Like some new kind of drug, Paul Schraders Light Sleeper exerts a powerful emotional pull. Following Taxi Driver and American Gigolo in what Schrader calls his "man in a room" series, Light Sleeper is the story of drug delivery boy John LeTours mid-life crisis, a moody urban parable awash in waves of nostalgia and low-key despair. Light Sleeper shows us the gradual disintegration of one mans identity, an unraveling that begins when friends die, romance sours, a career ends, and, more importantly, when the Reagan-era highlife which fueled upscale drug use inexplicably vanishes, taking with it its accompanying aura of cool.
Schraders direction, with its wandering, dispassionate camera eye, is entirely in sync with the films zonked out subject matter. Cinematographer Ed Lachman, whose heavy gels and myriad shades of neon once defined a downtown look in Desperately Seeking Susan, now conveys a subcultures demise in all its muted, fading glamour. (The films opening show, by the way, is a must see, simply and elegant tour de force.) And Willem Dafoe anchors the film with an excellent performance. Travis Bickles hair-trigger charm, his desperation to please, ages here into the quiet pain, the persistent feeling of melancholy which lies just beneath LeTours affable exterior. Typically wonderful is Susan Sarandon as LeTours employer, a brassy New Age drug dealer. If her intervention in LeTours life, and LeTours eventual discovery of inner freedom, isnt as upbeat as perhaps Schrader intends, thats probably due to the lingering sense of despair carried over from the rest of the film. Indeed, days after viewing it, Light Sleeper leaves a potent filmic hangover.
We spoke with Schrader in his office at New Yorks Brill Building just before the films New York opening.
FILMMAKER: Light Sleeper is your third "man in a room" film? How has the central character changed over time and how has the audience changed in relation to him?
PAUL SCHRADER: The character has gotten older as Ive gotten older. When he was in his twenties he was angry. When he was in his thirties he was narcissistic. And now hes forty and hes anxious. I think that the times have changed similarly. Part of what Ive tried to do with this character is mix a personal evolution with a social one. I think we are in very anxious times and this character is appropriate.
FILMMAKER: How about in terms of Light Sleepers position within the marketplace? Now that his character is forty, is he as resonant a character to audiences?
SCHRADER: We will see. The character is I dont know. I cant answer that. I dont see [Light Sleeper] as a mass-audience movie but then I didnt see Taxi Driver and American Gigolo as mass-audience movies.
FILMMAKER: Nostalgia is an important theme in the film. The characters seem to be nostalgic for an earlier part of their lives and American today also seems drenched in nostalgia. Theres a sense in this campaign year that the best days are behind us.
SCHRADER: The American century is coming to close. The days when we could drive the world economic machine are over and therefore a lot of other things are over. America is having to come back to earth in a number of areas and theres a very anxious zeitgeist in this country.
FILMMAKER: Even the supposedly glamorous scenes in the film, like the nightclub scene, seem to be an expression of this winding down.
SCHRADER: Well, the main characters are too old to be doing what theyre doing. Like so many people of their age, they got into the drug business because it was fun. All the hip people were doing it. And then times changed and those people died or went straight. Here are these dealers in some kind of time warp. I based this on some people that I know and thats how they feel about their lives. They wonder, "How did we end up these old fogeys in a young peoples business?" I felt that was a wonderful metaphor for a kind of morbid nostalgia for my generation.
FILMMAKER: Theres a sense today that the European art film might also be a thing of the past. As someone influenced by the earlier films of Bertolucci and Bresson, does the sense of nostalgia you express in the film apply to film culture as well?
SCHRADER: Thats a problem of finances. National cinemas in general are in bad shape. Financing for German-language or French-language films is much harder to come by. But I wouldnt get too sad about this. Its all cyclical. We may be going through a trough of some sort but on the other hand there are a lot of exciting things happening right now too. Im not one to say that films are worse than ever. The two most exciting things in the world of film are gay cinema and black cinema, both of which are very alive and havent been filmmakers and film viewers who havent been empowered are being empowered and they have a lot to say.
FILMMAKER: What do you think of Wim Wenderss recent attack on violence in American film and his call for some sort of European response to Americas exporting of violent material?
SCHRADER: Well, I think hes right Its very hard to dictate popular art by fiat. There is some sort of pact that goes between the audience and the financiers and the filmmakers. One cant simply say, "We want something else." There has to be an interaction. I would hope that the market for violence is on the wane. There will always be a certain niche for it. I think [violence] has gotten a little too prevalent but audiences are making that correction.
FILMMAKER: Do you think Wenders could have been referring to some of your films?
SCHRADER: I dont know. [At this point, Schrader calls for his assistant to bring in a recent telegram from Wenders.] Part of the problem is that were making [violent movies] but that theyre buying them. We make a lot of films that Americans dont even care to see but we export them because the foreign market wants them. Chuck Norris and those kickboxing films arent that successful in America so were making them for the foreign market, not for ourselves. [Schrader then hands me the telegram from Wenders. In it, Wenders warmly praises Light Sleeper and says that Schraders direction is in a league with that of his own favorite director, Ozu.] I dont think Wim was talking about Light Sleeper.
