The great movie critic Roger Ebert said that director Martin Scorsese was "one of the most intense people I'd ever known" (source). (Scorsese's still very much alive and active, if the past tense of that observation confuses you; Ebert, however, passed away). That intensity suffuses every frame of Taxi Driver: It's a movie about a really intense dude made by another really intense dude.
The director Brian DePalma (who did the original Carrie) introduced Scorsese to Paul Schrader, hooking him into the Taxi Driver project, which took about four years to finally get made and appear in theaters. Unlike a lot of other people who looked at the script, Scorsese was way into it—and it inspired him, gave him more ideas. For one thing, he wanted to hit a dreamlike tone in making the movie, and also wanted to work in references to his own Catholic upbringing (e.g. the Mass-like way in which Travis burns candles and lights cans of shoe polish), since he saw Bickle as a kind of twisted parody of a saint, attempting to cleanse his body and mind.
He cited Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man, Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano, and Jack Hazan's The Bigger Splash as inspirations for the movie's camerawork (source).
Thematically, Taxi Driver has a lot in common with Scorsese's other movies, which tend to explore the darker side of American masculinity. This is true of Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, and plenty of others besides.
Along with Taxi Driver, the three movies mentioned all take a male character who has qualities of strength and energy—but isn't exactly a sensitive poet-philosopher—and then throw him into a situation in which those qualities gradually go out of control and become totally destructive.
Because Taxi Driver critiques this kind of aggressiveness, Scorsese says the movie is
"Feminist. Because it takes macho to its logical conclusion. The better man is the man who can kill you. This one shows that kind of thinking, shows the kinds of problems some men have, bouncing back and forth between the goddesses and whores. The whole movie is based, visually, on one shot where the guy is being turned down on the telephone by the girl, and the camera actually pans away from him. It's too painful to see that rejection." (Source)
Whether you find the movie feminist or not, you'll probably agree that Scorsese does a fantastic job penetrating the mind of a lonely and highly unstable man. He makes sure that the film's visuals perfectly capture the isolation and the descent into madness presented by Schrader's script.
Paul Schrader never saw a movie until he was seventeen. He grew up in a family that was fairly strict—they were devout Calvinists, a fact that definitely left an impact on Schrader's work. Like his character, Travis Bickle, Schrader is interested in, and maybe even obsessed by, what the Calvinists call "the total depravity of man"—the idea that original sin renders human beings incapable of performing any good deeds without the grace of God.
Rebelling against his background, Schrader tried to jump into the movie biz, having success with the script for the Robert Mitchum movie, Yakuza. However, despite this initial flush of victory, Schrader's life started to plummet. He left his wife for another woman, who then proceeded to dump him. He also had a falling out with his mentor, the esteemed movie critic, Pauline Kael. At one point, Schrader was sleeping in his car and driving around the late night porno theaters—a lot like Travis Bickle. It was a personal low point to say the least. (Source)
Schrader said that, in writing Taxi Driver, and creating Bickle as a character, he was inspired by his own state of mind, by the diaries of Arthur Bremer—the guy who tried to assassinate segregationist politician George Wallace—and by Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. Schrader also said that he was influenced by Truman Capote's true-crime book In Cold Blood, except in reverse: Instead of giving lots of background on the murderers like In Cold Blood did, Schrader decided to give Travis Bickle as little background as possible, making him look like a man who comes from nowhere.
According to legend, Schrader worked on the script with a loaded gun on his desk—to inspire him into a more intense frame of mind. (It worked.)
After showing the screenplay to lots of movie people—Schrader notes that it was "turned down by everybody"—it finally found a home with producers Julia and Michael Phillips and with director Martin Scorsese. Scorsese aided Schrader in refining the script for the next few years, from 1972, until Taxi Driver finally came out in 1976.
Obviously it was a big hit, and Schrader became one of the most famous screenwriters of all time—he started directing stuff too. He co-wrote one of Scorsese's other masterpieces, Raging Bull (similar to Taxi Driver in that it's about an angry guy whose machismo goes to dangerous extremes), and wrote the script for Scorsese's super-controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. He also wrote and directed a bunch of movies: American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and The Walker.
Sometimes, the highest compliment you can pay a movie production company might be, "They stayed out of the way." Basically, that's what Columbia Pictures did during the making of Taxi Driver. They hassled Martin Scorsese a bit about going over budget—which he admittedly was doing—but overall, they left him to his own devices.
This hands-off approach resulted in a masterpiece. (Of course, individual producers actually come up with great suggestions sometimes, and production companyies frequently struggle against out-of-control directors—for a disastrous example, look up the movie Heaven's Gate).
Originally, writer Paul Schrader presented the script for Taxi Driver to a pair of producers, a husband and wife team: Michael Phillips and Julia Phillips. Their L.A. home provided a hang out for Schrader and other writers, so the couple was a natural duo to take an interest in his work. They'd already produced the Oscar-winning, Paul Newman and Robert Redford-starring, mega-hit The Sting, but now they were going to take a chance on something on a smaller scale, Taxi Driver.
At first, Schrader and the Phillipses were thinking of casting Jeff Bridges (yup: The Dude himself) as Travis Bickle, and hiring director Robert Mulligan. However, when they saw Martin Scorsese's stunning debut, Mean Streets (which featured Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, who both appear in Taxi Driver), they realized they'd found their man.
Teaming with Columbia Pictures for funding, the movie was given a bargain-basement budget of 1.3 million dollars (though Scorsese ran over-budget, expanding the cost to 1.9 million).
As filming went on, Columbia reps wanted to keep the budget down, and constantly made suggestions on how to save money—at one point, sick of the thrifty advice, Scorsese threatened to leave the project, but the studio promised him he would have artistic freedom as long as he kept costs down.
