Taxi Driver

taxi_driver_4Today’s script comes from renowned screenwriter Paul Schrader. Renowned director Martin Scorsese shepherded it to the screen… and into the vault of culturally significant films maintained by the American Government. The WGA ranks the script as the 43rd best screenplay ever written. The AFI ranks the film as the 47th best movie ever made. In other words, it’s about time I got this script reviewed.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Mr. Schrader uses two tricks to get all his exposition into his script without disturbing the read.

1. Have Travis Bickle constantly meet new people and go through the “getting to know you” dialogue “program”.
2. Bury it in the description paragraphs. [AKA, writing in unfilmables.]

Trick One is easy to endorse, and we will discuss, shortly, how Mr. Schrader’s script conducts a master class in the way you SHOULD use this technique. In the past I have referred to this technique as the Master/Apprentice paradigm.

Trick Two is much harder to endorse [in fact it’s very easy to proscribe its use and I have been a prolific proscriber of its use in the past]. We will have to study some examples to see if Mr. Schrader’s writing talent puts him in that class of people who are immune to prosecution from Screenwriting Law.

The first example I’ll cite in elucidation of trick one comes from pages 2-5. I know that’s a lengthy passage, but I think the mastery of the technique is so complete, it’s worth the extra length.

PERSONNEL OFFICER (O.S.)
No trouble with the Hack Bureau?

TRAVIS (O.S.)
No Sir.

PERSONNEL OFFICER (O.S.)
Got your license?

TRAVIS (O.S.)
Yes.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
So why do you want to be a taxi
driver?

TRAVIS
I can’t sleep nights.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
There’s porno theatres for that.

TRAVIS
I know. I tried that.

The PERSONNEL OFFICER, though officious, is mildly probing
and curious. TRAVIS is a cipher, cold and distant. He
speaks as if his mind doesn’t know what his mouth is saying.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
So whatja do now?

TRAVIS
I ride around nights mostly.
Subways, buses. See things. Figur’d
I might as well get paid for it.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
We don’t need any misfits around
here, son.

A thin smile cracks almost indiscernibly across TRAVIS’ lips.

TRAVIS
You kiddin? Who else would hack
through South Bronx or Harlem at
night?

PERSONNEL OFFICER
You want to work uptown nights?

TRAVIS
I’ll work anywhere, anytime. I know
I can’t be choosy.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
(thinks a moment)
How’s your driving record?

TRAVIS
Clean. Real clean.
(pause, thin smile)
As clean as my conscience.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
Listen, son, you gonna get smart,
you can leave right now.

TRAVIS
(apologetic)
Sorry, sir. I didn’t mean that.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
Physical? Criminal?

TRAVIS
Also clean.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
Age?

PERSONNEL OFFICER
Twenty-six.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
Education?

TRAVIS
Some. Here and there.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
Military record?

TRAVIS
Honorable discharge. May 1971.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
You moonlightin?

TRAVIS
No, I want long shifts.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
(casually, almost to himself)
We hire a lot of moonlighters here.

TRAVIS
So I hear.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
(looks up at Travis)
Hell, we ain’t that much fussy
anyway. There’s always opening on
one fleet or another.
(rummages through his
drawer, collecting
various pink, yellow
and white forms)
Fill out these forms and give them
to the girl at the desk, and leave
your phone number. You gotta phone?

TRAVIS
No.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
Well then check back tomorrow.

TRAVIS
Yes, Sir.

This three page exchange tells us way more about Travis Bickle than we would ordinarily tolerate. The first [and least important] reason why it works is because it’s contextually appropriate. When one interviews for a job one tends to give details about the way one lives one’s life. In other words, it makes sense for Travis to be telling us all this information about himself because we know we would do something similar were we in his situation. Because the exposition is delivered in a context where we recognize that exposition is likely to occur, our minds do not balk at seeing it.

RahRah for Mr. Schrader, he has followed the natural internal logic of human speech patterns to incorporate exposition into his script without making it into an anchor that stalls reader momentum. That’s all great. Of course, the real reason this scene works is because Travis is not being conversationally cooperative.

When I reviewed No Country For Old Men, site contributor Joel Dorland pointed me to an analysis of the coin toss scene that used the idea of adjacency pairs to support its argument for the superiority of that scene of Coen Brothers dialogue. Although I have not had time yet to sufficiently [or barely] study the concept, I can tell you that there is pure gold in these ideas. Summarized [by a non-expert unqualified to summarize them], this linguistic idea says that much of human speech naturally divides into pairs. If I say to you:

JOEL
What is your name?

