Help me write a movie – Part 1 – Taking inspiration from Paul Schrader / Taxi Driver

I am taking a break from reviewing cameras. I am getting out of video for now.

As I am sure many of you may have guessed, I am dissatisfied with the latter world to the max. Got to call it like it is. Filmmaking and creativity is what I’m interested in. So for the time being, EOSHD is going to change focus.

EOSHD will now cover movies, with the overall arc being of me writing and directing one myself. Together we can learn together, come up with inspiration and ideas together, from our real life experiences, and by watching great movies, learning how the masters do it.

Secondly, EOSHD will soon be two websites. The second website will be focussed on photography, under my own name (Andrew Reid). I will be revealing my stills work here, with my favourite techniques explained and on show. I have a huge stock of photos from the last 12 years that nobody has seen.

On the film side, Taxi Driver has always been a big inspiration for me and the funny thing is, since I’m now an outsider in the camera industry, hating my job, disappointed with the world around me and alienated from colleagues, I can truly get into the head of De Niro’s character myself! Understand the movie on a deeper level!!

So thank you Peter McKinnon. Thank you Fro Knows Photo. Thank you Philip Bloom’s idiotic followers. You by virtue of being fucking unbearable have led me into a new much more interesting world. A world where I can come up with my own world. My own fascinating characters, ideas and stories. Let’s go. Let’s do this together and learn together, study the masters and discuss the greats.

After all if there’s anything that unites us even more than cameras, it’s movies.

I have always had a fascination for film writing and cinematography, being more experienced in the latter than in writing screenplays. So at first, I want to map out a story in the form of a book or short story, before having someone else assist in converting it into a screenplay. I am aiming for a very visually descriptive, cinematic, but concise style for my own writing. Once the screenplay is done, I’d like to direct and DP it myself.

First it takes practice, lots of it. But after that, I’ve plotted out five easy steps:
(OK not so easy)

  1. I will write an original piece, all the characters, the story and present a finished work in the form of a book
  2. I will collaborate in Manchester or Berlin (I live in both places) with a talented screenplay writer to develop this into a script
  3. We will crowdfund the actual movie to bring it to life and hire a cast and crew
  4. I will direct the film myself and shoot the cinematography myself in a minimalist way with mirrorless cameras (got enough of those, thanks!)
  5. And then, anything is possible…

Scary image coming up…

(This will probably be what I look like after step 5)

Yes this is Robert De Niro in arguably his most famous role. The film that lit the touch paper under a long and storied collaboration with Scorsese.

What I am interested in here however is the genius that is Paul Schrader. He wrote the script for Taxi Driver in just 10 days whilst living in his car becoming increasingly isolated. I feel like all of us have had a similar experience thanks to lock downs!

But corona or not these are incredibly alienating times.

Today Paul doesn’t even recognise the man he was when he wrote Taxi driver. As your life goes along, you change. Your work changes. If you have a fertile period of experiences and ideas, you better capitalise on it immediately.

That’s the first big lesson from Paul.

The next big inspiration struck from De Niro. I recently watched Robert De Niro do a Q&A at Cambridge University here in the UK and had very mixed feelings about it. To be honest it’s a bit of a car crash. Bob’s memory doesn’t seem too great, and neither does his hearing – I hope he’s ok. But the thing which concerned me most, was the state of the young people at Cambridge.

Half of them couldn’t put the phones down and even the interviewer was fiddling with his. When I was at university, I’d be lucky if anybody bothered to set up a talk at all. Nobody from the BBC for example came to visit, let alone from Shepperton Studios. That’s because Manchester is in the North, and Cambridge is in the South.

So this feeling of alienation resonates with me.

I’d like to channel some of this into my film, and came up with this writing prompt:

A filmmaker named Heath falls out of polite society, becomes an outsider. After trying to get a job at a university and being rejected, on the way out he walks past a room where a famous actor is giving a talk. He surveys the room and considers all the students to be rich kids undeserving of the attention and advice.

To light up the faces of the young, perhaps this makes De Niro feel relevant again. I prefer to take the cynical view of it – that this was a glimpse into the machinations of polite society. Elites in cahoots with the other elites, under the guise of altruism.

That to me is more interesting than the truth – which was probably that De Niro wanted to do something good and chat to some young actors.

However I don’t mind how inaccurate it might be in this specific instance, because we’re not making a docu-soap about Cambridge student union. So first thing to gauge is how far you can push creative license based on that initial idea from real life.

This alienation people feel outside of the small bubble of privilege and opportunity, where they sit and observe the meteoric rise of chin-less wonders and hipsters everywhere, is certainly of interest to me.

Is it merely perception? Is it jealously? Is it a hysteria? Is it alienation, loneliness? Is it merely reacting to something unfair?

