The last time writer-director Paul Schrader and actor Nicolas Cage worked together, on the 2014 thriller Dying of the Light, it didn’t work out well. Disputes with the financiers led to Schrader walking off of the project, and the end result—edited and scored without Schrader’s approval—bore only a passing resemblance to the far more ambitious film he and Cage had conceived. (To add insult to injury, the distributor marketed the compromised version by shamelessly exploiting Schrader’s name, hyping the movie as a new release “From the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.”)
Schrader and Cage’s new film, an adaptation of Eddie Bunker’s brilliant crime novel Dog Eat Dog (in theaters and on demand November 11th), proved to be a far happier experience. The tale of a trio of criminals (Cage is joined by Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook) who embarks on an ill-advised kidnapping scheme, Dog Eat Dog is one of the most audacious films Schrader has ever made—which is saying something, given that this is the guy who directed Mishima, American Gigolo and The Canyons. An assault on the eyes, ears, and good taste, it’s vulgar and confrontational in the best sense: darkly hilarious, provocative and stylistically unlike anything the director’s filmed before.
Paste sat down with Schrader and Cage following the Los Angeles premiere of the film at the American Cinematheque’s Beyond Fest and asked how the whole thing came about.
Paste Magazine: The book Dog Eat Dog floated around for a long time—Walter Hill talked about doing it in the ’90s, and other people have tried to get it going but couldn’t. How did it first come to you and what attracted you to it?
Paul Schrader: It was kind of a back-asswards genesis because Nic and I had done a film several years ago, which was taken from my hands and it was a very unpleasant experience. I said to Nic, “If we live long enough we should work together again, and get this stain from our clothes and do it right, with final cut,” and he said, “Yes, we should do that.” Then, somebody asked me to read this script by Matthew Wilder. I read that opening sequence with Mad Dog [played by Willem Dafoe] and thought, wow. Maybe this is it. Maybe Nic would like to do this one. I sent it to him and he said, “Yeah, I do want to do it, but I want to play Troy, not the crazy one.”
That’s how it all started, and then all of a sudden, now I’m making a crime film. I’m not a crime film director. I said, “Oh my God, I’ve got a crime film now with Nic Cage and Willem Dafoe. How do I do this?” Then I had to figure it out, and I wanted to make it feel like 2016, so it’s not really that faithful to Eddie Bunker.
Paste: Nic, why did you want to play Troy as opposed to Mad Dog? Mad Dog’s a showier part.
Nicolas Cage: I had just started a movie when Paul called me. I was in Marrakesh, Morocco, and I was doing this picture called Army of One. I play a guy who’s kind of a Don Quixote eccentric who’s going after Osama bin Laden, and frankly I found it exhausting. I just didn’t want to play another whackjob. Paul sent me the script and I said, “I love it.” It has this sort of non-linear narrative to it, kind of like La Jetée—it was very abstract, almost like a collage. I wanted to work with Paul again because I’m a big fan and he wrote a brilliant script for Dying of the Light. It’s a shame what happened to the picture, but that was a tremendous part for me. Anything Paul wanted me to do I would jump at, but he consented to my request to play Troy, which is great because we got Willem Dafoe to play Mad Dog and that’s about as good as it gets.
Schrader: In fact, this is my fifth time with Willem, and the last time I worked with him he did a day job for me. He said, “Look, I did this as a favor, but don’t ever ask me again. If you want me to work for you again, give me a real role.” I said, “Point taken.” Then I was able to call him up and say, “Willem, I got a real role for you,” so it worked out.
Paste: I feel like you and Dafoe throw down the gauntlet in that opening scene—it really tells people what kind of movie this is going to be and whether they should be on board.
Schrader: We try to clear the house of all the people who came to the wrong theater [laughs].
Paste: The whole movie has such a weird style and I’m curious how you got everybody acclimated to that tone. What kinds of conversations did you have with the actors beforehand?
Schrader: It wasn’t written as a comedy. It evolved. I kept thinking, “This shit is funny.” It kind of evolved that way and the Bogart material [Cage’s character has a number of riffs on the legendary movie star] was not in the book, not in the script. That was something that Nic started evolving while we were shooting. Maybe he can tell you the genesis of that.
