Martin Scorsese's Hand Drawn Taxi Driver Storyboards & the Stories Behind Them

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The 1976 thriller Taxi Driver is among filmmaker Martin Scorsese's most successful and most iconic movies. An eternal darling of film critics and cinephiles alike, the film garnered four Academy Awards nominations.

It also marked the beginning of a collaboration with actor Robert De Niro and writer Paul Schrader. Martin Scorsese called storyboarding the most important filmmaking process and produced his own storyboards by hand for Taxi Driver. We'll look at those drawings and the stories behind the images.

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Martin Scorsese's storyboards for Taxi Driver

The Collector's Edition of Taxi Driver includes a four-minute interview with Scorsese in which he talks about the beauty and functionality of his self-made storyboards and how they helped him, his cinematographer, Michael Chapman, and the entire crew go about shooting the film.

According to Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader put the words of the script onto the page in such a way that they created instant reactions in the director. His process of visualizing a scene was then to sketch out the images as pencil drawings, sometimes elaborate drawings, but most often as stick figures. It didn't matter if a drawing ended up in the movie or not; what was important for the process of visualizing a scene was the interpretation of those pictures.

Drawing dates back to childhood for Martin Scorsese, and he describes it as a way of visualizing that is joyful and wonderful, making him want to transfer that pleasure to film. His storyboards were a solid base with which he could approach the crew and tell people what he wanted. At the same time, the Taxi Driver sketches were basic enough that they left enough room for input from everyone else.

Lastly, they were essential to his low budget filmmaking, an economic way of getting certain shots. When evaluating a day's progress during production, comparing the storyboards to the shotlist helped Scorsese decide whether he should combine shots, push them or cut them.

Pencil drawing Taxi Driver storyboards

Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver script came to Martin Scorsese via filmmaker Brian De Palma, who passed on it but thought Scorsese might like it. Indeed Scorsese had a "visceral, almost mystical" reaction to it, the tone, and Travis Bickle's struggle. Robert De Niro joined the project when Paul Schrader and Scorsese watched Mean Streets together, the director's first collaboration with the actor, and decided that De Niro was the perfect fit for Travis.

"These storyboards are not the only means of communication for what I imagine, but they are the point where I begin."

While planning the film, Martin Scorsese developed the screenplay by relying on a simple process of storyboarding by hand with pencil, which was enough to convey his intentions. 'Between Film and Art' was an exhibition focusing on filmmakers who created their own storyboards, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and Scorsese himself. In that context, he told Phaidon: "These storyboards are not the only means of communication for what I imagine, but they are the point where I begin."

"Storyboards express what I want to communicate," continues Scorsese, but they're not only about visualization, but also about order, progress, and moving through the script: "They show how I would imagine a scene and how it should move to the next."

There's only one downside to using something as light and nuanced as pencil for sketching storyboards: "The pencil line leaves little impression on the paper, so if the storyboard is photocopied, it loses something. I refer back to my original drawings in order for me to conjure up the idea I had when I saw the pencil line made."

Thanks to Far Out Magazine, you can also see hand-drawn storyboards from the filmmaker's masterpiece.

Scorsese talking Taxi Driver influences

Another movie Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader watched together to prepare for the making of Taxi Driver was the 1956 docudrama, The Wrong Man, by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Henry Fonda. The director explained in an interview that while the story is very different, he was interested in The Wrong Man's camera movements to achieve the same sense of "guilt and paranoia."

If you look at Robert Bresson's Pickpocket from 1959, you'll notice similarities between the character study of the pickpocket character and the cab driver, Travis. Both confess in voiceover narration, keep a diary and are prone to voyeurism. Their personal problems as well as social situations influence the actions they take, and both films explore their reasoning in an existential way without passing judgement.

Scorsese admits to having two more influences. Travis staring intently at an effervescent tablet fizzing in a glass of water is a homage to Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and the lingering shot of a cup of coffee. German cinema auteurist, Werner Fassbinder, also influenced Scorsese and Taxi Driver. Compare the symbolism and colouring, the stark images and realism of The Merchant Of Four Seasons to Scorsese's masterpiece, and you'll see he was going for the same kind of "brutal honesty" with which the camera looked at the characters.

