It’s hard to imagine any director/screenwriter pair better suited to one another than Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader. Beyond their individually keen insight into the psychology and behavior of violent American masculinity, they share a devotion to the dual obsessions that defined their youths: religion and cinema. In this, they are alike even in their opposition: Scorsese, the proud son of big-hearted Italian immigrants, grew up in the crowded Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan; Schrader hails from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was raised in a strict, middle-class Calvinist household. Scorsese lived on a steady diet of movies from his earliest days as a child; Schrader didn’t even see a motion picture until he was in his late teens. Both men flirted with the idea of joining the priesthood before realizing that cinema was their true calling.
Both were also key members of the New Hollywood revolution of the 1970s, so it was inevitable their paths would cross. Finding kindred spirits in one another, they collaborated first on 1976’s Taxi Driver and again for 1980’s Raging Bull. Following Taxi Driver, Schrader carved out his own career as a director, while remaining one of the most sought-after scribes in the business.
Then, in September 1985, two years after the collapse of the pair’s first attempt to bring Nikos Kazantzakis’s furiously controversial 1955 novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, to screen, they simultaneously released deeply important films, each of which would mark a major turning point in their respective careers. While Scorsese’s After Hours and Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters may seem to have nothing in common, they actually reveal the state of both men’s legacy at that juncture, as well as where they would go in the years and decades to follow.
After establishing himself as a critical darling throughout the ‘70s, the diminutive, motor-mouthed Scorsese had seen his stature and cache greatly diminish towards the end of that decade as a result of both his personal drug addiction and a string of high profile artistic and commercial disappointments.
From out current vantage, it comes off as blasphemy to regard any of the films that Scorsese made in the seven years between Taxi Driver and After Hours—New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1982)—as failures, but by 1982, the era of New Hollywood was well and truly dead and American audiences, now hungry for escapism and spectacle, wanted nothing to do with them. Not even Raging Bull, as critically heralded a film as Scorsese ever made, could find purchase in this new market. When The King of Comedy flopped, he feared his career might be kaput.
Given all of this, it seems insane that Scorsese would attempt to embark upon his dream of making The Last Temptation of Christ, given the furor that had followed the novel since its initial publication, but embark upon it he did, bringing Schrader on board to adapt the story. Against all odds, he managed to get Paramount Pictures to give him $14 million dollars to shoot the film—originally set to star Aiden Quinn as Jesus Christ—in Israel. However, when word of the production got out, religious conservatives the world over engaged in a political smear campaign (based almost entirely on misinformation regarding the content of the plot) that resulted in Paramount shuttering the production.
Scorsese was left bereft and exhausted. Looking to regain his purpose as a filmmaker, he visited film school students in China. Inspired by their hunger and inventiveness, he realized that what he needed to do was to go back to his own roots. His last several shoots had all run over 100 days, so for his next project, he committed to shooting something fast, mean and dirty.
He found the perfect opportunity in Joseph Minion’s script for After Hours (originally titled Lies), which was offered to him by star Griffin Dunne’s production company. (A young Tim Burton was originally set to direct, but when he found out Scorsese could raise the funds to make it he graciously stepped aside). Part classic Hollywood/French farce, part modernist Kafkaesque nightmare, part Greek tragedy by way of gritty urban noir, the film sees a young word processor from midtown Manhattan (Dunne) venture into the sinister environs of the artsy SoHo district in the hopes of getting laid, only to find himself trapped in an increasingly dangerous and absurd no man’s land from which he can’t escape.
For After Hours, Scorsese latched onto both the smallness of the actual story—the emptiness of SoHo’s streets at night allowed Scorsese to shoot quickly on location—as well as the mythological heft of its themes. He saw the film as being about a lost soul unable to cross through the underworld because he doesn’t have the fare to pay the ferryman (in this case, a New York City taxi driver).Juxtaposed against his own career prospects at the time, it’s easy to see how he could relate Dunne’s doomed everyman protaganist.
Although the finished film was by no means a hit, its low budget meant it wasn’t a total financial failure either. Far more importantly, it gave Scorsese the rejuvenation he needed, while also garnering him the Best Director prize at Cannes. This, in turn, allowed him to pick up some high profile commercial work directing the iconic music video for Michael Jackson’s Bad, as well as The Hustler sequel The Color of Money, which earned good box office on its way to winning Paul Newman his long-awaited acting Oscar.
Scorsese had finally earned enough to pay the ferryman and leave the underground. No doubt feeling somewhat resurrected himself, he was finally able to get back to work on The Last Temptation of Christ.
By 1985, Paul Schrader’s standing in Hollywood was decidedly better than Scorsese’s. His two most recent directorial efforts—American Gigolo (1980) and Cat People (1982)—were both modest hits, enough to allow him, unlike Scorsese, to embark upon a much more grander and riskier project, one that proved almost as controversial as Last Temptation.
Yukio Mishima remains one of the most celebrated and condemned figures in Japan’s post-World War II history. After establishing himself as a cultural superstar with the publication of his 1949 semi-autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask, Mishima would publish dozens of novels, stories and plays, and direct a handful of films, before going on to establish his own small private army, which he used in 1970 to attempt a coup d’etat, briefly kidnapping a high-ranking Japanese general before committing ritual seppuku. Mishima’s entire adult life—from his copious artistic output, to his obsession with aesthetic beauty and physical perfection, to his proud fascism, to his public suicide—can only be viewed as one long peice of performance art.
