What were some of the projects you worked on after your directorial debut, YOUR NAME HERE?
I spent a long time on a project that I was going to direct called Inferno, which was about Linda Lovelace. We had Lindsay Lohan in it, and then we had Malin Akerman. Anyone that is interested in that project can Google it and read about the whole tawdry saga in slow motion. It was a great script. I hope that one day, when people forget about the other movie (LOVELACE), I can dig it out again.
How did DOG EAT DOG come your way?
Someone asked me if I knew about the Eddie Bunker book. I loved his books, and the films STRAIGHT TIME (1977) and ANIMAL FACTORY (2000). I thought it would be a good fit for me because it's a very odd, gnarly character study but it's also a movie about three guys with guns, which is something people don't have any problem paying to go see. I thought we could do something really interesting, and partly because it's male-driven and action-oriented, it had a better chance of getting made than some of the things I had been working on that hadn't gotten made and were female-driven. And sure enough the film got made.
When you did your first draft was it a straight adaptation?
I was pretty faithful, but there was one intervention that I did because I think it's too stifling to watch only guys for a hundred minutes or so. In the book there's a hooker here and a stripper there but I thought we needed a little bit more than that so there's a little break in the middle of the movie where, after their first heist, they go to a casino, walk around and pick up women. Each guy spends the night with a different woman, and you get to know the women, and also the guys through their dysfunction and the ways they are unable to connect and what ruins their evenings. I never thought about it before, but it's a little bit like HUSBANDS (1970), where you have three guys on a night out where they are not getting it together.
There's a scene in that section of DOG EAT DOG that I think is the best scene of the movie. Kent Jones, who writes for Film Comment, saw the film and said he didn't really like the film but that that one scene was killer. It's a scene where Diesel, who is the muscle guy of the group picks up this hipster girl in a bar and takes her back to his room and they're hitting it off, but he blows it because she starts asking him all these questions like ''What's your favorite movie? What kind of music do you like?'' And he gets angry and says ''I don't fucking know any music. I don't fucking know any movies. I don't know any bars around here. I don't know anybody. I don't know anything. '' He finally confesses that he's been in prison. He starts breaking things, and she freaks out and he chases after her. He tells her ''Wait. I don't want you to freak out. '' But it's too late, he's scared her. I think it's a really heartbreaking scene. Chris Cook, who plays Diesel, is incredible in the scene, as is the actress playing the girl.
The great thing about the book is that although you could say it's like FARGO (1996) – it's all about 'best laid plans', there's a big score and you know they're going to fuck up – the way that Eddie Bunker structures it is that the characters fuck it up in the most absurd and unpredictable ways. The way it happens makes perfect sense but you never see it coming. It's dazzling.
Where there any particular films on your mind when you were writing the script?
There were some '70s films I was thinking about like THE OUTFIT (1973), THE NICKEL RIDE (1974), and HICKEY & BOGGS (1972). Those '70s crime movies that were a little more lo-fi, rusty station wagon, R-rated Rockford Files movies. Another influence was a movie that kind of sums up the genre, which is JACKIE BROWN (1997). Our movie doesn't have that movie's winking Elmore Leonard thing but it has that kind of grunge. But what was a surprise to me was when Paul Schrader said ''Hey, I don't wanna do a neo-'70s movie. I invented the '70s! I don't need to go down that road anymore. I want to make this very 2016. '' And what he made was a very Godardian playground that the movie takes place in. I think our public life is so surreal now in America that that approach seems very appropriate. You feel like this movie captures the insanity of America right now, especially when it comes to guns.
How much of a spectre was Tarantino when you were writing it, given that he has come to dominate what many perceive to be the modern crime film?
I wasn't thinking of Quentin too much to be honest. Some think there are some Tarantinoesque moments in the script but I think if I have someone sitting on my shoulders it's Scorsese more than it is Quentin, and there's a little of him in this. The thing about this script was that Eddie Bunker was a guy who was really in jail and he knows that world of criminals and criminals getting out of jail very well. The challenge was in whittling down the script to a simple narrative because he has a lot of crazy anecdotes and mini-vignettes in the novel.
What do you love the most about Bunker's work?
The thing that is so great about him is that of all crime writers he's the one who is least interested in showing off that he is a tough guy or that he knows crime and jail. He just knows the stuff. He came from that world and he somehow learned literature. He went at it backwards. When you read an Eddie Bunker book you never have that feeling that you get from almost every other crime writer that you're being persuaded that they know something. Even in an Elmore Leonard book you feel a little bit like what you're reading is the result is of all the research that he did and all the interviews he did. You can also feel it in James Ellroy a little bit. When you read Bunker, he's the real deal.
The French title of STRAIGHT TIME translates as The Recidivist. That always seemed to sum up Bunker's work to me – he's concerned with the criminal who can just not stop repeating the same mistakes.
I was talking to a friend the other day about STRAIGHT TIME, and I told him that there is a scene in the movie that you couldn't do today. Dustin Hoffman is unfairly busted by M. Emmet Walsh and thrown into the tank for a night and there's this old, skinny rummy sitting on the bottom bunk. Hoffman walks up to him and says ''That's my seat, partner. '' The old guy gets up and sits on the floor because he knows otherwise he would get punched in the face. That's the way it would really be. Nowadays people would say Dustin Hoffman's character wasn't likeable enough.
