Taxi Driver turned 40 this year, and to celebrate the milestone anniversary, the film’s cast and crew reunited at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday night for a screening and discussion of the classic. On hand for the event: stars Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, and Harvey Keitel, writer Paul Schrader, producer Michael Phillips, and director Martin Scorsese. Ahead, five highlights from the night.
Travis Bickle’s mohawk was not an initial style choice for the character
As the film’s title figure turns from outsider to troubled avenger, a hairstyle change comes along for the ride: before the bloody conclusion, Travis Bickle shaves his hair into a mohawk.
“The mohawk was something that Marty and I, we were with a friend of his who was in special forces,” De Niro explained of its inspiration. “At that time, he was doing jumps into Cambodia or Laos or whatever. He showed us a picture of him and his outfit, and a couple of guys had mohawks.” That’s all it took: “Let’s use that. Let’s try and do that,” De Niro said.
The problem was De Niro’s actual hair. “I was about to do The Last Tycoon after, and my hair was all bushy,” he said, noting the pair met at Gallaghers Steak House in New York to discuss how to make the look work for De Niro’s head. “We decided to have [makeup artist] Dick Smith do a test, and it worked.”
“I remember I was in the other room, and I had fallen asleep while we were working on your mohawk, and I just dozed off for a moment, and I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and you were there with this thing,” Scorsese recalled. “It was terrifying.”
Harvey Keitel met a real pimp to prepare for his role
Scorsese kept the large panel lively on Thursday night, nodding, laughing, and often busting chops. A main target was Harvey Keitel, who plays Iris’ pimp Matthew (aka Sport) in the film, and had apparently met an actual pimp before filming began. Not that Keitel wanted to tell that story, as Scorsese prodded him multiple times before goading the actor into revealing the anecdote.
“I was looking to meet a pimp. I didn’t know what to do. I was doing a Broadway show at the time, and a lot of girls were hanging out at 10th Avenue, 9th Avenue,” Keitel said, before explaining how he went up to one woman to ask her about meeting a pimp.
“She doesn’t say a word,” he said. “I said, ‘Could you help me out?’ She said, ‘No one’s going to talk to you.'” The crowd laughed, and Keitel continued. “I sulked away. Then I met a pimp. Someone said he was a former pimp. I don’t know what that means. We improvised a couple of weeks together, me and this fellow. He taught what it was like to play the role of the pimp. I played the girl, he taught me what the pimp would do. … We had a good business together.”
Keitel’s scenes with Foster, who was 12 when she was hired to play underage prostitute Iris in Taxi Driver, stand out as some of the film’s most difficult material, and the actor said it was Scorsese who added their key sequence: a predatory slow dance. “Marty wanted those scenes to be in the movie, so he put them in the movie. They weren’t in the movie to begin with — the dance with Jodie and all that,” Keitel said.
The ending’s key shot was done only twice
Taxi Driver ends with a memorable blood bath, an explosion of inevitable violence the film slowly builds toward for most of its running time. That scene is capped with one of Scorsese’s most impressive directorial flourishes: an overhead tracking shot surveying the carnage Travis has enacted on Iris’ abusers.
“It was in the script that there was an overhead tracking shot. I said, ‘I guess we have to cut through the ceiling,'” Scorsese said of the shot. “Which is what they did. It took about three months.”
But when it came time to shoot, there was a problem: Foster’s age. “The child labor law person said we only had 20 minutes,” Scorsese said. They did it in the allotted time. “It had been a year building up to it. We got it in two takes.”
Jodie Foster, meanwhile, loved that scene
Asked if she was freaked out by the violent finish, Foster said it was the opposite. “It was fantastic,” she said. “I remember Dick Smith having those wonderful gallons of Karo syrup with things floating around in them, and all the guys would teach me what they were doing.”
Foster added, “People always ask — and I’m sure asked all of us — how frightening that scene was and how frightening it was to shoot. Mostly it was just fun.”
Bernard Herrmann’s last act on Taxi Driver was perfect
Legendary composer Bernard Herrmann’s final film was Taxi Driver — he spent two days recording the film’s iconic score before his death — and as Scorsese and Michael Phillips remembered on Thursday night, the musical genius was sometimes a handful.
“On the recording stage, there was a goose-neck lamp that he kept hitting with his baton, but he blamed the lamp,” Phillips said. “He quit, and threw his baton.”
At the time of Taxi Driver (and to this day), Scorsese was known for the way he weaved pop music into his films — even Paul Schrader said he expected Scorsese to load up Taxi Driver with an eclectic playlist of songs. But according to the director, his normal style didn’t fit with the character.
“This term needle drops, I guess, is something about music being heard,” Scorsese said, adding that he grew up hearing music from apartment windows and passing cars. “That’s the way I saw everything. But Travis doesn’t listen to anything. He doesn’t listen to music. So then the only person who could express what he’s suffering is Bernard Herrmann.”
Herrmann’s score is like one of the film’s lead characters, and it even gets an eerie final beat — a sting when Travis thinks he sees something in his rearview mirror.
“I was there with Bernard Herrmann, and I was like, ‘I just need some kind of a sound,'” Scorsese said of the moment. “He’s like, ‘You mean a sting. A sting.'”
Herrmann had the xylophone player hit his instrument a number of times, according to Scorsese, then played it back for the director. “I said, ‘That’s right, but it needs something special.’ He said, ‘Play it backwards,’ and he walked out,” Scorsese said. “That’s the last time I saw him.” Herrmann died the next day.