“A lot of things in this film make me cringe a little bit.”
Writer/director Paul Schrader has been working steadily since the late ’70s delivering more than a few acknowledged classics in the process. As writer and/or director he’s given the world The Yakuza, Taxi Driver, Obsession, Rolling Thunder, American Gigolo, Raging Bull, Cat People, The Mosquito Coast, and more, and his latest film, Dog Eat Dog, is currently building a fan base on the festival circuit.
His work captures the American darkness in a uniquely affecting way, and while it’s rarely discussed as being one of his best efforts, his 1979 drama Hardcore remains one of my favorites. It’s a raw, sad, under-appreciated dismantling of innocence, and I think it’s deserving of more love. Twilight Time’s newly released Blu-ray of the film features a commentary on the film from Schrader, so I gave it a listen.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Hardcore.
Commentator: Paul Schrader (writer/director)
1. Schrader introduces himself by saying it’s now 2016, this is a film he made in 1978, and his memory may be “a little faulty.”
2. The film opens in Grand Rapids, MI, which is his own hometown. The opening neighborhood shots are of the street where he used to live, and his father is the man cleaning the snow from a car in the driveway.
3. The script was originally titled Pilgrim “because we didn’t want to alienate the locals with the title Hardcore.”
4. Schrader’s mother is seen at the 3:52 mark in the foreground of the shot. She died before the film was released.
5. George C. Scott, who plays Jake VanDorn, was in dour spirits during production, and Schrader credits it to the failure of two recent directorial efforts. The films, Rage and The Savage Is Loose, were both released in the early ’70s so clearly Scott was a man prone to hanging on to a grudge.
6. “And of course he had a drinking problem,” Schrader says about his star. Scott’s contract had five break days built in for “alcoholic problems” in case they were needed.
7. He credits The Searchers as an obvious inspiration for the film.
8. Schrader’s first meeting with Scott was a bust when the actor didn’t show up, but a tip led the director to a particular bar in search of him. “George came out, and he was just wearing his undershorts, and he saw me in the distance and says ‘Where’s that cocksucker who thinks he can direct?’ At which point I said ‘That would be me George.’” They retrieved his clothes from the bartender and took him home.
9. Parts of Jack Nitzsche’s score – around the 9:00 mark – was performed by a Hungarian artist rubbing the rims of glasses filled to varying degrees with water.
10. Drunken Scott sounds like the opposite of the life of the party. Their first alcohol-fueled meeting led the actor to ask Schrader why he’d hire “someone with a face as ugly as this.” It went on for a while, “and at one point a shotgun comes out” as Scott verbalized a wish to shoot himself or his father.
11. He chose Ilah Davis to play young Kristen VanDorn, the girl who heads to California to get lost in pornography, “because she was not conventionally beautiful, and was the sort of person who could be lured by flattery.”
12. “My parents did not see movies, nor did they approve of them,” he says, but when his father died Schrader was surprised to find VHS tapes of every film he’d been involved in among his father’s possessions. “But they were all in their original wrappers.”
13. Schrader heard from his brother that their father had in fact driven to Chicago to catch a screening of Hardcore to avoid being seen entering the theater. The director asked his dad if it was true, and he replied “with the only bit of film criticism he’d ever given me which was ‘Yes, and I’m glad your mother was not alive to see it with me.’”
14. Scott told him before shooting that he’d give the director two takes, “three if you need it,” but that was his limit because after that his performances just wouldn’t be any different. “And he was right about that.”
15. The diner scene between VanDorn and Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) required an extra take after Boyle left quick to use the bathroom. Boyle returned to see Scott performing the scene without him and later told Schrader “You know, I’ve been trying to get at this guy and get really get a reaction from him, and now I see why. It doesn’t matter if I’m there.” Schrader heard something similar a few years later from Hector Elizondo who had done some theater with Scott. Apparently Scott was extremely near-sighted, to the point “that he couldn’t see other people on the stage.” He tried contact lenses once but panicked when he realized he could see everyone including the audience.
16. The exception to Scott’s 2–3 take rule was the scene where VanDorn first sees his daughter’s porn film. Scott said he would do his reaction only once and didn’t tell Schrader what exactly he was going to do. As the director point out, part of the scene has now become an internet meme.
17. Scott told Schrader during production that while he’s a good writer he’s a terrible director, and “this movie is a piece of shit.” The exchange occurred in Scott’s trailer during a shoot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in which the actor chose to drink instead of reporting to set. Scott finally agreed to exit the trailer and film the scene but only after Schrader promised to never direct a film ever again.
