It's been four decades since Robert De Niro's troubled loner Travis Bickle looked into a mirror and uttered one of the most enduring pieces of dialogue in film history — but as the legendary actor revealed last week during the Tribeca Film Festival, the line is fresh as ever in his mind.
"Every day for 40 years – 40 fuckin' years — at least one of you has come up to me and said, You talkin' to me? Now let's say it together!'" quipped De Niro to the audience as he and his TFF co-founder Jane Rosenthal introduced a special 40th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Beacon Theatre on Thursday night. Afterward, De Niro reunited with director Martin Scorsese, co-stars Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd and Harvey Keitel, screenwriter Paul Schrader, and producer Michael Phillips for an onstage chat moderated by the director of the New York Film Festival, Kent Jones. They talked about everything from how they came up with Bickle's mohawk to Foster's fear of hot pants and Keitel's improvisations with a pimp.
Then Vulture, a signature sponsor of TFF, typed it all up for you.
Kent Jones: The first time I ever saw this movie was on my first date with my high-school girlfriend when I was 15. Anyway, it was the first of many times. But I have to say that as dangerous as it made New York look, it also made us want to come here, because we thought there was something that awesome and powerful to come out of this: We need to be there. And there were a lot of other people who felt the same — many people in the audience I'm sure. I guess the best place to start is with the writer, Paul Schrader. Now Paul, I just want to correct an impression that the script is based on Arthur Bremmer's diaries. Not true, right? The man who shot George Wallace?
Paul Schrader: I knew about Bremmer. The diaries hadn't been published yet.
Schrader: And the fact that the diaries came out, I was surprised there were so many moments of synchronicity between his diaries and the film we had made.
Jones: I think that you were talking about your approach to Taxi Driver, and you quoted from another film that you wrote, Yakuza, where you said, "When someone goes nuts in Japan, they shut the blinds and kill themselves. But when someone goes nuts in America, they open a window and shoot somebody else."
Schrader: Well I think — and time is limited as there are a lot of people here — but I just want to say something as precisely as possible, which is that this script began in the best possible way because it began as self-therapy. There was a person who I was afraid of — who I was afraid I was becoming — and that was this taxi driver. And I felt that if I wrote about it, I could distance him from me. And so it worked. And it does show that art has therapeutic power. But the beauty of it is as it migrated through director, cast and studio release, etc., it still retained that original purpose. That pertinent power I think, still after 40 years, is still imbued in the film.
Jones: Now what was the order in which it was read? Marty, did you read it first before Bob, and then Michael?
Schrader: I think Michael ...
Michael Phillips: Actually, Brian De Palma was living next door to me, and Paul was writing a journalistic piece on Brian and showed Brian the script and Brian said, "It's not for me," but maybe it would be something I would like, and it was. So that was the next step. I read it and I thought I was looking into a naked soul. I had never seen anything like this, but it was a long journey. That was 1972.
Martin Scorsese: And then I was given the script by Brian, but I hadn't made Mean Streets yet and we were in the process of beginning to make it, I think. And he introduced me to Paul and it took until … I think Michael and [late co-producer] Julia [Phillips], it took a while for you guys to … I kept saying, "I wanna do this, I wanna do this," but I had nothing I could show you.
Phillips: Yes, but then we saw a rough cut of Mean Streets and Paul had said, you gotta go see this. And it wasn't yet released. And we knew — I mean, halfway through I knew that you were our guy. And I had never seen in Johnny Boy such an unpredictable, riveting character. This was our team. But they weren't yet bankable because they were sort of unknown.
Schrader: And a lot of this has to do with Julia — Michael's wife who is no longer with us — who was a real forceful person and had a contact with [former Columbia Pictures head] David Begelman, and that's really how this thing started to come together.
Phillips: It really came together because the talent had stuck with the package until it became a bargain. And at one point, after Bobby had won his Oscar for Godfather II and Marty was already recognized as a star director, they hung in there at bargain-basement prices, and we did this film very cheaply. David Begelman saw a bargain and he knew it.
Jones: Marty, what was it that you saw in the script that drew you to it?
Scorsese: Well I, how should I put this? What I saw and can't articulate, it just had to be done. That's all. I think Bob and I, we never really spoke about meaning or theory of any kind.
