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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Writer/Director Paul Schrader

Schrader wrote the screenplays for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, and wrote and directed Blue Collar. He spoke in 1988 about his religious upbringing and his work in film.


Other segments from the episode on August 30, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 30, 2017: Interview with Paul Schrader; Interview with John Updike; Interview with Tobe Hooper.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week we're marking our 30th anniversary as a daily NPR program with a retrospective collecting interviews from our first couple of years. We'll start today's show with my 1988 interview with Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ," which were each directed by Martin Scorsese.

Schrader wrote and directed "Blue Collar," "Hardcore," "American Gigolo" and "Light Of Day." Sin and sometimes redemption are recurring themes in his work. He grew up in a religious Calvinist home. As a young man, he'd planned to become a minister. He didn't enter a movie theater until he was 17 because movies were banned by his church. He told me about that ban.


PAUL SCHRADER: Well, it banned what they called worldly amusements, which included things like card playing and smoking and drinking and dancing and theater attendance. And this came out of Prohibition days. And the ban was actually instituted in 1928. And you know, I once as a child rather impassionately queried my mother about this. I think I wanted to see some Disney film. And she said to me, it doesn't matter. The quality of the film doesn't matter. It's the industry that is evil. And so I think that was the position.

GROSS: Did you have a sense of what you were missing?

SCHRADER: No, and I'm actually very happy about having missed all those.

GROSS: No, really? Come on (laughter).

SCHRADER: Well, yeah because, you know, you are imprinted as an artist or as a person by, you know, how you come to a specific field. And I came to films as a college student. And the first films I really saw or paid serious attention to were the films by Bergman or Bunuel, Antonioni, Bresson. And that was my original imprinting in films.

And my peers and coevals, you know, were imprinted with Westerns and Disney films. And when they say, I want to make the movies that I loved when I was a child, they think about those films. And when I say that, I don't think about those films. I think about, you know, the kind of childhood background and about the films I first came to love. I came to films as an adult and then later learned to love them as a child. So it has given me a unique perspective and a unique place in this business. And I've never really worried about anyone doing what I'm doing because no one has my perspective.

GROSS: What's the first film you saw, and what effect did it have on you?

SCHRADER: Well, actually the first film was a Disney film - was "Absent Minded Professor." And I snuck...

GROSS: Is that the one with Jerry Lewis, or was that "The Nutty Professor"?

SCHRADER: That's "The Nutty Professor." This is the one with Fred MacMurray.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, OK.

SCHRADER: And the one about flubber.

GROSS: Oh, boy (laughter).

SCHRADER: And anyway, I snuck in to the balcony. And I sat there watching this, and I was wondering what all this fuss was about.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: And then about a year later, a friend of mine took me to see "Wild In The Country" with Elvis Presley and Tuesday Weld. And I sat there, and I realized, aha, this is why they don't want to me go.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: Here's the problem.

GROSS: And what effect did that have on you, seeing that?

SCHRADER: (Laughter) Well, I had developed a mad crush on Tuesday Weld.

GROSS: And did that make you feel bad?


SCHRADER: No. It made me want to see more movies.

GROSS: Yeah, so what made you so passionate about movies?

SCHRADER: Well, you know, it's - it was a very luxurious forbidden fruit. I mean not only could you be a rebel and do something that upset your elders, but you could also wear the mantle of respectability while you were doing it. It was like having your cake and eating it. It was a rare opportunity, you know, to be a rebel without, you know, having to do things like break into cars.

GROSS: When you started to go to the movies, did you feel hopeless about catching up, that everybody had grown up with movies and you hadn't and you had this whole wealth of movies to see before you could really know them?

SCHRADER: Well, you know, I came in as a film critic. And I went to UCLA film school. And I remember my first year in Los Angeles, I kept a notebook. And I averaged I think 22 films a week for that year. And this was before cassette, so I had - you know, I was jockeying from one little university cinema to the next. And that's all I did for about two years - was caught up.

GROSS: You had intended I think to be a minister, and then you became a film critic and then a screenwriter and director. Why had you wanted to be a minister?

