“At least once a day for the last forty f*cking years,” Robert De Niro opened, “one of you people has come up to me and said… Oh, you know the line.”
He was talking to us. Well, he had to be talking to us, there wasn’t anyone else around in last night’s Tribeca Film Festival panel discussion on Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver, save Scorsese himself, his stars Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, and Harvey Keitel, producer Michael Phillips, screenwriter Paul Schrader, and host Kent Jones. Every aspect of the film has aged into classic-dom: Bernard Herrman’s mournful, noirish saxopohone theme; the gritty cinematography capturing the wonderland of filth and degradation that was New York pre-Giuliani; Foster as a street-smart pre-teen hooker, both faintly innocent and worldly beyond her years; Scorsese’s incomparable directorial wizardry, synthesizing the French New Wave, German expressionism, and classical Hollywood cinema into an unmistakable new style all his own; and of course, De Niro’s career-defining, humorous, disturbing, hypnotic, unsettlingly relatable performance as Travis Bickle. A Holden Caulfield type with a lethal combination of PTSD, insomnia, and antisocial tendencies, Bickle permanently left an imprint on the DNA of American cinema when he pointed that gun in the mirror and asked whether he was being spoken to. Last night, we finally got the answer.
Below, we’ve shared four of the most important takeaways and other highlights from the evening’s proceedings, a cinephile fantasy the likes of which will never be seen again.
1. Scorsese and co. pulled the film off by the skin of their teeth
As Marty tells it, Taxi Driver could have fallen apart at any second. Problems cropped up like dandelions, whether it was the pesky child labor representatives making sure Foster never had to do anything potentially traumatizing (Foster’s only objections were to her goofy hat and hot-pants; far from being horrified by the climactic bloodbath, she thought it was cool) or only getting two takes to nail a technically elaborate overhead tracking shot that required nearly a year of prep. They filmed in condemned buildings to cut costs and get that genuine New York feel, and Phillips mentioned that the crew “assiduously avoided gangs.” Like so many of Hollywood’s greatest triumphs, it came together almost in spite of itself.
2. There sure was a lot of reluctance to be part of what would end up being a major landmark in American filmmaking
A surprising number of integral talents came on board only after careful negotiation. The film wasn’t an easy sell: To get the studio on board, Scorsese and De Niro agreed to work on the cheap, despite De Niro having won an Oscar the year before for The Godfather Part II and Martin Scorsese, well, being Martin Scorsese. (For a lot of people, Mean Streets was all it took to prove the man’s genius and then some.) Bernard Herrmann, legendary composer and go-to scorer for such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, told Scorsese, “I don’t do films about cabbies!” Herrmann would join the production, of course, but Scorsese treated the audience to an anecdote in which the composer gave him the idea for a little musical punch called a “sting,” recommending playing a staccato xylophone strike backwards.
3. Marty and Bob kept it simple on set
While shooting around Manhattan, the production crews worked in as minimal a fashion as possible. For costuming, De Niro borrowed the iconic military jacket and cowboy boots from Schrader. Keeping production costs well under budget was of paramount importance for Columbia, so shooting had to be fast, and considering how much cocaine the director was on during this time period (it’s jarring to see him so twitchy in his extended cameo), it was often furious. De Niro and Scorsese didn’t screw around: “We never had long, existential discussions,” Scorsese admitted. “We never discussed theory or the ideas of it.” The final product of this strategy was a lean, mean achievement of filmcraft for the story’s and its own sake.
4. They were esteemed and beloved by many, but not nearly by all
With a good-natured chuckle, Scorsese recalled the divisive reception the film drew at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976, where half the premiere audience booed as the other gave a standing ovation. The Competition jury was reportedly polarized on the film as well, with sitting president Tennessee Williams vocally deriding the film’s violence and sleazy quality, while jurors Costa-Gavras and Charlotte Rampling hailed it as a major work. (The film would go on to take the festival’s top prize, the Palme D’Or.) De Niro recalled a humorous memory for the crowd, from the ten-day period he spent driving a cab as research for the role: a customer realized just who was driving the cab partway through the ride and asked, “Didn’t you just win an Oscar? Is it that hard to get a job?” The actor laughed and replied, “Yeah, I’m still on the unemployment line!”