In Roger Ebert‘s view, “Taxi Driver” is a movie which makes you sense something wrong with the protagonist who surrounded by many smaller stories, all building to the same theme. He roams in the city at night and selects just those elements that feed and reinforce his obsessions. The man is Travis Bickle, ex-marine, veteran of Vietnam, composer of dutiful anniversary notes to his parents, taxi driver, killer. The movie rarely strays very far from the personal, highly subjective way in which he sees the city and lets it wound him.
Taxi Driver is a brilliant nightmare and like all nightmares it doesn’tRoger Ebert (from the book “Scorsese” by Ebert)
tell us half of what we want to know. We’re not told where Travis comes
from, what his specific problems are, whether his ugly scar came from
Vietnam—because this isn’t a case study, but a portrait of some days in
Taxi Driver concerns Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a cab driver appalled by New York’s depravity. Amidst ‘the scum’ he spies Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign-worker for presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), and a woman whom Travis perceives as pure. On their only date Travis inexplicably takes Betsy to a porno cinema. Rebuffed, Travis buys some guns and begins a regimen of exercise and target practice. He stalks Palantine, and becomes obsessed with the welfare of Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute, whom he seeks to save from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). After failing to assassinate Palantine, Travis storms Iris’s block, killing Sport, Iris’s timekeeper (Murray Moston) and a maﬁoso (Robert Maroff). A coda shows Travis – who has returned Iris to her family and who has been hailed as a hero – apparently readjusted and able to drive Betsy without reaction.
The story behind Taxi Driver began in the summer of 1972. Screenwriter Paul Schrader was down on his luck and living out of his car. He’d recently been forced out of his position at the American Film Institute, his wife had left him, and he was having great difficulty getting his first screenplay, Pipeline, sold.
I was enamoured of guns, I was very suicidal, I was drinking heavily, I was obsessed with pornography the way a lonely person is.Paul Schrader
And out of this darkness came a bleak new script about “self-imposed loneliness” titled Taxi Driver. Schrader wrote furiously, completing his first draft in seven days, and finishing the rewrite in three. Schrader’s script, which was presented in chapter form, was inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential novel Nausea, the diaries of would-be assassin Arthur Bremer, and John Ford’s film The Searchers.
The screenplay told the story of lonely Vietnam vet, Travis Bickle, who works as a taxi driver on the midnight shift in the most degenerate sections of New York. Eventually Travis seeks redemption through two women. The first is Betsy, an attractive political campaign worker whom he attempts to impress by assassinating the politician for whom she works. After his assassination attempt is derailed, he then focuses his attention on Iris, a child prostitute whom he seeks to set free by murdering her pimp.
Once he was finished with the screenplay, Schrader gave it to his agent, who began shopping it. One day Schrader was playing chess with director Brian De Palma, and he mentioned that he had a script called Taxi Driver. De Palma then read the script and loved the writing, but couldn’t imagine how to direct it or just who would pay to see it. De Palma then showed the screenplay to another of his chess partners, his neighbor, producer Michael Phillips. Phillips loved the screenplay and told his production partners—Tony Bill and Phillips’ wife, Julia—that they had to make this film.
Michael and Julia Phillips talked with a number of directors about attaching their names to the project. These included Irvin Kershner, John Milius, Lamont Johnson, and Robert Mulligan. A number of actors’ names were bandied about for the role of Travis Bickle, including Jeff Bridges and singer Neil Diamond. Brian De Palma later introduced Schrader to Martin Scorsese in San Diego while Scorsese was there to meet the film critic Manny Farber.
Scorsese, De Palma, and Schrader were to meet at a restaurant and have dinner together. By this time Schrader had sold his third screenplay, The Yakuza, for a record $325,000, and Scorsese wanted him to adapt Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler for him. However, Scorsese got lost and could not locate the restaurant. By the time he arrived three hours later, De Palma and Schrader had conceived what eventually became Obsession. De Palma then told Scorsese about Taxi Driver, which was still in limbo with the Phillipses. Scorsese read the script and loved it. “I know this guy Travis,” he would later say.
