Dialogue: Paul Schrader

The Berlin festival jury president on 'The Walker,' sexual politics and European financing.

As president of the International Jury, writer/director Paul Schrader won't just be watching other filmmakers' work at the Berlin International Film Festival. He'll also be debutting his latest feature "The Walker," a portrait of an escort who squires about society ladies that promises to offer another look at the type of man Schrader indelibly captured in "American Gigolo." And, at the same time, he hopes to squeeze his some pre-production meetings for his next film, "Adam Resurrected," set in an asylum for Holocaust survivors, which he's about to begin filming. Schrader spoke with The Hollywood Reporter film editor Gregg Kilday about the sexual politics behind his new film, the European financing that allows him to keep working, and his previous stint on a Berlin jury twenty years ago.

THR: "The Walker" has been described as a follow-up to "American Gigolo." How accurate is that?
Schrader: I don't like to keep hammering on that, because it makes it sound like a sequel. But it is the progression of a character I've dealt with in other films, starting with "Taxi Driver," "American Gigolo" and "Light Sleeper," and now he's about 50, and he's a society walker in Washington, D.C. These kind of character studies I like very much. When he was young, he was very angry, violent. When he gets older, he's superficial, narcissistic, anxious. It's a nice way to track and clock a type of character witout getting involved in sequels and having to directly connect them.

THR: How did you come to cast Woody Harrelson in the title role?
Schrader: Actually, it was his agent's suggestion. The attribute that this character has to have first and foremost is that he's funny. That's the currency of that world. It's not about intelligence, it's not about being a hunk, it's about being witty. I'd been looking at actors who could make you laugh, but I hadn't thought of Woody until CAA suggested him and it fell in quite quickly. To be honest, I entered into it with a little bit of trepidation, but Woody was an revleation. This is a an original performance that you haven't seen from Woody or from anyone else. When you do these sort of pieces, that's part of the fun, because you have an actor who's in every single scene. So you can let the actor show all sorts of gradations and really fill the role out.

THR: Why did you set the movie in Washington instead of somewhere like New York?
Schrader: Well, the character's homosexual. He has his canasta group, his lady friends played by Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily Tomlin and Lauren Bacall. And he has his boyfriend on the side. Washington is not the last, but the second to the last city in the country where sexual hypocrisy is mandated, the first being Los Angeles. I'm always interested in characters who choose to live a contradiction.

THR: Do you refer to any current politics in the film?
Schrader: There is a little bit. It is set against a very conservative administration. But there are no real names. It's more a view of Washington from the powder rooms rather than the smoke-filled rooms.

Is the title character inspired by any famous walkers like the late Jerry Zipkin?
Schrader: Jerry Zipkin was short, overweight, unpleasant. But he did inspire the name "the walker." John Fairchild (the former publisher of Women's Wear Daily) nicknamed him the walker and that's where the term came from. But the character in the film is actually based on somebody I know from Virgina, from the Southern aristorcracy -- a third or fourth generation political family, and he's the blacksheep, gay son.

THR: Are walkers an endangered species now that there is more openess about homosexuality?
Schrader: As long as there are rich and powerful husbands whose wives want to go to cultural events, there is going to be a need for witty, single men to escort them. Not all walkers are gay. But the wives of the powerful -- men like Ronnie Reagan are never going to go to the opera ball -- will always need walkers.

THR: In this case, does it all take a dark turn as in "American Gigolo"?
Schrader: The way the plot goes, Kristin Scott Thomas is the wife of a liberal senator. Woody's character has been bearding for her and dropping her off at her assignations. He sits in the car and waits for her and drives her home. Now, she comes out of the apartment building, and the man she's been with has been killed. He agrees to report the body so that her husband's name isn't besmirched. And then complications ensue. How far would you go to protect another person's reputation? It's an interesting dilemma. Well, not in Holllywood, but for other people it's an interesting dilemma. Everyone knows this guy is gay, but the moment he's publicly outed, everybody turns on him.

THR: How did you assemble the financing?
Schrader: It took about six years. I had it together twice and it fell apart twice. Finally, I put it together in Europe as a combination that includes Pathe Pictures International and the Isle of Man. None of the American distributors have seen it yet, because the Isle of Man will make that deal. Steve Christian (fund manager of the Isle of Man Film) gives you 25% of the budget and he gets to make the American deal. He decided not to sell it early.

THR: Are you finding Europe sources of financing more interested in the kind of movies you want to make than the American studios or even their specialty divisions?
Schrader: I have been working in Europe. The film I start shooting in April, "Adam Resurrected," which I'll be announcing in Berlin, is being financed out of Israel and Germany. If I can get the films I want to make financed out of Europe, that's fine with me. And the film I'm talking about doing after that would be financed out of Paris. Maybe, it is easier for me working out of Europe. God knows, "The Walker" went around to all the American companies, and didn't get financed by any of them.

THR: You were part of the early '70s American wave of filmmakers that shook up the film business. Do you ever find it discouraging that that era is over?
Schrader: It comes from the audiences. The role of film in society has changed. The role of audiences has changed. It will never be what it once was. But I'm perfectly willing to ride that broken down old horse of cinema into the sunset. But if I was starting again, if I was in my early twenties, I don't know if I'd aspire to be a film director.

THR: What have your previous experiences at the Berlin Festival been like?
Schrader: I was on the jury 20 years ago in '87. I was on a great jury, the last cold war jury. That year they started screening films for for the festival in the East, but the system was just coming apart. It was an East/West polarized jury. It was like (Billy Wilder's) "One, Two, Three." People were standing up in the jury room yelling at each other. "Platoon" was the American entry, and the Russians were calling it a fascist movie. Oh, my god, it was fabulous. But that's gone now.

THR: Going in, do you have any plans for how you'd like to see the jury conduct its business this year?
Schrader: They have a number of mandated meetings, and I suppose we'll have to discuss something at the meetings. It's either going to be politics or the movies. I expect it will be the movies. I have to wait and see what happens. But I don't see this as a very controversial situation. There is a kind of cultural consensus at the moment. And we don't have anyone on the jury who's really a nutter. So I don't think it will be that dramatic.