It can be argued that the cinematic collaborations between Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese rank among some of the greatest screenwriter and director partnerships in the history of the movies. Taxi Driver is a shining example of their offspring as a creative couple as it reflects how the writing informs the directing, and vice versa, how the directing elevates the writing.
In the film, there is an uncomfortable scene in the middle of the movie when Travis Bickle calls Betsy, the woman he is courting, from a payphone in the lobby of his apartment building. The trouble is, when he took her out on their first date, he took her to see a porno film.
Ever since that rendezvous, Betsy hasn’t been returning Travis’s calls. Travis isn’t a bad guy, but he’s out of touch with his society’s reality, perhaps due to his stint as a soldier in Vietnam and struggles with PTSD. When he finally gets Betsy on the phone, he makes an effort to apologize and ask her on a second date. Here is the scene in its original script form.
The scene, while seemingly short in the screenplay, plays out much longer on screen. That’s because Scorsese took artistic liberties, liberties born from the seeds Schrader planted on the page. On the surface, Scorsese lengthened the scene, incorporating improvisation from De Niro as he tries his hardest to keep Betsey on the phone with him. While the throughline of the scene remains the same, Scorsese expands on the key idea present in the last line of action: “Travis holds the receiver in his hand. The other party has hung up.”
What is the subtext of this last line? This is the most important question a director can ask him or herself when breaking down their scripts: what is the subtext of the scene, and then, how do I go about shooting it? In the above scene, Scorsese found his subtext and figured out how to shoot it.
Even though we’re experiencing the film through Travis’s point of view, Scorsese employs the technique of dramatic irony: he assumes we are aware of the societal standards that Travis is unaware of.
The camera is positioned behind Travis—as though we’re eavesdropping on the call. The frame itself is unbalanced. It is “short-sided,” meaning there is more room on the side of the frame that the character is looking away from, rather than toward (in this instance, the left side). Filmmakers often short-side the frame when intercutting between two characters in the midst of a conversation. This type of framework implies a disconnection between the two individuals. Scorsese doesn’t need to cut to Betsy to emphasize the disconnection in this scene—the disconnection is clear. We know the conversation is not going well, and we don’t even need to hear Betsy’s side of the exchange; we realize the conversation is over well before Travis does. Scorsese encapsulates this idea in a visual metaphor by tracking the camera away from Travis’s back, and then dollying it horizontally along the hall, until the shot ends at an intersecting hallway that leads to the building’s exit. Even though the camera no longer frames Travis (it now frames the door at the end of the lonely corridor), we continue to hear Travis talk to Betsy over the phone. By directing our eye away from Travis and onto the exit, we no longer focus on the intent of the conversation, but rather on the futility of it.
Scorsese has successfully translated a human emotion to his audience. We feel embarrassed for Travis. We can’t help but feel awkward as we witness him try to connect with someone who we know very well he’ll never be able to connect with. It’s so awkward that we want to stop eavesdropping.
As a result, Scorsese walks us away from the phone before Travis walks away from it. We know the conversation is over before he does—and if it were us in that scene, we would have probably gotten the hint and walked away at this very same moment. There is an inevitability about this conversation: Travis is going to lose. We know it, Scorsese’s camera knows it, and we’re both ahead of the character, so we might as well wait for him by the door, because we know that’s where Travis is eventually going to head.
And Scorsese puts us there. He is filming the subtext of the scene. He took Schrader’s description of Travis still holding the phone after Betsey has hung up in the script and translated it into a visual metaphor.
In a perfectly conceived film, every shot should be a metaphor that conveys the subtext of the written scene. If you plan on shooting additional shots (aka coverage), once you have determined what the subtext is and film THE SHOT that conveys it all, you can use that shot as the spine for all the other shots in the scene.
A good exercise when you’re storyboarding, or at least beginning to think about the shots in your film, is to try and boil each scene down to one shot. If you were only allowed a single shot to shoot an entire scene, what would that shot be? The answer is: you identify the subtext in your scene and you shoot it. If you do this successfully, you may not need any other shots to convey what the scene is about. This was true for Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver.