Paul Schrader On ‘First Reformed’, Martin Scorsese & Why The 1970s Produced “Better Audiences”: BAFTA Screenwriters Series


Paul Schrader, whose scripts for iconic movies such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are synonymous with what many consider a golden era of Hollywood filmmaking, discussed why the 1970s was such a potent time for cinema, his collaborations with Martin Scorsese and his latest drama First Reformed at a BAFTA Screenwriters Series in London.

Schrader, who transitioned from writing scripts for the likes of Scorsese, Sydney Pollack and Brian De Palma, to directing his own screenplays, offered his view on why the 1970s proved such a fertile time for U.S. cinema and how audiences compare today.

“There are people who talk about the American cinema of the ‘70s as some halcyon period,” said the Hollywood veteran. “It was to a degree but not because there were any more talented filmmakers. There’s probably, in fact, more talented filmmakers today than there was in the ‘70s. What there was in the ‘70s was better audiences.

“A lot of what was happening in the world had people in consternation: women’s rights, gay rights, sexual liberation, drug liberation, anti-war,” he continued. “All of these things were rolling on top of each other and people were turning to the arts, specifically movies, for what we should feel about this. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice about wife swapping, and Coming Home about Vietnam veterans, An Unmarried Woman about female liberation. So almost one a week, films were coming out to address these things that were on people’s minds. When people take movies seriously it’s very easy to make a serious movie. When they don’t take it seriously, it’s very, very hard. We now have audiences that don’t take movies seriously so it’s hard to make a serious movie for them. It’s not that us filmmakers are letting you down, it’s you audiences are letting us down.”

The last suggestion drew laughter from the audience. Schrader continued, “Because if audiences are receptive to a quality movie, believe me they will get it. We’re all just waiting to make it. At that time, that period about ten, twelve years, every single week there was some kind of film coming out addressing a social issue in a fictional form.”

This led to Schrader’s well-received drama First Reformed, which picked up two Gotham Awards on Monday for Schrader’s screenplay and Ethan Hawke’s starring turn as a minister of a small congregation in upstate New York grappling with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns and a tormented past, which are recurring themes in Schrader’s films.

Schrader was asked by the session’s producer host Tanya Seghatchian how he believes audiences have reacted to one of the film’s key “social issue” storylines: climate change.

“Well you know that’s a big question because there is no response,” he said. “There is no response. As a species we have made our decision, it’s pretty clear. Now it’s a question of how long it takes for that decision to be fully effective. But you know, there is no—whatever tipping point there was, we’ve passed it and it is—you know, it’s very hard to—a friend of mine wrote an article for the New York Times calling on raising a child in a doomed world. And my adult children do not have children and they don’t feel they should, and that is a question that begins First Reformed: Should I bring someone in to this world knowing what kind of life they will have? So it would be nice to say the movie has a positive effect, but our gorilla brains are not going to get us out of the problem. Evolution has taken us as far as it can. The next stage will be some other form of evolved intelligence, but us gorillas, we’re not equipped to solve this problem.”

“But you do have Ethan Hawke’s character Toller tell us it’s better to have hope,” noted Seghatchian. Schrader replied, “Albert Camus said ‘I don’t believe, I choose to believe.’ That’s where we are. I don’t hope, we have no reason to hope, but you can choose to hope. And that can be a way to live.”

Later in the session, the storied filmmaker was asked how his writing process differed on his early collaborations (a time when his characters’ self-destructive tendencies occasionally mirrored his own).

“I’m not a very good employee,” Schrader said to laughter. “I wish I was because there’s a lot of money to be made by being a good employee. I wrote four scripts for Scorsese, but we never talked about it. I would do it, I would do it again, but there was only one person in the room when I was writing. And the last film we did together, Bringing Out the Dead, I realized that we would not work together again, that it was over because there were now two directors in the room and one of them was calling himself a writer.

“And the other one was sort of pissed off, so I realized there can only be one director in Scorsese’s script development, and that has to be him. It’s not me. So I have not been very good at collaborating. I’ve never held a job in my life; every single job I’ve had I’ve been fired from. It’s always at some point where somebody says ‘do it this way,’ and you say ‘no, that’s not the way you do it. You do it this way.’ And then they say ‘who’s the boss here?’ and you get fired.

“That’s really probably the reason I’ve worked and I’ve spent all these years—because I used to get jobs but I always got in trouble and I got a bad reputation as somebody who was not cooperative, who was not a team player. I sort of realized that the only way I could make a living is to do my own thing and then go out and find somebody to finance it.”

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