In Conversation: Paul Schrader

Legendary writer-director on new work First Reformed...

What could be the role, and the use of faith in a world hell-bent on self-destruction? It’s not every day that a film with such urgent questions becomes a minor indie hit, but Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, about a lowly New York Reverend facing down a spiritual and ecological crisis, has become just that.

Ethan Hawke plays Rev. Toller, caught in a state of anguish even before his counsel fails to guide a young activist, Michael (Philip Ettinger), to act in a faithful way; but following the young man’s drastic actions, Toller is forced to reckon with his own faith in a world of corporate greed, spiritual commodification, and environmental collapse. It’s a stark and unsettling film, but a deeply necessary one.

Writer-director Paul Schrader (most famous for writing Taxi Driver, 1976) sat down with us to discuss his latest work.

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C: Let’s start with the screenplay. There’s a fascinating connection between Toller’s sickness and the environmental troubles he discovers through Michael – the ‘Body as Temple’ and ‘Nature’s Garden’, etc. How did the story come to you?

PS: The first step was an intellectual one, which was a decision I made about three years ago to write a movie about the spiritual life; something I had been refusing to do for decades. So once I crossed that Rubicon, I said, ‘okay, I’m no longer afraid of failure,’ and then things started happening rather quickly. I realised that this whole movie had been pent up me in this whole time, and I had been refusing to let it in the room.

Of course, the biggest thing that happened was when I realised the linkage between the historic spiritual despair and the practical despair that we now feel as citizens of planet Earth. It shows right up in that first conversation with Michael, when he [Toller] says that the fact we may not endure is new, but the darkness is not.

C: In terms of what’s in the frame, it’s a very spare film. I keep thinking about Toller’s flip phone, and that it was probably a new model at the time of his son’s death…

PS: [chuckles] No, it’s just much easier to show in a long shot – and I was using a lot of long shots – that he’s using a phone if it flips open.

C: Okay, let me try this one. The use of clocks in the film is interesting – the persistent ticking that opens the film, and its gradual disappearance into a more abstract soundscape.

PS: Yeah. The withholding of music… films that attempt a spiritual style have to walk away from music because it’s just too damn manipulative, and you can’t get the viewer to go anywhere if you’re tugging at their emotions with music. So what you replace it with are accentuated sound effects – the floorboards, the latch of the key, the clock ticking. And it creates a kind of anxiety.

C: And then there’s the giant eye in Michael and Mary’s apartment.

PS: Well, when you clear everything out of the frame – and the rule of thumb was: ‘if it moves, take it out’ – then suddenly you have an empty room. Nothing on the coffee table, on the floor, nothing. And then you can put one object in there to keep the viewer’s eye moving and create some sense. I mean, the worst thing you can show to a viewer is a cluttered billboard – he has no idea what to look at. But if you show him an empty room with two odd objects that don’t harmonise, you’re creating, again, an anxiety.

C: What about casting Ethan? I read that you wanted an actor who looked a certain way…

PS: He’s of that ‘type’, like Montgomery Clift in I Confess, and of course Hitchcock made a huge error in letting Clift act, because what you have to do is turn this performance inward. I said to Ethan, ‘every impulse you have, you have to turn it around and drive it inside. And if you feel the viewer getting interested in you, you gotta lean away from them.’ And in real life Ethan is a little bit of a goofball, so this was a great chance for him to take his whole instrument and turn it around to point in the other direction.

C: There’s a line in the film where Toller quotes Thomas Merton: ‘I know that nothing can change, and there is no hope.’ Is this close to your feeling right now, or are you more hopeful for the future?

PS: We have entered a time in human history where you must choose hope, even if you have no reason to. There’s no hope lying around – you have to manufacture your own. I like that quote from Camus, where he said, ‘I don’t believe, I choose to believe.’ And maybe that’s where we are in human history. You have to choose, because there isn’t much reason to hope.

C: I know you have conflicted thoughts about where Slow Cinema has ended up. I wonder if you’ve seen anything recently that’s caught your interest?

PS: Well, one of the mistakes we made with Slow Cinema is thinking it has to last forever, but Pickpocket was only 75 minutes long. Kiarostami’s last film was 20 minutes long, and that’s Slow Cinema. So when you start saying you have to sit there for seven-and-a half hours watching Satantango, at that point Slow Cinema starts to become such a rarefied essence that it’s not being made for the commercial marketplace anymore.

C: But is there actually a place for Slow Cinema in the commercial marketplace?

PS: When you say ‘commercial’ you have to think of commercial on its own terms. First Reformed is now being called an independent hit. Now, an independent hit is not what other people would call a hit; it’s just a hit on its own economic terms. So a lot of those speciality filmmakers were hits on their own economic terms, and a film like Silent Light Carlos Reygadas, 2007), was a successful film. A film like Stations of the Cross (Dietrich Brüggemann, 2014)… now these are transcendental films, they are Slow Cinema, but they are also theatrical cinema.

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First Reformed is out in cinemas now.

Words: Michael Ewins

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