Taxi Driver (1976): Origins of the Still Disturbing Movie

Taxi Driver, one of Scorsese’s best films, celebrates its 40th Anniversary with a special showing at the 2016 Tribeca Film Fest.

The Hollywood Reporter: Oral History

Just months after Martin Scorsese completed shooting Taxi Driver on the streets of New York in 1975, the New York Daily News ran its infamous front-page headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The president had denied a federal bailout to New York, then on the brink of bankruptcy.

The movie captures that nadir in the city’s history: As his cab glides through the rain-soaked streets, Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, a lonely Vietnam vet, eyes the pimps and drug dealers choking the sidewalks and intones, “Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”

Those mean streets have been scrubbed clean, but Taxi Driver, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a screening reuniting the filmmakers at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, remains and disturbing. In Paul Schrader’s screenplay, born out of his own moment of crisis, Bickle first obsesses over Cybill Shepherd’s campaign worker, a cool, unobtainable beauty, and when rebuffed, tries to become an avenging angel, watching over Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute. Pauline Kael called the movie “one of the few truly modern horror films.” It went on to earn four Oscar nominations — for De Niro and Foster, composer Bernard Herrmann and best picture, only to lose that big prize to the more upbeat Rocky.

PAUL SCHRADER (screenwriter) I had a series of things falling apart, a breakdown of my marriage, a dispute with the AFI, I lost my reviewing job. I didn’t have any money and I took to drifting, more or less living in my car, drinking a lot, fantasizing. The Pussycat Theater in L.A. would be open all night long, and I’d go there to sleep. Between the drinking and the morbid thinking and the pornography, I went to the emergency room with a bleeding ulcer. I was about 27, and when I was in the hospital, I realized I hadn’t spoken to anyone in almost a month. So that’s when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me — this metal coffin that moves through the city with this kid trapped in it who seems to be in the middle of society but is in fact all alone. I knew if I didn’t write about this character I was going to start to become him — if I hadn’t already. So after I got out of the hospital, I crashed at an ex-girlfriend’s place, and I just wrote continuously. The first draft was maybe 60 pages, and I started the next draft immediately, and it took less than two weeks. I sent it to a couple of friends in L.A., but basically there was no one to show it to [until a few years later]. I was interviewing Brian De Palma, and we sort of hit it off, and I said, “You know, I wrote a script,” and he said, “OK, I’ll read it.”

MICHAEL PHILLIPS (producer) My then-wife Julia and I were living on Nichols Beach, and our next-door neighbors were Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt, and Brian De Palma was living with Margot at the time. Brian said to me one day, “There’s this guy who has written a screenplay. It’s not really for me, but I think it’s your taste.” It was incredibly pure, a very honest piece of work. So I went to my two partners at the time, Julia and Tony Bill, and proposed we acquire it for $1,000, and by a two-to-one vote — Tony and I voted to acquire it, and Julia voted against it — we acquired the option.

MARTIN SCORSESE (director) Brian gave me the script. I reacted very viscerally, almost mystically to it and its tone and the struggle of the character. But I was still trying to get them to take me seriously as a filmmaker. I’d done a low-budget independent film called Who’s That Knocking [at My Door] and an exploitation film for Roger Corman called Boxcar Bertha. I liked Julia a lot, but she kept pushing me away, dismissive, but funny. She’d just tell me, “Come around again when you’ve done something more than Boxcar Bertha.”

PHILLIPS It took several years to get made. One day Paul suggested we see a rough cut of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and midway through, I really felt this is our guy. Johnny Boy (played by De Niro) is our actor. So we made a proposal to Marty and Bob’s agent. They both had to do it or neither. I mean it was silly, in retrospect.

ROBERT DE NIRO (Travis Bickle) We all liked the script a lot and wanted to do it and were committed to it.