I expect you to answer with something like:

CLEMENTINE
My name is Clementine.

If, instead, you answer:

CLEMENTINE
I like to dye my hair.

You’ve violated the internal logic of adjacency pairs. Wikipedia et al, informs me there is a linguist of note who has invented a relevancy maxim that dictates the spectrum of responses which are allowable when confronted with an adjacency pair. I will definitely be reading those theories… some day. For now, I can guess that, if in answer to my question:

JOEL
What is your name?

You were to answer:

CLEMENTINE
That’s not important right now.

You would be within the logic of the pairs [still playing the conversation game properly], but you would be sending me a conversational warning. You would be escalating the conversation to a different plane than the one on which I opened it. How many planes there are, and what they’re used “to win” will be what I am studying whenever I get the free time to study again. (1)

I go through this digression because Mr. Schrader intuitively uses each human person’s natural understanding of adjacency pairs to cause Travis Bickle to IMMEDIATELY fascinate us. First, think about the context of the situation he is in, and then ask yourself, ‘does Travis act the way I would act’.

He’s trying to get a job. Normal people, who are trying to get a job, are the definition of cooperative with their interviewers. They go out of their way to portray themselves as the best possible versions of themselves. They do not, as Travis does, antagonize their interviewers.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
So why do you want to be a taxi
driver?

TRAVIS
I can’t sleep nights.

The correct adjacency pair to this type of question would be something like:

TRAVIS
It fits my schedule.

Telling the personnel officer that you “can’t sleep nights” is a half step removed from telling him there is something wrong with you.

From there, Travis continues to escalate his answers:

PERSONNEL OFFICER
So whatja do now?

TRAVIS
I ride around nights mostly.
Subways, buses. See things. Figur’d
I might as well get paid for it.

Again, a correct answer would be to go on about an adjustment period from his war tour, or maybe to even lie and say he’d been going to school under the GI bill. Anything other than telling your interviewer that, basically, you’re a bored insomniac.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
We don’t need any misfits around
here, son.

A thin smile cracks almost indiscernibly across TRAVIS’ lips.

TRAVIS
You kiddin? Who else would hack
through South Bronx or Harlem at
night?

At this point in the conversation, unless Travis wants the personnel officer to think he’s completely strange, Travis needs to deny he’s a “misfit”. Instead Travis implies he’s the man for the job because he is a misfit. Travis continues to up the conversational ante until, finally, the personnel officer is left with no choice but to call Travis’ bluff.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
(thinks a moment)
How’s your driving record?

TRAVIS
Clean. Real clean.
(pause, thin smile)
As clean as my conscience.

PERSONNEL OFFICER
Listen, son, you gonna get smart,
you can leave right now.

Here, the personnel officer is saying that if Travis can’t at least PRETEND to be a normal human being, he’s not going to get the job. Travis relents.

TRAVIS
(apologetic)
Sorry, sir. I didn’t mean that.

Mr. Schrader has used Travis’ non-cooperative style of talking to tell us way more about Travis then the few facts we learn about him as exposition.

[This review is already overlong and I haven’t even left Part A of the first question. It is worth noting that this confrontational manner of speaking follows Travis throughout his script.]

Before leaving exposition, I do want to look at one example of Mr. Schrader’s prolific use of unfilmables as a means toward exposition delivery. From page 20:

POV: THREE STREET PEOPLE sitting at a table. One GUY,
stoned, stares straight ahead. A raggedly attractive GIRL
rest her head on the shoulder of the other, a heavily
bearded YOUNG MAN with a headband. They kiss and tease each
other, momentarily lost in their separate world.

Travis watches the hippie couple closely, his feeling
sharply divided between cultural contempt and morose jealousy.
Why should these people enjoy the love and intimacy that has
always eluded him? He must enjoy these schizoid emotions,
because his eyes dwell on the couple.

There is no way we’ll get all the information in the second paragraph into the filmed version no matter how good the actor is at trying to portray it, or the director is at trying to capture it. Sorry Bobby De Niro and Marty Scorsese, not even you two can make your face or your print show someone enjoying “schizoid emotions”.

