Matthew David Wilder has worked as a screenwriter on several films. He also directed Your Name Here (2008), a journey into the life and mind of Philip K. Dick, and upcoming movie Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc. Mr Wilder found time to tell us about his adaptation of Edward Bunker's novel for Paul Schrader.
(AH) How were you involved in the script of Dog Eat Dog?
(MDW) The producer Mark Burman told me that some kids had access to a novel by Eddie Bunker. He asked me if it was any good. I said, yes, it’s amazing—he wrote the book Straight Time was based on, and Animal Factory and so on. We met with these kids—and they really were kids! It was clear they were bluffing about this book. I remember asking them “So do you guys have an option?” and their response was, “Oh, yeah, we…got a lotta options.” So I knew we had an opportunity to get this book.
(AH) It is an adaptation of Edward Bunker's book. What do you think of adaptations which were made of his work? I think you like Straight Time (1978)?
(MDW) Straight Time is great. It’s credited to Ulu Grosbard but I gather that Dustin Hoffman directed some of it himself. Whoever directed it, it’s a near-perfect film. There’s a moment in it that is so classically Bunker, and so seventies, and would never fly now. Dustin’s character, the Eddie Bunker character, is brought into jail overnight on a parole violation. As he walks into the hold-up, which is filled with guys, he sees a skinny old drunk sitting on a bed. “That’s my seat, pardner!” he says—and makes the old rummy get up and move, probably sitting on the floor. That’s ugly. But it’s true. It would never fly today. “It’s not likable! It’s not RELATABLE!”
(AH) Edward Bunker's novels are very realistic, based on his experience in prison or of thief. You chose another tone, less realistic. What are the reasons behind this shifting of general tone?
(MDW) That’s really not me, that’s Schrader. He directed the script almost exactly as is—with the exception of some changes to make the script fit Ohio rather than L.A. But his tone is Godardian, playful, messy—it’s a real squirting-bottles-of-ketchup-on-the-wall movie. It’s antic and manic in a way that is part New Wave, part 2016 ADHD. The script as written has a much more grim, grimy, rusty-Chevy-Nova feel, similar to movies such as The Nickel Ride (1974) and Hickey & Boggs (1972).
(AH) As a scriptwriter, were you influenced by Paul Schrader?
(MDW) Of all the screenwriters who influenced me, Schrader was the one. He was the guy I had a shrine to, burning a candle. There are many reasons for this—I think part of it is that like me he is a Midwestern guy from a humble background who became exposed to very high art, and that mix of lowborn roots and highflown ideas makes for some interesting work. But I think it’s really that Schrader was the pioneer of what he calls the “monocular” movie—the one-eyed movie. His pictures really are not “character clashing with character”. They are “character clashing with himself”—usually with parts of himself that are unknown to him. To make that vivid and cinematic is an extraordinary achievement.
(AH) Writing for Paul Schrader had to be such a unique experience! Did he collaborate in the scenario?
(MDW) I didn’t write this for him. The producer—without my knowing about it—replaced me as director with Paul. I didn’t know till one day I got a call saying “Hello, Matthew, this is Paul Schrader, I’m directing Dog Eat Dog!” So, it was not written FOR him—though, it’s funny, there are recognizably Schraderesque things in it, like the trio of guys who very much recall the conversations in Blue Collar (1978). It is really to Paul’s credit as a person that he protected the script and kept it intact. I think it’s because he has been on the receiving end of some violent treatment from producers in his own life.
(AH) Paul Schrader has his own universe, his own themes (the violence, the sex, the religion). Did you think of Paul Schrader's movies when you were writing?
(MDW) If so, I can only imagine that was a turnoff to him. I think the kind of giddy messiness of Dog Eat Dog came from the fact that Schrader really did not want to go down the seventies road again. I think he felt, “Fuck this, I INVENTED the seventies! I don’t need to walk down Memory Lane.” And so he wanted to make this a very contemporary picture.
(AH) You are a massive cinephile. Were you thinking about certain movies when you were writing?
(MDW) Robert Mulligan’s The Nickel Ride and Robert Culp’s Hickey & Boggs were real signposts. And then, there is of course another, more recent movie that takes from those pictures, and that’s Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997). The thing all those movies have in common—aside from being great—is that they are crime movies that emphasize taking the gloss off. If you want to see what the quote-unquote real L.A. looks like, watch those movies. It’s not all palm trees and Paris Hilton. Those are movies about the rusty, dinged-up L.A. David Edelstein very kindly compared the movie to George V. Higgins, and I think one can certainly see some traces of The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) in the picture.
(AH) The Dog Eat Dog's first sequence is interesting. I read the book some times ago when you told me that you worked on it. This first chapter is violent. It is a challenge to adapt it for the screen. With so hard a situation, you can lose the spectators in the first minutes of the movie. How did you approach it?
(MDW) I know Schrader was really hooked on the picture via that first season. It’s a real gobstopper, it says to the audience, “Okay—if you can’t hack this, get out now.” But I think it’s also an invitation to go on a wild ride. It says we’re going to have some giddy fun. If you’re easily triggered, trigger yourself right out the door—now.
(AH) The narrative follows three characters. All of them have a strong personality. How did you find the balance between them?
(MDW) The character of Troy is the ballast, he’s the stable guy, the captain. And Nicolas Cage captures I think this great quality of anxiety and distraction. He’s a guy getting an ulcer from all the problems in his life. Chris Cook plays Diesel, who everyone thinks is a big lugnut but who really is a sensitive and rather calculating figure. And Willem Dafoe plays Mad Dog, who is just that—he’s the wild card, the Johnny Boy to Cage’s Charlie, if you will. In Bunker’s book and in my original draft they are all a lot younger. They got out of reform school, not jail. So they are about the ages of, say, Adam Driver and Channing Tatum in Logan Lucky (2017). I think having them be much older guys—and situating them in Cleveland instead of L.A.!—makes the whole thing more poignant.