De Niro's famous line "Are you talkin' to me!?" spoken as Travis Bickle in front of the mirror was not written into the script by Paul Schrader but is the actor's contribution. Supposedly Bruce Springsteen inspired it: Scorsese and Robert De Niro saw a show together at the Roxy in New York in 1975, and the singer was known to use that exact phrase when he performed the song 'Quarter to Three'. Springsteen calls it an "urban myth", while Scorsese himself embraces that chain of events.

Fun fact for film buffs: Taxi Driver, in turn, influenced the music video for 'I'm Afraid of Americans', a collaboration between David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails.

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Taxi Driver scene to storyboard comparison

You can see more of Martin Scorsese's hand-drawn storyboarding work for Taxi Driver in a comparison of the storyboards and the actual scenes. The video is an insight into how the filmmaker resolved the pencil drawings for the final shootout in which Travis confronts Iris's pimp at the brothel.

More Taxi Driver cinephilia

Taxi Driver marked Martin Scorsese's rise as a major filmmaker of critical acclaim and assured Paul Schrader's reputation as a screenwriter. Cinephilia and Beyond used the occasion of Scorsese's 72nd birthday to call the movie "the turning point in our lives in terms of film appreciation and education."

For cineasts, a good place to start is the Taxi Driver Two-Disc Collector's Edition (get it on Amazon), which includes several extras, such as an interview with the filmmaker, "Taxi Driver Stories", several documentaries, Scorsese's own explanation of his storyboarding process, as well as commentary by screenwriter Paul Schrader.

If you'd rather listen, the movie has also been widely discussed in the age of podcasts. The Cinematologists Podcast, the American Cinema Foundation, The Next Reel Film Podcast, as well as Newstalk all have good episodes on the film.

The origins of Martin Scorsese's hand drawn storyboards

Martin Scorsese was born to Italian immigrant parents in 1942 in New York City's Little Italy, but he soon learned to dream big. Perhaps influenced by his childhood wish to become a Catholic priest, 11-year-old Martin Scorsese had a vision for a widescreen Roman epic.

The Roman epic of the Eternal City

The Eternal City is a fictitious story of royalty and proof that Scorsese was already creating stories with a high level of detail and an excellent eye for composition while drawing pictures as a kid. For the Roman epic, he gave himself director and producer credit and had particular actors in mind for the film: among others, he'd cast Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Virginia Mayo, and Alec Guinness.

Though his story of royalty in ancient Rome never came to fruition as a movie, the 11-year-old Martin Scorsese's storyboards illustrated his views on the importance of storyboarding for filmmaking later in his life, namely that they are "the way to visualize the entire movie in advance."

The influence of Taxi Driver on Raging Bull

Including Taxi Driver, filmmaker Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro have collaborated on nine feature-length films, with Killers of the Flower Moon as the tenth in planning. Goodfellas from 1990 with De Niro as James Conway, Ray Liotta as Henry Hill and Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito was hugely popular with critics and viewers, many of whom consider it to be Scorsese's best crime movie.

Raging Bull from 1980 was another collaboration with Robert De Niro as the 1940s boxing champion, Jake La Motta, and Joe Pesci as his manager, Joey, and writer Paul Schrader. The biopic marked Scorsese's return to the detailed character study already seen in Taxi Driver, a tale of aggression, violence, emotional turmoil and ultimately self-destruction.

Raging Bull won two Academy Awards, Best Actor for Robert De Niro and Best Film Editing for Thelma Schoonmaker, with six more nominations, including Best Director for filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Critics consider the movie one of the greatest of all time, and the American Film Institute chose it as the best sports film ever.

Like in Taxi Driver, Scorsese relied on his hand-drawn storyboards in pencil to carefully calibrate each shot, which impressed Schoonmaker. Large portions of the film were shot with just one camera. Ten minutes of boxing scenes required a shooting schedule of ten weeks. Scorsese planned the film's final fight as meticulously as the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, storyboarding and timing every punch.

There are drawings for every fight scene (many of which you can see thanks to Cinephilia and Beyond). Martin Scorsese recalls storyboarding Raging Bull: "It's very much like staging a dance to music. Instead of a verse with maybe twelve bars of music, it's four bars of punches. Because it's all choreography." With Thelma Schoonmaker's words about the film's cinematography, it's easy to draw parallels to Taxi Driver: "It's not just how the camera moves, it's the emotion that it shows."

At the end of both Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, the audience have followed a contradictory character, appearing both as criminal and saint, and have to decide for themselves whether to condemn or absolve.

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