SCHRADER: Well, it was just sort of part and parcel of the background, you know? Those were the most respected figures. And I've always had this sort of proselytizing urge, you know, to go out and communicate and convert. And so that was rather natural.

GROSS: Do you feel like you channel that urge into movies?

SCHRADER: Well, I think it's pretty obvious.

GROSS: (Laughter) One of your movies, "Hardcore," is about a father from a background similar to yours, a Calvinist in Grand Rapids. And this father's daughter runs away to the city, where she starts working in pornographic movies. I was wondering if your parents felt like the father in this movie when you left home and started just working in regular movies, if the movies were so extreme to them in the first place that it might have well have been hardcore.

SCHRADER: You know, I suspect they may well have.

GROSS: Did they ever break the ban to see any of your movies?

SCHRADER: I believe so, but it's not a subject comes up.

GROSS: Yeah. I was wondering if ordinary life or if the film world seemed exotic to you after leaving Grand Rapids. When I say ordinary life, I mean a more secular life.

SCHRADER: Actually, you know, people came to Hollywood - who come to Hollywood - they talk about how tough it was. You know, before I moved to New York, I was in Los Angeles 14 years. And strangely enough, it never seemed that tough to me because I had come from a background where people were not trying just to tell you how to behave. They were trying to tell you how to think. And you had to fight off the mind control aspect of it. I got to Hollywood, and I said, these people don't care how I think. They just want me to behave in a certain way. This is no problem.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: So I didn't see it as that difficult.

GROSS: You've been collaborating with Martin Scorsese on and off since the mid-'70s. The first time you collaborated was on the film "Taxi Driver." You had written the screenplay. And you asked I think that he direct the movie. And I think you wanted him to direct it after seeing his film "Mean Streets." What was it about "Mean Streets" that you knew was the right sensibility for the film you were making, "Taxi Driver"?

SCHRADER: Oh, it was just the passion, you know, and also the perversity, you know - someone who is willing to grab the thing, put it between his teeth, bite hard and run, you know? I don't want to use words we can't use on language - but someone who has the guts to do it.

GROSS: Now, in "Taxi Driver," your screenplay is about a lonely, alienated, psychopathic taxi driver. You've described the taxi as the perfect metaphor for loneliness - a man driving around the city in a steel coffin. And his alienation erupts into a bloody killing spree at the end of the movie, which he thinks of in heroic terms. He thinks he's helping to clean the city of the pimps and the filth. I want to play from - yeah, go ahead.

SCHRADER: What's interesting about that is in the film, he fixates on two women, one of whom he can have and one of whom he can't. And of course he wants the one he can't and doesn't want to one he can. And out of this dilemma, he decides to kill the father figure of the good girl, and when he - and who is a politician. And when he cannot do that, he fails. He kills the father figure of the bad girl, who's the prostitute.

And what's interesting, in his mind, there's really not much difference. They're both - you know, there's these competing father figures. It's just that in society's mind, of course he becomes the hero because one of them was a pimp and not a politician.

GROSS: Sounds a little Freudian. Were you on Freudian analysis at the time?

SCHRADER: (Laughter) No, subsequently.


GROSS: OK, well, you wrote the journal, the diary for Travis Bickle, the taxi driver, which De Niro just gives a brilliant reading of in the movie. I want to play some of that. And this is from the record, so it's excerpts edited together from the film. So this is Robert De Niro over a score by Bernard Herrmann with the screenplay by my guest Paul Schrader from "Taxi Driver."


ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Travis) May 10 - thank God for the rain, which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks. I'm working long hours now, six days a week, sometimes seven days a week. It's a long hustle, but it keeps me real busy. I can take in 300, 350 a week, sometimes even more when I do it off the meter.

All the animals come out at night - buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies - sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn. I take them to Harlem. I don't care - don't make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won't even take spooks. Don't make no difference to me.

Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the back seat. Some nights I clean off the blood. Twelve hours of work, and I still can't sleep. Damn, days go on and on. They don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person like other people.

GROSS: The tone of writing in that seems so perfect for the character.

SCHRADER: I love that line. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, which of course is what this character does...