Cage: I realized I was playing something of a straight man, but I wanted to give it a twist. I don’t want to talk too much about why I’m speaking like Bogart at the end of the movie—I want that to be a personal secret—but it occurred to me that Troy, he didn’t have tattoos, and I remember Paul said something like 90% of the people in prison have tattoos. I said, “That doesn’t matter; Troy’s not going to have tattoos. He dresses well, and he loves golden age movie stars, especially Humphrey Bogart.” He aspires to be Bogart within the context of the criminal mind, that would be his hero. If he is dead in the end—I think he is—you can kind of connect the dots as to why he’s channeling Humphrey Bogart.
Schrader: Nic had said to me, “I’m not sure how to play the ending of this. How did he get away?” I said, “Well, maybe he didn’t get away. Maybe it’s like an afterlife thing.” Then we come to shoot the scene and we’re reading it through and Nic’s doing it all as Bogart. I said, “You sure you want to do this, Nic? We don’t have time to do it twice.” He said, “Well, you know, well if he is dead, you know, he could be Bogart.” He said, “Look, you’ve been telling me for five weeks now we have to be bold, and I think this is bold.” I said, “You’re right,” so we did it.
Cage: To Paul’s credit, he actually let me do it, so that’s amazing. It’s almost like a walk-in from the beyond, but when I did Wild at Heart where I worked with Willem, I had read Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares, and in that book Stanlislavski said the worst thing you can do as an actor is to imitate someone. Me being me, I had to break those rules, and I was believing in something like art synchronicity where if you can do something in one art form you can do it in another. I was thinking about Warhol and how he would do these marvelous icons, or portraits of icons like Presley, or Jagger, or Dean. I thought: If he can do that in that art form why can’t a film actor do that in film acting? That’s when I came up with the concept of, “Well, I’m going to play, say, Ripley as though he thinks he’s Elvis Presley.” That’s where that started, and that was the first time anything like that happened. Then I did another picture called Kickass where I was channeling, in my opinion, the only Batman, Adam West. I said to Paul, “Look, this is one of my paintbrushes that I’ve cultivated or developed over the years that I like to paint with. I’ve taken on Presley, I’ve taken on Adam West, but I’ve never taken on Bogart before. Let’s try this. Let’s give this a go. Let’s go for this.” He said OK, and he shook my hand right there behind closed doors, then off we went.
Schrader: Basically, it was sort of a handshake, [like] “Well, we’re going down together.”
Cage: Or up, which is kind of like that scene anyway. Are we going up or down?
Paste: You mentioned that you only have the time to do it once, but 30 or 40 years ago you probably would have made this movie with a studio with much bigger resources. I’m curious if the limited time and money that you have doing an independent film now—what are the advantages and what are the disadvantages?
Schrader: Well that’s an interesting thing. When I started making a film such as this one, it’d be 45 or 50 takes. This was 24 days, so it’s half the time, but more for Nic because you never stop. You just run and gun, you never get to your trailer because by the time you reach the door the P.A. is saying, “Mr. Schrader, they’re ready,” and you make decisions much faster. I’m not so sure it was better when it was slower, because a lot of that time was not spent very creatively. A lot of time spent in your trailer doing drugs [laughs]. Maybe it’s better that we make them faster now.
Paste: I also noticed that this movie had a lot of crew members who were new, or at least they were new to me, whereas you used to work with guys like John Bailey and Dante Spinotti and people like that. Was working with a younger, newer crew an economic choice, an artistic choice or both?
Schrader: It was both, but more artistic than economic. Obviously we didn’t want to pay them [laughs]. I was getting this theory: There was a generation that made the rules, a generation that codified that rules and then there was a generation, my generation, that broke the rules. Then there’s Quentin [Tarantino]’s generation that laughed at the rules. Now we have a new generation that doesn’t know there were rules. I said, “That’s what I need, these kids who grew up thinking you made films with your phone and whose only context is that.” I don’t want people who are going to think outside the box. I want people who are outside the box, and who couldn’t find the box if you asked them. That was my thinking about bringing in people who weren’t from film and didn’t have film credits. We met every week for that summer talking about crime films, watching crime films, and I said, “Look, the bad news is we don’t have enough money to do this right. The good news is that I have final cut and we can make it any fucking film we want.” So this is the one we ended up making.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. He has written about movies for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.