Paul Schrader on Raging Bull

By Walter Donohue | November 10, 2010
Faber & Faber Faber & Faber

The screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s biopic of boxer Jake La Motta looks back on his involvement in this classic movie.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Raging Bull, Faber & Faber’s Walter Donohue presents an extract from Schrader on Schrader in which Paul Schrader, the movie’s screenwriter, looks back on the making of the film.

Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader came together on four separate occasions to create a group of films as unique and individual as the film-makers themselves: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and, lastly, Bringing Out the Dead, the ultimate distillation of the themes and obsessions that fueled their collaborations.

Paul Schrader, interviewed by Kevin Jackson, had this to say about Raging Bull:

Paul Schrader: Mardick Martin’s draft of Raging Bull was a script that Scorsese and De Niro had, but they just weren’t happy with it, so when Bob came by late in 1978, while I was shooting Hardcore, I went straight from shooting Hardcore into writing Raging Bull, editing my film by day and writing by night.

My main contribution to it was the character of Joey La Motta. Jake didn’t like his brother much, so he wasn’t in the first draft and there was no drama there. I did some research, met Joe and he struck me as much more interesting. You had these two young boxers, the Fighting La Mottas, and one was sort of shy while the other one had a lot of social tools, so Joey quit fighting and managed his brother. The only thing Jake was good at was taking a beating, he wasn’t a terrific boxer but he could take a beating and meanwhile Joey was off managing and getting all the girls. So injecting that sibling relationship into the script made it a financeable film.

Kevin Jackson: Was the flashback structure also yours?

Paul Schrader: I think so.

Kevin Jackson: What was the main point of that structure as far as you were concerned – the fact that La Motta found a new way to be a performer, a public figure?

Paul Schrader: I think Marty was more attracted to that element than I was. I was very much attracted to the notion of his hands. La Motta felt that his hands were small and ineffectual, that they weren’t really boxer’s hands, and the climax of my script was a scene which Marty and Bob chose not to do, or rather did in a different fashion.

It is the prison scene. Jake is in the cell and he’s trying to masturbate and is unsuccessful, because every time he tries to conjure up an image of a women he’s known, he also remembers how badly he’s treated her, so he’s not able to maintain an erection. Finally he takes it out on his hands; he blames his hands and smashes them against the wall. I’m not sure why, but they were uncomfortable shooting this and so it became “I am not an animal” instead.

Kevin Jackson: You’ve said that your characters are drawn from the Bible in one way or another; is that true of your Jake La Motta?

Paul Schrader: Not so much with him, because you’re dealing with a real person. But there’s obviously a pseudo-religious masochism to it – regeneration by blood, ritual beating – and that aspect of it certainly appealed to both Marty and me.

Kevin Jackson: Scorsese has spoken of it as a film about redemption.

Paul Schrader: Yes, but redemption through physical pain, like the Stations of the Cross, one torment after another. Not redemption by having a view of salvation or by grace, but just redemption by death and suffering, which is the darker side of the Christian message.

Kevin Jackson: Could you find any affinities between your character and La Motta’s that helped you write it?

Paul Schrader: Not really. I would not have done it on my own, and I don’t think Marty would have either, but it was Bob’s passion. Marty is fond of saying that Taxi Driver is my film and Raging Bull is De Niro’s and The Last Temptation of Christ is his.”

Extract taken from Schrader on Schrader edited by Kevin Jackson (Faber & Faber, 2004)

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