Robert De Niro: Never had long existential discussions about it.
Scorsese: Exactly. Paul's really the one who expresses it, I think. I just had a kind of determination to make it, and as I said earlier, it was a film that I didn't think anybody would really see. It was just a film that was made out of a passion of the situation, who we were really at the time.
Jones: And about how the city was at the time?
Scorsese: Yeah, and the city.
Schrader: Bob and Marty and I never really talked much about the script because we knew this guy. We all knew this guy. And that's where serendipity comes in, where three young men at a certain point in their lives sort of sync up and share a common sort of pathology and see it. So sometimes you get lucky.
Jones: Bob, you had an idea for a movie that was similar in nature at the time?
De Niro: Well, when I was younger, I had something in mind, something similar in some ways. Basically a guy who was isolated, alone and kind of like the Travis character, which I never really fully realized. But when I read it, I identified with it, as I think we all did, even though Marty's from right in the heart of New York and I'm from the heart of New York, not far from each other in Manhattan. [We] just identified with the character. And we all, everybody felt very, very good about the whole project and that was it.
Jones: There's some of Paul in the way you played the character?
De Niro: Yeah, you know things, even little stuff … kind of like how many shoes you had, some boots I took, that jacket. [To Paul] By the way, where is that jacket?
Schrader: The jacket is at the Harry Ransom Center. The books are there, too. So they are there for the public, they haven't been sold or anything. Bob gave all his stuff to the University of Texas at Austin and suggested I do the same. But one part of me is not gonna do that, because he and Steven Spielberg are going to take over the whole building.
Jones: And Bob, in preparation for the role, you drove a cab for a little bit, right?
De Niro: I did. I was doing 1900 in Italy and Marty and I met at Cannes while he was there. We just met up there and worked on the script. And I had been working on it over there before, because when I got to New York I had like two weeks before we were ready to shoot. So as soon as I got back, I started driving a cab, and I thought I'd go for at least 10 days or something, but I drove as much as I could at that period before we had to start.
Jones: Is it true that somebody got in your cab and said, "Hey, aren't you the guy that won the Oscar?"
De Niro: Marty said that. I don't know. I don't remember.
Scorsese: You told me that a guy got in the car and noticed that it was your name on the driver's license, and he said, "My God, he just won an Oscar. Is it that hard to get a job?"
De Niro: I said, "Yeah, I'm still on the unemployment line."
Jones: Jodie, you were really surprised to get this script offered to you, right?
Jodie Foster: Yeah, I had just done Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and so we knew each other. I had seen Mean Streets a thousand times, and was a big fan of the cinema of the day, early '70s movies. My mom took me to the movie theater and took me to see European films, and I think she wanted for me in some ways to have a meaningful career and have a part like this. And I just sort of showed up.
Jones: Were you afraid that your friends were going to make fun of you?
Foster: Just the hot pants. The hot pants and the dumb hat and the sunglasses. That was the first day that, I believe it was Ruth Morley, the costume designer, the first day I cried. Then I was absolutely mortified.
Jones: And then you had to do a four-hour interview with a psychiatrist?
Foster: The Board of Education didn't want to give me a work permit. Every time a young actor has to do a movie, they have to get a work permit. They said no, I couldn't have one, and we hired a lawyer and they decided to determine whether I was psychologically sane enough to play the part, and I guess I passed!
Jones: Congratulations. Cybill, I read something very interesting that you had said you were in three amazing movies kind of almost back to back: The Last Picture Show, Heartbreak Kid, and Taxi Driver. Working with Elaine May, you learned a lot about improvisation?
Cybill Shepherd: I didn't know what improvisation was. She said, "Okay, let's improvise," and I went, "What's that?" But I did learn. And I want to mention David Begelman, who did me a great favor, who said you can't do Taxi Driver and this other film. And I said, "No problem. Taxi Driver. "
Jones: Good decision. Did the improv come in handy working on this?
Shepherd: Well, yes, absolutely. That's how we found the lines. It was Mr. De Niro and I. We improvised and I think, Marty, you had a 16-mm black-and-white camera?
Shepherd: Yeah, video. And you wrote the lines based on some of our improvisations.
Scorsese: Yeah, based on some of those. Yes, exactly. It was at the St. Regis.
