Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke did not expect to be here. The writer/director and his actor are still talking about First Reformed, 18 months on from its premiere at Venice, as they receive nominations and awards to add to the mountains of critical praise the film has drawn. Its examination of a crisis of faith for a pastoral minister as two of his flock struggle with the decision to bring a child into a fractured world is, at turns, social realism and cinematic fantasy, but the questions it asks are all too relevant for the star and his director.
First Reformed tackles a lot of the anxieties we’re facing in today’s world, much like your earlier work always has. Where did this character and this premise begin for you?
Paul Schrader: Well, strangely enough, it was an intellectual decision, not an emotional one. I had written a book about spirituality and film when I was a film critic and I never felt that was the direction I wanted to go as a filmmaker. I was too interested in the juice—the action, the empathy, and the psychological realism—to do a cold film like that. And then a couple years ago I was in conversation with Pawel Pawlikowski. I was giving him an award for Ida. And we got to talking about my book, and about his film, and this was downtown and I had to walk home to Chelsea. By the time I got back I decided it was now time to write the script I swore I never would.
Once that penny dropped—one that Rubicon was crossed—then it all came quite quickly. Excuse my expression, but I broke through the hymen of my unwillingness to tackle spiritual matters.
What did you make of it, Ethan?
Ethan Hawke: When Paul sent it to me, I remember, in the first three pages or so of the script he had written down what the books were on Reverend Toller’s desk, and they were all books my mother had given me. It immediately interested me. When you see religious life portrayed in contemporary movies, it’s usually with a mocking or a malevolent tone. They’re performing exorcisms or something. But a serious dialogue about where spiritual leadership is today is really exciting. And also we get to do a three dimensional portrait of somebody that’s dedicated their life to their faith, and I’ve never been asked to do that.
Schrader: One of the things that surprised me about the reaction is how easily people have slipped into that. There’s a lot of God talk. This is people quoting Bible verses and going back and forth about religious matters, and movies aren’t like this. I didn’t expect people to get caught up.
Hawke: In fact, it does so many things that you’re told you can’t do. In the first 20 minutes of the movie there’s a 12-minute dialogue scene of two people discussing their inner life. That’s rule number one in screenwriting class: don’t do that [laughs].
You’ve broken that rule yourself on several occasions.
Hawke: Yeah, I’ve broken it before, but the reaction to that scene has been incredible. I thought, even when we were doing it and I loved it, that this might be the place where 90% of the audience turned the movie off. Instead it’s the opposite.
Schrader: It’s the scene that drops them into the rabbit hole.
You also have a couple of moments where the film goes off the deep end; like the levitation scene and the ending.
Hawke: Well those two scenes are connected in a lot of ways. The levitation scene prepares you for the direction the movie will end up in. But you’re right, it just lets you know that you can’t believe it when people tell you that audiences aren’t interested in serious movies. People can go with you. They can handle every Tarkovsky reference [laughs].
Schrader: How did you read the ending? Was the main character alive or dead?
My take was that he drank the drain cleaner and he’s dead; that everything that follows is an…
Schrader: Ecstatic vision?
Schrader: I like that version, and I also tried to open it up to the other one. But this idea that there he is in the garden, and he drinks the cup and collapses, and disgorges his stomach, and God, who has never spoken to him, walks in the room.
Hawke: Calls him by his name.
Schrader: He says, “Reverend Toller, would you like to see what heaven looks like? I’m going to show you right now.” And it looks like one long kiss.
Hawke: A beautiful woman saying your first name [laughs].
It’s an optimistic ending, drain cleaner aside.
Hawke: I think a lot of people fear the worst. It feels like you are going to watch everyone die. You feel like he’ll light up the room or do something. But the ending feels completely of a piece to me. It can frustrate the hell out of you, it can make you crazy, it can make you happy. That’s so much of a piece with what the rest of the movie is doing.
Schrader: There were three possible endings. When Ethan read the script it was not this one. One of them is the Zabriskie Point ending, with the endless slow motion of body parts and materials flying through the air while you’re hearing religious music. And if I could have afforded that ending I might have tried it.
The other was the first ending I tried, which is the ending from The Country Priest, where the priest falls out of the frame and you hear his words and see the crucifix on the wall.
My friend, Kent Jones, who runs the New York Film Festival, I showed him the script and he said, “Oh, you went with Country Priest? I thought you were headed for Ordet.” As soon as he said that, I thought, Ordet, yeah, that’s where I gotta go. The carnal reaction to a miracle. The reaction to seeing a miracle is carnal emotion.
So I changed to that ending, and I hoped I could get Ethan to agree, because we just did a 180.
Hawke: I thought it was very successful in posing the question and not giving you an answer. On a base level, the ending is felt and you know both that something bad happened, and something good happened. If he’s dead, dying’s not so bad. And if he’s not dead, he’s survived a turbulent time. The riddle of hope and despair being the same thing is the zen kōan of the ending. It’s relevant however you decide to flip it.
Although Paul had a beautiful piece of journal entry as well…
Schrader: Well, we actually filmed this, and I decided not to use it. He was writing in his journal for the final time. We filmed it and I realized it’s more interesting to imagine what his last entries would be, rather than you see them. But first he writes, “Will God forgive us?” And then he crosses that out and writes, “Magical Mystery Tour.” Crosses that out. Then he writes, “I would have preferred another form of death,” and that’s his last entry.
Did you discuss the first ending together?
Schrader: No. By the time we met for the first time I’d already changed it.
Hawke: And I don’t think Paul cares whether I do or don’t, but I prefer the new ending. I love them both, actually. The character is the same, the journey is the same, it’s just about the vibration that you leave the audience with. I felt like he solved it. It felt finished. You can hate it, but it’s finished. Before, it didn’t feel finished in the same way.