To what extent did Schrader change your script?
If you watch the film, he shot my script word for word about 90%. The only differences were things that were tweaked to be set in Ohio rather than L.A., and the tone is much more playful and absurd and surreal, than it is gritty. It's more BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964) than it is THE NICKEL RIDE.
When Schrader expressed an interest in doing the film did it all come together quite quickly?
I was going to direct the movie and then the producer disappeared for about eight months. One day the phone rang and I picked up and I heard ''Hi Matt, this is Paul Schrader. I'm directing your movie. '' I said ''It's kind of sad I'm not doing it, but if it's not me doing it then I'm glad it's you.''
Were you a big fan of Schrader before you worked with him?
Even before I wrote my first script I had a little shrine to him. Every screenwriter has their hero when they're starting out. Some people might have a shrine to William Goldman or to Robert Towne. Mine was to Paul Schrader.
What is it you like the most about his work?
I like what he calls 'the monocular movie', the one-character movie. And all of his films are a flip or a critique of a genre movie. I'm thinking of PATTY HEARST (1988) and the daring of having twenty minutes of the movie take place in a closet. That to me was an incredibly brave thing to do. It's not your typical 'well made' screenplay. Nobody teaching screenwriting classes would say ''You're doing a movie on Patty Hearst? Put her in the closet for twenty minutes and then close the door on her, and leave her in the dark. '' He always goes against the grain in a way that I love.
How did the experience of working with him compare to how you thought it might be?
He had my back all the way through and particularly in terms of me getting the sole credit as writer. He knows from his own experience that things are seen a different way when you share credit. He held very tight to that and I am very grateful to him for that. He was a pip. We did some really fun stuff. He had me write scenes based on Eddie Bunker's autobiography, which amounted to about forty pages. They didn't appear in the movie but we staged them in rehearsals and they gave the actors a backstory as to what their friendship was like – how they bailed each other out of jail, how they hung out together and what they told each other, stuff like that. That was a great treat to write that and see it come to life with all those incredible actors.
Did you get the sense that Schrader was hungry to get the experience of DYING OF THE LIGHT (2014) behind him?
I think he was more feisty than hungry. Part of the engine that powered this project was him being given the freedom to do what he wanted and have final cut after having his freedom curtailed on DYING OF THE LIGHT. Rather than just focussing on a lot of violence, he took a directorial stance that was very ballsy, and very much not what people want from a Video On Demand, Nicolas Cage holding a gun on the cover movie. I think he really wanted to bust heads with this movie.
Did you spend much time on set?
I was there during rehearsals and up until the start of the movie. If you went to the production office it looked like a college dorm room. Everybody was about 20 years old. He ran that thing like the captain of a ship. He got everything from everybody exactly as it was needed. It reminded me of the theater. You're not in some giant infrastructure where you have lots of support behind you. You have a room full of kids, many of whom are doing the job for the first time. He made them feel like they were working on something important and they all pulled it together.
As a director yourself, what did you learn the most from him?
He is a supreme pragmatist and supremely efficient. People sometimes have these images of directors as Napoleonic Michael Cimino figures shooting the train coming through the meadow for four days. But Schrader is really the opposite of that. He's really about figuring out a way to do it and getting it done. Despite all that, and the low budget we had, he got really bravura effects and it's a really ballsy movie where you're very much aware of the artistic choices at all times. He was not hampered by the lack of time and money, which came from being very specific and from the experience of knowing how to get stuff done. He really is a master. I'll take from him the idea of being aware what you have and what you can do with it. He's a guy that doesn't talk to much to the actors on the day and on YOUR NAME HERE I talked a lot more. Sometimes casting well and having people do the right kind of stuff is enough.
Was Schrader resistant to acting in the film?
Yes! At one point I was going to do it, but someone vetoed that. He was also going to have Scorsese do it, Tarantino, Abel Ferrara, Herzog, or Rupert Everett. He went down the laundry list of everybody he had ever worked with. I was trying to get him to get Helen Mirren to do it. Finally he did it himself and he's great.
How was watching Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe act opposite each other in the early parts of the production?
I spent a lot of time with them in rehearsals and I would act out the bit parts. There's a mutual delight between them when they are working together. If you've seen WILD AT HEART (1990), you'll know what I mean. Here Cage is much more of the straight guy and Dafoe is the screwball, but I think the extreme screwiness of Dafoe's performance leaked into him a little bit and he does some riskier things as the movie goes on.
Was it always going to be Cage and Dafoe playing those roles?
Cage was originally offered Dafoe's part but he had played a similar role recently so he wanted to play the straight man, and so Dafoe took the Mad Dog part.
What was your reaction to seeing the film for the first time?
I was amazed because the tone is so different from the script, but I loved that. In the theater you would work with people and if you did something stylistically that was out of the vein of what they were doing they would get pissed off. I always felt the contrary. I like it when people can take something that has been written and find different things in it. It's a ballsy film and really fun, and I dig it.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.