In a former critiquing life, I would have made much ado about finding a way, within the structure of the screenplay format, to convey this information. I’m not so stubborn anymore. Basically, I’m convinced that part of the reason De Niro did such a good job with this role was because of the unfilmables in the description. I would not recommend littering up your script with the quantity of unfilmables found in Taxi Driver, but I’m no longer convinced they are as detrimental to reader momentum as I once was. Basically, write the script in a manner you think will be easiest to read.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Travis’ character is a confluence of contradictions. Betsy knows him for five minutes and she figures this out. From page 33:

BETSY
That song by Kris Kristofferson,
where it’s said “Like a pusher,
partly truth, partly ficition, a
walking contradiction”.

The subtext in this script, then, should lead us to the nature of the psychological antonym pairs which make up his mental warehouse. The primary pair, Travis’ intense need to be with another person, matches perfectly with his intense and generalized misanthropy. We will talk a great deal about this when we get to theme.

Next up in Travis’ hierarchy of contradictions is his relationship with other people versus his relationship with himself [Since, he is also a person, we would expect there to be consistency between these relationships.] This antonym pair breaks into three categories:

1. Dishonesty with himself versus his honesty with others
2. Ability to read people generally versus his inability to read people specifically
3. Lack of empathy for people versus his intense empathy for himself

What I love about Mr. Schrader’s writing is that nearly every example you can cite from the text demonstrates ALL THREE of these tendencies at the same time. I’ll use Travis’ second [and final] “date” with Betsy as the example. From pages 37-42 [with omissions]

07taxidriverTravis looks around himself with pride: This is a moment in
his life – one of the few.

BETSY
You didn’t have to spend your
money – ?

TRAVIS
(interrupting)
He’ll, what else can I do with it
all?

Betsy notices that the seal on the record has not been broken.

BETSY
Travis, you haven’t even played the
record?

TRAVIS
(evasive)
Yeah, well my stereo player is
broke. But I’m sure the record is OK.

BETSY
Your stereo broke? God, I could
hardly stand that. I live on music.

TRAVIS
I don’t follow music much. I’d like
to though.
(second thought)
Honest.

BETSY
(pointing to album)
So you haven’t heard this record yet?

TRAVIS
No.
(sly smile)
I thought maybe you could play it
for me on your player…

…They approach the garish marquee of a large midtown porno
theatre advertising “The Swedish Marriage Manual”…

Betsy still has not fully comprehended what is happening:

BETSY
What are you doing?

TRAVIS
(innocent)
I bought a couple of tickets.

BETSY
But this is a porno movie.

TRAVIS
No, these are the kind that couples
go to. They’re not like the other
movies. All kinds of couples go.
Honest. I’ve seen them…

Travis watches intently. The color, however, is slowly
draining from Betsy’s cheeks. One thought fills her mind:
“What am I doing here?”

TRAVIS
(to himself)
Damn.

BETSY
What’s wrong?

TRAVIS
I forgot to get the Coca-Cola.

That does it. Betsy just looks at him for a moment, then
gets up and starts to leave. Travis, confused, hustles after
her.

He follows her out of the theatre.

ON THE SIDEWALK
Travis catches up with her.

TRAVIS
Where are you going?

BETSY
I’m leaving.

TRAVIS
What do you mean?

Betsy looks at Travis, trying to understand him:

BETSY
These are not the kind of movies I
go to.

TRAVIS
Well, I don’t follow movies too
much…

BETSY
You mean these are the only kind of
movies you go to?

The TICKET GIRL watches expressionlessly from the booth.

TRAVIS
This is sort of high class…

BETSY
I mean porno movies.

TRAVIS
(hesitant)
Well… mostly…

BETSY
My God!

TRAVIS
We can go to another movie if you
like, I don’t care. I got money.
There’s plenty…

Travis gestures toward the long row of 42nd Street marquees,
but is interrupted by Betsy:

BETSY
If you just wanted to fuck, why
didn’t you just come right out and
say it?

Travis is flabbergasted by Betsy’s blunt language. His arm
still gestures toward the marquees, his lips continue to
move, but words do not come out.

Travis specifically SAYS the word “honest” twice during this exchange. An additional time, we are told in the parenthetical that he delivers his dialogue “innocently”. We are supposed to conclude from this that Travis does not know that taking Betsy to see a porno on their second date is going to ruin any chance he has of seeing Betsy again. My question to you is, and I think it is the most important question in the script:

Can we believe him?