GROSS: Oh, precisely, precisely.

SCHRADER: ...Every moment of the day (laughter).

GROSS: And the next line is just the most perfect line about alienation I think I've ever heard. I believe that somebody should become a person like other people. I mean it's just the perfect, perfect expression of alienation. How did you know - not being a psychopath yourself, how did you know the tone of voice to get for this? It just seems just right.

SCHRADER: Well, I wrote that script in 10 days and two drafts. It jumped out of my head like an animal. And so it was a really cri de coeur. It was a cry from my heart. I had fallen into a difficult period in Los Angeles where I was living in my car and just sort of driving around and having a lot of trouble sleeping.

And then finally I got a pain stomach, which turned out to be an ulcer. I went in the hospital, and then while I was talking to a nurse in emergency, I realized I hadn't spoken to anyone in several weeks. And when I was in the hospital, I realized that that's what I was. I was like a taxi driver. I was like this person who was floating around in this car. And I got out of the hospital, and I wrote that script, like I said, in 10 days.

GROSS: Did being in that car, driving around in it, almost living in it increase your sense of detachment and alienation (unintelligible) separate from?

SCHRADER: Yeah, yes. I mean particularly in Los Angeles where I was - I wasn't in New York at the time - you know, you really - you know, you do feel like you are alive in a coffin.

GROSS: Let's get back to the tone that you actually wrote it in. There's something almost Old Testament about the tone. Someday a real rain will come along and wash all the scum off the streets - that apocalyptic sense.

SCHRADER: Yeah. I really, you know, that was my first real script. I'd done one thing before. And so I mean I really - I didn't know how you were supposed to write scripts yet.

GROSS: (Laughter) But had you studied the journals of people who had become assassins or murderers?

SCHRADER: No. I was actually surprised. Arthur Bremer's journal came out after I had written the script. And I read it, and I was very surprised to find that the voice was almost identical. And I think that, you know, the reason that people - psychopathic people have attached themselves to this film is because the voice is absolutely authentic.

GROSS: Did it scare you that you were able to so authentically and so intuitively capture a psychopathic voice?

SCHRADER: Well, you know, it scared me that I was at that place at that time. I mean the person who wrote that script is long gone, and I don't even know if I would recognize him if I saw him.

GROSS: Now, I read that De Niro had you record the diary that you wrote. Do you still know all the lines by heart?

SCHRADER: No, no. In fact I never go back and see any of the films, you know? I saw "Patty Hearst" when I handed it in April, and I'll never see it again.

GROSS: Well, why not?

SCHRADER: I don't like to go back.

GROSS: Listen; I've seen "Taxi Driver" lots of times (laughter).

SCHRADER: I don't like to go - all I see is the bad. I never see the good. And I just like to, you know, keep moving.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1988 interview with screenwriter and director Paul Schrader. We'll hear more after a break as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and continue my 1988 interview with Paul Schrader. When we left off, we were talking about writing the classic film "Taxi Driver." The film has an unwanted echo in American history. John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan in 1981, was obsessed with the film and one of its stars, Jodie Foster. Hinckley said he tried to assassinate the president to impress her.


GROSS: You had mentioned that you think one of the reasons why psychopaths attach themself to "Taxi Driver" is because the voice is so authentic. How - what was your reaction when Hinckley said that he had seen "Taxi Driver" and he wanted to impress Jodie Foster by attempting to assassinate the president?

SCHRADER: So I was in New Orleans at the time, scouting locations. And it came over the radio that this kid had tried to kill Reagan. And he was from Colorado, sort of a white-bread kid. And I said to the person sitting next to me - I said, it's one of those "Taxi Driver" kids. And I got back to the hotel, and the FBI was waiting for me. And in fact it was one of those "Taxi Driver" kids.

You know, the film didn't create them. They exist before the film and after the film. And they attach themselves to many things. You know, more - you know, it's actually sort of rare that they attach themselves to a good film - more likely they attach themselves to things like advertising.

GROSS: You know, you were always warned about the danger of films. Did any of that come back to you after this?

SCHRADER: No, no. I mean...

GROSS: Not relevant?

