Paul Schrader On Directing 'First Reformed' And Directing One Of Ethan Hawke's Best Performances [Interview]

Paul Schrader began his career in the movies as a film critic, but it wasn't long before his Calvinist upbringing and his love of contemplative films from the likes of Yasujirô Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Theodor Dreyer brought him to begin working as a screenwriter, mostly telling stories, mostly about lonely men in spiritual or emotional crisis. He became one of the most important writers of the 1970s and 1980s, with such works as Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ; Brian DePalma's Obsession, and Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast, as well as a string of films he directed himself, including Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and Light of Day.

His string of compelling work as writer and/or director continues until today, with such works as Affliction, Auto Focus, Light Sleeper, and Bringing Out the Dead (again, directed by Scorsese). His latest film, First Reformed, is something of a return to form and subject matter for the writer/director, as he centers his story on Toller, a former military chaplain turned priest (Ethan Hawke, in one of the finest performances of his career), who is wracked by grief and guilt over many events in his past, to the point where it has taken on a physical ailment. At his most desperate moment, he meets a parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband, a radical environmentalist, commits suicide, setting in motion a series of events in Toller's life that lead him to radicalism as well. In a fair and just world (and maybe if the film were being released later in the year), First Reformed would undoubtedly be part of awards discussions.

/Film spoke with Schrader recently when he accompanied the film to the Chicago Critics Film Festival. The onstage Q&A he did after the screening (co-moderated by this writer) can be viewed here; this interview took place the following day. First Reformed is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and expands today.

