Matthew David Wilder has worked as a screenwriter, writing for some of America’s most well known directors including Oliver Stone and Paul Schrader. He’s also directed a number of independent films.
Matthew’s background, growing up in a trailer park in Des Plaines, Illinois, studying theatre at Yale, and his mentor Peter Sellars
Matthew’s first major project writing for Clive Barker’s The History of the Devil
Matthew’s work with Oliver Stone on a film about the war on terror right after 9/11 which was never released
The film Dog Eat Dog, staring Nicolas Cage, written by Matthew, directed by Paul Schrader, which was released last fall, and was Matthew’s first major Hollywood project
The process of transforming the crime novel by Edward Bunker into a film
Reviews of the Dog Eat Dog, by The Guardian and Anne Thompson
Matthew’s film Your Name Here, which is a surreal dramatic fantasy biopic loosely based on the life of Philip K. Dick
How to effectively take the audience out of their comfort zone as a director
Matthew’s upcoming film REGARDING THE CASE OF JOAN OF ARC, with Taryn Manning playing Joan of Arc as an alt-right, Christian fundamentalist terrorist put on trial in a Guatanamo Bay-like setting
Matthew’s upcoming film Morning Has Broken
Check out Robert Stark’s Paintings!
Robert: Matthew you have a fascinating background. Tell us about your journey from a trailer park on the outskirts of Chicago to Yale University. And how you got into film and writing.
Matthew: I went to Yale fully planning to be some kind of literature professor–oh, let’s face it, *English teacher.* I was kind of waylaid from working in movies because I met a great mentor there, the opera and theatre director Peter Sellars, who got me into theatre. His pitch was simple and perfect: Why spend years waiting for some guy to give you five million dollars to make your first movie when you can grab a bunch of friends, pick one of the greatest plays ever written, and create something great, right now, on the front stoop of your apartment building? Pretty seductive idea.
While this was happening, I was writing screenplays. I wrote the time-honored autobiographical first script–a really good one, actually, called THE SHORT RIDE, about my experiences with my truck-driver dad. In this version, it became about a little girl and an ex-con dad who gets out of jail and wants to show the kid what the real world is, knowing he’ll soon be dead or back in jail. That got me a manager in L.A., and then the great agent Tom Strickler, who later founded Endeavor, and suddenly, my theatre life and my film-world life were born.
Robert: What was your experience at Yale? What did you major in? Was it your goal to get into film?
Matthew: Yale may’ve been the best experience of my life. I was a green kid from Illinois. Here I was among this wildly diverse group of people. Paul Giamatti was in the first play I directed. Anderson Cooper was my downstairs neighbor. I’d sometimes ride to New York with him on the train–he’d go to Gloria Vanderbilt’s house to sleep, I’d wind up huddled under a blanket somewhere with my head on a brick. I was around New York City slicksters. I had people teach me how to eat sushi and wear black clothes and smoke cigarettes. I was reinvented from a Midwestern bumpkin into a gloomy avant-garde person– what the characters in Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” call “an art fag.” (At Yale, they were called “Eurofags”–I was not quite pretty nor well dressed enough to be that, but close enough.)
My major was literature. It was a theory major. Derrida and his lieutenants had taken over the literature area. It was exciting, because they viewed the study of literature as a poetic phenomenon. It was a creative thinking, not a scholarly, footnoting, “you are an asterisk to the work” affair. Of course, a few years after I graduated from Yale, my major was destroyed. Yale’s president, Benno Schmidt (you probably recall him from his appearances in Woody Allen movies) decided Yale had to become a money-earning, science-based place, and effete, Euro things like “the lit major” were toast. I have a major in something that literally no longer exists.
Was my goal to get into film? Hell no. Like I say–I was a small-town bumpkin and my biggest dreams were to go somewhere and teach Thomas Hardy novels in Idaho. I don’t know if I even dreamt of being Pauline Kael, much less Martin Scorsese. But the ambitious bug eventually bit me.
Robert: How did you get started screenwriting? What were your first major gigs?
Matthew: My first pro gig was adapting a play called “History of the Devil” for Clive Barker. A friend of mine from theatre brought me in. I loved Clive. He is one of the most erudite people I have ever met. Knows painting, literature, film, everything, intimately. He’s as big a brain as Peter Greenaway–and very similar; they are both painters and have a sort of painter-mind. I remember Clive’s development woman cried out in horror when Clive and I used the word “Buchnerian.” So I got my union card and my first real job adapting this wonderful play for Clive. Sadly, my agents–and worse, Clive’s agents, at CAA (at the time)–thought that this project was somehow silly or effete and they never took it seriously. I think many years later Clive got off the ground some super schlocky version of “History of the Devil” for Sy Fy or somesuch.
