'First Reformed' Director Paul Schrader On Why The Film Industry Is Dying [Interview]

You only need to take a glance at First Reformed director Paul Schrader's extensive filmography to know that he's a risk taker. Not just because of the subjects he choses or the approach he takes, but also in method. He's worked in the studio system with big budgets, but he has also self-financed his work through Kickstarter. Schrader's work bristles with themes of obsession and loneliness. Every film feels like an opportunity to explore those themes in a different context. What's loneliness when you're a drug dealer? A gigolo? A gay playwright? Schrader is one of those artists who, after 50 years, still feels like he's in his prime.He was in Montreal for a retrospective of his work at the Festival of New Cinema. We talked in a hotel cafe in Old Montreal. Here is our conversation.You've said in interviews that you don't like go back to your films or go back to your scripts. How do you feel when you look back at all of your films at a retrospective like this?Well, it's interesting. Last night I stayed for the first five minutes of Mishima. And his narration in the film is taken from his writings. And he says it in the narration right at the beginning, "I have found a new form of expression" and 35 years later I'm writing First Reformed and the character says "I have found a new form of prayer". I wasn't aware of that connection. It hit me last night. I saw that on screen. I said, wow, I had already written that, you know, Jean Renoir once said, "Every director has one film to make. He just keeps remaking it."Is that something that you realized when you were doing the Pickpocket ending in Light Sleeper and American Gigolo.Yeah, I put it in American Gigolo. It was wrong. It shouldn't have been there. Then I was writing Light Sleeper and I thought this is where the Pickpocket ending belongs. There was a moment in March of 1969 that I was a film critic, went to a screening of Pickpocket, which was just being released in Los Angeles. Short film. 75 minutes. But in that 75 minutes, I realized two things. First was that there was a connection between the spiritual life and cinema, but it wasn't a bridge of content, it was a bridge of style and so that how you make a zen garden or how you build a cathedral is more to the point of how you edit a film than what the subject matter is. And that was the genesis of that book. The other thing I realized was I had no real interest in being a filmmaker. I was going to be a film critic, which I thought was actually sort of a higher calling. I was quite snobbish about that. And I was living in a house with a group of UCLA filmmakers and they were doing a film for Roger Carmon. A biker film called Naked Angels. And I just thought it was so declasse. I thought "There's no place for me in such a business." And then I saw Pickpocket. I thought to myself, no, "I could make a film like that". It was a guy he writes then he goes out and steals something, comes back and write some more, and then he goes out and talks to his neighbor and then he writes some more and then he goes out and the cops come and visit him. I said "I could make that". And three years later I did. It's called Taxi Driver. So two seeds fell in a petri dish that morning and one evolved into the book. The other involved evolved into the screenplays and the movies. And then 50 years later, the tendrils intertwine and I made a film based on the principles of the book, which I had never tried before. So rather recently I realized that in that 75 minutes, there were those two ideas and it took 50 years for them to meet.I wanted to talk a little bit about transcendental style in the context of, one could argue, a dying industry.Let's not stop there. How about a dying species.[Laughs] And so in the book you write a lot about slow cinema, which it sounds like you have ambivalent feelings about. Or maybe at its best it's a spiritual experience and at its worst it's a waste of time.You know, it's an interesting development. For awhile there it was very much on the rise but it's leveled off again now. What I didn't realize when I wrote the book was that what I called transcendental style was really just part of the non narrative tradition that came up in the late forties. It started becoming this whole notion of withholding and duration and the fact that because film operates at a fixed timeframe it's uniquely capable of stretching people's time just by holding the shot which you wouldn't do in real life. Like, you know, somebody walks out that door, you're not going to stare at the door. In a movie, you don't have any choice because the camera just sits there and watches the door for five seconds.I feel like slow cinema has almost accelerated. Not in terms of it being faster, but as a reaction against streaming.And also because it costs nothing.I mean, you just need good batteries.[laughs] I mean it's really affected documentaries too because you can just roll forever. And it's one of the reasons why documentaries have really improved. I know some people who are working in the field and they'll have four or five projects going and they'll just film everything and assume that one of those will form an interesting narrative and the rest they can just throw out. The only thing that costs is the man power.Do you feel like transcendental style has been affected by online streaming? Do you think it belongs in the cinema?Well what I wanted in the case of a First Reformed was the discussion to begin in a theatrical context. I wanted all the people who first saw it, the reviewers, the tastemakers to see it theatrically. So we went on the festival circuit in New York, Toronto, and then onto SXSW, and so that by the time the film opened the conversation was driven by people who had seen it theatrically. And then it had a theatrical life then moved on to a VOD. But now anybody who sees it on VOD knows how to see it, you're not going to say, "oh, what's that Ethan Hawke film about?" They're gonna give it the space that it needs. Going to the cinema is a commitment and that's why you're more patient with a film because you made the effort to go there. It's like going to church, you know, you don't leave because you're bored and you went there to be bored. And if people understand the nature of the film, then I have no problem with VOD. I mean, if this had been made by Netflix and just dropped into their endless shallow sea, some people would have caught up with it, but not the way it turned out with A24.It's interesting that someone who's had such a prolific career and has moved across genres with such ease. I mean, The Canyons and First Reformed at first glance are nothing alike.And add the one before First Reformed, Dog Eat Dog. As profane as it can be.Exactly! There are thorough lines for sure, but you've really stuck with cinema. Have you ever considered working in longform?I mean it's all audio visual entertainment. We don't really know what a movie is anymore. It used to be something you saw in the theater that was about two hours long. Now you can watch Mad Men as a 70 hour movie. But 10 years ago Scorsese and I tried to do an HBO thing. It wasn't picked up, but that was my only attempt and now I feel I have a film or two tell left in me, so to get involved in a six year project where you can't operate independently.But from what I've heard from a lot of filmmakers is that they actually really love the autonomy that Netflix gives them. And it sounds like you've had a lot of difficulty with working with studios and would seek out that out.Yeah. I mean they give some filmmakers autonomy. A friend of mine is producing and directing a new edition of Tales of the City. And he was saying that Netflix has given him all kinds of notes. Scorsese is doing this film for them now. A $140,000,000 film.The Irishman.Yeah. Two weeks, that's all he could get as his theatrical window. And the Netflix doesn't care about theatrical windows. The studios are collapsing. Netflix is the new model. It's also upended film financing because since the seventies, a lot of films are financed by selling territories. You sell a foreign territories, you get some equity. But Netflix and Amazon, they don't want territories. They want the world or nothing. And so when you go to Netflix, they get the world and there are no profit statements and there are no box office figures but you get paid. So the reason, you know, Marty's got i$140,000,000 for that film is because he's getting essentially paid up front.So that's the future? Of cinema?I have a hard time separating the future of cinema from the future period. The future of the homo sapiens?[Schrader hands me his iPad on which there's an article from NYMag with the headline "UN Says Climate Genocide Is Coming. It's Actually Worse Than That."]So why preserve films?