“I’ve had the feelings that he has, and those feelings have to be explored, taken out and examined. I know the feeling of rejection that Travis feels, of not being able to make relationships survive. I know the killing feeling, the feeling of really being angry.”Martin Scorsese
The Phillipses didn’t see Scorsese as a legitimate contender to direct Taxi Driver either. They told him to come back after he’d directed more than just Boxcar Bertha, which they saw little value in. Nevertheless, Scorsese made a point to be at every party where either Schrader or the Phillipses were. And each time he saw them he reminded them that he wanted to direct Taxi Driver. He also told them that he was editing a film called Mean Streets. Scorsese’s agent, Harry Ufland, eventually convinced Schrader and the Phillipses to screen Mean Streets, and their opinions of Scorsese changed. They not only wanted Scorsese for Taxi Driver, but they also wanted Robert De Niro, whom they believed was perfect for the role of Travis Bickle. De Niro then read the script and found that he too could relate to Travis and his situation. In fact, De Niro was actually in the midst of developing his own script about a political assassin. Recognizing the quality of Schrader’s screenplay, De Niro abandoned his own script and signed on to appear in the film.
But even with the director and actor attached, the Phillipses found Taxi Driver to be a difficult sell. Most studios believed the project wasn’t commercial enough. Warner Bros. showed some interest, but studio head John Calley couldn’t make up his mind. Calley finally agreed to make the film, but only if it could be made for a meagre $750,000. However, everyone involved was working on other projects. By the time all of the principals were available again, Warner Bros. had backed out because they didn’t believe the film could be made for less than $1 million. Luckily, most of the projects the Taxi Driver team had worked on during the interim had proven to be successes. Given that Schrader had written Obsession, the Phillipses had produced The Sting, Scorsese had directed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and De Niro had won an Oscar for his turn in The Godfather Part II, the project was now much more enticing to the studios. David Begelman at Columbia Pictures agreed to finance Taxi Driver for $1.5 million. Because Taxi Driver meant so much to each of the principals, they agreed to work for lower fees than they were receiving for other projects. De Niro was paid $35,000; Schrader $30,000; and Scorsese $65,000.
In the Words of Scorsese:
Much of Taxi Driver arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope. And the shock of walking out of the theatre into broad daylight can be terrifying. I watch movies all the time and I am also very bad at waking up. The film was like that for me — that sense of being almost awake. There’s a shot in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle is talking on the phone to Betsy and the camera tracks away from him down the long hallway and there’s nobody there. That was the first shot I thought of in the film, and it was the last I filmed. I like it because I sensed that it added to the loneliness of the whole thing, but I guess you can see the hand behind the camera there.
The whole film is very much based on the impressions I have as a result of growing up in New York and living in the city. There’s a shot where the camera is mounted on the hood of the taxi and it drives past the sign ‘Fascination’, which was on Broadway. It’s that idea of being fascinated, of this avenging angel floating through the streets of the city, that represents all cities for me. Because of the low budget, the whole film was drawn out on storyboards, even down to medium close-ups of people talking, so that everything would connect. I had to create this dream-like quality in those drawings. Sometimes the character himself is on a dolly, so that we look over his shoulder as he moves towards another character, and for a split second the audience would wonder what was happening. The overall idea was to make it like a cross between a Gothic horror and the New York Daily News.
There is something about the summertime in New York that is extraordinary. We shot the film during a very hot summer and there’s an atmosphere at night that’s like a seeping kind of virus. You can smell it in the air and taste it in your mouth. It reminds me of the scene in The Ten Commandments portraying the killing of the first-born, where a cloud of green smoke seeps along the palace floor and touches the foot of a first-born son, who falls dead. That’s almost what it’s like: a strange disease creeps along the streets of the city and, while we were shooting the film, we would slide along after it. Many times, people threatened us and we had to take off quickly. One night, while we were shooting in the garment district, my father came out of work and walked by the set. The press of bodies on the pavement was so thick that, in the moment I turned away from the camera to talk to him, it was impossible to get back. That was typical.
As in my other films, there was some improvisation in Taxi Driver. The scene between De Niro and Cybill Shepherd in the coffee-shop is a good example. I didn’t want the dialogue as it appeared in the script, so we improvised for about twelve minutes, then wrote it down and shot it. It was about three minutes in the end. Many of the best scenes, like the one in which De Niro says, ‘Suck on this,’ and blasts Keitel, were designed to be shot in one take. Although every shot in the picture had been drawn beforehand, with the difficulties we encountered, including losing four days of shooting because of rain, a lot of the stuff taken from the car had to be shot as documentary.