SCHRADER: I think that really works, you know? I mean I think that it is possible through artifice to, you know, vicariously purge yourself of these dangerous feelings.

GROSS: Three of your films - "Taxi Driver," "Hardcore" and "American Gigolo" - are set in part in the sex trades. And I was wondering what your interest was in there.

SCHRADER: Well, it was, you know, a lot of adolescent acting out. You know, I came from a rather puritanical background. And so you know, at a certain age, you've got to trash the candy store.

GROSS: (Laughter) Is that what you saw yourself doing?

SCHRADER: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: When you started directing as well as writing, what was the most difficult thing for you to learn about directing?

SCHRADER: Visual logic. I know - I'd come from a background which believed that ideas were the - in the province of words. If you had something to say, you used words to say them. And it took me a long while to understand that images were also ideas and that they were not synonymous with words and that the image of a fork is not the same as the word fork. And it sounds rather simple, but I tell you; it took me a long time to figure it out.

GROSS: Well, how did you learn how to think visually?

SCHRADER: Well, I - actually, I fell under the tutelage of a wonderful architect named Charles Eames. And that played a very important role in understanding that - the poetry of and the logic of imagery.

GROSS: You've also said that you had to learn how to not be too literary when you were writing screenplays. You said, I don't think a movie should have too many good lines - at most, five great lines and 10 good ones. The rest should be absolutely ordinary and banal.

SCHRADER: Yeah. Well, I mean you can overwrite a movie and start to call attention to the language - you know, unless that is your intention, unless language is the subject matter of the film, such as in a David Mamet production. But if you are trying to, you know, convey, you know, quotidian - daily reality, then you've got to restrain yourself from getting a little excessive in that area.

GROSS: You said that you are no longer the same person who wrote "Taxi Driver," that you don't really have those feelings anymore. At that time, I think you were really motivated by certain demons, by alienation, by loneliness. You're now married. You're a father. And I figure loneliness wouldn't have the same pull on you that it did then. Are there different things that motivate you now when you're writing or even different demons that drive you?

SCHRADER: Yeah, certainly. And you miss those old demons, you know, boy, because those are powerful engines, and they really drive you hard. And it's actually easier to write then because you had no choice. You were just trying to - you were running to keep from - keep the demons from swallowing you up. So today it's a little more difficult. You have to use your imaginative powers and your creative skills to a greater degree.

GROSS: Several of your films, like "Patty" and "Hardcore," are in their way about leaving the family and about breaking away either voluntarily or involuntarily from what your life has been. When you left your home and when you broke away from the church, was that a wrenching experience for you?

SCHRADER: No, no. I mean it was more like the way a bullet must feel when it's finally discharged from a gun.

GROSS: (Laughter) You want to explain that?

SCHRADER: Oh, how I'd been - I'd been waiting a long time to get out of there, and I came out with a bang. You know, I took off and didn't look back.

GROSS: Paul Schrader recorded in 1988. After we take a short break, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective with my 1989 interview with John Updike recorded after he wrote his memoir "Self-Consciousness" and my 1988 interview with Tobe Hooper, who wrote and directed the influential horror film "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Hooper died last week. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective featuring interviews from our first couple of years as an NPR show. I did many interviews with John Updike over the years, and I think my favorite is probably the one we're about to hear, recorded in 1989 after the publication of his memoir, "Self-Consciousness," about all the things that made him self-conscious, including his stutter and the skin condition psoriasis.

Updike, who died in 2009, was one of the most celebrated writers of his generation best known for his series of novels about the character Rabbit Angstrom, his stories about the character Henry Bech and his novel "The Witches Of Eastwick." He also wrote for The New Yorker. He won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. But he tried to keep a relatively low public profile and was reticent to reveal much about his personal life to his readers until he wrote his memoir. In the opening paragraph, he explained why he uncharacteristically chose himself as the subject of a book.


