By Jack Egan
The Walker is the most recent film from veteran director and screenwriter Paul Schrader — the third part of what’s referred to as his “lonely man” trilogy, which began with American Gigolo (1980) and continued with Light Sleeper (1992).
The Walker is a dark satire about a man on the margins whose importance lies in providing services to others. Instead of supplying sex or drugs, as in the previous films, Carter Page III, played by Woody Harrelson, is a gay political heir who supplies companionship and gossip to the wives of Washington, D.C., players who are off wielding power. The wives are played by Lily Tomlin, Lauren Bacall and Kristin Scott Thomas. The last is Carter’s closest friend, who draws him into a web of murder.
Though set in the nation’s capital, the film was almost entirely shot in the British Isles — much of it on the Isle of Man, which provides hefty tax incentives to filmmakers. Schrader drew on an English crew he had never worked with before. Director of photography Chris Seager, BSC, provided the polished and inventive cinematography. Production designer James Merifield created the film’s properly tasteful-to-a-fault interiors. Julian Rodd kept the pace going as editor, and costume designer Nic Ede created a foppish wardrobe for Harrelson’s character that underlined his personality.
Schrader is known for writing compelling and highly regarded screenplays for Martin Scorsese, including Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), and for directing films such as Hardcore (1979) and Mishima (1985). Schrader talked about his latest film with Below the Line.
Below the Line: What sparked the idea for The Walker?
Paul Schrader: I was wondering what would become of the character in American Gigolo if he were older. I thought he’d be funny, his skills would be social, and that he would be in the service industry. But instead of being a gigolo, in this film he is a quasi-closeted gay man who serves as an escort and amuses the Washington wives of powerful men. There actually was a person known as the walker: Jerry Zipkin, who accompanied Nancy Reagan and her friends, like Betsy Bloomingdale, and was known for his canasta parties.
BTL: This is a film about Washington, D.C. and it is almost entirely set in the nation’s capital. But it wound up being shot mostly in Britain.
Schrader: It was mainly for financial reasons. I tried to make it here but I couldn’t raise the money. The Isle of Man has a financial incentive program for films that gives you a 25-percent return on your budget if you shoot at least 50 percent of your film on their island. And that 25 percent is in cash. Most of The Walker takes place indoors, and I felt we could create those rooms anywhere. So I picked up a British partner, and we shot half of the film on the Isle of Man and the other half in London, where there are also U.K. tax breaks. In addition, there was about a week in Washington, where we shot exteriors
BTL: How did you assemble your production keys?
Schrader: Obviously, when you’re doing a film on a fairly small budget, you’re always looking for someone who has something to prove because you can’t afford people who have already proven themselves. Many of my crew keys came out of British television. The Walker is an old-fashioned movie with a very traditional style. It owes more to Max Ophuls than Tony Scott. My director of photography, Chris Seager, had made his reputation doing new style films. He did a movie called Sex Trade for British television that was all handheld and in your face. When he heard about my project, he was intrigued by the prospect of doing a classic, old-fashioned film.
James Merifield, my production designer, also had been working in television in England. And this was his chance, he thought, to do a feature with an American director. The truth is he also got hired because we offered him less money than he should have taken, and he took it. He was terrific. Meanwhile, my editor Julian Rodd had done a number of features and documentaries, and my costume designer, Nic Ede, also did a lot of television but also worked on some notable features.
BTL: So this was your first collaboration with all of them?
Schrader: One of the reasons that I have not, in the past, worked with a lot of the same people over and over again is that when you’re doing a film with a lower budget, you’re always looking for someone who is coming up and who will work for a lower price in order to have career advancement. When you circle back a number of years later and then go to the same person, they’ve proven themselves and are making too much money and you can’t afford them. So you have to find the next person in that situation.
BTL: What were the visual touchtones you and Merifield tapped to depict behind-the-scenes Washington?
Schrader: There were a lot of references — from books, magazines, location scouts, movies. The Sulgrave — the traditional women’s private club in Washington — provided a lot of inspiration. They wouldn’t let us shoot there, but they let us in to look around. And sure enough they had a rotunda card room with the chinoiserie type of wallpaper that we tried to duplicate for the opening canasta sequence. But Washington is such an Anglophile type of town already, when you’re looking for embassy rooms and things like that, London has them in abundance.
BTL: The opening canasta sequences kicks the film off nicely, as the camera first circles the room and then settles on the Woody Harrelson character and his three lady friends gossiping intently while immersed in their card game. Talk about how you shot it.
Schrader: In the first five minutes of the film you have to teach the viewer how to watch it. This is a film where people talk, and there aren’t going to be a lot of screeching cars. It was also a great way to introduce most of the main characters. When you shoot on a budget and have such a complicated scene, you have to rehearse a lot. You simply don’t have time during the shooting day to rethink the scenes. Because of the intricacy, I got all four to spend a week playing canasta, doing those scenes over and over. I told the actors that whatever was on their minds to get it out in the rehearsals. Because once the camera rolls, there won’t be time for suggestions or improvisation. I must say I burned a lot of film in the canasta scene to get it right.
BTL: What kind of camera setup did you have?
Schrader: Two cameras all of the time. It provided the coverage the editor needed in this script-driven film.
BTL: Where did you find the big loft that was the art studio and residence of Carter Page’s lover?
Schrader: That kind of artist’s warehouse was a set we built on the Isle of Man in the middle of nowhere, as were most of the sets there. The canasta club room was built on a stud farm in the middle of the island in a huge barn that was soundproofed. When you walked outside, all you saw were horses on a hill.
BTL: What was the week shooting in Washington like?
Schrader: We only did the exteriors there, so the sense of being in Washington would be convincing. In fact, when Woody and Kristin pull up to her house and park and go inside to have a conversation, they drive up in Washington, but we shot the interior of the house on a set located near Heathrow Airport outside of London.
BTL: The scene with Woody when he carefully disrobes in his private dressing room seems like an homage to the scene in American Gigolo when Richard Gere is deciding what to wear.
Schrader: That was quite deliberate. I knew people would draw a connection between this film and American Gigolo. Why not lead them to it and draw the connection myself. Instead of the dressing sequence where Richard Gere lays out a half-dozen Armani suits, let’s do an undressing sequence and end it where Woody’s character ends up doffing his toupee and showing he’s bald. To me, the toupee was interesting as a protective mechanism. He has a political lineage in that both his fa
ther and grandfather were elected politicians. By acting as this superficial quasi-closeted gay, it protects from those shadows. Bacall at one point says to him: “You like to think you’re a black sheep but you’re not a black sheep at all.”
BTL: You’ve been a screenwriter and a director since the 1970s. How has filmmaking changed?
Schrader. A lot of it has to do financing and with technology, which means work can be done anywhere in the world or has to take place in the part where you get financing. I’m working on a new film, called Adam Resurrected, based on a great Israeli novel by Yoram Kaniuk. We had half German and half-Israeli financing, so we shot in Israel and Bucharest, and we’re required to do all the post work in Germany.
I was in New York editing earlier this week while my editor was sitting in Munich and we were communicating using a service called Post Connect. We were both looking at the same editing screen and talking by phone on Skype and we’re six time zones and thousands of miles apart.
BTL: Many film enthusiasts hold up the 1970s as a prime era for filmmaking. How do films today compare with the 1970s, in your view?
Schrader: It’s sad, but people ask me all the time why movies today aren’t as good as in the 1970s. The truth is that movies are every bit as good, and the people that make them are every bit as talented. What isn’t as good is the audience. Film does not have the central place in society that it once had when people really took films seriously. That is a biggest difference — the audiences have changed.
Written by Jack Egan