I’ll submit to you that we can’t. Let’s remember the three subtextual subgroupings again:

1. Dishonesty with himself versus his honesty with others
2. Ability to read people generally versus his inability to read people specifically
3. Lack of empathy for people versus his intense empathy for himself

Travis does know that Betsy is going to flip out when he takes her to the porno, he does it anyway because he can’t be honest with himself about this knowledge. He can be honest WITH HER about his affection for pornography, but not with himself about how she will respond to it. Travis knows people in general never consider a porno movie as anything remotely close to a romantic date, and all the effort Travis puts into the date prior to his purchasing of the porno tickets tells you he is TRYING very hard to be romantic. He gets what the components of romance are, he just chooses to ignore them. The reason he chooses to ignore them is because he feels so sorry for himself that he can’t find someone on this planet who corresponds to his own misanthropy. In other words, Travis wants Betsy to accept him as he is. He wants her to change from a normal person into an abnormal person so that he can be happy. Travis is a completely selfish human being who refuses to meet the world, or anyone in the world, half way. Travis refuses to form a normal relationship.

All three strands of subtext course through nearly every line in this script. It’s really quite an achievement.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) The individuation in this script is outstanding. I’ve already mentioned the WGA ranking for this script, and AFI ranking for this film; it is worth noting that the AFI also ranks Travis Bickle, himself, as the 30th greatest movie villain of all time. The character is, according to The Cultural Arbiters, even better than his Sum.

I agree.

If you want to write a script that will get you attention, then study what Scrader did with Travis. You can have whatever set of A-listers you want to make your movie for you. Just be sure to give her non-cooperative speech patterns, and a mass of psychological contradictions.

This also seems like the best place to mention that the most famous line in this script:

“You talking to me…”

Was not written by Mr. Schrader. The script merely says, “Travis talks to himself.” So, it’s proper to give Mr. De Niro some of the credit for what he accomplished with his interpretation.

10 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

The first five pages, in which Travis interacts with the personnel officer, had me invested to read to fade out. Pages 5-10 are not as incendiary as the first five, but there is nothing I would change in them either. We are given a snapshot of Travis’s life. It is as sad as it is beautifully written. Mr. Schrader has a lyrical style to his prose that I wish would resurface in contemporary “blueprints”. I can’t speak for everyone, but, occasionally, I’d like a little poetry with my architecture.

All that Mr. Schrader does in his first 10 pages is excellent. I could maybe fault him for taking a little too long with his “Notes from Underground” set-up, but that would be me picking fights just to pick them.

Of course, Mr. Schrader does one other thing in these first 10 pages that guarantees that he will lose no points. This one thing put all thoughts of nitpicking out of my mind, and invested me to the greatest extent possible in this read. From page 1:

He has the smell of sex about him: Sick sex, repressed sex,
lonely sex, but sex nonetheless. He is a raw male force,
driving forward; toward what, one cannot tell. Then one
looks closer and sees the evitable. The clock sprig cannot
be wound continually tighter. As the earth moves toward the
sun, Travis Bickle moves toward violence.

Talk about your ticking clock!

Look, if you explicitly promise something in the first few lines of your script, then get closer and closer to delivering it as your pages grow, you will hook your reader. She will read until you fulfill your promise.

20 out of 20 points.

Part two of this review can be found here.

You can download the script on the site forums.

Footnotes:

1. These ideas fascinate me. If ever I have time, I see myself involved in a prolonged study of them. I have always thought about language as though it were a game played on different levels by opponents with differing skill sets. If my referring to it as a game implies to you that there are conversational winners and losers, then good for me. I’ve said what I meant.

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2 responses to “Taxi Driver

  1. Oh man. Will it score 100?!

    That first year that I decided to be a screenwriter, I probably watched Taxi Driver once a week. I think this gave me a decent head start. In my opinion, Taxi Driver and No Country are two scripts in which dialogue has achieved some sort of apex in the form. They hit what I always want to hit…let’s call it grace. Both scripts move me endlessly when I read them because screenwriting is not a form where grace is in large supply…it’s the movie BUSINESS, after all.

    The great thing about both scripts is that, unlike say a Tarantino script, both of these scripts have dialogue on a level that can be achieved by a writer who does not have a specific (or lets say unified) idiosyncratic voice. The adjacency pairs analysis is on point. The dialogue escalates, resonates, vibrates with tension. I honestly think anyone can do what these scripts do…it may take decades of practice, but it’s possible.

    • I think all those points are accurate.

      What is achieved in dialogue in this script is something that we dialogue mortals can aspire to and also achieve.

      I need to do more research into these adjacency pairs. Imagine what could happen if we use linguistics to understand how to make writing better.

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