Suffice to say, the man was ripe for a great biopic, and there was no one better suited to the task than Paul Schrader. Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, First Reformed’s Reverend Toller, and even Last Temptation’s Jesus of Nazareth, Mishima is “God’s lonely man”, a brooding obsessive whose unstable mental state combined with his belief in a higher calling places him on a collision course with violent transfiguration.
Mishima also fits neatly alongside the other figures of public notoriety—such as Jake LaMotta, Patty Hearst and Bob Crane—whom Schrader had and would tackle. And while it may seem odd that an American should direct a Japanese-language film about one of that nation’s preeminent cult figures, Schrader brought with him a deep personal knowledge of Japan’s history and culture, mostly by way of his brother and Mishima co-screenwriter Leonard Schrader, who spent years there working as a teacher, writer and filmmaker.
As with Scorsese and his After Hours protagonist, Schrader finds much about Mishima to relate. Like Schrader, Mishima’s work was often violently transgressive, even while purveying traditionalist values. More importantly, they both used their art as a means to reveal deeply uncomfortable truths about their mental and emotional states (many of Travis Bickle’s experiences in Taxi Driver came from a troubled period in Schrader’s life just prior to his writing it). In Mishima, Schrader brings this understanding to the fore, switching between his subject’s biography (much of which is presented in stark black-and-white as an homage to Japanese master filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, one of Schrader’s key cinematic influences) with vignettes adapted from three of his novels (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses).
These vignettes, which key us into Mishima’s psyche and the grand themes that unify his work and his actions, are brought to life in vivid color and lush set-design meant to invoke the both world of the stage and the world of dreams. Schrader’s talents as a stylist are often overlooked since he usually adheres to a Bressonian ascetic aesthetic, but in Mishima, he and his team of collaborators—cinematographer John Bailey, composer Philip Glass, and particularly set designer Eiko Ishioka (who would later win the Oscar for Best Costume Design for her work on Mishima executive producer Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula)—create one of the most beautiful films of the entire ‘80s.
In a turn of events that would presage the eventual release of The Last Temptation of Christ three years later, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters faced harsh condemnation from right-wing political groups, as well as Mishima’s widow, due mostly to its depiction of Mishima’s sexual ambiguity. (Detractors would later spread rumors that Last Temptation likewise depicted Jesus as homosexual, although unlike Mishima, those claims were false). This censorship campaign proved successful, and to this day, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters has never been released in Japan.
Unlike the commercial work that Scorsese did between After Hours and Last Temptation, the films Schrader made immediately following Mishima continued to examine his favorite subject matter: his musical drama Light of Day dealt with a crisis of faith, his script for Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast was another exotic epic set around an obsessive anti-hero, and Patty Hearst again revolved around a famous political radical.
Given his own obsession with these themes, it’s hardly surprising that Schrader, during this period, actually attempted to steal The Last Temptation of Christ—in which said themes find their ultimate expression—out from under Scorsese, using a clause in his contract that gave him the chance to move on the project should Scorsese ever abandon it. Schrader made his intentions known, sending Scorsese a letter in which he wrote “If you ever slacken I will walk over your back to get this movie done.”
Understandably incensed by this, Scorsese replied to Schrader with an apoplectic letter of his own, informing him, “You will have to pull the script from my dying hands.”
The threat was the kick in the ass that Scorsese needed to get the project started again, this time at a new studio (Universal), with a new lead (Willem Dafoe), and with half the original budget ($7 million). He and Schrader continued to fight throughout the production over screenwriting credit, although even in the midst of their feud they discussed working together on another project.
The eventual release of The Last Temptation of Christ would ignite a literal firestorm of outrage, and although the controversy surrounding it ensured its commercial failure, the fact that it was completed and distributed at all counts as a grand moral victory—and that’s without taking into account how truly masterful the film turned out to be.
In the decades proceeding Last Temptation, Scorsese and Schrader would see their fortunes reversed: Scorsese would return to the A-list two years later with Goodfellas, where he remains to this day, having recently crafted yet another full-fledged masterpiece about spiritual reckoning with The Irishman (2019). Schrader would continue working steadily as both a writer and director, putting out a number of excellent movies (including his own 1990 follow up to Last Temptation, The Comfort of Strangers), as well as several high profile disasters, foremost amongst them 2005’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, from which he was fired, and the 2013 Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons, whose production was a constant source of tabloid ridicule. In 2017, he scored a late-career triumph with First Reformed, a film that shares more than a little DNA with both Mishima and Last Temptation.
In 1999, Schrader and Scorsese re-teamed for their medical hyperdrama Bringing Out the Dead. That film is truly the nexus point between all the others that they made between 1983 and 1988, combining the midnight-black comic zaniness and long dark night of the soul setting of After Hours with the violent transcendentalism and dreamlike languor of Mishima, as well as the spiritual passion of Last Temptation. Bringing Out the Dead remains their last collaboration as screenwriter and director, although it was announced earlier this year that Scorsese will executive produce Schrader’s new film.
Looking back at The Last Temptation of Christ (both the failed and finished versions), After Hours and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, it could be argued that the greatest impact of Scorsese and Schrader’s collaboration might not stem from their working together, but from their coming together after first spending time wandering the artistic wilderness on their own.