DVDanger: Dog Eat Dog
Paul Schrader is the old dog learning new tricks
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00AM, Sun. Nov. 13, 2016
Paul Schrader pulls out his phone and flips through the photos. He stops at one image: the aging director, in a diner booth surrounded by grinning twentysomethings. They're not his grandkids. They're the team of young talent he hired to make his new thriller Dog Eat Dog. But he still beams with grandpaternal pride.
The director of iconic genre-benders like Cat People and Affliction, and writer of cinematic landmarks like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, is back today with his newest film. It's a journey to the criminal underworld with Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Matthew Cook as a kidnap and heist crew wrecked by their own impulses and stupidity. "A trio of scuzzballs in a race to the bottom," cackled Schrader. "I didn't set out to make a crime film in 2016. I set out to make my redemption, but the only way to do that was to make a crime film that was successful."
The script by Matthew Wilder adapts the 1995 career criminal turned author and actor Edward Bunker, a seedy head-trip drawing straight from the author's own sleazy experiences. But the genesis for Schrader wasn't Bunker's book, or Wilder's script. It was the failure of an earlier project, "a very unpleasant experience that Nic Cage and I had on a film called Dying of the Light. That film was rather rudely taken away, dumped, we disowned it, and I said to Nic, if we live long enough, we should really work together and get this stain off our clothes."
Then the script for Dog Eat Dog dropped in his lap. From the brutal opening scene, he immediately saw Cage as the perfect Mad Dog, the barely restrained killer with a hair trigger. He sent Cage the script, who was excited, but with one hitch: "He said, I want to do it, but I don't want to play the crazy one this time."
Cage wanted to play Troy, the nominal level head in the gang, but that left a big gap: not just someone to play Mad Dog, but someone who could truly go toe-to-toe with Cage. Enter Dafoe, an old friend of Schrader's who had worked with him multiple times before, and had his own record with Cage.
However, there was still one issue. A big chunk of the budget went to Cage's salary (which, as Schrader noted, was fair, since without Cage's name attached, there was no budget), but that meant he was being paid more than Dafoe. That seemed unfair to everyone, since Schrader really wanted this to be a two-hander. So Cage intervened, and simply gave Dafoe a portion of his salary, straight off the top. "It didn't make them equal," Schrader said, "but it was an acknowledgement that this is not balanced."
However, putting the pair in the room together was about more than just reuniting Sailor Ripley and Bobby Peru (as Schrader dubbed them, "the Wild at Hearters.") "The moment you counter-cast it, the moment you put Willem in the Nic role, it made it better for both of them. I saw Nic become more alive and interested in the rehearsals than I had seen him otherwise, because he was working with an actor who was doing the role that he normally does, so he had to stay in the game. You could see that. That competitive edge kept him on his toes."
With his leads in place, the biggest challenge for Schrader was "to find out where we are in this [crime] genre, after Scorsese, after Tarantino, after Guy Ritchie." That's why he went for that younger team. "I wasn't looking for people who would think outside of the box. I was looking for people who were already out of the box, so we just brainstormed to make this feel fresh."
The remit to his team was simple: Never be boring. "I told them, we do not have enough money to do this right. That is the bad news. The good news is that I have final cut, so we can make any goddamn film we like."
Schrader described his process as making the boldest decision possible in any scene. "I had begun to think that the theory of unified style no longer was necessary." That's a massive shift in philosophy for a director often seen as the ultimate coherent visualist. He cited the influence of "Québécois wunderkind" Xavier Dolan. "I was looking at his films and saying, there's a Bertolucci scene, there's a Godard scene, there's a Cassavetes scene, and he's just mixing them all up. He's 19 years old. This is the post-rules generation. You don't have to have a consistent style. You can do it any which way, and as long as it's intelligent, smart, and eye-catching, people will put it together."
Take the strip club scenes, a gangland trope. In other films, he said, "They all look the same. Shafts of colored light, and backlight, and smoke, and all that crap. I say, how do you do a strip scene with any interest? Well, there hasn't been a strip scene in black-and-white since Lenny."
Anything was on the table, down to unconventional framing – a direct homage, he said, to Mr. Robot, and one of the new influences brought to him by his young team. "Someone said, 'You should see this show. It's like, every scene they're trying to figure out where the camera shouldn't be."
Sometimes the experiments could feel like they were getting out of control, like Cage's decision to deliver a bunch of lines like Humphrey Bogart. Schrader said, "It wasn't in the book, it wasn't in the script, and the first time I saw it was when Nic was acting. I don't know, I don't care much for that, I can cut around it, I'm not going to pick a fight over him wanting to do a few Bogart lines."
That came to more of a head on the final day of shooting. With one major scene left, Cage went full Bogart, and Schrader stepped in, telling him that they didn't have the time or money to shoot the scene again if the Bogey version didn't play out. Cage's response, Schrader recalled, was simple: "'You've been telling me for six weeks, be bold, and I think this is bold.' Well, I think it's bold, too, so let's do it."
Dog Eat Dog is available now on VOD and in a limited theatrical release.