Shepherd: Yeah, nice hotel.
Scorsese: Yeah. Dalí was still living there. Salvador Dalí, yes, he was sitting in the lobby [twirls his mustache like Dalí]. Watch out. Amazing!
Jones: You didn't want to give him a bit part?
Scorsese: No, it wasn't that kind of a movie.
Jones: Different kind of New York.
Schrader: And also with Cybill, Marty and I had been talking about who this girl is, and I said, "She's like Cybill Shepherd, and there's no way she would do this." And then I heard from [talent agent] Sue Mengers and she said, "I hear you're looking for a Cybill–like actress." I said, "Yeah, we are!" And she said, "Well, what about Cybill?" I said, "She would never do this," and Sue said, "Well, ask her to play that part!"
Shepherd: Well, this was definitely a very important film for me and I would've given my right arm to do it. And I'm so honored to be here tonight. There's so much talent on this stage, and to have this great opportunity to have this great film be honored, and I just want to thank you.
Jones: Now, there is a fair amount of improv in the movie, correct?
Scorsese: The script was very structured and rigorous.
Schrader: It was primarily Albert [Brooks]. Something Scorsese does that's very smart is when you have an uninteresting role, cast a comic. And this one really was a boring role that I had written, so Marty puts Albert in there.
Scorsese: I offered it to Harvey. But he told me earlier, and [looking at Harvey] I forgot I offered you that part. And he said, "I wanna do the pimp."
Jones: The pimp, yeah.
Harvey Keitel: Thank you, Paul.
Jones: Harvey, you worked with a real pimp, correct?
Keitel: Does the statute of limitations apply here? Well, I'll just say how I met Marty, and then I'll pass the mic. Marty was casting a student film at NYU. Perhaps it was the first 35-mm film ever made in the country. And after a number of auditions — there must have been a hundred actors that showed up at first — it came down to three of us, all out-of-work actors auditioning for a movie that didn't pay any money that was going to shoot on weekends. So I show up at NYU at nighttime, it's dark in there, and I walk in and some fella says to me, "Okay, walk down the hall and you see where that light's coming from the room?" I said, "Yeah." He says, "Okay, now just walk in there and wait." So I'm waiting my turn to audition, the last audition for the part. There are three auditions. So I walk into the room and the light's on. The whole school was dark. I just walk in the room and there's a lamp, like at a police station, shining and you walk in and there's a guy sitting behind a desk and he goes, "Sit the fuck down!" I said, "What?" and he said, "Sit the fuck down." I said, "Excuse me, but who are you?" He said, "Sit the fuck down," and I said, "Go fuck yourself!" I stand up and all of a sudden I hear a voice shouting from the back of the room, "Harvey, no, stop! Stop! Wait! Wait! It's an improvisation!" I said, "Marty, excuse me, but you know it would be a good idea when you're doing an improvisation to let your actors know." So, you're a genius!
Jones: You don't want to tell the pimp story?
Scorsese: Tell them about the pimp!
[At this point, a man in audience yells, "Tell us about the pimp!"]
Keitel: Oh, you guys! There's nothing to say much about it. There's a lot to say. One funny thing to say about it — I was looking to meet a pimp 'cause I didn't know what to do about being a pimp. Not that I wasn't a lowlife myself, but so I was doing a Broadway show at the time, and a lot of the girls would hang out around Tenth Avenue and Ninth Avenue, and I went over to one of the girls one night and my name's on the marquee and all that, so I went up to her and I said, "Excuse me, but I'm Harvey Keitel and here's my name on the poster there and I'm doing a movie," and I'm beginning to explain to her about playing the pimp in Taxi Driver. I said, "I'm looking for someone to help me understand what it's like to be a pimp," and I'm talking and I'm talking and I'm talking. And she doesn't say a word. I said, "Can you help me out?" She looks at me and she goes, "No one's gonna talk to you." So I sulked away, you know, and then I met a pimp. Someone said he was a former pimp, and I don't know what that means, but we improvised a couple of weeks together, me and this fellow, and he taught me what it was like to play the role of a pimp, and I played the girl. And he taught me what the pimp would do, and then I'd play the pimp and we had a good business together! It went something like that, and Marty wanted those scenes in the movie so we put them in the movie to begin with. The dance with Jodie and all that.
