“Every day for 40 fucking years,” he said in introducing the film, “at least one of you has come up to me and said – what do you think – ‘You talkin’ to me?’”
The two-time Oscar winner then led a group chant of Taxi Driver’s most famous line before the screening got under way, followed by a discussion that reunited De Niro with director Martin Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader and co-stars Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd and Harvey Keitel.
Thanks to a recently restored and remastered cut, Scorsese’s 1976 Academy Award-nominated classic looked as pristine as ever at New York’s Beacon Theater. Still, the film retains a grit that’s as unshakable as it was 40 years ago, when Taxi Driver first opened in theaters. The grimy and violent New York as depicted in the film is no longer recognizable, but Bickle’s twisted mission to “wash all this scum off the streets” is no less terrifying.
Despite his character’s severely isolated nature, De Niro stressed that he “never had any existential discussions” with Scorsese before agreeing to take on the role.
As for the infamous mohawk hairstyle Bickle adopts before the carnage begins, De Niro revealed that he never in fact shaved his head for the film. “I was about to do The Last Tycoon after, and my hair was all bushy,” said De Niro. “We decided to have [makeup artist] Dick Smith do a test, and it worked.”
“I remember I was in the other room, and I had fallen asleep while we were working on your mohawk, and I just dozed off for a moment, and I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and you were there with this thing,” Scorsese recalled, seated next to De Niro. “It was terrifying.”
The violent conclusion to Taxi Driver was shocking in its day. Foster, however, said the mood during the shooting of it was “fantastic”.
“I remember Dick Smith having those wonderful gallons of Karo syrup with things floating around in them, and all the guys would teach me what they were doing,” recalled Foster, who was 13 years old at the time. “People always ask – and I’m sure asked all of us – how frightening that scene was and how frightening it was to shoot. Mostly it was just fun.”
Scorsese meanwhile admitted that he never thought Taxi Driver was a film people wanted to see, explaining it was passion that drove him to make it. When he first read Schrader’s script, the film-maker was in post-production on his first collaboration with De Niro, Mean Streets, and looking ahead to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
As Schrader revealed, Scorsese was not the first film-maker to be offered the project. Brian De Palma was first approached but quickly turned it down. The year Taxi Driver was released, De Palma put out both Obsession and Carrie.
Schrader, who also wrote the screenplay for De Palma’s Obsession, described writing Taxi Driver as a form of “self-therapy”. “There was a person I was afraid of becoming,” he said, referencing Bickle. “It really does show that art has therapeutic powers.”
Bernard Herrmann’s jazzy score for Taxi Driver is justly revered. Yet the legendary composer almost didn’t do the project, which would turn out to be his last. Producer Michael Phillips recalled a meeting with Herrmann, where the musician sneered: “I don’t do movies about cabbies.” Scorsese then met with Herrmann, convincing him to give Taxi Driver a shot. “[Herrmann] liked it,” Scorsese said of the script. “Especially when Travis poured peach brandy on his cereal in the morning. He really liked that.”
The funniest moment of the talk came when Keitel was prodded about a rumor that he spent time with a real-life pimp to prepare for his role as one in the film. “Is the statute of limitations over for that yet?” Keitel joked.
Encouraged by Scorsese to divulge the story, the actor confirmed that he met with a “former pimp” before making Taxi Driver. “We improvised a couple of weeks together, me and this fellow,” Keitel recalled. “He taught what it was like to play the role of the pimp. I played the girl, he taught me what the pimp would do … We had a good business together.”
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