JOHN UPDIKE: (Reading) Shortly before the first of these personal essays was composed, but several years after the soft, spring night in Shillington that it describes, I was told, perhaps in jest, of someone wanting to write my biography - to take my life, my load of ore and heap of memories, from me. The idea seemed so repulsive that I was stimulated to put down, always with some natural hesitation and distaste, these elements of an autobiography. They record what seems to me important about my own life, and try to treat this life - this massive datum which happens to be mine - as a specimen life - representative, in its odd uniqueness, of all the oddly unique lives in this world. A mode of impersonal egoism was my aim - an attempt to touch honestly upon the central veins with a scientific dispassion and curiosity.

GROSS: Can you explain that fear of somebody taking your memories from you to write a biography?

UPDIKE: Well, a writer's life isn't quite like a statesman's life, you know? It's what you write out of. And I just didn't want to be and don't want to be intruded upon in that way. So as a defense against intrusion, I decided to invade my own privacy with these essays.

GROSS: (Laughter).

UPDIKE: At least I would know how to do it and would do it with good taste - and delicately. And I'd know where to go. It all - and if my life is of any intrinsic interest, and I'm not sure it is of much, I'm the one who's lived it, and the kind of things that I write about in this book are certainly things that a biographer would not fasten upon.

GROSS: Well, the poetic device you seem to use is your body. The revelations in the central part of - no, in the middle part of your memoirs come not from your career as a writer, but from your body - from physical ailments, from psoriasis, from a stutter, from asthma.

UPDIKE: Yes, well, they've what seemed as - come to my attention, of - those moments of discomfort. And remember, the title of the book is "Self-Consciousness," so I fastened upon those things which either made me self-conscious, like the psoriasis, or which showed self-consciousness, like the stuttering. And the religious aspect of it, again, has to do with the question of a self at all.

Why do we seem to have selves that we prize greatly? Do computers, with almost as much circuitry now as human brains - do computers have selves? Are computers self-conscious? Is a wasp self-conscious? I think not. It's a kind of civically human thing, which I was interested in exploring via my own poor little set of facts.

GROSS: You first got psoriasis in kindergarten in 1938. Did people in the literary world know that you had a skin problem before you wrote about it?

UPDIKE: I don't know. I'm - suppose some did. I wrote a kind of amusing - I've always thought - short story called "Journal Of A Leper" - or "From The Journal Of A Leper," which is about psoriasis and which is much-quoted in medical texts of a certain kind. Psoriasis is rather rarely written about. We're all shy about it, those of us who have it and wish we didn't, and don't want to talk about it much.

So it took a long time for me to confess to it. I feel it's some - you know, it's the sin of some kind. It's a dermal sin. And it took me a long time to believe that it wasn't really my fault, and I could talk about it more or less freely. No, I don't think it was commonly known. I'm told it doesn't really much show. And the discomfort has mostly been self-produced, rather than other-people-produced.

GROSS: Well, were you worried about calling attention to it, though?

UPDIKE: No, not really. A writer is somebody who tries to tell the truth, right? And your value to your society is a certain willingness to risk being honest. And so to be honest about this was part of the general job, as I see it.

GROSS: Well, I think you've found a lot of universals in the particulars of your experience with psoriasis. And I'd like to ask you to read an excerpt of your chapter on psoriasis. And my guest is John Updike, and this is a reading from his new book "Self-Consciousness."

UPDIKE: (Reading) Psoriasis keeps you thinking. Strategies of concealment ramify, and self-examination is endless. You are forced to the mirror again and again. Psoriasis compels narcissism, if we can suppose a Narcissus who did not like what he saw. In certain lights, your face looks passable. In slightly different, other lights, not. Shaving mirrors and rearview mirrors in automobiles are merciless, whereas the smoky mirrors in airplane bathrooms are especially flattering and soothing. One's face looks as tawny as a movie star's. Flying back from the Caribbean, I used to admire my improved looks. Years went by before I noticed that I looked equally good in the lavatory glow on the flight down. I cannot pass a reflecting surface on the street without glancing in, in hopes that I have somehow changed.

(Reading) Nature and the self, the great moieties of earthly existence, are each cloven in two by a fascinated ambivalence. One hates one's abnormal, erupting skin but is led into a brooding, solicitous attention toward it. One hates the nature that has imposed this affliction, but only this same nature can be appealed to for erasure, for cure. Only nature can forgive psoriasis. The sufferer, in his self-contempt, does not grant, to other people, this power.

