Tribeca 2016 – “Taxi Driver”40th Anniversary Screening

April 21, 20016.  On April 21, the Tribeca Film Festival presented a once in a lifetime event – a 40th anniversary screening of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 movie “Taxi Driver.” The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring an incredible line up of “Taxi Driver” alumni, which included Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, actors Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Jody Foster, Cybill Shepherd and producer Michael Phillips. The event took place at the Beacon Theatre and was moderated by writer and performer Kent Jones.

De Niro introduced the screening by claiming that every day for the past 40 years someone has come up to him and said, “You talkin’ to me?” – arguably the most famous line from “Taxi Driver,” spoken by De Niro, as Travis Bickle, the film’s main character. De Niro’s anecdote got a huge laugh from the sold out audience. De Niro then invited the audience to “get it all out.” Then, in unison, we all repeated the iconic line, along with De Niro.


Seth Shire outside of the Beacon Theatre prior to the “Taxi Driver” 40th Anniversary Screening.  (Photo by Luce Mercado)

Following the screening of a beautiful, digital restoration of “Taxi Driver,” Jones began the discussion by recalling that he first saw “Taxi Driver” on a date when he was 15-years-old. “As dangerous as it made New York look, it also made us want to come here, because if something that awesomely powerful could come out of this, we needed to be here,” Jones remembered. Scorsese pointed out that New York City was very much a character in the story and that he had to fight hard to get that into the film. “It’s part of being in the city, at night, in the summer. You could feel it in the film due to (director of photography) Michael Chapman’s cinematograpy. You can taste the humidity and you could taste a sense of anger and sometimes the kind of anger and violence emanating from the streets themselves,” Scorsese explained.

Adding to Scorsese’s comment Schrader said, “The 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 of becoming, and that was this taxi driver. I felt if I wrote about him, I could distance him from me, and it worked. It shows that art has therapeutic powers. The beauty of it is that as it migrated through director, cast and the studio’s release, it still retained its original purpose. That power still, after 40 years, imbues the film.” In describing his motivation for wanting to make the film, upon reading the script, Scorsese said, “What I saw, I couldn’t articulate. It just had to be done. I just had a kind of determination to make it.”

De Niro talked about his preparation for “Taxi Driver.” Prior to shooting “Taxi Driver,” De Niro was in Italy shooting the movie “1900,” for director Bernardo Bertoulucci. De Niro got a New York City taxi driver’s license and, on weekends, would fly from Italy to NY, drive a cab around New York City, and then fly back to Italy. Scorsese told a story that one night someone got into De Niro’s cab, saw his name on the license and said, “My God, you just won an Oscar (for “Godfather II”). Is it that hard to get a job as an actor?” De Niro recalled his answer. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m still on the unemployment line,’” to uproarious laughter from the audience.

Foster recalled having to undergo a psychiatric evaluation before being allowed to play Iris, the 12-year-old prostitute who Travis wants to save. She explained that the Board of Education did not want to give her the required work permit. She said, “We hired a lawyer and they decided to determine if I was psychologically sane enough to play the part, and I guess I passed.”

In regard to Foster’s reaction, at such a young age, to the violence and blood shed in the film’s climactic shoot out, which involves her character, Foster recalled that it was fascinating to see the behind the scenes aspects – the fake blood being prepared and De Niro’s fake Mohawk hair piece being applied. “People always ask how frightening that scene was and how frightening it was to shoot. Mostly it was kind of fun,” Foster said. De Niro added, “When you do those kind of terrible, gruesome scenes everybody kind of jokes. It made me think that people who are in those types of situations for real probably have no choice but to joke about them, and that’s kind of what we were doing, as I remember. Even though it wasn’t real, it was real enough for us.”

Scorsese recalled that, due to child labor laws, he only had 20 minutes before Foster was required to leave the set, to get the famous overhead tracking shot that ends the film’s climactic shootout – a shot for which they had prepared for three months and which involved cutting out the room’s ceiling, so that the camera could look down on the scene. Scorsese recalled begging the on-set child labor law person for more time. “It had been a year building up to it, but we got it in two takes,” Scorsese recalled, laughing. “Sometimes two takes is all you need,” Foster added.

Keitel recalled having initially having been offered the role of the campaign worker, Tom, a part that would ultimately be played by Albert Brooks. Keitel, after reading the script, said he wanted to play the part of the pimp – Sport. After some coaxing from those on stage, and those in the audience, and observing that the statute of limitations had most likely passed, Keitel admitted that he was coached by an actual pimp, or as he put it, a “former pimp.”

In regard to Betsy, the object of Travis’ affection, played by Shepherd, Schrader said, “Marty and I had been talking about who this character is. I said she’s like Cybill Shepherd, but that there is no way Cybill would want to play this part. Then I heard from Sue Mengers (Shepherd’s agent). She said, ‘I heard you were looking for a Cybill like actress.’ I said ‘Yeah we are,’ and she said ‘What about Cybill?’”

Shepherd said, “This was definitely a very important film for me and I would have given my right arm to do it. I’m so honored to be here tonight and there’s so much talent on this stage and I have this great opportunity for this great film to be honored.”

Schrader recalled going to the Coronet Theatre, in Manhattan, on the day “Taxi Driver” opened. He saw a long line. It was time for the movie to start and he asked, “Why are all these people still outside?” He was told that the line was for the next show. Schrader then went inside and watched the very first public screening of “Taxi Driver,” with a sold out house. He said that, as soon as the title “Taxi Driver” appeared on the screen, the audience broke into applause. “The film had never been projected before. It was some kind of New York ground swell that just was there,” Schrader remembered.

Scorsese recalled that when “Taxi Driver” was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1976, jury president Tennessee Williams hated the film. Williams found it too violent. Phillips then recalled that when “Taxi Driver” did, in fact, win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year, half the audience cheered and half “booed.” Phillips added, “But the movie gets the last laugh. That’s why we’re all here tonight.”


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on April 26, 2016, in Tribeca 2016, Tribeca Film Festival 2016 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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