I had a series of things falling apart, a breakdown of my marriage, a dispute with the AFI, I lost my reviewing job. I didn’t have any money and I took to drifting, more or less living in my car, drinking a lot, fantasizing. The Pussycat Theater in L.A. would be open all night long, and I’d go there to sleep. Between the drinking and the morbid thinking and the pornography, I went to the emergency room with a bleeding ulcer. I was about 27, and when I was in the hospital, I realized I hadn’t spoken to anyone in almost a month. So that’s when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me — this metal coffin that moves through the city with this kid trapped in it who seems to be in the middle of society but is in fact all alone. I knew if I didn’t write about this character I was going to start to become him — if I hadn’t already. So after I got out of the hospital, I crashed at an ex-girlfriend’s place, and I just wrote continuously. The first draft was maybe 60 pages, and I started the next draft immediately, and it took less than two weeks. I sent it to a couple of friends in L.A., but basically there was no one to show it to [until a few years later]. I was interviewing Brian De Palma, and we sort of hit it off, and I said, “You know, I wrote a script,” and he said, “OK, I’ll read it.”
I had written the character of the pimp [that Harvey Keitel plays] as black, and we were told by Columbia we had to change it to a white guy because the lawyers were concerned “if we do this and Travis kills all those black people at the end, then we’re going to have a riot. And we’re going to be liable for this.”
During preproduction, I headed uptown, just talking to people on the street, looking for the great white pimp, and in the middle of it all I ended up at a working girl’s bar and struck up this conversation with this girl [Garth Avery] who was kind of strung out and very, very thin. Very close to this character that I wrote. I asked her to come back to the hotel — we were staying at the St. Regis because it was cheap — and told her I’d pay her, but it was not about sex. Around 7 o’clock in the morning, I slipped a note under Marty’s door that said, “I’m going downstairs to have breakfast with Iris. You must join us.” We watched her pour sugar on top of her jam, the way she talked, and a lot of that is in the diner scene in the movie.
I was afraid that Marty would see himself and would be so mortified and cut himself out of the movie, and I liked the scene. I said to Michael and Julia, “Marty is going to cast himself in this role and he’s going to see it and he’s not going to like it and then he’s going to cut the scene out!” I was 100 percent wrong. He saw it, he loved it, and he kept every single bit of himself in.
Bob called me and said, “Well, in the script, it says that he pulls out the gun, looks at himself, talks to himself. Well, what’s he saying?” I said, “He’s just a kid in front of a mirror playing with his gun. Just make up stuff.” I figured whatever he made up would be better than writing those kind of lines.
Columbia had an investment in young talent more than they had in the film, so they were not going to do anything that would create enemies — bur they did not think it was going to be successful. Michael and Julia had a dinner at the Sherry [Netherland Hotel] in New York for Bob, Marty and I the night before it opened and basically Michael said, “I think we made a really terrific film and no one knows what will happen tomorrow. But whatever happens let’s not start blaming each other, but accept the fact that we made this film and it didn’t work financially.” I had been in a car with Charlie Powell, who was the head of publicity for Columbia, like a week before, and I’d said to him, “I think this film is going to do well, I’m starting to get that vibe.” And he said “No, the film’s not going to do well.” And I said “I’ll make you a bet.” And he said “OK” and I said “I’ll bet you 20 bucks.” In those days, they could break down opening day and opening weekend by the amount of advertising they put in. I was told that they had paid for a $40,000 weekend and they got a $65,000 one. As soon as that happened, everything changed. And Charlie paid up.
Opening in New York on Feb. 8, 1976, Taxi Driver was an immediate critical and commercial hit, grossing $28.8 million domestically ($117.9 million today). It was then invited to the Cannes Film Festival.