13 Grimy Facts About Taxi Driver
Robert De Niro thought 1976’s Taxi Driver had the potential to be a movie people would still be talking about 50 years later. We’re still a decade away from knowing that for sure, but it’s safe to assume he was right. The actor’s second collaboration with director Martin Scorsese—which was released 40 years ago today—boosted both of their careers and, more importantly, produced an unsettling masterpiece of 1970s cinema. Here, culled from some of the many things that have been written about the film, are a handful of tidbits you may not have known. If you’re a fan of this iconic movie, then yeah: we’re talkin’ to you.
1. “YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?” CAME FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.
Robert De Niro improvised that whole paranoid monologue, including what would become the movie’s most famous line. (The film's screenwriter, Paul Schrader, later said, “It’s the best thing in the movie, and I didn’t write it.”) De Niro got the line from Bruce Springsteen, whom he’d seen perform in Greenwich Village just days earlier, at one in a series of concerts leading up to the release of Born to Run. When the audience called out his name, The Boss did a bit where he feigned humility and said, “You talkin’ to me?” Apparently it stuck in De Niro’s mind.
2. THE SCREENWRITER DIDN'T SEE HIS FIRST MOVIE UNTIL THE AGE OF 17.
Paul Schrader was raised by strict Calvinist parents, so movies were forbidden in the Schrader household. Schrader later said the first movie he ever saw was 1961’s The Absent-Minded Professor, which presumably was not an inspiration for Taxi Driver. As for what he thought of the Disney flick, Schrader confessed: “I was very greatly disappointed.”
3. JODIE FOSTER HAD TO SEE A SHRINK BEFORE SHE WAS ALLOWED TO ACT IN IT.
Though she was only 12 years old when the movie was filmed, Foster was one of the most experienced actors in the cast, having appeared in dozens of TV shows and a handful of movies (including Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). Nonetheless, with material as rough as Taxi Driver, her youth outweighed her experience, and the producers had her meet with someone from California’s child welfare department to make sure she was mature enough to handle it. A welfare worker supervised her scenes and Foster’s older sister, Connie, was hired as her body double for some of the sexier and/or more violent shots. Foster said that the welfare worker “saw the daily rushes of all my scenes and made sure I wasn't on the set when Robert De Niro said a dirty word.”
4. SCHRADER REWROTE FOSTER’S CHARACTER AFTER MEETING AN ACTUAL UNDERAGE NEW YORK CITY HOOKER.
While in New York for pre-production and cast meetings, Schrader was moping in a bar late one night when he picked up a young woman. We’ll let him tell the story, as he told it to Film Comment in 1975: “I was shocked by my success until we got back to my hotel and I realized that she was: (1) a hooker; (2) underage; and (3) a junkie. Well, at the end of the night I sent Marty [Scorsese] a note saying, ‘Iris is in my room. We’re having breakfast at nine. Will you please join us?’ So we came down, Marty came down, and a lot of the character of Iris was rewritten from this girl who had a concentration span of about 20 seconds. Her name was Garth.”
5. THE FILM PARTLY OWES ITS EXISTENCE TO THE STING.
Husband-and-wife producers Michael and Julia Phillips optioned Schrader’s screenplay in 1973, and Martin Scorsese was eager to direct it. But, at the time, none of the people involved had enough Hollywood clout for any studio to take a chance on such dark, unsettling material. That changed by the end of the year, when the Phillips-produced The Sting became a smash hit, on its way to becoming a Best Picture Oscar winner. Which gave the Phillips a track record—and, more importantly, a multi-film deal with Columbia Pictures. Schrader and Scorsese’s stock rose that year, too, and once De Niro came onboard, the previously unfilmable Taxi Driver became a possibility.
6. DE NIRO HAD COINCIDENTALLY COME UP WITH A SIMILAR IDEA FOR A MOVIE HIMSELF.
Before becoming a star, De Niro thought about writing a screenplay himself. One of the ideas he had was, in the words of biographer Shawn Levy, “about a lonely man wandering New York City with guns and dreaming of an assassination.” It never went any further than the idea stage, but it was an eerie coincidence when De Niro found Schrader and Taxi Driver a few years later.
7. EVERYBODY TOOK A PAY CUT TO MAKE THE FILM.
De Niro, having just broken out with The Godfather: Part II, was being offered $500,000 to star in other films, but did Taxi Driver for $35,000. Schrader agreed to take about the same amount for his screenplay, despite having just sold another one (The Yakuza) for 10 times that amount. The rest of the main cast and Scorsese also worked for less than normal. Cybill Shepherd took $35,000; the director made $65,000. The total budget was around $1.8 million, of which less than $200,000 went to talent salaries.
8. THE COMPOSER DIED A FEW HOURS AFTER RECORDING THE FILM'S MUSIC.
Scorsese was lucky to get Bernard Herrmann, a Hollywood legend who had scored Citizen Kane, Psycho, Cape Fear, North by Northwest, and dozens of others. Herrmann wrote the Taxi Driver score and conducted the recording sessions himself, finishing in Los Angeles on the evening of December 23, 1975. He retired to his hotel and died sometime during the night, officially Christmas Eve morning, at the age of 64. He was posthumously nominated for an Oscar.
9. SCORSESE AVOIDED AN X RATING BY MAKING THE BLOOD LOOK MORE BROWN THAN RED.
Scorsese desaturated the color in the film’s gorier scenes, rendering the blood less realistic and more like a black-and-white tabloid newspaper (without actually being black-and-white). Not only did it fit the lurid tone he was going for, it soothed the nerves of the ratings board.
10. SCORSESE REPLACED AN INJURED ACTOR WITH ... HIMSELF.
The role of the hateful taxi passenger who describes, in graphic detail, how he wants to kill his cheating wife was supposed to have been played by George Memmoli, an actor who had appeared in Mean Streets. But Memmoli hurt his back while working on another film, and Scorsese surprised everyone by taking the role himself. He would later describe De Niro, sitting in the front seat of the cab, as his acting coach.
11. DUE TO A GARBAGE STRIKE, MUCH OF THE ON-SCREEN FILTH WAS REAL.
New York was dirty in the 1970s; that is, after all, one of the central themes of Taxi Driver. But it was especially dirty in the summer of 1975, when the film was being shot, because of a sanitation workers’ strike that left piles and piles of garbage on the sidewalks and streets.
12. SCORSESE DESCRIBED THE FILM AS “FEMINIST.”
In an interview with Roger Ebert upon the film’s release, Scorsese called Taxi Driver “my feminist film ... because it takes macho to its logical conclusion. The better man is the man who can kill you. This [movie] shows that kind of thinking, shows the kinds of problems some men have, bouncing back and forth between [their perception of women as] goddesses and whores.”
13. CYBILL SHEPHERD WAS NOT A POPULAR MEMBER OF THE CAST.
The glamorous Shepherd had become a star via The Last Picture Show, then squandered some of her goodwill by running off with the director, Peter Bogdanovich (who left his wife for her), making a couple of duds (Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love), and behaving snobbishly in the Hollywood circles in which she and Bogdanovich traveled. Though she’s better known today as a television actress, Shepherd took the Taxi Driver part for less than her usual asking price. The thing was, nobody thought she was much of an actress. Producer Julia Phillips, back in L.A., cringed when she watched the dailies. Scorsese had to give her frequent line readings, and De Niro’s frustration translated into hostility toward her. Schrader later said, “We always said we were looking for a Cybill Shepherd type. How much worse can she be than a Cybill Shepherd type? ... But she was always a Cybill Shepherd ‘type.’”