Paul Schrader resembles a well-dressed but caged inmate as he stalks the large art gallery that comprises a major set for his latest picture, “The Comfort of Strangers.”
“The one reason I never leave the set is I’m always thinking, living, grasping the moment,” says the very successful screenwriter (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull”) and occasionally successful Hollywood director (“Blue Collar,” “Hardcore,” “American Gigolo” and “Mishima”).
“Like athletics, being alive in the moment is the biggest challenge with this.”
After disappointing critical and box-office response to his last two films, “Patty Hearst” and “The Light of Day,” Schrader is returning on his eighth picture to what he calls “something very glamorous.” A contemporary psychological horror story, “Comfort” stars Christopher Walken as a seductive Venetian who preys on an unsuspecting British tourist couple played by Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett.
“ ‘Comfort,’ ” Schrader promises, “will be a stylish piece, a return, like ‘Gigolo’ or ‘Cat People,’ to that sleekness with a very theatrical approach. I thought it would be nice to make one of those films again.”
Like his 1986 “Mishima” and last year’s “Patty Hearst,” Schrader is only directing “Comfort"; Harold Pinter adapted Ian McEwan’s macabrely erotic 1981 novella.
“A very good story, laden with moral complexities and richness of language,” Schrader says. “It has some psychological similarities to ‘The Servant,’ which was Harold’s first script, where one person insinuates himself into the life of another with an aura of sexual ambiguity.”
Schrader has just filmed a brief scene with a white-suited Walken in the art-strewn gallery, one added after Schrader watched the dailies. This controlled environment in the Rome studio is a welcome contrast after six hellish weeks in Venice, filming six days a week without any municipal cooperation.
“There’s no restriction even against interfering with your work,” Schrader says calmly. “Someone stands in front of your camera and you call the police and they say, ‘So what?’ You can pay them off.”
Logistically, because everything moves on water, Venice is a difficult city for a film crew. Schrader discovered filming was restricted because “you can’t light from the sidewalks--there aren’t any. You have to light from people’s homes.
“We contracted with perhaps 140 different people to hang lights from their houses, on the roofs. Then you get there to shoot and the woman says, ‘Oh my son made that deal and I don’t want to do it, etc.’ More money changes hands.
“So you really have to know what your shots are months in advance to figure out what your lights are going to be.
“You can’t get on location with your actors and have them say, ‘We want to do this.’ You say, ‘We don’t have any light there. We don’t have any permission to put light there.”’
Schrader laughs at his now-conquered, now-distant difficulties. “It was almost, ‘Let’s go to Istanbul.”’
There were two reasons he could say that. First, he wanted a fresh take, not the post card city of Canaletto.
Second, was the peculiar nature of his “odd story.”
“If someone told you this happened in Rome or Paris, you say, ‘Hmmm.’ If they said, Cairo or Tangiers, you’d say, ‘Wow.’ That kind of thing would happen in Cairo or Tangier--so you had to create a Venice where this kind of thing would happen. “
Schrader emphasizes the Oriental, Eastern history of Venice. “This palazzo we’re in now,” he says gesturing, “was decorated maybe 150 years ago by a man who was in the Levantine trade.” As the mostly Italian crew led by cinematographer Dante Spinotti (“Beaches”) sets up the next shot’s lighting, the perpetual-motion Schrader neatly arranges a batch of folded Armani dress shirts and silk ties in an antique suitcase for a still photographer.
“This is for GQ,” explains the film maker whose 1979 “American Gigolo” launched Armani menswear in the United States. When Armani heard he was to film in Italy, Schrader says the designer called to ask, “Could I give you anything?” and I said, “Everything.”
Armani is now doing the entire wardrobe. Though produced with Italian funds by Rizzoli (no longer connected with the famous Italian publishing house) and filmed in English from an English novel adapted by Britain’s Master of Menace himself, Schrader insists “Comfort” will be an “American film.”
“Because I don’t know how to make any other kind,” he argues from behind clear glasses. “I can’t make a British film. This will feel like an American film. It’s not that much different say, than the ‘Room with a View’ situation.”
Originally, Schrader had hoped to be in Miami filming his own screenplay for Columbia Pictures but he was stymied casting his lead actor. Coincidentally, his agent, Jeff Berg, called to ask, “How’d you like to do a Pinter script in Italy?”
Schrader agreed immediately and soon, he was locked in script conferences with the very meticulous Pinter.
