In 1973, I had been through a particularly rough time. My marriage broke up, and I had to quit the American Film Institute. I was out of work, out of the AFI; I was in debt.
I fell into a period of absolute isolation, living more or less in my car. One day, I went to the emergency room in severe pain, and it turned out I had an ulcer. While I was in the hospital talking to the nurse, I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone in two or three weeks.
It hit me, an image that I was like a taxi driver, floating around in this metal coffin in the city, seemingly in the middle of people but completely alone.
At the time I wrote it, I was very enamoured of guns, I was very suicidal, I was drinking heavily, and obsessed with pornography in the way a lonely person is, and all those elements are upfront in the script.
Right after writing it, I left town for about six months; I returned to LA after feeling a little stronger emotionally and decided to go at it again. I was a freelance critic at the time. I had written a review of Sisters and interviewed Brian De Palma at his place on the beach.
That afternoon we were playing chess, and somehow the fact that I had written a script came up. So I gave it to him; he liked it and wanted to do it.
That year, 1974, De Niro was about to win the Academy Award for The Godfather Part II. Ellen Burstyn won the award for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Paul had sold The Yakuza to Warner Brothers, so it was all coming together.
Michael and Julia Phillips, who owned the script, had won an award for The Sting and figured there was enough power to get the film made, though, in the end, we barely raised the meagre budget of $1.3 million. In fact, for a while, we even thought of doing it on black-and-white video!
Marty’s misogyny was apparent from his casting of Cybill Shepherd as Betsy. We had interviewed just about every blonde on both coasts, and he kept looking.
I liked Farrah Fawcett’s delicate bones, aquiline profile, big teeth and thin body. I always felt that Marty picked Cybill for her big ass, a retro Italian gesture. Ultimately, he had to give her line readings, and De Niro hated her.
The scene I did in the taxi cab was filmed during the last week of shooting. I learned a lot from Bob in that scene. I remember saying, “Put down the flag, put down the flag.” De Niro said, “No. Make me put it down.” And Bobby wasn’t going to put down the flag until he was convinced I meant it.
And then I understood. His move had to be a certain way; if he didn’t feel it, the movement wouldn’t be right. For me, it was a pretty terrifying scene to do.
I was accused in Mean Streets of just showing the garbage on the streets. When I was shooting Taxi Driver, it was filthy because of a garbage strike, and everywhere I aimed the camera, there were mounds of garbage.
I said, “They’re going to kill me! Guys, take some of the garbage and move it out of shot.” In LA, with Mean Streets, we had to put garbage in the streets to make it look like New York.
The dialogue is somewhat improvised. The most memorable piece of dialogue in the film is an improvisation: the “Are you looking at me?” part. The script says that Travis speaks to himself in the mirror.
Bobby asked me what he would say, and I said, “well, he’s a little kid playing with guns and acting tough.” So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the same time as the basis for his lines.
Victor [Mahnotta, a friend of Scorsese’s from NYU] came back from Vietnam, and we went out for dinner with him. He told us about what he had done or had happened to him — horror stories.
During dinner, Bob was asking him questions about the special forces. [Victor] told us that, in Saigon, if you saw a guy with his head shaved – like a little mohawk – that usually meant those people were ready to go into a specific Special Forces situation. You didn’t go near them. They were prepared to kill. They were in a psychological mode to go. That’s where we got the idea for Travis’s shaved head in the final part of the film.
I once told Marty that we should put together a movie of outtakes. That whole slaughter scene in the hallway took us about four or five takes to shoot. Things went wrong technically.
There are a lot of special effects, and something always goes wrong with those things. You have this sort of serious, dramatic carnage going on, and suddenly, somebody drops something, or the machinery breaks down.
It just blows the whole thing, and it turns out to be funny. Oddly enough, everybody’s ready to laugh in that sort of scene because it’s so gruesome. There was a lot of laughing and joking during the shooting between takes. I remember that. It was a lighter period, even though the material was very heavy.
There was a very good feeling around the making of the film; everything felt right about it, and I remember the night before it opened, we all got together and had dinner and said, “No matter what happens tomorrow, we have made a terrific movie, and we’re damn proud of it, even if it goes down the toilet.”
And the next day, I got up and went to the theatre for the noon show. There was a long line that went all the way around the block, but I had to be let in. And then I realised that this vast line was already for the two o’clock show, not the noon show! So I ran inside and watched the film, and everyone was standing at the back, and there was a sense of exhilaration about what we had done. We knew we’d never repeat it.
Jean-Luc Godard once said that all great movies are successful for the wrong reasons, and there were a lot of wrong reasons why Taxi Driver was successful. The sheer violence of it brought out the Times Square Crowd.
I got to the  Academy Awards, and we were the first ones let in. Then I had to go to the men’s room, and suddenly these three big guys came in with me.
Three big guys with jackets. I said, “Gee, this security s incredible tonight.” A few years earlier, when Jodie and I were nominees, I had received a threatening letter about Taxi Driver – “If Jodie Foster wins for what you made her do, you will pay for it with your life.” So we got the FBI, then.
So now I said, “well, this security is even better than the last time, this is fantastic.” I went backstage with Robert Redford to put some sort of statement together. The FBI didn’t want me moving around. Everybody knew why but me. Redford told me that a connection to Taxi Driver had been made in the shooting of the President. I never thought there was a connection with the film in a million years. It turned out that even the limo driver was FBI.