Scorsese: I think in terms of improv, though, the key one was with Bob and the mirror. Paul, I remember we asked him to say something in the mirror and so we called you.
Schrader: Yeah, I mean it was not scripted. The script just said, "Travis looks at the mirror, plays like a cowboy, takes out the gun and talks to himself." And so Bob said, "Well, what does he say?" And I said, "It's just like when you're a kid and you got that little holster and the cap gun and you're standing there and you go, 'Whoa!' Just like that." And so he took it from there.
Jones: But where did you find in Taxi Driver the drummer, Gene Palma?
Scorsese: Gene Palma and Chick Webb and all that. That was just a guy on Columbus Circle. That's all. Those are things that we sort of put into the picture. [Cinematographer] Michael [Chapman] and I were pretty much, "Look at this guy and another fella." I had to find a place in the editing for 'em. Yeah.
Jones: Who for years was a fixture in New York. He'd turn up in places as the Taxi Driver drummer. And then Steven Prince was the gun dealer. So it was a hot summer, right?
Scorsese: The weather was, I mean, at that time the only person that had trouble was you [De Niro], I think. What with all the makeup and also the mohawk thing. So we would just hang out in the streets, and it was Michael and I. Well, the problem was the heat in the city at the time and enormous amounts of rainstorms, thunderstorms that kept pushing us back in scheduling and that sort of thing. And there were lots of problems with the studio on that. But the city was wonderful at the time, I thought. Everybody told me it was dying and it was a terrible city and I just, that's where I grew up in. I grew up downtown on Elizabeth Street. I didn't see much of a difference. I mean, yeah, Eighth Avenue between 52nd and 42nd street, we wouldn't want to hang around too long at night doing that scene, I can tell you.
Phillips: You forgot these were all condemned buildings and gangs we were assiduously avoiding.
Scorsese: Oh, that's right, yes. But seriously, it's part of being in the city at night in the summer where you can feel it in the film, Michael Chapman's photography. You can get a sense of, you can taste the humidity and a sense of the kind of anger and violence that was emanating from the streets themselves. It was crazy. The rainstorms were really bad, though. I finally just started shooting in them, because I couldn't match anything. Remember in the scene with the apple pie in the luncheonette? I didn't want to shoot against the wall. I wanted to shoot out the window with Bob and Cybill, because you had all of Columbus Circle out there and you had all of this going on but nothing matched. It would start raining and raining and so we had a big confrontation with the studio, but we finally pulled through on that, because I felt the city was so much of a character and we had to fight tooth and nail to get that, I remember.
Schrader: Don't really believe him. Scorsese has never cared about whether things matched [laughs].
Scorsese: That's true! That's true!
Jones: Marty, technically, can you just talk about how you got the overhead shot at the end? You put a hole in the ceiling.
Scorsese: Well, we were in this condemned building, right? On 88th and Columbus?
Phillips: That was down on 13th, right?
Scorsese: Well, the exterior was down on 13th and the hallway was 89th street and Columbus. And Jodie's room was on Columbus Ave. on 88th Street, I believe, or 89th. The building was somehow condemned, but we're shooting a movie in there. I don't know what happened. And the next day we started, I remember Michael, because it was in the script that it was an overhead tracking, they said, "How do you want to get it?" I said, "We'll have to cut through the ceiling," which is what they did and it took about three months, do you remember? And when it came time to shoot it, the teacher, or what is it? The child-labor law person …
Foster: Did they cause you trouble?
Scorsese: Well, they said you only have 20 minutes.
Foster: So sorry.
Scorsese: And so were trying everything. "Oh please, oh please!" And 20 minutes, we had and like a year building up to it. And I said, "Please, just an extra shot." But we got it, I think, in two takes.
Foster: Sometimes that's all it takes.
Scorsese: That's all it takes. It was so funny.
Jones [to Foster]: And you were kind of freaked out by the blood?
Foster: Freaked out? No, it was fantastic. I remember [makeup artist] Dick Smith there with all the big wonderful gallons of Karo syrup and things floating around in them, and all the guys would teach me what they were doing while watching Bobby put on his headpiece, you know, the prosthetic mohawk. It was fascinating. And people have always asked all of us how frightening that scene was and how frightening it was to shoot, but mostly it was kind of fun.
