Times Staff Writer

Paul Schrader has obvious misgivings about this process. Another interview, another attempt to explain how and why he made “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” followed by one more story that may falsely raise expectations among Warner Bros. executives.

“This film has a very curious commercial problem,” Schrader says, on the afternoon of “Mishima’s” screening in the San Francisco Film Festival. “I have to continually remind the studio people what the reality is because, with all the attention it’s getting, they are starting to think it should perform (at the box office). It can’t.”

You don’t hear many directors predict that their films will be box-office duds, but Schrader, a former film critic, knows what he has here, and he says no amount of publicity will draw moviegoers who aren’t disposed toward the subject.

“They read these articles and say, ‘Hey, this film is in Japanese. It’s very intellectual. This guy kills himself. You can’t fool me.’ ”

“Mishima,” which has also played in festivals in Europe, Canada and New York, has been getting a lot of attention because its executive producers are George Lucas and Francis Coppola, and because American-directed Japanese films dealing with existentialism and ritual suicide aren’t exactly a Hollywood staple.


Warner Bros. is opening the film in quality theaters (it opens at the Fine Arts here next Friday), but those drive-in operators who decide to pair it with “American Ninja” will get complaints.

“Mishima” is an impressionist summary of the intellectual life of Yukio Mishima, the controversial poet and author who many Westerners once heralded as Japan’s most important post-World War II literary figure.

He was also one of the country’s most outrageous pop personalities. He directed and starred in films, became a body builder and posed for beefcake photos that became pin-ups in the gay community, and he led a private army of about 100 soldiers dedicated to the spirit of their samurai ancestors.

When Mishima, in a gesture of both political and artistic action, disemboweled himself at a military base near Tokyo in 1970, his name became one of the least discussable subjects in Japan.

Enter Paul Schrader.

Schrader, who has exorcised his own demons while writing or directing such films as “Taxi Driver,” “American Gigolo” and “Hardcore,” began talking about doing a Mishima film nearly 10 years ago. Investors did not beat a path to his door.

Finally, Schrader and his collaborator, producer Tom Luddy, enlisted the support of Japanese producer Mata Yamamoto, who got financial commitments from two Japanese film companies, and Lucas and Coppola, who talked Warner Bros. into participating in a Japanese-American co-production.

Warner Bros., apparently hoping to bond future relationships with Lucas and Coppola (who are not planning any Japanese-language films right away), put up $3.25 million. The Japanese companies put up $2.25 million.

Ironically, the film may never be shown in Japan. Schrader says the idea of a non-Japanese making a movie about an undiscussable Japanese subject, even in Japanese with an all-Japanese cast, makes it temporarily unreleasable there.

“Japan is a consensus society,” he says. “Right now, there’s no consensus for showing this film.”

Another twist: Schrader, who says he has $70,000 of his own money in the movie, can only profit from “Mishima” if it is released in Japan. That’s the only market not tied up by Warner Bros., which he says has effectively written him out of profit sharing.

“Basically, they said, ‘We don’t want to give you the money, we’re doing this as a favor to George (Lucas). But if we do make money on it, we’re going to make sure you don’t get any of it.’ ”

Schrader quickly adds that he’d take the deal again on the same terms.

“I said, ‘Fine, take it all. I’m on my hands and knees. I just have to make (the movie).’ ”

“Mishima"--part biography, part docudrama, part fantasy--is both the most structured and most free-wheeling film Schrader has made. It may also be his most self-indulgent, since it ignores the more sensational elements of Mishima’s flamboyant life to focus on the one theme that drew him to the subject in the first place.

“I’ve always been interested in people who sort of feel uncomfortable in their own skins, who feel limited by physical existence itself, and try to get out,” Schrader says. “Mishima was certainly one of those people.”

So was Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and Julian Kay in “American Gigolo.” The first escaped through violence, Schrader says, the second through sex. Mishima escaped, if you call suicide a getaway, through art.

“He had this peculiar idea that art and action can only meet in death, and that death is the only true statement of art,” Schrader says. “He said that beautiful objects suffer under the pain of their own beauty, and that it’s the obligation of the artist to destroy his art at the height of its beauty.”

Talk like that would earn most of us a room with soft walls. But Mishima was a major cultural figure when those thoughts galvanized in his mind, and the fact that he carried his theory to its logical end--destroying himself after becoming his own work of art--is what fascinated Schrader.

Some critics have suggested that Schrader compromised the film when, in negotiating for story rights, he promised Mishima’s widow that he wouldn’t dwell on her husband’s homosexuality (" . . . like making Patton without mentioning World War II,” one reviewer groused). Schrader doesn’t want to hear that.

“I don’t take well to criticism that I somehow sold out,” he says. “If I sell out, I want a lot of money for it. I worked on this movie for two years without a paycheck.”

(Not that Schrader was standing in Tokyo bread lines. He’s still in demand as a writer and in the last three years has written “Mosquito Coast” for director Peter Weir and two others for “Taxi Driver” director Martin Scorsese--"The Last Temptation of Christ” and a biography on George Gershwin.)

Anyway, “Mishima” is behind him, and whatever its critical and commercial future, Schrader says it marks the end of a chapter in his life too. Unlike Mishima, Schrader has found art good therapy (“Every time I do something, I feel relieved of the need to do it again”) and he’s moving on.

“ ‘Mishima’ is the end of a cycle for me. My films have gotten progressively stylized, progressively formal and less and less contingent on character. So I’m going to start over. My next film is going to take me back closer to ‘Blue Collar’ . . . where everything was totally contingent on character.”

The next film is “Born in the U.S.A.,” a family drama set in Cleveland. Schrader says he wrote the script about five years ago and showed it to Bruce Springsteen, hoping the rock star would write the music for it. Springsteen said he wasn’t interested in working on movies, Schrader says, but he liked the title so much, he borrowed it (Schrader got credit on the jacket of Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” album).

Schrader is obviously in a mellower mood than when he was 16 years ago when he arrived in Hollywood and began shucking the Calvinist cocoon he grew up in in Grand Rapids, Mich. Most of his films and scripts scratched their themes from the social underbelly and Schrader acknowledges that in his aggressive attempts to “energize” audiences, he’s often simply angered them.

The 38-year-old director says he’s easing into his mid-life now. He and his wife, actress Mary Beth Hurt, and their 20-month-old daughter (born in Japan during the making of “Mishima”) shuttle back and forth between a loft apartment in Manhattan and their home in suburban Westchester County, N.Y.

“It is a very conventional existence,” he says. “At least, it’s as conventional as it can be in this business.”