Columbia Pictures didn’t exactly have a great deal of faith in Martin Scorsese’s violent urban nightmare Taxi Driver when the film premiered in 1976. At first, the studio dumped the $1.3 million film starring Robert De Niro into a couple of theaters and hoped to recoup at least some of its cost. Instead, the zeitgeist-capturing film, made at a time when New York City was at an economic nadir, became a critical and popular sensation, garnering the Palme D’Or at Cannes. It also attracted plenty of controversy with its blood-soaked portrayal of urban alienation, teen prostitution, and vigilante justice. Now, on the occasion of a 40th-anniversary screening of the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter’s Gregg Kilday has assembled a very entertaining oral history of Taxi Driver with quotes from Scorsese, De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, screenwriter Paul Schrader, and producer Michael Phillips.
The birth of Taxi Driver was not an easy one. Schrader first wrote the script when he felt his life was falling apart and that he was losing contact with the human race. Phillips and his partners liked the script, but they didn’t know at first whether or not the then-inexperienced Scorsese was the man for the job. Eventually, after Scorsese made Mean Streets and De Niro had won an Oscar, the stars aligned for this project, but the making of the film was not without incident. Schrader had written the character of Sport, a vicious pimp, as black, but Columbia nixed that idea, fearing riots. Scorsese and his crew built some of the sets in condemned buildings and had to hire gang members for protection. Foster, then a naive tomboy, received a crash course in scary adult reality on the set, though she remembers De Niro as just as socially awkward as the character he was portraying. Still, the gods of filmmaking must have been smiling on this production. When Schrader’s script called for De Niro to improvise a monologue in front of a mirror, the scene turned into the defining moment of the actor’s career. Now, anyone doing a De Niro impression generally starts with the same four words: “You talkin’ to me?”