When Paul Schrader was first writing the script, he believed that he was just writing about "loneliness," but as the process went on he realized he was writing about "the pathology of loneliness." His theory being that, for some reason, some "young men" (such as Schrader himself) subconsciously push others away to maintain their isolation, even though the main source of their torment is this very isolation.
Jodie Foster was 12 years old when the movie was filmed, so she could not do the more explicit scenes. (Her character was also 12 years old.) Connie Foster, Jodie's 19-year-old sister when the film was produced, was cast as her body double for those scenes.
Director Martin Scorsese claims that the most important shot in the movie is when Bickle is on the phone trying to get another date with Betsy. The camera moves to the side slowly and pans down the long, empty hallway next to Bickle, as if to suggest that the phone conversation is too painful and pathetic to bear.
Between the time Robert De Niro signed a $35,000 contract to appear in this film and when it began filming, he won an Oscar for his role in The Godfather: Part II (1974) and his profile soared. The producers were terrified that De Niro would ask for a deserved large pay raise, since Columbia was very discomfited by the project and were looking for excuses to pull the plug on it, but De Niro said he would honor his original deal so the film would get made.
The story was partially autobiographical for Paul Schrader, who suffered a nervous breakdown while living in Los Angeles. He was fired from the AFI, basically friendless, in the midst of a divorce and was rejected by a girlfriend. Squatting in his ex-girlfriend's apartment while she was away for a couple of months, Schrader literally didn't talk to anyone for many weeks, went to porno theaters and developed an obsession with guns. Schrader was working at the time as delivery man for a chain of chicken restaurants. Spending long days alone in his car, he felt--I might as well be a taxi driver. He also shared with Bickle the sense of isolation from being a mid-Westerner in an urban center. Schrader decided to switch the action to New York City only because taxi drivers are far more common there. Schrader's script clicked with both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro when they read it.
Bernard Hermann's wife says that when Scorsese, then relatively unknown, called her famous husband to ask Hermann to do the score, he at first refused saying, "I don't write music for car movies." Hermann only accepted after reading the script, and then wrote a highly original score using dissonant brass to punctuate the inner emotions of Travis. After the initial scoring sessions, Scorsese called his composer again, insisting that he needed one more musical cue--a sting, a single frightening chord. Hermann called back a studio orchestra who were paid a day's work for that one effect. Shortly after that ultimate session, Hermann died at the age of 64. He had begun his film career in Hollywood writing the music for Citizen Kane in 1941.
Lone assassin John Hinckley's attempt on US President Ronald Reagan's life (Monday 30 March 1981) was apparently triggered by Robert De Niro's obsessive Travis Bickle and his plot to assassinate a presidential candidate. Coincidentally the assassination attempt caused the 53rd Academy Awards ceremonies to be postponed for one day until Tuesday 31 March 1981 when De Niro won his Best Actor Oscar for Raging Bull (1980).
Travis Bickle's famous "You talkin' to me?" scene may have been inspired by Robert De Niro's training under Stella Adler, who (as an exercise) had her students practice different interpretations of a similar phrase. The legendary acting teacher was surprised to see one of her former students use "You talkin' to me?" as a psychotic mantra. Martin Scorsese was encouraging De Niro just below the camera while shooting the scene, which lead to the rest of the "dialogue" Bickle has with his mirror.
In the coffee and pie scene, Travis orders apple pie with melted cheese. When serial killer Ed Gein was arrested, he asked the police for a slice of apple pie with melted cheese in exchange for a full confession.
Harvey Keitel was originally offered the part of the campaign worker, eventually played by Albert Brooks. He decided to take the role as the pimp, even though in the script he was black and only had about five lines.
Martin Scorsese has said he offered the role of Travis Bickle to Dustin Hoffman. According to Hoffman, he turned the role down because he "thought [Scorsese] was crazy!" He has since regretted his decision.
In Paul Schrader's original screenplay, the characters of Sport, the Mafioso and the hotel clerk were all black. Martin Scorsese felt that, combined with other events in the film, this would have stacked the deck too much towards racism, and suggested that those characters be changed to white men. Schrader relented.
The clash between Martin Scorsese, the MPAA and the executives at Columbia over the violent content of this film has gone into legend. One of the biggest rumors is that, when facing an X rating from the MPAA and having to edit the film, Scorsese stayed up all night drinking with a loaded gun in his hand, preparing to shoot the executive at Columbia the next day. After an entire night of persuasion from his friends, Scorsese decided to mute the colors in the violent climax and subsequently got his R rating. There are many variations on this legend, one saying that Scorsese was actually planning to take his OWN life; another says that he actually brought the gun to Columbia and threatened the executive until the executive relented.
Even though then 12-year-old Jodie Foster played a very adult role in the movie, she would have been ineligible to attend the premiere unaccompanied by a parent or adult guardian due to the "R" rating.
Due to injuries sustained in an accident during the production of the 1975 movie The Farmer (1977) actor George Memmoli had to decline the bit-part of the Travis's disturbed passenger who was ultimately played by the film's director Martin Scorsese.
Producer Julia Phillips tells in her auto-biography that Cybill Shepherd had a hard time remembering her lines during the coffee-and-pie scene with Robert De Niro. She writes that De Niro in particular was getting fed up with her and that Phillips and editor Marcia Lucas laughed over all the unusable footage they had to work with in the editing room.
Robert De Niro has said that, despite having won an Oscar for The Godfather: Part II (1974), he was still a relatively unfamiliar face and was only actually recognized once while driving a New York cab during his research for this film.
Oliver Stone believes he was one of the models for Travis Bickle, pointing out that he was being taught by Martin Scorsese at NYU film school at the time, and like Travis he was a Vietnam veteran turned N.Y.C. cabdriver and wore his olive drab army coat while on duty.
