Paul Schrader, 35, whose latest film, "Cat People," recently opened in Washington, has been one of Hollywood's most prolific--and yet incessantly controversial--directors. A self-described "Midwesterner from the wrong side of the tracks" in Grand Rapids, Mich., he was raised in a Dutch Calvinist community where movies were forbidden. Schrader was programmed to become a minister. He broke free of that upbringing, and says, with some sarcasm, that it has helped him negotiate the serpentine pathways of Hollywood deal-making--"If you have lived 21 years, as I did, with mind-control people . . . it's very easy to deal with people in Hollywood who just want you to do certain things to help them make money."

Despite his characteristic sardonic air, Schrader admits to having a creative mission that underpins his work--a "certain moral vision" with roots in orthodox Christianity. His screenplay for Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" is probably the strongest evidence that, as he says, "Everything I do is sort of intertwined with the notions of sin, guilt, blood, redemption, grace." In one year, 1976, he wrote the scripts for three films he subsequently directed: "Blue Collar" (1977), "Hardcore" (1978) and "American Gigolo" (1979). Meanwhile he's had the writer's credit for two commercial hits--"Taxi Driver" and Brian De Palma's "Obsession"--and the lesser known "Rolling Thunder," "The Yakuza" and "Old Boyfriends" (co-written with his brother, Leonard). The latest chapter in his collaboration with Scorsese is a script for "The Last Temptation of Christ," to star Robert De Niro.

The script credit for "Cat People" belongs to Alan Ormsby; Schrader took on the job of directing it to bring himself out of a screenwriting block. "Cat People" represents a furthering of Schrader's tight collaboration with "American Gigolo" visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and continues his penchant for wrestling with personal obsessions that he translates, with great craft and calculation, into commercial movies. Dressed in the manner of a prep-school dandy, with two-tone buckskin shoes and a patterned sweater, Schrader speaks in a subdued manner that occasionally gives way to a wry laugh. He prepared a bloody mary with scrupulous precision as the interview opened.

Q: "Cat People" has a rather large promotional budget. Is that insurance?

A: "You just can't make people see a movie they don't want to see. You can promote the livin' life out of it, they don't care. In the same way, a movie like 'Taps' can get horrendous reviews, and people will come out to see it."

Do you feel "Cat People" fits within a genre or tradition?

"It stands in a film genre but also in a much older genre--transformation tales are probably the first genre to be exposed on film. It goes back to storytelling, mythology, and tales of changing shape from human to animal predate literature. Certainly, movies didn't create the genre, and I've always seen this film as kind of an update on a very old genre and not particularly a remake of one film that was made in 1942; its intentions are very different. There have been dozens upon dozens of cat films and cat novels."

The erotic aspect is obviously something you were really shooting for.

"I was trying to do something quite different than what I had been associated with--a real change of pace. There was nothing to be done in terms of violence, in terms of cut-and-slash films anymore. They'd done as much as you'd want to see done in that area. I decided the only direction left in terms of the genre was to go right to the underpinnings, to the very pylons that created it. All of these tales, fables, myths--are all various forms of sexual initiation rites."

For example?

" 'Beauty and the Beast' or 'Little Red Riding Hood' or 'Leda and the Swan' are all stories, sometimes told for thousands of years, that are actually codes. Sex codes, whose function is to entertain--and to frighten--children. And, also to give them some kind of symbolic representation of the darker side of sexuality that the child or even the adult needs to understand but doesn't want to confront directly."

Is the incest element as strong as the initiation element?

"Well, one of the things I do in the film, is to make it a sort of nighttime dream and then posit a taboo--incest--as norm in this community of cat people."

I believe you added the opening sequence and the later dream sequence to Ormsby's screenplay?

"I needed to add that, to take it out of the literalness of that horror genre and put it in a sort of once-upon-a-time genre. So the opening is nothing more than a sort of elaborate once-upon-a-time. And the girl who walks into the cave becomes the girl who walks into the airport."

Did you work out the color scheme with Scarfiotti?

"Yeah. I originally wanted to share possessive credit--'A film by Paul Schrader and Ferdinando Scarfiotti'--which was not possible. But I do feel that it was a very deep collaboration. The beauty of such a pairing is that you never figure it out. I just did a long interview with Scorsese for Cahiers de Cinema and we couldn't figure it out, couldn't figure out who did what in our collaborations. So how are the critics gonna figure it out? Yet they have this sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey mentality where they love to ascribe responsibility or blame to one individual. A lot of things actors get credit for belong to the director, or maybe even the prop men."

Any good examples of that from "Cat People?"

"Well, here's one an actor did come up with. There's a magical little moment in the film when Malcolm McDowell comes into Nastassia Kinski's room for the second time. It's a very difficult scene with a lot of heavy wordsmithery and he lies on the bed and sort of goes tap, tap, tap--as you would with a cat. It's just the right touch to diffuse the heaviness of the scene. Now, that's not in the script, that's not in the direction, that's just an actor's sense of how to get through this scene."

I like the zookeeper singing "What's New, Pussycat?" before his horrible encounter with the leopard.

"Yeah, you know he's a goner, I guess. Music rights are very complicated, and I'm only permitted to use that song in theaters. On cassettes or on cable, I can't use that song. So we did another version, using 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight.' He comes in singing, 'A we-ma way, a we-ma way . . .' laughing but 'Pussycat' is better."

You just completed a script for Scorsese?

"Yes. From the Nikos Kazantzakis novel 'The Last Temptation of Christ.' It's something he always wanted to do, and I think it's probably my best piece of writing. I would love to direct it myself, but I'm very happy that I can give it to him."

A lot has been made of the notions of his Catholic guilt and your Calvinist guilt.

"It's close enough, and different enough, to be mutually profitable."

"Taxi Driver," which you wrote, and his early film "Who's That Knocking at my Door" both reflect that guilt but with different imagery.

" 'Taxi Driver' is a far more Protestant film. It's got that icy coldness, that over-intellectualization, that brooding sense of doom that I was raised with. Then you mix that with a more flamboyant Catholic guilt. It's been many years now since 'Taxi Driver' but I still characterize it as like Protestant northern Michigan where it's always white and snowy and cold, stumbling into a rich Gothic cathedral."

Was everyone you originally wanted to cast in "Cat People" available?

"Yes. It wasn't a star movie. I was given a green light to make this movie not contingent on casting. A mega-star, like Dustin Hoffman or Jack Nicholson, would unbalance the film."

John Heard was terrific in "Cutter's Way" as a crippled, grungy vet. In "Cat People" he looks so cleaned-up.

"Yes. He was both angry and pleased at that, because I really had to break his a-- to get him to play a romantic actor. A straight man's life is not as easy as it seems. It's hard to compete with those big cats."

What had you seen Nastassia Kinski in?

"Maybe I shouldn't say this--I had pretty well decided on her without ever seeing her act. I had seen her once in Cannes, walking out of a hotel. She had this ethereal, odd beauty. Like it fell from the sky. It seemed--unearthly. Just right for this role."

How about Malcolm?

"I needed somebody who could read iambic pentameter, because some of those lines are quite incredible--this sort of mad, poetic hooey."

In summing up, where does "Cat People" put your body of work--in terms of a public?

"Well, I seem to make films that are controversial and have a tendency to polarize people. I've never gotten the knack of doing what I'm supposed to. I get bored very quickly with doing what someone else has done before. That's one of the attractions of my work. On the other hand, a lot of people get offended and bothered by seeing things they haven't seen before. That's the detraction, I guess."