“When you have a script conference with Harold,” Schrader offers with a grin, “before too long it gets down to syntax and punctuation. He can talk for a half an hour about a comma, a dash or a colon.
“His is not a casual kind of writing style, it’s written to reveal without explaining. Therefore, you only come to appreciate it after you live with it a while.”
Walken, in a white Armani double-breasted suit, arrived in Venice before filming began to absorb the atmosphere. His accent, he reveals with a laugh, is the result “of listening to a lot of Rossano Brazzi movies.”
By casting Walken, Schrader altered the character physically. McEwan conceived a disturbed Venetian of simian proportions, with powerful, overly-long arms and dark, mat-like chest hair. “Al Pacino wanted to do this but he was dreaming in a fantasy world,” Schrader says. “There was no way he could squeeze this in before ‘Godfather (Part III).’ ”
Walken, an actor who continually shuttles between theater and movies, has yet to do Pinter on stage. “Being a writer himself, Paul has a special affinity for the text,” he says. “But for any writer, the important thing is for the dialogue to ring true.”
Pinter and Schrader dropped the novel’s pot smoking but remain remarkably faithful to McEwan’s literately spooky tale of menace, madness and murder.
Bored but inseparable Colin and Mary (Everett and Richardson), an unmarried couple on holiday, venture out late one night without their street maps. Literally lost when they stumble into the enigmatic Robert (Walken), an English-speaking Venetian, they accompany him to a blue-lit bar.
In the bar’s mostly male, faintly bizarre atmosphere, Robert relates his childhood as a diplomat’s son, his English education, his belief in the superiority of men over women. As they drink (but find nothing to eat) Colin and Mary are entranced, tourists making a discovery of the real Venice.
The next morning, the hungover couple find themselves awaking on the street. Before they can return to their hotel, they again meet Robert who insists the still-famished pair visit his home.
They awaken to find themselves naked in bed. Eventually, Mary in a handy Moroccan caftan ventures from the bedroom and meets Robert’s wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren). Before she returns their freshly washed clothes, Caroline begs Colin and Mary to accept a dinner invitation.
As they become enmeshed with the “comfort” of these strangers, Colin and Mary’s sexual relationship is also revitalized.
Whatever its box-office fate, “Comfort” will certainly never qualify as a Venetian tourist lure like David Lean’s romantic “Summertime.”
As filming halts for lunch, to be served in an ancient farmhouse up a nearby hill, Schrader first detours to the editing room to look at footage. A shot had to be re-framed to eliminate an unintended glimpse of Everett’s genitals.
“In the scene, Rupert is wearing a Moorish caftan that he removes and gives to Natasha,” Schrader explains. “Rupert then turns to jump in the bed as the camera pans to Natasha. But we didn’t pan quickly enough. My editor thinks he can take care of the problem without re-shooting.”
As the scene unreels on the editing table, Schrader is shocked by another discovery. “Rupert’s wearing socks!” he exclaims.
Socks clearly visible when replayed, Schrader is stunned. “ No one spotted that!” he says, still-surprised. But since the set is still here, we can add a shot from behind the bed on the turn.”
Problem solved--at least theoretically: “You can think up a shot in five seconds. It takes five minutes to fully explain the shot (to the crew.) Then it takes three hours to execute it.”
Schrader sets off for the picturesque farmhouse with its working--and on this damp day, necessary--fireplace.
“I’ve done two kinds of films,” he says over pasta. “The kind of family drama, ‘Blue Collar,’ ‘Hardcore’ and ‘Light of Day.’ Then I’ve done films that are very stylized. When I set out to do ‘Light of Day,’ I said, ‘This film will have no style. I’ll just go back to doing an assembled kind of gritty things I’d done before.’
“And while I was making it I realized it was a big mistake. That I had gone and moved to a place of visual sophistication and I was just bored with working at an element of visual inventiveness,” he says.
“So I see myself as just continuing in this vein.”
Does Schrader worry that he’s too sophisticated for mass audience?
“It’s a big world out there and not everybody has to do the same thing,” he says. “I think there is an audience for my films. And I have as good a batting average as the next guy--.200 is pretty good because most movies aren’t a success.”
He sees no conflict between his careers as screenwriter, director or hyphenate. “When I write, I write only as a writer, not as a director. And I don’t write differently for myself than I do for others.
“When I write, I write--stories, themes, characters. I don’t write for stars, I don’t write for directors, I only write for myself as a director. Then you become a director and you look at it again,” he says, adding that he’s currently developing a remake of “Laura.”