(AH) There is a big scene in the movie between Christopher Matthew Cook and Louisa Krause. Both actors are perfect. How did you write this scene?
(MDW) Ha! I asked Schrader beforehand, “Okay—whatever you do, please just leave this scene exactly as is, okay?” And sure enough he did. He directed it beautifully. And the two actors, yes, are exquisite. It’s a scene that’s not in the book. We see the guys take their money and go to a casino. There, they each meet a woman, and in their encounters with these women we see each guy’s private dysfunction and weirdness. Chris wants to connect with this cool hipster chick but he doesn’t know anything about music or really anything except life in prison. So he erupts in rage. If I contributed anything to this scene, it was in telling Chris, who is a big, intimidating guy, to really get small and beg Louisa to stay. He becomes like a Woody Allen character in that moment—“No no no, wait wait wait, please, come back here!” I think that is an affecting moment.
(AH) About Christopher Matthew Cook, I did not know him before this movie. He is impressive all the way. I know that you worked with him for your own movie, Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc. Can you tell us about him?
(MDW) He is an interesting guy—I think what works so well about him as an actor is that he looks like, I dunno, Lawrence Tierney as a young guy or something… but he actually has a lot of layers. And when that’s revealed, the audience is surprised and delighted. In Joan, he plays a judge character who eventually falls in love with Joan as he is also forced to condemn her to death. I don’t know how much of that love is going to come through, but—when you see it, watch for it!
(AH) Between the scenario and the finished movie, did Paul Schrader make any modifications? Were you present during the shooting to write or rewrite the scenario?
(MDW) I was there for rehearsal and for a minute or two of the shooting. He leaves the actors alone. He blocks things out a lot. He gives people a lot of freedom. He is really thinking about the mise-en-scene, the conception of how stuff is going to be shot. Also, I think character-wise, Dog Eat Dog is pretty straightforward. He doesn’t have to tell someone like Willem Dafoe how to act this stuff.
(AH) I think that it is Nicolas Cage who introduced the allusions to Humphrey Bogart. Did the actors bring many things?
(MDW) That was all Cage’s doing, 100%. Dafoe brought all the funny lines. If there is a line you laugh at in this movie, he made it up. “Be a samurai like—Jackie Chan!” That’s him.
(AH) The end of the movie is very dreamlike. When we spoke about it, you told me : « It is as the end of L’argent (1983) ». Can you be more precise?
(MDW) Well, I think in the script it felt a little like the end of L’Argent, ha! It’s different now because Cage’s and Schrader’s conception of the ending is so dreamlike and pastichey-parodic. When I say L’Argent, it was that feeling of…the protagonist is snatched away. You’re left with an empty frame. There’s a moment where you say “Huh?”—and the movie is over. It’s a bit like that great desolation at the end of Brazil where you look at that huge torture chamber—it’s like the inside of a nuclear reactor—that Jonathan Pryce has been tortured in, and then… credits roll. It gives me goosebumps just remembering that. An incredible feel of desolation, I guess, is the key.
(AH) What do you think about Dog Eat Dog?
(MDW) I love it. I remember going to the 8:30 am screening in Cannes and thinking, “Well, this was fun! I guess we’ll have a martini and go home now.” I didn’t think a bloody soul would like this picture—maybe one or two oddball bloggers, maybe. Then suddenly, as I walked out of the screening, my phone blew up with texts from people saying, “Hey, did you see this great review!” And they were reviews from very mainstream critics, like Anne Thompson and Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian…not just weirdos. Suddenly I realized this picture would be, in its own little way, a success, and that was hugely gratifying.
(AH) Maybe I am wrong, but I have the impression of a continuity between your first movie as a director, Your Name Here (2008), and this one. Maybe in the way of a similar style of writing. Did Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc will it be in the same spirit?
(MDW) If something yokesYour Name Here andDog Eat Dog together, I think it is Mad magazine. It is a feeling of that manic, cockeyed world where people have joke names. Mad was hugely important to me as a kid and I think it somehow penetrated my unconscious and is in everything I do. Joan is really different. It is in some senses a riff on other Joan of Arc movies, particularly Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) but also a bit Rivette’s Joan the Maiden (1994). It is theatrical in the wayYour Name Here is, but I think in a much more austere, harsher way.
(AH) What is the subject of this movie?
(MDW) It is about a trial set in a place that is, or might be, Guantanamo Bay, where a girl named Joan of Arc is put on trial for acts of domestic terrorism. She is a girl from Enid, Oklahoma who has gathered followers around her from the rural parts of America to take the country back and make it Christian again. Her supporters look just like the people you see at Trump rallies. And in fact, “Joan’s people” as they are called, are the Trump base, if that base were more Christian and more violent—which is certainly possible. The government is given a problem: they have to convict and kill Joan, but they can’t piss off the base. The woman who plays Joan, Nicole LaLiberte, is magnificent. I think this role will be a game-changer for her. You may recall her as the femme fatale in the first episode of the new Twin Peaks. She is a major actress! I think the picture speaks to 2017 and also speaks to eternity. Our Joan is very much one of the “deplorables,” but she is also the Joan we see in paintings and mythic stories.
(AH) Anything else you want to add about Dog Eat Dog?
(MDW) Just one thing. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that Taylor Swift performs the same function in Dog that the all-seeing eye glimpsed on billboards plays in The Great Gatsby. As long as I live, and whatever I do, that will remain my proudest contribution to world cinema.