Jones: But the mohawk, that was a special forces thing, right?
De Niro: Speaking about the whole shootout at the end, it's funny when you do those kind of terrible, gruesome scenes, everybody kind of jokes. And that made me think about people who are in those types of situations for real, probably have no choice but to joke about it. And that's kind of what we were doing as we remember in that setting because it's just so gruesome that, you know, you make jokes about it. Even though it wasn't real, it was real enough for us in any case. But the mohawk was something that Marty and I came up with. A friend of his who was in special forces at that time who would do HALO diving into Cambodia or Laos or whatever, and he showed us a picture of he and his outfit and a couple guys had mohawks or at least one or two of them did, as I remember.
De Niro: And we said, "That's great. Let's use that. Let's try and do it." And so then it was about how we could do it, as I was about to do The Last Tycoon after, and my hair was all bushy and everything. So I remember Marty and I had to kind of resolve it and we met at Gallagher's Steakhouse — I don't know if you remember it, Marty — but we had a talk and we decided to get Dick Smith to do a test and Dick did a test and it worked.
Scorsese: I remember I was in the other room and I had fallen asleep while he was working on the headpiece or whatever it is, the mohawk, and I had just dozed off for a moment, and then I felt a tap on my shoulder and I opened my eyes, and you were there with this thing and it was terrifying!
Jones: I just want to talk a little bit about Bernard Hermann and this incredible score. You said that when you approached him for the first time, he said, "I hear brass."
Scorsese: I met him through Brian De Palma again. He was doing the score for his film Obsession.
Jones: Which Paul also wrote.
Scorsese: And so I got his phone number, and I was in Amsterdam but giving him a call in London, and I said, "I'd like you to take a look at this script. It's a film called Taxi Driver," and he said, "I don't do films about cabbies." But then he said, "Okay, meet me in London," and so we met. And he read the script and he said he liked the fact the character used peach brandy in the cereal. [Imitating Hermann's gruff voice]: "So that's interesting. That's interesting." Michael, you know him, you made the deal, right?
Phillips: He was impossible to wrangle. I remember he kept quitting the film. He arrived at the airport. He had been in self-exile in England for a decade, came back and went straight to the return counter to buy a ticket to have him brought back, and then on the recording stage, there was a gooseneck lamp that he kept hitting with his baton, but he blamed the lamp and he quit and threw his baton into the orchestra. But we recorded for two days and he died at the end of the second day, that evening. And I remember the first time you had to change one of his cues on the dubbing stage, you were a little scared. We were all scared of Bernie and that's the truth.
Scorsese: I spent some time with him in London, and we talked about the scores he did for Welles and Hitchcock, even the Sinbad films, and so we became friendly with him. But he did tell me that he saw it all, he heard it all in brass, very strong. And the way I envisioned the film and I had drawn all the pictures, if you remember, because we were under so much pressure, was I imagined it to a Van Morrison "T.B. Sheets," a kind of bluesy creeping through the streets at night kind of thing.
Schrader: I was very surprised when I first heard this thing about Bernard Hermann because Marty was a needle-drop addict and all of Mean Streets had all been needle drops, and so I figured that's what we'd do on Taxi Driver. You know, all these needle drops. And then one day he says, "What do you think of Bernard Hermann?" I was flabbergasted. It was inspiration.
Scorsese: You know, the thing about it, Paul, was that this term needle drops is something about music being heard, because that's how I grew up with all the music around me from different places, different windows, whether it was opera or jazz or swing or rock and roll. So that's the way I saw everything on Mean Streets and even Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. But Travis doesn't listen to anything. He doesn't listen to any music. And I said, "The only person that could do something that could express what he's suffering is Bernard Hermann."
Schrader: You told me a story that you wanted Jackson Browne in there. There were two cues we were talking about. One was Jackson Browne and the other was Barry White. And Bernard Hermann says the only person who does music in a Bernard Hermann film is Bernard Hermann. And you won the battle over Jackson Browne. But the Barry White we ended up with Harvey dancing to Bernard Hermann's Barry White.
Scorsese: Oh, that's right! Bernard Hermann did the music. And you wrote the lyrics? Wow, I didn't remember it. Yeah, the Jackson Browne "Late for the Sky." Yeah.