Robert: You directed “Your Name Here” based on the life of Philip K Dick. It’s a fictional film about what would happen if Philip K. Dick ended up in one of his own novels. You had to change the names. Were there any legal issues with Philip K Dick’s estate?
Matthew: Yep. They killed us. Every time that picture nearly got bought by some micro-distributor, the Dick estate would dive-bomb us. They’d say to the distributor, “Hey, want a huge lawsuit that’ll hang you up for ages?” They would absolutely lose in court. But they know they have more money to spend on lawyers than some small company. It’s really horrible. They want to own all aspects of Phil Dick–not just his work, but even using him as a character, as a public figure. And it’s all totally money-driven. I think Philip K. Dick would be really sad if he saw what his kids do.
Robert: “Dog Eat Dog”, directed by Paul Schrader and staring Nicholas Cage, opened last fall. Was that your first major Hollywood Production? What have been the reactions to the film, especially your writing?
Matthew: It was my first big deal. The response has been sensational. We went to Cannes really just for fun. Schrader somehow pulled a chit and got the movie into the Directors’ Fortnight. We figured we’d screen the picture, have a drink and go home. Imagine everyone’s surprise when, after the first 8 am screening (for a movie this dark and gory!), we got five-star reviews from the Guardian and a rave from Anne Thompson and so on. We were all gobsmacked by how well it was received–and not by blogger weirdos, but by very mainstream critics.
Robert: Dog Eat Dog, a black comedy crime thriller, is based on the crime novel by Edward Bunker who was a career criminal and wrote from his own experience . What was it about the story that appealed to you and Schrader? Explain the process of transferring a novel to a script.
Matthew: DOG is really written a bit like a screenplay. It was not the hardest job of adaptation by far. A lot of it is laid out right there. The one aspect of it I am really proud of is the middle section, when the boys lay back after committing a crime and they hang out in a casino with some girls. Xan Cassavetes said to me that she thought this part of the movie was like HUSBANDS, which is an outrageous compliment! It gives the movie a moment to breathe and for you to get to know the guys through their tortured and quite unsuccessful relationships with women.
As for Schrader, I think he’d say that what appealed to him is the opening scene–a real hyperviolent, WTF sequence. It’s definitely one of those moments that says to the audience “Can you hack this? If not, hit the exits now. Away we go!”
Robert: Dog Eat Dog is your first project with Paul Schrader. Was Schrader a major influence on you? What do you think about the concept of the monocular film, one protagonist alone against the universe. In college you directed a one act play “God’s Lonely Man,” which is a fitting title to that genre.
Matthew: That was a play I WROTE…in HIGH SCHOOL! Ha! Yeah, every screenwriter has someone when they’re starting out who they sort of model themselves after or at least burn a little candle on a shrine towards…In my case, it wasn’t William Goldman or Robert Towne, it was Schrader. His stuff was always the most intellectually ambitious, the most formally ballsy, certainly the most deeply character-based, and he had this motif: the man alone. His stuff was not really about “me against the world,” it was “me against myself.” Somehow we feel a novel can do that, but somehow that isn’t “cinematic.” Well, Schrader’s movies are certainly the most cinematic, if not always in the most obvious ways. I mean, putting Patty Hearst in a pitch-black closet for 20 minutes? That to me is the height of cinematic, and the height of balls.
Robert: After 9/11, you worked with Oliver Stone on a movie about the war on terror that was supposed to be an epic action movie, but never came into fruition. What was the experience like, and what are your thoughts about his films “World Trade Center” and “Snowden”?
Matthew: The experience was marvellous. Oliver is a wonderfully vulnerable guy. I had a notion of him as this Sam Peckinpah type character, kicking over chairs and screaming at people–no. He’s not like that. He’s like Beethoven. There is a storm cloud following him around, he’s a very sensitive man. Our 9-11 movie spiralled a bit out of hand and he went off to do ALEXANDER. I love WORLD TRADE CENTER–it’s like a Beckett play posing as a big studio movie. And I like SNOWDEN, think he did a wonderful job on that, though I am not sure that Edward Snowden is innately a very interesting character.
Robert: Besides film, you have a theater background. What is it about theater that appealed to you as opposed to film?
