“Forty years,” Robert DeNiro said, to begin his introduction of the Tribeca Film Festival’s 40th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver. “Every day, for forty fucking years, at least one of you has come up and said, ‘Are you talkin’ to me?'” The ubiquity of that quote is the most obvious example of how Paul Schrader’s script, Robert DeNiro’s performance, and Martin Scorsese’s film have penetrated the pop culture consciousness – but it’s by no means the only way it resonates. Its frightening story, of a loner misfit and the rage inside him that finally manifests itself in a horrifying bloodbath, is one we still tell, albeit on the evening news rather than in the cinema.
But one of the key takeaways of the panel discussion that followed the Tribeca screening, populated by a full stage of actors and filmmakers, was how unexpected either its success or prescience was. “It wasn’t a film that I thought anybody would really see,” insisted director Scorsese. “It was a film that was made out of passion of the situation, where we were at the time… This was something we had to do, and then we’d move on with our lives.” Not that much of that actually came up; according to Scorsese, “What I saw, I couldn’t articulate, it just had to be done. And I think Bob [De Niro] and I, we never spoke about meaning or theory of any kind…”
To which De Niro interjected, dryly, “We never had long, existential discussions.”
Scorsese and producer Michael Phillips recalled a long, difficult shoot during a particularly sticky New York summer, in which humidity and rain were both frustrating and vital. “Being in the city, in the summer – you can feel it in the film, Michael Chapman’s photography, you could taste the humidity, you could taste a sense of anger and violence that was emanating from the streets themselves, it was crazy. The rains, though… we finally just started shooting in it, because we couldn’t match anything. The scene with the apple pie, in the luncheonette, I didn’t wanna shoot against the wall. I wanted to shoot out the window, because we had all of Columbus Circle out there – but nothing matched, because it’d stop raining, and rain…”
“Don’t fall for this,” screeenwriter Schrader piped in, with a chuckle. “Scorsese has never cared about whether things matched.”
“That’s true!” Scorsese immediately agreed. “That’s true.”
One of the more difficult moments came in the service of perhaps the film’s most famous shot – the overhead composition that surveys the carnage of Travis’s climactic bloodbath, tracking out of Iris’s room, into the hallway, and down the stairs. “We’re in this condemned building, right?” Scorsese explained. “And the building was somehow, it was condemned, but we were still shooting a movie in there, I don’t know what happened. So it was in the script that it was an overhead tracking, and they said, ‘How do you wanna get it,’ and I said, ‘I guess we have to cut through the ceiling,’ which is what they did. It took about three months, remember, and then when it came time to shoot it, the child labor law person [there to watch the clock and log Jodie Foster’s working hours] said, ‘You only have twenty minutes.'”
“So sorry,” Foster immediately replied, with total sincerity.
“Twenty minutes!” Scorsese laughed. “We spent like a year working up to it, and here we are, ‘Please, just one more shot!’ We got it, I think in two takes.”
“Sometimes, that’s all it takes!” Foster said with a smile.
Some of Scorsese’s fondest memories were of Bernard Hermann, the legendary composer of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and countless more, who composed the score and finished conducting its recording on the day he died. The music was a particular challenge for Scorsese, who Schrader calls a “needle-drop addict,” usually drawing on existing music to populate his soundtracks. “That’s how I grew up,” he explained, “all the music around me, from different places, different windows, whether it was opera or jazz or swing rock and roll, and so that’s the way I saw everything, in Mean Streets or even Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. But Travis doesn’t listen to anything! He doesn’t listen to any music! So the only person that could do something that could express what he’s suffering is Bernard Herrmann… he heard it all in brass.”
That understanding, of who that character was and what demons drove him, still resonates. “The script began as self-therapy,” Schrader explained. “There was a person who I was afraid of, who I was afraid I was becoming, who was this taxi driver. And I felt that if I wrote about him, I could distance him from me. And it worked. But the beauty of it, as it migrated through director, cast, studio, release, et cetera, it still retained that original purpose, that purgative power I think, after 40 years, is still imbued in the film.”
He’s right. After all these years, after all the cinematic imitations and real life copycats, after all the cultural iconography and postmodern quotation, no one ever talks about the most poignant line in the picture. It’s written in Travis’s journal: “I believe that someone should become a person, like other people.” That one line is the whole movie – the story of a man who tries desperately to be that person, and is simply not equipped to do so. He tries to connect with his fellow cabbies, and he’s a half-beat behind; he generates a real spark with Betsy and squanders it with a wildly inappropriate first-date choice; he can’t even get a conversation going with a pimp. Any of those scenes could go another way (look at how intensely Betsy’s flirting with him in those first couple of scenes), but his social instincts are for shit, he reads people and situations wrong, he sees the world around him through a lens of paranoia, where everyone’s looking at him and everyone’s taunting him.
The picture brilliantly adopts that perspective, puts those images into his field of vision, and swirls them around in a dreamlike blurring of day and night, standard and slow-motion, noise and music. Of course he ends up with “some bad ideas in my head.” As best we can tell, it’s a scary fucking place to be.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs through Sunday.