First Reformed Review

Is 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.

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