Matthew: I wrote something recently–here’s my motto: “Make stagy movies and make cinematic plays.” I love stagy films. And you know, many of the greatest directors came from theatre: Preminger, Cukor, Ulmer, Fassbinder, all the way up to Mike Nichols. I think it’s a drag that directors now generally come from the music-video or vfx worlds. That stuff is not what makes a movie work. People think that theatre directors make stiff, stagy movies but we know that’s not necessarily true. I do like breaking the rules and doing something “theatrical,” and I think the audience loves that. Something like the opening of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, where Christoph Waltz sits there playing with props for twenty minutes as the tension builds to an unbearable pitch–that’s totally theatre.
Robert: You worked with Clive Barker on his play “The History of the Devil”, where the devil is on trial and makes a deal with humanity, that depicts the history of human events. What is it like working with Clive? What is unique about his work that is missing in today’s horror films?
Matthew: Clive is just a brainiac. He knows everything, has digested everything, has forgotten everything. Most of his work is a wink or a pastiche or some sort of blender-izing of previous work. Yet he combines that with horror ideas that are just visceral and intimate and terrifying, ideas that get up close to your body and bite you. There are very, very few things in horror that I think are actually scary. They are stylish, they are sexy, they are insane. But think about it: have you ever really been scared by a Dario Argento movie? You may want to hang one of the frames from the movie on you wall, but did it really give you a nightmare? Clive kind of hits the best of both worlds, in that he has the cool idea, but he also generates that concept that just makes you sick to your stomach with fear.
Robert: Can you give examples of directors whose life experience informed their film making in a compelling way?
Matthew: Fritz Lang saw the inside of a Gestapo interrogation room. I think you can feel that in his movies. Billy Wilder started out as a “taxi dancer,” a kind of glorified gigolo in Vienna–don’t you think you can see that in the rancid, bitter romanticism of his movies? All of Fassbinder’s cocaine and boozing and abuse and “Please don’t leave me!” in his relationships with the women in his movies–do the movies come first and the abuse second or the other way around? I think the only directors whose lives didn’t massively impact their work are the ones who were lucky enough to hit it big very early. Steven Spielberg was able to spend an entire career contemplating his life up to the age of twelve.
Robert: Do you enjoy the invigorating factor of taking the audience out of their comfort zone? Making difficult films that are difficult and challenging for the audience? What is the key in effectively achieving that goal without going for cheap shock value?
Matthew: I have a friend who recently wrote a play about Trump. And sure enough, it puts Trump in a series of absurd, surreal situations. I said to this chap, I think the only way to jolt the audience is to write a PRO-TRUMP play. Cast in your mind Rodney Dangerfield as Trump and make it about “the slobs rebelling against the snobs.” Imagine an audience walking out of that, going “What the fuck was THAT all about! How dare they!” But it would jostle people’s brains. I think just depicting Trump as a vulgar boob doesn’t move the needle in any way.
Similarly with anything else. Being gross or electrifying the shock-o-meter doesn’t mean much in 2017. We need to find new ways to get under an audience’s skin. I find that in a very ideologically polarized time, people want to know what to think. They want to cuddle up with “Hamilton” and Rachel Maddow, or, on the other hand, NASCAR and Fox News. What happens when you give someone a work of art where the team allegiance isn’t clear? I think that can make people’s heads spin.
Robert: Your upcoming film which you are both writing and directing is “Morning Has Broken”, staring Lydia Hearst and Peter Bogdanovich. It’s based on a true story about a runaway girl who moves in with a famous composer. What stage of production is the film in and when do you plan on releasing it?
Matthew: Looking to get it on this year. Right now it seems I will be doing one picture sooner: it’s called REGARDING THE CASE OF JOAN OF ARC, and in it Taryn Manning plays Joan of Arc as an alt-right, Christian fundamentalist terrorist put on trial in a Guatanamo Bay-like setting right now. It’s a very unnerving picture.
Robert: Are you big on fusing genres, as opposed to making specific genre movies.
Matthew: Sort of. Every time I think of genres and genre movies, all I see is the lines you CAN’T color outside of. You must do thus and such to still be a western, or a musical, or a spy thriller, or whatever. But in the more genre-exploding stuff, you don’t come up against those laws. I mean, what is Bergman’s PERSONA? Is it a horror movie? A “women’s picture”? It is its own thing. I think that’s the ideal.
Robert: How do you go about creating a great film on a limited budget?
Matthew: It’s an interesting question. I grew up worshiping Scorsese and really loving the many virtuosic visual things he does–the whip-pans, the tracking shots, the cranes, the insane list of songs! But you realize it’s possible to do many cinematic things with very bare means. Take a look at a movie like Chantal Akerman’s JEANNE DIELMAN. It’s a movie about a woman peeling a potato! But somehow, Akerman manages to make that clammy domestic space seem as trippy as the vistas in 2001. It’s really about how you look more than what you look at.