The restaurant where the cabbies gather to eat was a real-life hangout for taxi drivers called the Belmore Cafeteria at 28th St. and Park Avenue South. It has since been demolished, but the apartment building that replaced it is named the Belmore.
In the lyrics to their song "Red Angel Dragnet," long-running British rock band The Clash mention Travis by name and then include two Travis quotes: "one of these days I'm gonna get myself organized," and, "all the animals come out at night: queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick venal - some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets."
The apartment building where Iris lived was 226 East 13th Street, as seen on an exterior shot, as well as in the Then-and-Now Special Feature on the 2 disc DVD. As a sad coda to the movie, in 1988, as reported by the NY Times, two young girls were killed when the stoop outside this address collapsed, crushing them both.
Bernard Herrmann wasn't going to write the score for this film, but agreed to do it when he saw the scene where Bickle pours Schnapps on his bread. Herrmann died on Christmas Eve of 1975, just hours after completing the recording sessions for this film, and the movie was dedicated to his memory.
Producer Julia Phillips claimed Martin Scorsese cast Cybill Shepherd as Betsy because of the size of her bottom, which added to her sex appeal. Phillips further revealed that Scorsese and Shepard had a difficult relationship on set, with the director having to feed the actress line readings to achieve a credible performance.
Paul Schrader was inspired to write the script after reading the published diary of Arthur Bremer, the man who was convicted of shooting presidential hopeful George Wallace. Eerily, Bremer was 26 years old in 1976 (the year the film was released), the same age as Travis Bickle in the film. And Schrader himself was 26 when he first wrote the screenplay, in 1972.
Around the time Tony Bill was considering directing the movie, the Paul Schrader script was sent to Al Pacino, but he declined the role. Julia Phillips never knew whether Pacino declined the role because he didn't like the script or because he didn't want to work with Bill.
According to Albert Brooks in a conversation he had with Paul Schrader after the film wrapped, Schrader had praised Brooks' performance as Tom because that was the one character Schrader didn't understand. Brooks was amused at that fact, given that Schrader didn't understand the campaign manager but did understand Travis Bickle.
In 1988, two young girls were killed when out playing on the front stoop of the apartment building at 226 East 13th Street, which features prominently in the ending of the movie following the shootout; collapsed. Building inspectors at the scene said they had found corroded angle irons under the stoop of the six-story walk-up, which was built around the turn of the century and most likely gave-in due to age.
According to Amy Taubin's book, the character of Iris was partially inspired by Paul Schrader's memory of 1950s' Coppertone ads. Jodie Foster, the actress who won the role of Iris, the underage prostitute, had her acting debut in a Coppertone ad when she was 3 years old.
The character of Tom originally had very few lines in the script but Albert Brooks worked with Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader in fleshing out the role. Brooks was also allowed to improvise during filming.
When Brian De Palma was attached to the project, he wanted Melanie Griffith to play Iris, but after two weeks of casting, both Griffth and De Palma were fired. Martin Scorsese replaced Griffith with Linda Blair. However, Blair also withdrew, and Scorsese later replaced Blair with Jodie Foster, but there were more than 200 applicants for the role. Scorsese said that Jodie had the ability to play a 12-year-old prostitute.
As Robert De Niro and Cybill Shepherd walk past him, the street drummer says "now back to Gene Krupa syncopated style". This line was sampled by British band Apollo Four Forty for their song 'Krupa'. The track appeared on their 1997 album 'Electro Glide in Blue'.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Robert De Niro's Mohawk was not real, due to the fact that De Niro still had to shoot scenes for the film with hair after the Mohawk portions. Makeup artist Dick Smith created a bald cap that was glued to De Niro's head and the mohawk was made of thick horse hair. That hairpiece is currently at the Museum of Moving Images in Astoria, New York.
Despite being criticized for its violence, only four characters die: the armed robber in the corner shop that Travis shoots, the pimp, the Mafioso and the doorman. Some people believe that Travis actually dies in the shootout (and that the final sequences of the movie are a wish-fulfillment in Travis' head) so that would raise the body count to five.
Many critics and fans have speculated that Travis Bickle actually dies during the climatic shootout, and the scenes where he recovers, is thanked by Iris' parents via letter, and talks to Betsy when she happens to ride in his taxi by chance, are either his dying delusions or pure fantasy. Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader both provided commentary on laserdisc/DVD releases of the film that deny this theory. Scorsese said that the cab ride with Travis and Betsy is a real event, with Travis's ambiguous look after she leaves the cab indicating uncertainty over his own thoughts. Schrader's comments were that Travis "is not cured" after surviving the shootout, and the writer added "next time, he's not going to be a hero".
Martin Scorsese was reluctant to edit the climactic (and very bloody) shootout to avoid an X rating. However, he was amused by the changes ordered by the MPAA, because they made the final scene even more shocking than had originally been intended.
Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter speculated that Travis Bickle's character wasn't a Vietnam War veteran at all, and his behavior could indicate a man so disturbed that he chose a war veteran "look" as a way to somehow connect to the post-war society. However, Martin Scorsese has confirmed in interviews that Bickle was definitely a Vietnam veteran: he said that Bickle's mental instability tied into the nation's feelings after the war ended in 1975, and also that the Mohawk haircut Travis gets before the climatic violent rampage was inspired by soldiers in Vietnam who would have their hair styled that way before major battles.
Due to the bloody content of the brothel shootout scene, cinematographer Michael Chapman agreed to desaturate the colors in post-production. This explains why the blood appears to be pink instead of red in that scene. Later, when the DVD was being prepared, Martin Scorsese wanted to replace it with the original shot, with the blood in its original vivid redness, but no print of that original scene could be found, so the DVD still has the muted colors.