GROSS: There's a sentence in there that I think, probably, a lot of people really see themselves in. And that is, I cannot pass reflecting surface in the street without glancing in, in the hopes that I have somehow changed. I really think you put your finger on something there.

UPDIKE: Well, I'm happy to hear it because I've always thought that nobody, except me, was annoyed with the way they looked, or self-conscious to this degree. But I guess we all are. It's a strange thing - isn't it? - to be born into a certain body instead of an ideal body.

And all of our faces - a - the whole idea of a face is some - slightly funny, isn't it? If you can put yourself outside of the species a moment, these faces we carry around with the holes in them, and the shining holes, and the dark holes and then the one that shows a lot of teeth - it's all odd beyond belief, really.

GROSS: Yeah, well, you feel like, well, it's my face, but my face isn't my fault (laughter).

UPDIKE: Right, it's not your fault, but it is what you're stuck with.

GROSS: Well, you seem to think that it's some of your weaknesses that have made you what you are - some of your defects, like psoriasis. You think that you became the person who you are and the writer who you are because of it.

UPDIKE: Well, I think it forced my attention away from any very public career like being an actor or a schoolteacher, which is a kind of actor and what my father did and was - that was the profession that society had more or less laid out for me. And I think my determination to avoid teaching isn't part of shyness of any kind of public performance - daily, putting yourself there, trying to look good.

So I've been extra serious about making it as a freelance writer, where I don't really have to come out of the closet, where I can do the whole thing at a distance and in a room by myself via the mails. So, yes, in that extent - also, psoriasis has made me be a little bolder than I might have ordinarily been. And it's certainly got me to the Caribbean. I've seen a lot of lovely islands that I wouldn't have seen if I didn't have psoriasis.

GROSS: You said it made you bolder. You write, only psoriasis could have taken a very average little boy - a boy who loved the average, the daily, the safely hidden - and turned him into an adaptable ruthless enough writer. Where does the ruthlessness come in?

UPDIKE: Well, I think telling the truth is kind of a ruthless act and - both in specifics since you do invade some privacies in fiction. And in the larger way, you are trying to - or I am trying to, as it were, rub humanity's face in the facts of our existence that there is much that is ignoble and desperate about being a human being. And my fiction is in part motivated by pointing these things out. So, yes, there is something ruthless and cruel, even to generate suspense as a bit of a tease, isn't it? So there's a kind of a sadistic element in the writer's attempt to keep the reader's interest.

GROSS: At the end of your chapter about your skin, it's pretty well cleared up because of some experimental treatments you were getting. Did you have any problems after writing about this? You know, a lot of people believe that psoriasis has a component of psychology behind it.

UPDIKE: It has a psychosomatic component.

GROSS: Thank you. That's the word I was looking for. So I was wondering if really thinking about it a lot and writing about it, made you any more symptomatic?

UPDIKE: I didn't have a flare. We call that a flare in the trade when the psoriasis suddenly goes bad again. And I do say in the piece that it rather resists all these treatments. When I was young, a few days in the sun would do marvels. And the older I got, the longer it took and the tougher the skin and the psoriasis became and so would the artificial light treatment, which for 10 years, gave me 10 years of feeling pretty good about my - about myself and my skin.

Now I'm on a pill, which also has done a pretty good job. So I'm not at a very dermally stressed moment in my life. And I wasn't aware of - in a way, it's a relief to have it all out there. And I put it out not to say poor old me, but lucky me. Lucky me that I had this affliction, which made me be a little original and which forced me as it were into the artist's isolation, which gave me the courage to try to be an artist.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1989 interview with John Updike, recorded after the publication of his memoir "Self-Consciousness." We'll hear more after a break as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and continue my 1989 interview with John Updike, recorded after the publication of his memoir "Self-Consciousness" in which he wrote about the things that made him self-conscious and uncomfortable.


