because the previous film that Nic and I did had that taken away from me and dumped and ruined—and I couldn't go back to him again unless i did have it. So this was kind of a redemptive journey on our parts to sort of make that situation right. So I did have final cut and could do whatever I felt like. And I said to my team that we don't have the money to make this in the conventional way—that's the bad news—the good news is we can make any fucking film we want and it doesn't matter. Nobody will say we can't do that. So let's be bold and be imaginative. The only thing you can't be is boring.


It's not that, that's for sure. Is that the trade off then, at this point: having creative control and being able to experiment?
The next film is going to be 180 degrees different from this one. It's going to be a quiet film, black and white, spiritual film. I've never made one of those films. Written about them, but never made one. So I think it's probably time for me to give it a try. Whenever you're doing a film you're always trying to do something different. I go to the cinema and look at the screen and say "How do these people stay awake? They've all made this movie ten times—how do they even keep their eyes open?" And so for me it's always trying something different. Can I actually make a kickstarter movie? Can I actually pull this off? What would happen if I did a crime genre film? And the most extreme one is Mishima—how in the hell do you tell this one, of Patty Hearst in a closet?

In doing that though, you face loads of criticism. How do you deal with that?
Well, you embrace it. You know you're doing your job. Part of my role is to be a provocateur. [If] some people see a film I've done, and after the film is over, one looks at the other and says "Where shall we eat?" I don't think I've done my job. One of them has to turn to the other and say :"what was that?" and then as they hit the sidewalk, the movie is still playing in their heads. Then you've done your job. At least from my perspective.

Some of this criticism happens even when you're making the film. I mean making The Canyons with Lindsay Lohan, everyone was on that film as you were working on it. How does that play into the actual work?
Making that film was Lindsay, the Chinese tale of riding the wild tiger. You either stay on or you fall off and you get eaten. So you've just gotta ride. But I'm reminded, at the time of Last Temptation of Christ, Marty and I had offices by each other, and there was a big protest going on in the city, and the cops were protecting the screen at the Ziegfeld [Theatre in New York], which made me feel great. I went there and there were two police officers protecting the screen, and I thought, wow, that's cool. And Marty looked really worried about it. And I said, "Marty, we set out to make a film that would upset people. Now, they are upset. What's the problem?" He said, "I didn't think they'd be this upset."

Why do you think that people might be upset with this movie?
Hopefully the people will be upset with it will have left after the first scene. It will have driven them out. The whole idea behind that opening was to say, if you're taking this seriously you're in the wrong movie.

Dog Eat Dog is now in theaters.

Follow Chris Bilton on Twitter.