When there is a lack of meritocracy it does terrible damage to the world because masses of angry people don’t think they’re being dealt a fair hand and start not to think straight, they lose touch with the facts and with reality, just like in Taxi Driver going down a rabbit hole, they even end up voting out of anger and make bad decisions out of bitterness.

Anyway, from this prompt I tried to develop the start of a plot and it went a bit crazy, but here it this:

Heath’s search for work continues and he comes across the role of gaffer on a TV drama. Here he meets an incredibly egotistical TV director who abuses everyone on the set. The TV director asks him to take a second role, in organising a workshop for film students to learn “from the master”. So he goes back to the university and posts leaflets encouraging the students to come to it. The TV director wants to charge £1000 per head for just a 2 hour workshop. Nevertheless, they can seem to afford it with no issues and arrive in very fashionable clothes, with outstanding hairstyles.

Heath has to sit in the corner and watch the workshop, alienated, he has a strange feeling come over him. Meanwhile, the TV director has employed his own girlfriend as a supervisor, and she gives out orders and does a lot of the heavy lifting at the event. However, the TV director gets into an argument with her in front of all the students, and he slaps her across the face.

Afterwards, Heath sees her alone and tries to encourage her to talk about it. They go to a park bench and he tries to make her confide in him about what could be a possibly violent personal life. She absolutely refuses to talk about it, and dismisses him as a stranger, not even a colleague, as they haven’t even worked together for more than 2 or 3 hours.

He then finds out that one of the students filmed what happened.

He sets up a meeting with them, and there is indeed footage on the camera of the incident. When the student goes off to the toilet in the cafe, he decides to steal the memory card straight out the camera, and that evening posts it on YouTube.

The next day, the TV director is enraged, hunts him down but can’t locate the guy. It turns out he has set up a workshop of his own, with a small class of students. As this class unfolds, Heath feels he is gaining control at the same time as losing his grip on reality. Rather than stepping back from the strange experiences unfolding in his own workshop, he begins to turn up the flame on his own pressure cooker, going deeper and deeper into taboo topics, which unknown to him are being filmed by one of the students.

At the next class, the TV director knows where he is, and turns up at the door.

“Turn up the flame on his own pressure cooker” is a phrase I absolutely love and had to steal borrow from Schrader’s interview above.

It is something that makes the Taxi Driver character so unhinged. So fascinating.

It is as if he’s bedevilled, self sabotaging, a masochist, and I am sure that is why the movie appealed so much to Scorsese.

The irrationality of that character, I think we can also all empathise with.

So some thoughts on my plot above. I think it’s a start, but there’s something a little too grim and claustrophobic about it. What makes Taxi Driver really work, is that yes – he appears to be a regular guy, a wage slave, on the treadmill of a mundane every day – but by night, with the eccentric characters around him, this is anything but unremarkable. There’s just a constant electricity in the air, the neon lights, car lights on his face, glinting in the madness in his eyes. It serves to accentuate his growing insanity. In my plot we have a classroom and it doesn’t have the same tension or cinematic glamour as the mean streets of New York.

So I’ll probably start again on it…. But to start is the important thing.

A separate idea

Another inspiring saying I remember is from Marshall Berman (an American philosopher):

“To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and at the same time threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are”

I think that’s where our world is at now isn’t it?

We are in this new world, with all the promises of constant growth and pleasure, but the technology that makes it possible threatens to destroy humanity.

I think what’s interesting here, is that during the evolution of our species, man has always adapted to his environment. The environment has not bent to us.

We have overcome the harshness of the environment, through technology. They worshipped Ford when the Model T came out. Ford gave people the ability to transcend the mud. We’ve adapted the environment to suit us.

In adapting the environment, in creating the modern world, we’re now the biggest factor in our own natural selection. We’re still influenced by our environment, but we’re a massive influence on ourselves.

In dumbing down the environment for example, we’re dumbing ourselves down. In sanitising that environment, we’re sanitising ourselves. With the incredible rise of science, we’re killing our spirituality. The technological environment we created, in all it’s terror and alienation, loneliness and dumb stupidity is shaping *us*.

And it is doing so in very unpredictable ways.

When animals adapt they may start to lose entire organs, entire physical attributes!

We don’t have thick hair and fur like great apes any more, who needs that when we have textiles!

By that same token will we replace our brains with smartphones? Are our minds going to shrink and eventually be replaced by AI and machines? Smartphones are likely a first step and a sign this will happen.

I would love to add some of these ideas into the story, to explain the modern world and the alienation of our character Heath. Maybe it’ll help drive the development of some other interesting characters as well, but it’s important to keep it gritty and relatable, without going too high concept with it, I think.

Although I currently have no idea where to take the story after the first page and the writing prompt!

So let’s see what ideas come together and see you in the next part.

Open to all of your ideas. You can submit them on the EOSHD Forum here.