On Februrary 8, 1976, Martin Scorsese unleashed Taxi Driver on an unsuspecting public and subsequently changed the course of movie history for everyone involved. The director would see his own star rise swiftly. The film would secure a Best Picture Academy Award nomination assuring Scorsese a place at the film industry table for a long time. Likewise, 33-year-old Robert De Niro, coming off a Best Supporting Oscar win for The Godfather Part II, was becoming a star but wasn’t there yet. Taxi Driver would make him a household name.
Similar fates were in store for co-stars Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, and writer Paul Schrader. Taxi Driver was a revelation in 1976—a fever dream about the pathology of loneliness that permeated every rung of society. People were shocked, transfixed, and seduced by its lurid depictions of a city seen through the eyes of one of its forgotten and most dangerous citizens. Taxi Driver was the work of an undeniable talent. Forty years later, Scorsese’s film still has the capacity to hit audience members hard. Let’s take a look back at the early days of the movie and dig into the production:
1. Originally, director Brian De Palma was attached to Taxi Driver, but producers let him go after seeing Scorsese’s Mean Streets. They agreed Scorsese should direct, but only if he could get his Mean Streets star De Niro to join also.
2. Well-known as a method actor, De Niro proved his dedication to the role of Travis Bickle by working as a New York City cab driver for a month. He also lost 35 pounds, tape-recorded Midwesterners to capture Bickle’s manner of speaking, and studied the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot governor George Wallace in 1972.
3. The famous “You lookin’ at me?” scene was improvised by De Niro. Paul Schrader’s script only said: “Travis speaks to himself in the mirror.” Many stories have been told guessing where De Niro came up with the line. Schrader has said it was inspired by an unknown comedian De Niro had seen. De Niro, meanwhile, reportedly said the words came from something Bruce Springsteen said during one of his shows in response to the crowd chanting his name. Scorsese revealed the scene was inspired by a similar one in Marlon Brando‘s film Reflections in a Golden Eye.
4. Scorsese has also said the most important shot in the movie occurs when Travis is on the phone trying to get another date with Betsy. The camera moves to the side slowly and pans down the long empty hallway as if to suggest the conversation is too pathetic to bear.
5. Travis’ mohawk was suggested by actor and Scorsese friend Victor Magnotta who revealed soldiers in Vietnam would often cut their way this way before an important mission. Travis, being a Vietnam veteran, would likely do the same. Plus it looks insane.
6. The role of 12-year-old prostitute Iris was inspired by a real underage sex worker Schrader picked up one night. The role was tough to fill. Melanie Griffith was originally chosen, but dropped out after De Palma was let go. Ellen Barkin, Kim Basinger, Geena Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Brooke Shields were all unknown actresses at the time and were considered. Scorsese liked Linda Blair, Bo Derek, and Carrie Fisher but all three turned it down. Eventually, the part went to experienced child actor Jodie Foster who had to submit to psychological testing to ensure she wouldn’t be emotionally disturbed by the content. During filming, Foster’s 19-year-old sister Connie stood in as a body double for Jodie’s more adult scenes.
7. Producers were reportedly interested in “a Cybill Shepherd-type” for the role of Betsy. Shepherd’s manager heard this, suggested Shepard herself, and she won the role over actresses like Sigourney Weaver and Farrah Fawcett. Producer Julia Phillips writes in her autobiography that Scorsese chose Shepherd because of her backside, which added to her sex appeal. Phillips also reveals Shepherd exhausted both Scorsese and De Niro on set by constantly forgetting lines.
8. Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and The Walker make up a series referred to as Schrader’s “Night Worker” films. The writer (who directed the latter three films) has said he considers the central characters of the four movies to be one character who’s changed as he’s aged. That character is based, at least in part, on the writer himself. Before Taxi Driver, Schrader was lonely and alienated after a divorce and another breakup after that. He spent weeks living in his car and wrote the script in under a month bouncing from place to place and keeping a loaded gun on his desk for inspiration.
9. Shot during a summer heat wave and a garbage workers strike in New York City, the film reflects the grime and filth in the city at the time.
10. In the original screenplay, the roles of Sport (played by Harvey Keitel), the Mafioso, and the hotel clerk were all to be filled by black actors. Scorsese changed it. He felt, combined with other events in the film, the story would have a racist subtext with these characters and cast white actors instead.
[Big h/t to Wikipedia, IMDb, and my Taxi Driver DVD and bonus features.]
10 Things That'll Change the Way You Watch 'Taxi Driver'