Remembering 'Taxi Driver' 40 Years Later With Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and More

Taxi Driver
The Tribeca Film Festival celebrated the 40th anniversary of "Taxi Driver" Thursday night at the Beacon Theatre. Street Dreams/@jnsilva

“Forty years!” boomed Robert De Niro Thursday night to a sold-out Beacon Theatre on New York City’s Upper West Side. “Every day for 40 fucking years, somebody has come up to me and said…”

He paused, turning his mouth upside down and shrugging in deference to the audience, a gesture any De Niro impersonator has down pat.

“You talkin’ to me?!” the audience boomed back in unison.

The most iconic line of one of our most iconic actors’ career is found, of course, in Taxi Driver. This year is the film’s 40th anniversary, and the Tribeca Film Festival, which De Niro founded, celebrated the occasion with a special screening followed by a panel discussion with De Niro, director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, producer Michael Phillips and actors Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd and Harvey Keitel.

The excitement both outside and inside the theater before the show started was a resounding testament to just how much this film means to New York. It depicted the city during the 1970s in a way that was simply unrivaled. It captured the throbbing, angry pulse of the streets; the cacophony of Columbus Circle during a hot summer day; the pimps and prostitutes lining Times Square at night; the distorted, flared lights that blur together outside of rain-covered cab windows; the neon storefronts, the dingy apartments and the boiling-hot tension that could give rise to a Travis Bickle or, in real life a year after the film’s release, a David Berkowitz. Taxi Driver was not just a journey deep inside a troubled mind; it was an impressionistic painting of this bygone New York City in all its grotesque glory.

The crowd in the Beacon skewed older and upscale, filled mostly with people who have seen New York through from that era of seediness and violence to its current incarnation. There were uptown baby boomers and downtown celebrities (and those dressed like they were downtown celebrities). After taking my seat, a tanned and stylish older couple squeezed past me. "Right here, sugar," the man said in a thick New York accent, indicating where his date should settle. (Later, he would mansplain the proper way to pronounce "gazpacho.")

On the other side of my seat, filmmaker Michael Moore stood in the aisle, confused as to where he was supposed to sit and dutifully posing for picture after picture with fans who spotted him and wandered over. Eventually, he made his way into a seat a few rows up, where another tanned and stylish couple shook his hand while grinning at the luck of their seating placement. 

So excited were those in attendance that even the houselights dimming elicited a rousing round of applause, as did each name that appeared in the film's opening credits. To see this iconic New York film on the big screen 40 years after its release, in one of New York’s most iconic theaters with the cast watching with us, was a treat that was not taken for granted.

After the screening, the film's luminaries were paraded onstage to a smattering of standing ovations. Because Taxi Driver is indeed four decades old and because everyone involved has been made to discuss the film repeatedly throughout those four decades, there were few revelations to come out of the discussion. It consisted mostly of the moderator asking whomever to "remind us" or "tell the story of" this thing or that thing that he or she surely already recounted on Inside the Actors Studio or wherever else. That doesn't mean it wasn't entertaining. Here's some of what was said:

Screenwriter Paul Schrader on the Script's Inspiration

"This script began in the best possible way. It began as self-therapy. There was a person I was afraid of, who I was afraid I was becoming. That was this taxi driver. I thought if I wrote about it I could distance him from me. And it worked.… The beauty of it is that it still retains that original purpose. That power, after 40 years, still imbues the film."

Martin Scorsese on What He Saw in the Script

"What I saw I can't articulate. It just had to be done. I think Bob [De Niro] and I never really spoke about meaning or theory of any kind. Paul is really the one who expresses it. I just had a kind of determination to make it. It was a film that I didn't think anybody would really see. It was a film that was made out of the passion of the situation and who we were at the time."

Schrader on Everything Coming Together

"Movies are full of serendipity. Bob and Marty and I never really talked much about the script because we knew this guy. We all knew this guy. That's where the serendipity comes in. Three young men at a certain moment in their lives kind of sync up and share a common sort of…pathology. Sometimes you get lucky."

Robert De Niro and Scorsese on Embodying Travis Bickle

De Niro: "I started driving a cab. I had, like, 10 days or something. I drove as much as I could in that period."

Scorsese: "You told me once that a guy got into your car and noticed it said your name on the driver's license, and he said, 'You just won an Oscar! Is it that hard to get a job as an actor?'"

De Niro: "I said, 'Yeah, I'm still on the unemployment line.'"

Harvey Keitel on Preparing to Play a Pimp

"I was looking to meet a pimp, because I didn't know what to do about being a pimp. I was doing a Broadway show at the time and some lovely girls were hanging out near 10th Avenue. I went up to one of the girls, and my name was on the marquee and all that, so I went up to her, and I said, 'Excuse me, I'm Harvey Keitel and there's my name on the poster up there. I'm doing a movie," and then I began to explain to her about playing the pimp in Taxi Driver and that I needed someone to help me understand what it's like to be a pimp. I'm talking and talking and talking and she doesn't say a word. I say, 'Can you help me out?' and she looks at me and goes, 'No one is going to talk to you.' So 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. He told me what it was like to play the role of the pimp, and I played the girl, and he taught me what to do. We had a good business together."

Scorsese on New York

"The city was wonderful at the time, I thought. Everybody told me the city was dying. That's what I grew up in. I grew up downtown.

"Being in the city every night in the summer…you can feel it in the film. [Cinematographer] Michael Chapman's photography, you can taste the humidity, you can taste the sense of anger and imbalance that was emanating from the streets themselves.

"The rainstorms were really bad. I couldn't match anything. In the scene with the apple pie in the luncheonette, I didn't want to shoot against the wall. I wanted to shoot out the window because you have all of Columbus Circle out there. You had all this going on. But nothing matched. It would be raining, then stop raining. We had a big confrontation with the studio, but we finally pulled through on that. I felt the city was so much of a character. We had to really fight tooth and nail to get there."

Jodie Foster on Filming the Bloody Climax Scene as a Child

"It was fantastic. I remember Dick Smith there with all these big wonderful gallons of Karo syrup with things floating around in them. All the guys would teach me what they were doing. Watching Bob put on his headpiece with the mohawk. It was fascinating. People always ask how frightening that scene was and how frightening it was to shoot it, but [I loved it]."

De Niro on the Mohawk

"The mohawk was something that Marty and I came up with. We were with a friend of his who was in Special Forces at the time and was diving into Cambodia or Laos or wherever. He showed us a picture of he and his outfit, and some of the guys had mohawks. We said, 'That's great. Let's use that.' It was just about how we could do that, because I was about to do The Last Tycoon after, and my hair was all bushy. We had to resolve it. We went to Gallaghers Steakhouse and had a talk about how we would do it. We got Dick Smith to do a test, and it worked."