GROSS: You also devote a chapter in the memoir to the stutter that you had. And you say in it that, you know, with the stutter and the psoriasis, when people wouldn't acknowledge it, when they wouldn't mention it to you, you'd wonder, is this invisible to other people?

UPDIKE: Well, you don't know how bad you look or sound to other people. And there's always the hope that in fact you look and sound fine. I have rarely - the stutter comes and goes and when it does come is embarrassing to me. My wife tells me it's charming. But I've never found other stuttering people especially charming. So I kind of take that with a grain of salt.

But, yes, I guess there is the hope that if at least it might be noticed, but not written about. And it was this article written by a reporter for The Jerusalem Post that came right out and talked about my stutter. I was uneasy in that situation. I think I was tired from jetlag. And I didn't quite - I was cast into a role where I felt uneasy. And as I say in that piece, I think that's when I began to stutter - is when I feel somehow mistaken or uneasy in the role I'm performing.

GROSS: You say something that I think, again, a lot of us will have experienced that when you take something that's supposed to be unconscious, like the act of speaking - you know, moving your tongue around to form vowels - and it suddenly becomes a conscious act, you lose yourself. You lose it. It's like when you think about walking with grace, you walk really stiffly. When you think about breathing, you become really conscious of every breath that you take. And it becomes a belabored act instead of an unconscious one.

UPDIKE: It's quite true. And speaking, you think of the number of muscular motions that your tongue is making just to form the sentence you so gracefully uttered. It's amazing it works as well as it does.

GROSS: You know, the last time we did an interview on FRESH AIR, we talked a little bit about why you dislike being interviewed and about how you distrust the kind of public self that writers are sometimes forced to cultivate. In reading your memoir, I, of course, started to think that other reasons had to do (laughter) with, perhaps, fear of stuttering with fear that skin would be broken out.

UPDIKE: Yes, both.

GROSS: OK (laughter).

UPDIKE: Both are true. And it was a great relief. When I first began to go on television years ago, I was delighted to find that you got a coat of makeup. And I always felt immensely happier once I was made up. And I would wear it all day long until it wore off. So that - yes.

On the other hand, having that anxiety about how you look or whether you're going to stutter or not relieves you of other anxieties. And the truth seems to be that I'm a fairly garrulous performer once I'm launched in that direction.

GROSS: There's one last reading that I want to get in. And this is from a section toward the end of your memoir. It's in part about the fears that you - one experiences at night and you writing about them during the day.

UPDIKE: Yeah. It's about writing as a release - isn't it? - as a kind of self therapy. I do think that writers who have, you know, any kind of social sanction for their activity are one up because when you write about something in a strange way, you become lightened of it. Let me read this paragraph.

(Reading) So writing is my sole remaining vice. It is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable. That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world. It happens to everybody. In the morning light, one can write breezily, without the slightest acceleration of one's pulse, about what one cannot contemplate in the dark without turning, in panic, to God. In the dark, one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture, and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches of our lives. Even the barest earthly facts are unbearably heavy - weighted, as they are, with our personal death. Writing, in making the world light - in codifying, distorting, prettifying or verbalizing it - approaches blasphemy.

GROSS: Do you feel, ever, that it's your demons that keep you writing, even though you'd like to talk of yourself, about writing, about average things, about the little corners, about the domestic news?

UPDIKE: I think there's something demonic in the complete writer, yes. I think that an ideally nice person would probably not become a writer. I try to write pleasantly - fairly - fairly, more than pleasantly. I feel there is much in life that is frightening and unpleasant, and that we are, among other things, cruel beings. All of these - all of the shadow side of one's self-knowledge, of course, goes into writing, and in a way, energizes it. It gives you the energy to undertake this fantastic activity every morning.

GROSS: John Updike - recorded after the publication of his memoir "Self-Consciousness" in 1989. Updike died 20 years later at the age of 76. After a break, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective with a 1988 interview with Tobe Hooper, who wrote and directed "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." He died last week. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. We'll conclude today's edition of our 30th anniversary retrospective with a 1988 interview that has become an obituary. Tobe Hooper, who's best known as the writer and director of the 1974 film "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," died last Saturday. He was 74. "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" was so gruesome, it helped inspire a wave of slasher films, but it was also so interestingly made that it was added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

The movie is about a group of hippies who meet up with a family of homicidal maniacs who kill strangers to the area, eat their flesh and turn what's left over into sausage. The main character, known as Leatherface, wears a mask of human skin and attacks his victims with a chain saw.


