Taxi Driver and Raging Bull screenwriter Paul Schrader’s last film as director was last year’s Nicolas Cage crime drama Dog Eat Dog — a movie that “could not have been more antithetical to First Reformed,” he told me recently. A drama about despair laced with activism, radicalism, religion and a commentary on the state of our planet, First Reformed premiered to strong notices at the Venice Film Festival and today screens in Toronto’s Masters section.
Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried star in the story of Reverend Toller, a Calvinist former Army chaplain who encouraged his son to join the service, only to see him killed in action after a short stint. The now divorced clergyman is scratching the bottom when we meet him, but is seemingly buoyed by a parishioner (Seyfried) who seeks help for her husband — a young man obsessed with a doomsday climate change scenario.
There’s blood and brooding as Toller continues to struggle with his own demons and as the 250th reconsecration of the titular church approaches.
Schrader, who grew up in a Dutch Calvinist household, calls the story personal while comparisons aplenty have been made to Robert Bresson’s Diary Of A Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. Hawke in Venice remarked that he is “hopeful about the ending,” which Schrader has left purposefully ambiguous.
Schrader and I recently discussed why the story is so close to home for him, the current state of the industry and the longevity of his earlier work. Here’s our chat:
DEADLINE: You’ve called First Reformed a personal story.Why was now the right time to tell it?
PAUL SCHRADER: It’s an accumulation of what I’ve been doing from the start. Even before I became a screenwriter, as a critic I wrote a book that was a study of spiritual cinema. I had come up through a church background and it always interested me. My own career took a different path and I was too enamored of psychological realism and action that I never thought I would make a film like that.
Then about two years ago, I was having dinner with (Oscar-winning Ida director) Pavel Pawlikowski, listening to his thinking, and walked away and said, “Now, that’s it.”
DEADLINE: What was it that he said to tip the scales for you?
SCHRADER: We were talking about the economics and he said you can make a film like this and be financially responsible now. Before in the U.S. system, taking a chance on a film like this is asking people to jump off a cliff. With technology now you can pretty much guarantee their investment if you really toe the mark on your budget. What it took to do in 40 days now takes 20 days.
DEADLINE: Climate change is a backdrop of the film — are you trying to deliver a message?
SCHRADER: I don’t think it’s really possible to be alive without pushing some sort of agenda, particularly now that climate change has put so many of the historic and theological issues into boldface. There are so many great questions that philosophers have been talking about for 3,000 years and now there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to get those answers.
I’ve lived in the magic cone of history, the best era of history, the most selfish, most indulgent, privileged, laziest of human history that has ever existed. And in return for all this beneficence, we have in turn ruined the planet.
DEADLINE: Is that why the film has such a sense of despair?
SCHRADER: Early on in the film, Toller has a long conversation with the young man who is wondering whether to bring a child into this world. He says, “This is not about your baby, this is about you and your despair.” You can say the same thing about Reverend Toller about his biological son in the form of this kid who wants his help, or his attitude towards the environment. He’s looking for something to latch onto to justify his darkness of the soul. In some way they’re interchangeable. He graphs onto himself the cause of the young man, but that’s not his problem.
It’s not really a positive church film like All Saints. It’s really trying to make the world a better place through the metaphor of the church. This is one of those dark night of the soul movies and how it reverberates off people is unpredictable. It goes back to Taxi Driver in the same kind of configuration. You can’t really predict how that film affects people.
DEADLINE: Speaking of Taxi Driver, what do you think you’ve learned over the decades since writing that film?
SCHRADER: The front-loading is pretty much the same: you have a problem with your life, you find a metaphor, you explore the metaphor with a plot and you end up with a series of themes. That’s a level of personal investigation which has always been the gold standard.
Not every film works that way. Sometimes you adapt and sometimes you’re doing something much more in the genre context. The ideal situation only occurs every five or six years and is where you find the film that addresses where you are in this lifetime.
I don’t think there’s anything we’ve learned in the last 100 years that’s much use anymore. We don’t know really what movies are anymore, don’t know how you see them, where you see them, how you pay for them, how you monetize them. It’s kind of exciting that way.
We’re now talking about movies without theaters, maybe movies without screens — movies that you can take a pill for…
DEADLINE: So what’s your stance on the new distribution models?
SCHRADER: I’m absolutely open to all kinds. Particularly in this case, when you have a film that is personal and set at a fairly high level and people are responding to it and it’s a film that has equity financing. This is the first time I’ve been in this situation with a film with some top-spin on it that hasn’t been pressed and you don’t know which way the ball is going to pivot.
We are living in a tsunami of product. Every day is Hurricane Harvey day in Hollywood and the movies just come like a tidal wave and so what does it take to get your head above the crowd in TV, theatrical, streaming? That has become one of the new functions of festivals. There are simply so many films that no organization and no critic can monitor them, so the festivals are now becoming the de facto gatekeepers.
DEADLINE: We evoked Taxi Driver earlier. Has the longevity of your earlier work surprised you in any way?
SCHRADER: Yes. Obviously we have the technology to allow films to be continually available. But I’ve been watching a lot of ’60s and ’70s films recently and am surprised how many don’t stand up. When you make a film that does stand out, it’s really a serendipitous event.