We looked at Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man for the moves when Henry Fonda goes into the insurance office and the shifting points of view of the people behind the counter.8. That was the kind of paranoia that I wanted to employ. And the way Francesco Rosi used black and white in Salvatore Giuliano was the way I wanted Taxi Driver to look in colour. We also studied Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash for the head-on framing, such as the shot of the grocery store before Travis Bickle shoots the black guy. Each sequence begins with a shot like that, so before any moves you’re presented with an image like a painting.
I don’t think there is any difference between fantasy and reality in the way these should be approached in a film. Of course, if you live that way you are clinically insane. But I can ignore the boundary on film. In Taxi Driver Travis Bickle lives it out, he goes right to the edge and explodes. When I read Paul’s script, I realized that was exactly the way I felt, that we all have those feelings, so this was a way of embracing and admitting them, while saying I wasn’t happy about them. When you live in a city, there’s a constant sense that the buildings are getting old, things are breaking down, the bridges and the subway need repairing. At the same time society is in a state of decay; the police force is not doing their job in allowing prostitution on the streets, and who knows if they’re feeding off it and making money out of it. So that sense of frustration goes in swings of the pendulum, only Travis thinks it’s not going to swing back unless he does something about it. It was a way of exorcizing those feelings, and I have the impression that De Niro felt that too.
Travis really has the best of intentions; he believes he’s doing right, just like St Paul. He wants to clean up life, clean up the mind, clean up the soul. He is very spiritual, but in a sense, Charles Manson was spiritual, which doesn’t mean that it’s good. It’s the power of the spirit on the wrong road. The key to the picture is the idea of being brave enough to admit having these feelings, and then act them out. I instinctively showed that the acting out was not the way to go, and this created even more ironic twists to what was going on.
It was crucial to Travis Bickle’s character that he had experienced life and death around him every second he was in south-east Asia. That way it becomes more heightened when he comes back; the image of the street at night reflected in the dirty gutter becomes more threatening. I think that’s something a guy going through a war, any war, would experience when he comes back to what is supposedly ‘civilization’.Scorsese
He’d be more paranoid. I’ll never forget a story my father told me about one of my uncles coming back from the Second World War and walking in the street. A car backfired and the guy just instinctively ran two blocks! So Travis Bickle was affected by Vietnam: it’s held in him and then it explodes. And although at the end of the film he seems to be in control again, we give the impression that any second the time bomb might go off again.
About BERNARD HERRMANN:
It wasn’t easy getting Bernard Herrmann to compose the music for Taxi Driver. He was a marvellous, but crotchety old man. I remember the first time I called him to do the picture. He said it was impossible, he was very busy, and then asked what it was called. I told him and he said, ‘Oh, no, that’s not my kind of picture title. No, no, no.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe we can meet and talk about it.’ He said, ‘No, I can’t. What’s it about?’ So I described it and he said, ‘No, no, no. I can’t. Who’s in it?’ So I told him and he said, ‘No, no, no. Well, I suppose we could have a quick talk.’ Working with him was so satisfying that when he died, the night he had finished the score, on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, I said there was no one who could come near him. You get to know what you like if you see enough films, and I thought his music would create the perfect atmosphere for Taxi Driver.
People related to the film very strongly in terms of loneliness. I never realized what that image on the poster did for the film – a shot of De Niro walking down the street with the line, ‘In every city there’s one man.’ And we had thought that audiences would reject the film, feeling that it was too unpleasant and no one would want to see it!
I wanted the violence at the end to be as if Travis had to keep killing all these people in order to stop them once and for all. Paul saw it as a kind of Samurai ‘death with honour’ – that’s why De Niro attempts suicide – and he felt that if he’d directed the scene, there would have been tons of blood all over the walls, a more surrealistic effect. What I wanted was a Daily News situation, the sort you read about every day: ‘Three men killed by lone man who saves young girl from them’. Bickle chooses to drive his taxi anywhere in the city, even the worst places, because it feeds his hate.
Making of Taxi Driver: Film making Lessons