Even though he actually went over-budget (as mentioned) he still apparently retained his freedom and did what he wanted. Overall, Scorsese had a lot more liberty than a young director would've normally had under the circumstances.
Afterwards, Julia and Michael Phillips went on to produce Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a classic Stephen Spielberg spectacle about contact with aliens. It became a hit and an instant classic, but Julia managed to irritate revered French director Francois Truffaut, who called her "incompetent" (a word that sounds even more cutting when you say it with a French accent).
That's the way life goes: Sometimes, you help create a raw, gritty classic that elevates Martin Scorsese into the pantheon of great directors. Other times, you pee in the Cheerios of a French cinematic master. It happens. No one bats a thousand.
(Source: Les Keyser. "Bringing Home the War." Columbia Pictures: Portrait of a Studio. Ed. Bernard F. Dick. 193-194.)
Martin Scorsese went all out in directing the visual style of Taxi Driver. At one point, he and the crew took three weeks just to prepare the long tracking shot that traces the path of Travis' massacre after he's finished. They had to cut into the ceiling and carve a path in it in order to hold the camera high enough to shoot from above.
We think this is a pretty good example of Scorsese's meticulous, driven style—he's a man who's willing to do anything to get the shot.
Michael Chapman, the cinematographer, also deserves a lot of credit. To shoot the cab scenes, he and Scorsese would sit in the back seat of the taxi with the camera, while the sound guy hid inside the trunk (which must have been uncomfortable).
Scorsese and Chapman use some pretty claustrophobic camera work to zero in on Travis' world and get his perspective. This, with the addition of the voiceover, makes the movie feels like we're really inside Travis' head—the cinematography dishing out his vision in frightening detail and reality.
Chapman and Scorsese went on to make other great movies together, like Raging Bull (which Paul Schrader also co-wrote) and the classic concert movie about The Band's last concert, The Last Waltz.
Here's another example of Scorsese's innovative means of creating his movie… when the movie was finally finished it ran into a huge stumbling block. Because of the violent sequence at the end, which originally involved a lot of brightly-colored blood, the MPAA threatened to slap the movie with an X-rating—which would kill any possibility for a wide release, although the X-rating didn't become synonymous with (Travis' favorite) porno movies until the 1980's.
Cleverly, Scorsese decided to de-saturate the color in the massacre sequence so the blood would look less bloody, getting the MPAA to lower the rating down to an R. Scorsese said he actually considered the de-saturation an improvement over the more brightly colored blood, and the original not-de-saturated version doesn't exist anymore.
Bernard Hermann's score for Taxi Driver is weirdly romantic. It sounds kind of like Charles Mingus' jazz album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, with lots of sexy saxophones evoking passionate love.
This is definitely ironic, given that Taxi Driver is about the opposite—it's about a guy who can't connect and have that sort of intense romance (or any kind of human connection, for that matter).
Suddenly, though, Hermann will inject into this romantic score some tight, ominous drums striking over and over and ending with a dark cymbal crash. It punctures the whole romantic mood with the intrusion of something violent and foreboding—like the violence of New York breaking out under these deceitful neon lights.
Music writer Robert Barnett writes,
First impressions of this score centre on the sleazily seductive side of the music. It is only with repeat hearings that other dimensions float to the surface. There are plenty of obsidian undercurrents and nightmare subterranean seas in this work. There is a certain maniacally driven quality to the music and strata of despair and catastrophe.
Also, the record Sport puts on in the uber-ominous Sport/Iris dancing scene has Hermann's soundtrack on it. This helps highlight the fact that Sport is using a verbal veil of romance to hide the obvious truth of the situation. He's not really in love with Iris or anything like that—he's a child-predator, an exploiter of the very worst kind.
Bernard Hermann died right after finishing the score. In fact, he originally said he didn't want to do it because he didn't do music for "car movies." He didn't really get that Taxi Driver wasn't a "car movie" like the way the Fast and the Furious movies are until he actually saw it.
Prior to writing Taxi Driver's score, Hermann had a pretty distinguished career, writing the scores for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (often considered the greatest movie of all time), and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, and North by Northwest (along with other Hitchcock movies).
The score also features the song "Late for the Sky" by Jackson Browne, during the scene where Travis is watching American Bandstand on TV. It contains lyrics about loneliness and post-breakup malaise, like "How long have I been drifting?" This perfectly fits with Travis' feelings, especially when you apply them to his attempt to get with Betsy. Like Hermann's score, it's got a tender dimension to it that doesn't quite mesh with Travis' extreme rage—so it's a little ironic besides.
Taxi Driver is a favorite of movie lovers, casual movie fans, and crazy people.
The story of a guy who wants to eliminate all the "scum" from the city, and embarks on a scheme of violent self-development, naturally is going to appeal to a fair amount of troubled people—like John Hinckley Jr., who became obsessed with Jodi Foster from Taxi Driver, and attempted to assassinate President Reagan in order to impress her. People like Hinckley miss the irony of the ending—it looks like Travis Bickle basically got away with a massacre, and was hailed as a hero because he happened to kill the "right" people. Of course, this is really a social critique, not the exaltation of vigilante justice.
It would be wrong to think that this is a movie that caters mainly to crazy people, though. After all, it placed at #5 on Sight and Sound's directors poll of the greatest movies of all time. It has distinguished fans like Quentin Tarantino (like Scorsese, a fan of artful cinematic violence) who called it the greatest "first person" study of a character in the history of movies.
Instead of trying to identify with Travis Bickle, plenty of Taxi Driver fans simply appreciate the way his character is portrayed and sympathize with the plight of similarly troubled people—while still strongly disapproving of murder.