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. His brother was a screenwriter and director Leonard Schrader, with whom he collaborated on the screenplays of Blue Collar and Mishima.
Paul Schrader's early life was based upon strict Calvinist principles and parental education. When he disobeyed his mother, she would stab his hand with a pin, asking, "You think that felt bad? Hell is like that, only every second and all over your body". He did not see a film until he was eighteen years old, and was able to sneak away from home; in an interview he stated that The Absent-Minded Professor was the first film he saw, and according to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, he had a full blown panic attack right before he saw it.
Schrader received his BA from Calvin College, with a required minor in Theology. He then earned an MA in Film Studies from the UCLA Film School graduate programme upon the recommendation of Pauline Kael. With her as his mentor, he became a film critic, writing for the LA Weekly Press, and later for Cinema magazine. In between, Schrader also studied at Columbia University and at the AFI Conservatory.
In 1975, Schrader co-wrote The Yakuza with his brother, Leonard, a film set in the Japanese crime world, it was directed by Sydney Pollack and featured Robert Mitchum. Although it failed commercially, 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 also participated in an early draft of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but either the producing studio or Spielberg (Schrader ignores who) disliked the religious overtone of his screenplay and opted for a lighter, superficial script.
Martin Scorsese filmed his script of Taxi Driver, which was nominated for a 1976 Golden Globe Award and provided the critical acclaim and consequently available funding that enabled Schrader to direct Blue Collar (1978), also co-written with his brother Leonard. Blue Collar features Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto as car factory workers attempting to escape their socio-economic rut through theft and blackmail. Schrader recalls that shooting the film was difficult, because of the artistic and personal tension among him and the actors. Reportedly, Kotto broke a chair on Keitel's back; Pryor drew a pistol on Schrader, and refused to shoot more than three takes per scene. Schrader said that was the only occasion he suffered an on-set mental collapse; it made him seriously reconsider his career.
Besides Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese also filmed and directed Schrader's scripts for Raging Bull (1980), co-written with Mardik Martin, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Bringing Out the Dead (1999). In 1986, Peter Weir filmed his script of The Mosquito Coast.
Among Paul Schrader's fims he directed are: Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), the remake of Cat People (1982), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), for which he was nominated for the Palme d'Or prize at that year's Cannes Film Festival, Light of Day (1987), and an unconventional, visually inventive film about the kidnap of Patty Hearst (1988). His work in the 1990s includes: The Comfort of Strangers (1990), adapted by Harold Pinter from the eponymous Ian McEwan novel, Light Sleeper (1993), a sympathetic study of a drug dealer vying for a normal life, Touch (1997), from an Elmore Leonard novel, Affliction (1997), from a Russell Banks novel, and the romantic thriller Forever Mine (1999).
He directed the biopic Auto Focus (2002) about the life and murder of Hogan's Heroes actor, Bob Crane. After that, he filmed Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (see below). The Walker (2007) and Adam Resurrected (2008) currently in post-production.
The September-October 2006 issue of Film Comment magazine published his essay "Canon Fodder" that attempts to establish criteria for judging film masterworks.
Schrader headed the International Jury of the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival. Currently, he is a Jury Member of the continuing Filmaka short film contest.
In 2003, Paul Schrader made entertainment headlines for being fired from the Exorcist: Dominion, a prequel film to The Exorcist (1973). The originally slated director John Frankenheimer, died in 2002 of a stroke consequent to spinal surgery complications.
After the film was completed under Schrader's direction, the production company, Morgan Creek Productions/Warner Bros. disliked the resulting film and had it re-shot under director Renny Harlin; it was released as Exorcist: The Beginning in 2004.
Schrader's version eventually had its premiere at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film on March 18, 2005 as Exorcist: The Original Prequel, where its limited DVD release in the UK was discussed; in the U.S., it received limited cinema release under the title Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist in mid-2005.
Moreover, after a troubled post-production, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, Schrader had to cut the budget to finish his film; he asked Angelo Badalamenti and Dog Fashion Disco, the American experimental metal band to contribute a music score for little or no money.