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Movie treasure trove comes to Austin

Paul Schrader, writer of 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull,' donates his collection to the Ransom Center

Chris Garcia

When Robert De Niro donated hundreds of boxes of movie notes, photos, props and costumes to the Ransom Center in 2006, there were a few items he definitely wanted to include: the military jacket and boots he donned as sociopathic cabbie Travis Bickle in the 1976 film "Taxi Driver."

The jacket and boots were owned by the film's screenwriter Paul Schrader, who wore them when he wrote the script. De Niro called Schrader.

"He said I should give the ‘Taxi Driver' stuff to the Ransom so it will all be in one place," says Schrader, who had to fetch the jacket from a Planet Hollywood in New York, where it was enshrined for ogling tourists. "(The center) gave me a nice appraisal on it, so I sent it to them.

"And then they called me up and said, ‘By the way, if you want to give us the rest of your stuff, we'll take it, too,' " Schrader recalls by phone.

Last month, Schrader did just that, donating some 300 boxes of screenplays, correspondence, photos, videos, press clippings and audio tapes to the Ransom's slowly swelling film archives, which include the collections of De Niro, producer David O. Selznick, screenwriter Ernest Lehman and actress Gloria Swanson.

"I'm downsizing my office. With the new technology, you don't need all this stuff. I figured it was time to clean it out. A good purging is very edifying," Schrader says.

Among the collection are sheaves of candid on-set photos, letters to fellow filmmakers and authors, film criticism, frenetic outlines for "Raging Bull" and "The Mosquito Coast" and materials from movies he wrote and directed: "Blue Collar," "American Gigolo," "Cat People" "Light Sleeper" and "Affliction," which he adapted from the novel by Russell Banks, whose collection is also at the Ransom.

"There's a lot of stuff," Schrader says. "I don't know how good it is. To be honest, when I decided to do this I just told my assistant to scan all the scripts and material I might need to refer to in the future, such as a treatment for a script I never wrote, and then take the rest, put it in boxes and say goodbye."

Schrader's collection also includes so-called juvenilia. Mash notes to girlfriends?

"No, no. It's even earlier than that," he says. "It's grade-school essays and such. It was either throw it away or give it to them. They can throw it away if they want."

Raised in a strict Calvinist household, religion was lodged in the foreground, and some of Schrader's callow spiritual efforts are at the Ransom.

"When I was 7 or 8, I got this idea to copy the Bible on legal pads. I got about halfway through Genesis. If you look at all those legal pads, you can see my penmanship change over the years. Finally I said to myself, ‘Why am I doing this!' " Schrader says, laughing.

Though he was forbidden to watch movies until his late teens, Schrader lapped up European art cinema of the '60s and, at the prodding of famed New Yorker magazine film critic Pauline Kael, dropped his pre-seminary studies and embarked on a career in criticism.

"I wouldn't be in this business if it wasn't for her," he says. "Through an odd coincidence, I met her in New York through a friend. We had dinner with her and stayed late into the night. I slept on her sofa. The next morning she made me breakfast and she said to me, ‘You don't want to be a minister. You want to be a film critic. We're going to keep in touch.' "

They began corresponding, and Kael eventually helped Schrader get into film school at the University of California at Los Angeles and his first job reviewing movies.

Schrader admits his Ransom archive is thin on correspondence between mentor and protege.

"There's some postcards and stuff. I was more of a writer. She was more of a phone-caller. She was big on the phone."

Schrader still keeps Kael's pointers about film criticism to heart. "The most important thing is that it's not academic. Nobody has to read this stuff. You're not writing a paper; you're writing something people want to read."

Schrader sees his role first as storyteller, not writer

Paul Schrader's outline for the 1986 film "The Mosquito Coast," which he adapted from Paul Theroux's novel, is an inky blizzard of words and lines worthy of Cy Twombly. It's disorienting, impenetrable, the amorphous sonogram of an embryonic work of art.

"It's an outline, scene by scene, with page counts," Schrader says about these "tiny little hen scratchings."

Schrader went on to describe his screenwriting process:

"Before I start writing a script, I can tell you what happens on page 76. I do that by outlining over and over and over again. That might take three or four months. I tell the story, then re-outline it, tell it, then re-outline it. I essentially memorize it, because I believe that screenwriting is part of the oral tradition, not part of the written tradition, and that the way to work an idea is not to write it but to TELL it over and over again, until you either get sick of it or you can tell it's really working and then you start writing it.

"So I developed this whole process of outlining as a way to remember to tell the story when I told it to people. Then every time I told it I would re-outline it, until finally I got the outline down. And either I gave up on it — which is also a good thing, because it's no fun to write a script that nobody wants — or I'd just charge through it.

"I would go to a bar with somebody and say, ‘Let me buy you a drink, I'm going to tell you a story.' And I would tell them a story and I'd use that as my notes. It didn't matter what their reaction was. I was just watching their attention level. And I realized from watching their attention level that I needed to change something in this area or that this part takes too long. Then I would re-outline it again with a new page count until finally it was working.

"Then I would use that last outline to write the script. With the ‘Mosquito Coast' outline, every time I completed a scene, I ran a line through it."

cgarcia@statesman.com;445-3649