FILMMAKER: In your essay "Notes on Film Noir," you point out some key elements of that genre, specifically romantic narration and a fear of the future. Both of these elements are present in Light Sleeper but you seem to have made a decision to play down issues of genre and de-emphasize plot elements in favor of character study.
SCHRADER: Each of those films has the same structure. A person goes from day to day, place to place, and has a job which takes him into other worlds. Hes sort of a voyeur who looks into other peoples lives and doesnt have one of his own. And events happen and sometimes they seem of consequence and sometimes they dont. At some point the events coalesce and form a plot and hes under enormous pressure. Theres an explosion and an epilogue. I like that structure. I like that idea of the plot slowly insinuating itself into the drama.
FILMMAKER: Your career has gone in a reverse direction from many filmmakers. You started out making studio films but your last four films have been financed either independently or with foreign money.
SCHRADER: I think Ive basically been doing the same kind of films. Its just that they type of films I do now, because of the financial structure of the industry, tend to be made by independents. I had one studio exec say to me, "We dont make films like this anymore." Their costs are so high, the P&A is so high, that they leave these films to the independents and then either pick them up or dont.
FILMMAKER: What was the production history of Light Sleeper?
SCHRADER: It happened quite quickly. I had the idea in September and finished the script by Christmas and I started shooting in March. [The script] had been turned down by everybody, even with Willem attached, and then I got Susan and still it was turned down with Susan attached. I was able to put together some money. I started with a video deal and then I brought in some French money and then I upped the video deal. The video company was owned by Carolco. My agent pointed out to Mario Kassar, who had not read the script, what a sweet deal this was for the French and that his company was on the video end of it. He read the script and looked at the deal and said, "Youre right, why dont we make the whole thing?" And thats how it came about. But it had been passed on by Carolco until I put together this enticing financing arrangement.
FILMMAKER: Didnt you at one point try to make this film with your own money?
SCHRADER: What happened was, the financing was dawdling. And I had given Susan and Willem a date of March 28 to start. Francis Coppola once said to me, "Just start making a movie and eventually people will believe youre going to make it and theyll finance it." So one day I came into the office and said, "Were going to go into pre-production." And then I financed the first three weeks of pre-production until we got the money. I think that thats what really made it happen, when people realized it was going forward.
FILMMAKER: Were you affected by the union turmoil that spring?
SCHRADER: I shot during the lock-out which meant that I was able to get the best crews at a low price because studios werent working in New York at that time. My crew had just come off Godfather 3 or Regarding Henry or Billy Bathgate so I had all the top guys who were basically doing a low budget film in lieu of nothing at all. The union salaries arent that exorbitant, its all the stuff built on top of them. If you work at scale you can make a film inexpensively. Its also important to know that when youre trying to make a low-budget film that looks like a big-budget film, the sacrifice has to begin at the top. It has to begin with me, Willem and Susan. Once the sacrifice begins there, then you can run it right through the whole production. Its almost impossible to get the crew to sacrifice when people at the top arent sacrificing.
FILMMAKER: Youve scored Light Sleeper with rock ballads that have an almost literal relationship to whats on screen. The approach makes the film warmer but it also makes the emotional drama kind of obvious.
SCHRADER: Yeah, I dont mind that. Some people have said that its a little too obvious, but I like it. That gets to be a personal call. When I wrote the script I had Bob Dylans lyrics and I asked Bob for fives songs and he offered five other songs. I didnt want the songs he wanted to give me and he didnt want to give me the songs I wanted. But the idea even from the script stage was to have a third voice for the character. He has his dialogue voice and his diary voice and his song voice, which is his most romantic voice. Having it come out of the mouth of another person allowed it to be more romantic. [The music] sounds sort of like film scoring but in fact its another way the character can talk to you.
FILMMAKER: I liked the epilogue but somehow it didnt seem to me to be as upbeat as I thought it was intended. The characters main problem in the film seems to have been making a decision and, at the end, prison just solves that problem for him.
SCHRADER: The most important thing is that at the ending he says, "Ive been looking forward" when hes spent the last hour and 45 minutes looking backward. Its about getting to a point in your life when you can look forward and about finding freedom behind bars, which is a very Bressonian idea. In each of those films Ive had people say to me that the epilogue must have been added later. Each time it was written in the first draft. Its what the film is about. Each film is about the epilogue and if I could have just filmed the epilogue I would have been fine but of course I had to make the film in order to have the epilogue.
FILMMAKER: Whats ahead for you? More small films like Light Sleeper or do you want to do studio work again?
SCHRADER: I just made a deal to write a big Hollywood film a straight writing deal. I have a script for a big-budget film in New York which Im casting and trying to put together. I have a small little film that I wrote this spring like this one and thats still sitting on this desk somewhere that I dont know what Im going to do with yet. I have a film I want to do with Nick Nolte in about a year and a half when hes free to do it. I think that Ill be able to keep doing what Im doing. The point isnt that its difficult. Its always difficult. It wasnt ever easy for anybody. The point is it can be done.