Religion and skateboarding may provide contrasting spiritual homes to its adherents, but as revealed by veteran director Paul Schrader, writer/director of First Reformed and first-time filmmaker, Jonah Hill, writer/director of mid90s, both found inspiration for their stories rooted in their upbringing. Released through A24, both First Reformed and mid90s are audience favorites that have drawn audiences to theaters this year.
“I’m a product of the Christian school system,” said Schrader Saturday morning. “I wrote a book as a film critic on theological aesthetics and then a few years ago it came to me that it was time to write the script I never wanted to do…”
In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a middle-aged parish pastor of a small church in upstate New York. The historical place of worship was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, but it is eclipsed by the nearby mega church, Abundant Life. When a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, the clergyman finds himself plunged into his own tormented past, and equally despairing future, until he finds redemption in an act of grandiose violence.
Hawke said he was able to seamlessly don the clerical robes, giving praise to Schrader’s script for guiding his pastoral role. “The wonderful thing about a great screenplay is that it ignites the actor,” he said Saturday at the DGA. “When it doesn’t work, the actor has to spend time fixing the script creating gestures to support a broken walkway. But Paul’s script was beautiful.”
While Schrader has a storied history as a celebrated writer going back to Taxi Driver (1976), American Gigolo (1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), it is a professional job title actor Jonah Hill had always hoped he’d be able to add to his resume. He has had an awards-worthy start with mid90s.
“I wanted to be a writer and director my whole life. That has always been my dream,” said the actor who has starred in such films as Superbad, Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street. “I identify as a writer first and foremost.”
In writing the script, he drew from his youth in Southern California. “It’s autobiographical in that I grew up in the mid ‘90s in West L.A., but it’s not an exact biopic,” explained Hill. “You take life experiences and inject them into the story you’re telling.”
Authenticity was key for Hill who said he wanted to avoid the pitfalls of previous big screen stories told against the backdrop of skateboard culture.
“Skateboarding is something that is really butchered in films, so the skate boarding community was skeptical when they heard I was doing this,” he said. “I knew from the jump I was going to hire skateboarders and turn them into actors. A lot of them never acted, but I knew a lot of these people who were so full of life, spirit… and damage. And that’s what I wanted for this.”