His influences include Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Dreyer, whose cross-cultural similarities he examined in Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (ISBN 0-306-80335-6) in 1972. Despite his credentials as a director, Schrader has received more recognition for his screenplays directed by others.
Schrader is married to the actress Mary Beth Hurt, and they have two children, a daughter named Molly and a son named Sam. He was trained at the AFI Conservatory.
Schrader's early life was based on strict Calvinist principles and severe parenting. When he disobeyed his mother, she would stab him in the hand with a pin and say "You think that felt bad? Hell is like that, only every second and all over your body." Schrader did not see a film until he was 18 and could sneak away from home, and the first one he saw was The Nutty Professor, which he hated. His brother Leonard Schrader would also become a film screenwriter and collaborated with Paul on some projects.
After studying at Calvin College, he went on to Columbia University, AFI Conservatory where he received an MFA degree in 1969, and UCLA Film School graduate programme on the recommendation of Pauline Kael. Under Kael's mentoring he became a film critic, writing for LA Weekly Press and later Cinema magazine.
In 1975 Schrader co-wrote The Yakuza, a film set in the Japanese crime world directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Mitchum. Although it flopped at the box office, it brought him to the attention of the new generation of Hollywood directors. In 1976 he wrote the screenplay of Obsession for Brian De Palma.
Schrader was involved in the early stages of the writing of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but either the studio or Spielberg (even Schrader doesn't know to this day) didn't like the religious overtones and opted for a somewhat lighter script.
Also that year, Martin Scorsese filmed his script of Taxi Driver. The film was nominated for a 1976 Golden Globe Award and provided the acclaim and funding that enabled Schrader to direct Blue Collar (1978), which he had written with his brother Leonard. Starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel, it was a story of car workers trying to get out of their rut through robbery and blackmail. The shooting, as Schrader recalls, was a nightmare because of the amount of tension between him and the actors. Reportedly, Yaphet Kotto broke a chair over Keitel's back, while Pryor pulled a gun on Schrader and would refuse to shoot more than three takes per scene. Schrader also states this is the only time he has broken down on a film set, and that it made him seriously reconsider his career.
Besides Taxi Driver, Scorsese has also filmed Schrader's scripts for The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), and directed Raging Bull (1980), which Schrader co-wrote with Mardik Martin.
In 1986, Peter Weir filmed his script of The Mosquito Coast.
Other films Schrader has directed include Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), the remake of Cat People (1982), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), for which he was nominated the Palme d'Or at that year's Cannes Film Festival; Light of Day (1987); and an unconventional, visually inventive film about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst (1988). His 1990s work includes The Comfort of Strangers (1990), which was adapted by Harold Pinter from the novel by Ian McEwan; Light Sleeper (1993), a sympathetic study of a drug dealer who, like the other people around him, is vying for a normal life; Touch (1997), from a novel by Elmore Leonard; Affliction (1997) from a novel by Russell Banks; and the romantic thriller Forever Mine (1999).
He directed another biopic, Auto Focus (2002), dealing with the life and mysterious death of Hogan's Heroes actor, Bob Crane. After this he shot Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (see below). He recently finished filming The Walker which will be finished by early 2007, and is in pre-production planning on Adam Resurrected, which will be released in 2008. He wrote an essay in the September/October 2006 issue of Film Comment called "The Film Canon," which attempts to establish criteria for judging film masterworks.
In February 2007, Schrader is set to premiere his film, "The Walker" at the Berlin International Film Festival. Schrader is also the head of the International Jury at the film festival.
Paul Schrader is currently a Jury Member of the ongoing Filmaka short film contest.