Jones: And it's an interesting story about the last moment at the end of the movie with the sting.
Scorsese: Uh, yeah, when Travis looks in the mirror in the cab and then looks back, he thinks he sees something. I was there with Bernard Hermann and the orchestra and I said, "I just need some kind of a sound there." He said, "You mean a sting." And I said, "Yeah, I guess that's what I mean." And he said, "Okay," and he got the xylophone player and he hit the xylophone a number of times and he played it back. And I said, "It's still, I mean, that's right but it needs something special." And he said, "Play it backwards." And walked out. And that was the last time I saw him.
Jones: So you guys had serious doubts about whether or not people were going to go see this movie. You knew that you wanted to make the movie.
Scorsese: As I said, for me it was almost like — and for Bob, too, he was working with Kazan, he was working with Bertolucci, and I mean Francis, Godfather — this was just something we had to do and then we move on with our lives. That was the idea. And Paul was starting to direct soon. You were doing Blue Collar with Harvey, about to do that with Richard Pryor, all these pictures, so everybody said, "So yeah, let's get this done for God's sakes. Come on, we gotta do it." And I couldn't believe, and I was saying earlier [to Schrader], you called me the day it opened and said, "Take a look and see the line around the corner, at the Coronet Theater."
Schrader: I had been up late the night before — it was those times — and I had overslept and I was at the Sherry and I couldn't get a cab and I ran all the way across town to the Baronet, and I got there and there was a huge line outside the theater to the one theater, first show. And I said, "Oh my God, something's gone wrong. They've closed the theater," and I went up to the woman, and I said "What happened? What happened?" And she said they're getting ready to start the movie. And I said, "Well, why are all these people out here?" She said, "They're for the next show." And I walked up into the theater. It was the very first screening in New York and the cab pulled out of the steam, and it says Taxi Driver, and the audience applauds. The film had never been projected before. It was some kind of New York groundswell that just, you know, was there.
Scorsese: Incredible. I had no idea. Amazing.
Jones: And you had an interesting experience at Cannes with the film, right?
Scorsese: At Cannes, Jodie was there, Michael, Julia, I think — no she wasn't there — Bob and me. And Harvey, you weren't there at Cannes for this?
Keitel: I was the only guy in a brown suit.
Scorsese: Oh, that's all right.
Keitel: I didn't have a tuxedo.
Scorsese: But the jury was Costa-Gavras and Sergio Leone …
Jones: Tennessee Williams.
Scorsese: Well, Tennessee Williams was the president of the jury. And I'll tell you, we did our work for two or three days. We did interviews, we did press conferences, and then an article came out — they had a thing there and I don't know if they still do — this kind of a little booklet or flyer that goes out each day about the festival and the headline was Tennessee Williams does not like — hates — Taxi Driver. Said it was far too violent. So we just did our work and went home. However, before we did, Leone and Costa-Gavras gave us a dinner at a restaurant called L'Oasis, or Oasis.
Foster: I think [former agent turned producer] Harry Ufland gave it. He was there too because I saw him pay for it and that was the end of Harry Ufland at ICM.
Foster: He charged it to the company.
Scorsese: That's right, you were with Harry. Harry was my first agent for like 20 years. And Marion Billings was there, and she said they liked the film, etc.
Foster: And Pauline Kael, I think, maybe.
Scorsese: I think she was there, was she?
Foster: I think so.
Schrader: I mean the film had already come out in the U.S., so it had been reviewed and Cannes was May, so it was already a success. In fact, it was unlikely it would be shown at Cannes. Today they probably wouldn't even bother showing in America until then if it opened in February and you had to wait until May.
Scorsese: But at the dinner, I don't recall Costa and Sergio talking about, "We're going to make sure this film is going to win something." We just talked about cinema, their films, and Once Upon a Time in the West and that sort of thing. That was it, and then we went home. And I think, Michael, you stayed?
Phillips: Yeah, you went home. And then we, to our surprise, found out we won, and so I went to accept the award and, to my shock, when they announced Taxi Driver had won, half the audience cheered and half the audience had booed.
Jones: Well, okay, but the movie gets the last laugh. And that's why we're all here tonight. So thank you all for coming.
This interview has been edited and condensed.