PAUL A PARTAIN: (As Franklin) Come on, Franklin. It's going to be a fun trip. If I have any more fun today, I don't think I'm going to be able to take it.


GROSS: Before "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," horror usually meant the supernatural - zombies, monsters and other creatures. But in "Chain Saw," it was people who ate flesh and played out our worst nightmares. Here's what Tobe Hooper told me in 1988.


TOBE HOOPER: I don't think I set out to change the genre consciously. I was just - I was a movie fan, you know. I was a horror film buff. And I simply made a film that I wanted to see because I felt that at that time - and we're talking about something like close to 15 years ago - the horror films that we were getting, it had gotten, you know, very boring and totally unscary (ph) and hokey and bad. I wanted to make something that worked again, that had chair jumpers in it, you know, that moved an audience. So I really set out as a fan of the genre to do something that gave you your, you know, gave you your money's worth.

GROSS: Your movie is very threatening. It's very ugly. It's very hard to sit through in some ways, but it's really not that explicitly gory. It's not as gory as you'd expect it to be. Was that intentional on your part, or have standards just changed since 1973?

HOOPER: No, that was intentional. And it also had to do with my awareness of getting a rating on the picture. And I actually set out to get a PG rating.

GROSS: Are you kidding?

HOOPER: No, I'm not kidding. I - in fact, when I was shooting the picture, I called the MPAA and told them what I was doing. And I said, how - now, how can I make this PG? You know, I know the concept is rough, but let's hypothetically talk about a sequence that I have. A sequence, for instance, where a girl is - a big guy hangs a girl up on a meat hook. And if you don't see penetration and you see the girl hanging on the meat hook and you've suggested penetration in a kind of Hitchcock way, you know, what will I get? Does that get an R? Does that get an X? Or how about PG?

So over the phone, talking the MPAA all the way through while shooting, I was trying to do what they suggested so I could have a PG rating. Well, when the film was finished and they saw it, it was really amazing. They have these little clipboards, you know, with lights on them in the dark room. And every few seconds, those lights would pop on. And they were making notes. And I thought, oh, that's trouble. That means they're talking about cuts. Well, ended up not having to make any cuts, but, of course, we took the R rating. And I don't know, however, had I not sincerely tried to go for PG, the picture may have been an X.

GROSS: Did anybody in the movie industry thought - think that you were insane or dangerous after seeing the movie?

HOOPER: Well, you know, it's the first time I've been asked that question. And - but, you know, I didn't get the kind of response then that as a young film director would get now making a genre piece. They would instantly be embraced because of the numbers, you know, because of the scoreboard. I mean, a hit is something that makes money. And I've seen lots of young film directors embraced for making terrible movies that made, you know, made a lot of money. But, I mean, it was very strange because it as - soon as it was released, it did get mixed critical acclaim, but the positive acclaim was very positive and on a big scale.

For instance, the film that year was an official film in - at the Cannes Film Festival for the Directors' Fortnight. It's a branch of the Cannes Film Festival that spotlights up-and-coming directors. And also, "Chain Saw" was put in the permanent film archives of the Museum of Modern Art. It won awards all over the world and opened a few doors, but I think it took seven or eight years before mainstream filmmakers - producers, I should say, the heads of studios - before were, for some reason, able to recognize this as an artistic piece of work and a very good technical piece of directing because of what it was and because of the effect it had on you.

GROSS: Tobe Hooper, recorded in 1988. He died last Saturday. He was 74. Tomorrow, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective, featuring interviews from the first couple of years of our show. We'll hear three interviews from 1987 - with Max Roach, who kind of invented modern jazz drumming, pianist Jay McShann, who led the band in which Charlie Parker first became known - McShann was at the piano for our interview - and singer Anita O'Day, who inspired many of the so-called cool jazz singers. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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