Studying films, whether they're poorly or masterfully made, is one of the greatest ways you can educate yourself about how (not) to make a film. Martin Scorsese's masterfully made Taxi Driver has been studied time and time again by experts, students, and enthusiasts, but in this 1999 documentary about the making of the film, we get to hear from the filmmakers themselves, including Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, DP Michael Chapman, editor Tom Rolf, the cast, and even legendary makeup artist Dick Smith, who explain in great detail how Taxi Driver came to be. Continue on for a few key takeaways from the doc.
Deconstructing the Screenplay
Written by Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver's screenplay is interesting for many reasons; it tells the story of a truly lovingly detestable anti-hero, the inciting incident doesn't occur until about 45 minutes in (traditionally, it's 15 minutes), and it really gets into the seedy underworld that is both Travis Bickle's neighborhood and his mind.
Anyone who is writing a screenplay should absolutely take some time to hear Schrader as he shares his insight about the development of the story, as well as its themes. Unfortunately, his interview is scattered throughout the documentary, but in part 1, he explains how he came up with the idea to write the screenplay (he was isolated, broke, and living in his ex-girlfriend's apartment without electricity).
Improvisation Starts Before You Say "Action"
The subject of how the actors went about improvising for Taxi Driver starts right at the beginning of part 2 of the documentary, with actor Albert Brooks, who played Tom in the film, explaining how it's a misconception that improvisation starts once the camera starts rolling. He says that improvisation occurs during rehearsals and meetings, something Robert De Niro knew and used to help Jodie Foster become more comfortable around him in order to make their performances more genuine.
Foster explains that De Niro would take her to a diner and wouldn't speak to her while they were there. After this happened a couple of times, she says that she began getting restless and bored, feelings that she was able to use in her performance. Furthermore, she reveals how De Niro, at one of these meetings, would begin rehearsing the diner scene with her, at first with the lines from the script, then would begin to improvise, so she would have to think on her toes about what the say next, instead of leaning on her memory of the lines. This process, not the memorization of the lines, is what she says helped her understand and take charge of a scene.
How to Make a Good Blood/Skull/Brain Matter Mixture
Dick Smith is considered to be one of, if not the best makeup artist in the business. He talks at length about his role in creating the special effects makeup in the film. He explains, thankfully, in detail how he created the different makeups and effects, including Travis Bickle's mohawk (did anyone else not know that wasn't his real hair?), as well as the gruesome injuries sustained during the bloody showdown scene at the end of the movie.
All of these things are explained in part 5 of the documentary, but one special effects secret that is definitely worth sharing comes not from Smith (well, sort of), but from Jodie Foster. I wish I could tell you exactly where she says this -- it's around the same time she talks about not being phased by all of the blood, but instead being in awe of the techniques used -- but she essentially shares something that Smith revealed to her while on set -- how to make a gunshot-to-the-head blowout look real. You see, you get your blood (whichever concoction you use/buy), then add bits of sponge to represent the brains, and then add bits of styrofoam to represent the pieces of shattered skull. Delightful!
Check out the documentary below. It's about 70 minutes long, but you get to hear from the film's cinematographer, editor, and a host of others who worked on the film.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqgdsrosZgo
Have you ever utilized the techniques used in Taxi Driver, like improvising during rehearsals? What caught your attention about the making of the film? Let us know in the comments below.