Speaking to the environmental issues brought up in the film, it does seem there are generations of young people growing up today who are living in constant states of despair because they're afraid for their immediate future.Paul: It's hope or despair, and you live in a world where you have to choose hope because despair is too great. As he says in the film, mankind can't see past its present needs to protect its future, and the only reaction to that is despair. So now you have a world living in denial at various levels—the denial of the rich who think it won't affect them, and the denial of the poor who are hoping that the rich come up with a magic bullet that suddenly fixes it all.In the case of this reverend, he lets it overwhelm him.Paul: Well that becomes the interesting question of the film. Is he an environmentalist first and foremost, or is does he have another affliction, which would be [what Kierkegaard called] "the sickness unto death." And that seems to be what he has when he talks to the young man and says "We all wake up in the middle of the night with the sickness unto death." He is proceeding down a very selfish path into the blackness. He writes in a journal for a year, ignores his health, drinks, and then this kid comes by, this surrogate son, this second chance to talk to his son, and it goes south. But what he gets from that boy is the virus of a meaningful life. "My death will no longer be a selfish, solitary act. It will be in service to a greater cause. I will be ennobled by my death." He says that to Mary when he talks about his grandfather, who said, "Take my shoes off; I'm standing on holy ground." He says, "I think about that story when I think about Michael because I think he was standing on holy ground." Do you have any idea how blasphemous this is? He's saying this kid who killed himself is on holy ground and doing it for the lord. Well that's jihadism.This idea that Toller wants his life to mean something is interesting, because you set him up as the head of this small church that is more of a tourist stop than a functioning congregation. It's a souvenir store for the megachurch nearby. He doesn't feel that his life or job is meaningful, and he's looking for meaning.Paul: Blood is in the DNA of Christianity. It starts with the voluminous sacrifices of the Old Testament—slaughtering animals all day long until the streets are red with blood. Then a single man comes along and dies for all people, so we don't have to keep killing all of this stuff. But it's still blood. And the songs we sing in the film: "There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel's veins." Blood is always around, and when Christian's go off the rails—which is the direction they quite often go—and you see them whipping themselves, making this pathological mistake that their suffering will save them and that God wants their suffering. Rev. Jeffers [played by Cedric the Entertainer, aka Cedric Kyles] says that, "God doesn't want our suffering. He did that! But you're always in the garden." And Jeffers is 100 percent right. People have a tendency to stereotype the megachurch minister, but he's right.What brought you together with Ethan Hawke for this film?Paul: There's a certain physiological type that you're looking for, like the kid in Diary of a Country Priest [directed by Robert Bresson] or Montgomery Clift in I Confess [directed by Alfred Hitchcock]—someone in whom you can see their suffering, as opposed to Brendon Gleeson in Calvary [directed by John Michael McDonagh]. I started thinking of three actors who I thought might be interesting—Jake Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac, and Ethan. And he had 10 years on them, and his boy-ness was just going away, and he had these really interesting lines on his face. And I starting thinking that he was just the right age for this.He does do angst very well. Talk about your use of devices through which the lead character's voice can be heard though some sort of narration, like a journal or even Jake LaMotta's one-man show in Raging Bull. Why do you keep coming back to that?Paul: I think narration, when done properly in the script, not as an afterthought in post-production, is a form of communication without nourishment, like an intravenous feeding. I can giving you a meal here [points to my mouth], but I can also have this tube in your arm, and I'm giving you nourishment in your arm, but you can't feel it. You just think you're eating this sandwich, all the while I'm putting something in you that is also nourishing you. That's why narration always has to be flat and sort of seep in. It's digressional, seemingly inconsequential.You don't ever use it as a means of exposition. It's all about inner thought, almost like reading a novel.Paul: Yeah. He's in the diner and he sees all of these men who have gone before him and he thinks "All of the afflictions they suffered and the hours in prayer, did God give them strength?" [laughs]It's an inspired choice and it makes sense when you see it on the screen, but how did you think of casting Cedric the Entertainer to play this preacher role?Paul: Well he has been on stage; he was in American Buffalo. Our propensity to stereotype men of faith is extraordinary, especially white men of faith. Fighting that stereotype, how do I not end up with Pat Robertson? So I was looking for someone to break the stereotype, and also someone people associated with pleasant thoughts, and walking around a hotel with Cedric, you can see people smiling as they walk toward you. He induces that. I remember the casting person asking me "What is this person like?" And I said, "He's sort of like Steve Harvey." And she came back to me and said, "What about Cedric?"First Reformed ReviewIs there any place in this film for hope? There doesn't have to be, I suppose.Paul: Well, you have to choose to hope. Camus once said, "I don't believe; I choose to believe." I think it is possible to choose to hope, but I don't know if it's possible to hope. Some people thought the ending of this movie was the intervention of God's grace into a person's life. I talked to Nick Cage about it and he said, "I believe he lives. I believe she saved him. That's what I want to believe."From a technical standpoint, you use a 4:3 aspect ratio, and it absolutely adds to the claustrophobia that he feels all the time. Why did you go with that?Paul: I got the idea of doing it after talking with Pawel Pawlikowski about his film Ida, which also uses that format and is in black and white. I thought I'd do both, but I had a delivery requirement that kept me from using black and white, so I did my best to make it look black and white. The square format, first of all, it sends the message that it's different than another movie. It also drives the vertical lines, so you get more of the human body in the frame; it's a different composition. There are also subtle things, like that there no overs [over-the-shoulder shots] in the film. In the silent days, there were very few overs, but when things started going horizontal, they'd have a big head on one side and a hole in the middle, and they'd have to put a shoulder or side of something on the other side. But when you're in that format, you don't necessarily have to do overs, so I don't. People are so used to seeing them, but they don't recognize when they aren't seeing them. But they know that something is being withheld.You mentioned talking with Pawlikowski. What was it that he said or that came up in that conversation that made you come up with the idea for this film?Paul: It wasn't a specific idea. We were talking about spirituality in film, talked about my book ["Transcendental Style In Film"], which he'd read, about his deciding what to do next, about the lower cost of production. Afterward, I walked uptown and said, "It's time to write that movie that you swore you would never write." So the decision wasn't about an actual movie; it was about me saying "I want to write this kind of movie. How do I do that?" I started by looking at the ones that I thought worked and why they work.You have embraced new technology, because it makes it less expensive to make movies, and new distribution models. You're just interested in getting your movies in front of people. Although this film will get in front of a lot people thanks to A24.Paul: But with The Canyons, I very intentionally put those montages of boarded-up mall theaters at the beginning, as if to say "This is where you're not seeing the movie. You're seeing the movie at home because these places are closed now." [laughs] Some films are greatly improved by the open-ended format. "Mad Men" is a movie; it's about 70 hours long, but it's a movie. "Wild Wild Country" [on Netflix], in a theatrical experience, would be at most two hours. Now it's six hours, and it's digressive, interesting, and if you had to hammer that thing into two hours, all kinds of short cuts would have been taken. Now, you're free to wander about, and it's much more interesting, just like you have a large book and you can read it over a period of weeks.Are you considering a move into longer-form storytelling?Paul: Not really. Scorsese wanted to do something seven or eight years ago with HBO that didn't work out, but I'm content to ride that old broken horse of movie making for now.