In 1973, I had been through a particularly rough time. My marriage broke up and I had to quit the American Film Institute. I was out of work; I was out of the AFI; I was in debt. I fell into a period of real isolation, living more or less in my car. One day, I went to the emergency room in serious pain, and it turned out I had an ulcer. While I was in the hospital talking to the nurse, I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone in two or three weeks. It really hit me, an image that I was like a taxi driver, floating around in this metal coffin in the city, seemingly in the middle of people but absolutely, totally alone. At the time I wrote it, I was very enamoured of guns, I was very suicidal, I was drinking heavily, I was obsessed with pornography in the way a lonely person is, and all those elements are up front in the script… Right after writing it, I left town for about six months. I came back to LA when I was feeling a little stronger emotionally and decided to go at it again.
Taxi Driver was as much a product of luck and timing as everything else – three sensibilities together at the right time, doing the right thing. It was still a low-budget, long-shot movie, but that’s how it got made. At one point we could have got the film financed with Jeff Bridges in the lead, but we elected to hold out and wait until we could finance it with De Niro. Bob was so determined to get the character of Travis down, he drove a cab for a couple of weeks. He got a licence, had his fingerprints taken by the police and hit the streets. The dialogue in Taxi Driver is somewhat improvised. The most memorable piece of dialogue in the film is an improvisation: the “Are you talking to me?” part. In the script it just says Travis speaks to himself in the mirror. Bobby asked me what he would say, and I said, “Well, he’s a little kid playing with guns and acting tough.” So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the same time as the basis for his lines.
I remember the night before Taxi Driver opened, we all got together and had dinner and said, “No matter what happens tomorrow we have made a terrific movie and we’re damn proud of it even if it goes down the toilet.” The next day, I went over to the cinema for the noon show. There was a long line that went all the way around the block. And then I realised, this line was for the two o’clock show, not the noon show! I ran in and watched the film and everyone was standing at the back and there was a sense of exhilaration about what we had done. Jean-Luc Godard once said that all the great movies are successful for the wrong reasons. There were a lot of wrong reasons why Taxi Driver was successful. The sheer violence of it brought out the Times Square crowd. I’m not opposed to censorship in principle but I think that if you censor a film like Taxi Driver all you do is censor a film, not confront a problem. These characters are running around and can be triggered off by anything.
When I talk to younger filmmakers they tell me that it was really the film that informed them, that it was their seminal film, and listening to them talk, I really can see it as a kind of social watermark. But it was meant as a personal film, not a political commentary. —Paul Schrader in ‘Martin Scorsese — A Journey’