18. Schrader has two regrets on the film. “One is the ending, and the other is a casting thing.” The actor in question is Season Hubley. “She’s a nice enough girl and a nice enough actress, but I just felt she was too pretty.” He had originally cast Diana Scarwid (Mommie Dearest), but a studio executive vetoed her for not being attractive enough.
19. The original ending had Jake never find Kristen and ultimately learn that she had died in a car accident unrelated to her porn adventures. It was also vetoed by the same studio executive. Schrader saw his original as more of a Chinatown-type ending – ie a real downer – and greatly prefers it. “The ambiguous ending is always better,” he says, as the audience is given something to think about afterwards.
20. He’s only done a few films with “orchestral type scores” as he’s more a fan of ambient, rock-centered scores.
21. Warren Beatty originally wanted to do the film, and Schrader spent six months working with him to get the script to his liking. Beatty felt he was too young to have a daughter and instead suggested the missing girl be a girlfriend. He recalls the actor’s obsessive nature at pushing an idea again and again until it’s accepted and says “I understand part of his success as a Don Juan is absolute perseverance.”
22. His work from Hardcore to Auto Focus to The Canyons made him witness “to the economics of the sex business in Los Angeles change rather dramatically.”
23. He recalls crew members being initially excited to spend three weeks filming in a red-light district, but the thrill was short-lived. “By the time we were finished I had more than one crew member say ‘Boy I’m gonna be glad to get out of this. I haven’t been able to touch my wife in three weeks now.’”
24. Penny Marshall once told him his problem was that everything has a line and he always insists on stepping over it. “The stepping over it gets to be the interesting part,” he says, adding that his latest film steps over it yet again.
25. He credits Pauline Kael as being his mentor and for getting him a job as a film critic. “I finally lost the job when I panned Easy Rider.”
26. The advent of long-form television bothers him for a few reasons, and one of them is how often they’re shot “very unimaginatively.” He says Mr. Robot is an exception.
27. Schrader knew George Lucas and asked his permission before shooting the scene with completely nude strippers playing with light sabers. “The way things have gone on in the history of Star Wars that could never happen again.”
28. The scene around the 1:06:05 mark taught Schrader a valuable lesson about framing and ratios. Niki (Hubley) walks naked into the peep booth, sits on a chair, and opens her legs. The full-frame version reveals that she’s wearing underwear for that last part.
29. He rarely revisits his films. “One of two things can happen. One, you look at it and say ‘God I was talented then, where did my talent go?’ Or you look back and say ‘I didn’t have any talent then and I still don’t have any talent.’”
30. Niki’s “Rorer 714” tee-shirt is referencing a pharmaceutical-quality Quaalude. “It was a truly great and sorely missed drug.” The shirt was made special for the film. They also made the one that says simply “Sniff.”
31. Hardcore is in some ways about his father, while Light of Day is somewhat about his mother, “and they’re two of my worst failures.”
32. He thinks the film features far more bad writing than good, and he would shorten it dramatically if given another shot at it in the editing room.
33. Snuff films were a possibility when the film was produced, but they were more of an imagined fear than a reality. “They were talked about. It was always some sort of Mexican thing, with a girl in Mexico got killed.” He was unable to locate one while researching this film but says thanks to the internet you can now easily watch them. I’m not sure that’s accurate…
34. An unnamed character watching a snuff video at the 1:29:48 mark is wearing the Travis Bickle jacket from Taxi Driver. He was almost convinced to make it his cameo, but instead his first is in Dog Eat Dog.
35. The scene where Jake finally finds his daughter in the club was a re-shoot at the studio’s insistence. “One of the complications of changing the ending was that this girl (Davis) had been cast essentially because she would do the nudity, but she wasn’t cast because she was such a strong actress.” What he’s saying is yes, he knows her performance in this final scene is “problematic.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“George, at this time, was not a terribly happy man.”
“The whole business of pornography was much different then, you didn’t have the cheerleaders and the A-team going into pornography at that time like we do now.”
“Between Richard Pryor in my first film and George in my second I’ve pretty much hit my quota of colorful stories.”
“So much of this film is just a slow burn, the fun of putting George in these environments and just watching his reactions.”
“I do have to admit, there was a large element of a kid in a candy shop here. I probably did more research than was necessary.”
“I like the jism stains here on the plexi.”
“Here’s a scene I do not remember.”
“Topless lady wrestling, there’s a lost art.”
“Well that was exhausting.”
Schrader calls his sophomore film a sophomoric endeavor, and that’s probably one his kinder thoughts on the finished product. His specific complaints are often valid, but the movie works more than it doesn’t as a document of one man’s descent into hell. Regardless of where you stand on the film though, there’s no denying that Schader’s commentary is a fantastically entertaining listen. His recollections of working with Scott are alone worth the price of admission.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.