The one other thing that has to be acknowledged too is that, whenever a movie goes well and achieves what you set out to do, there’s always a bit of luck at play. One of those things for us, I think, was Amanda [Seyfried]. When I think about this movie, and the blessing of her pregnancy…
Schrader: Yeah, she was pregnant for real in the movie.
Hawke: Right. A lot of actors, when they play pregnant they overdo or underdo it. But with this movie, you have a woman at the center of it who is carrying a child and playing a woman carrying a child, and it’s this that stops him from going into the church at the end. No matter how you interpret the ending, that’s a vibration of hope. There is a child waiting. There’s a future. And it’s a future worth living for and worth dying for.
So when I think of it, I think the fact that she was pregnant gives the movie a strange… I don’t even know what the right word for it is, but it would be a lesser film without her.
Cinema is full of examples of what happens when you don’t have control over certain things.
Hawke: Right. That’s what’s so wonderful about it. The camera loves the truth, and you can’t control all of those elements. Isn’t it wonderful, Paul, that it snowed right before that shot where the guy has killed himself?
Schrader: It is. Obviously, I wished it hadn’t snowed, because I was worried about continuity.
Hawke: I know you were, but it doesn’t matter.
Schrader: It doesn’t matter.
Hawke: Often snow stays in the woods, but it doesn’t stay in other places. It made the blood so striking. The divine was working. Sometimes—and I swear, [Richard] Linklater calls them the cinema gods—sometimes they’re in your favor. Every accident you have works to your benefit.
We had this thing in Before Sunset, where we wanted to shoot the whole movie, and it’s in real time, at sunset. We had the same weather for five weeks! We didn’t know what we’d do if it rained. We didn’t have enough money for an extra day, or a cloudy day. But it was the exact same god-damned weather. There’d be these huge rainstorms over the weekend, and we would panic, but it had cleared up on Monday. The gods were with us, and I felt that way on First Reformed. The timing of things, Amanda being pregnant…
I think the crew got a lot of solace out of working on a movie like this during Trump’s inauguration. It felt good to be a part of art when politics fails.
So you were shooting in early 2017?
Schrader: Yeah, we started in January. It’s been a while. In fact we premiered in Venice a year and a half ago. The journey of an independent film, when it goes right, is a long one. When it doesn’t go right…
Hawke: It’s very short [laughs]!
Schrader: It’s about five days [laughs]. But in this case, I realized, when it goes right, it’s a four-stage journey. The first stage is the gatekeeper, which is the film festivals. The second thing is an interim period, where the distributor evaluates the film in terms of its holding power, and how much to invest in it.
I had a meeting with David Fenkel over at A24 in March and he said, “We’re reconsidering your film. We’re going to change the release pattern and change the theaters.” My heart sunk. I’ve been in those meetings, I know what that means. He said, “No, Paul, this is a good news meeting. We’ve spotted a weakness in May and I think if we fit into that hole it will give us a shot.” I hadn’t realized until that moment that they hadn’t decided whether to give it a theatrical push. They’d been waiting for five months.
So then you move into the third phase, which is the critical and commercial reaction to the movie. And now we’re in the fourth phase, which is awards season. By the time all of it lasts, if it lasts, as it has with this film, that will be a year and a half, for a film that took 20 days to shoot.
Hawke: I love that. But all those things about time are misleading. You can shoot a movie, it’s seen in a day, and lasts forever, but it also took you decades to write this one. And so all that time, it’s funny the way that works. Wallace Shawn was interviewed once, where he said, “If it takes you your whole life to write one great novel, your writing journey’s been worthwhile.” Everybody wants time to make sense. For this much time, it equals this. Sometimes it doesn’t look like that.
The film doesn’t become any less relevant. The questions it’s asking seem to burn more aggressively every day.
Hawke: Anytime you make a movie that should be true. If your movie’s catching the fad, then it’s probably not that interesting to begin with.
Paul, what made you think of Ethan in the first place?
Schrader: There’s a certain physiognomy of a suffering man of the cloth. We’ve seen examples of this in Country Priest, Belmondo in Léon Morin, Priest, or Monty Clift in I Confess. You have a certain look for this guy, and he’s not Brendan Gleeson in Calvary. It’s very hard to imagine the corpulent Brendan Gleeson wasting away with self-torment. So you do have a physiological archetype. So as you’re writing along you’re thinking, who are these people? Ethan was a little older than I’d imagined, but he’s just about the right age. Both Oscar [Isaac] and Jake [Gyllenhaal] would have been a good fit too, but I thought Ethan was a better fit. So I sent him the script, because I’d written up a spec. He replied the next day, so that was that. Then, of course, as always happens it took a while to get financing.
Hawke: Right. One of the things that you say, that I do think is interesting for writers, is that writing for an actor that you like can breed laziness. It’s kind of easy to write a good line when you imagine Al Pacino saying it, because basically everything he says is interesting. And you have to challenge yourself to write a script that is actor-proof. I mean the worst actor in America could make it pretty good. You see that in acting class a lot. The really great plays can handle mediocre acting.
Schrader: It makes me think of something I hadn’t thought of before, which is, if this was a play, and you would have different productions over the years, what would a different actor do with this character? How would he color it? That’s a tricky question, because if you try to act too much…
Hawke: You ruin it. The thing that I think time has helped me deal with is learning how not to act, you know? It’s a really great lesson for how to be inside material. There’s a great Al Pacino line actually about when things are working well, you feel yourself inside the metaphor of the piece. And that you feel the piece working through you, and not you working it. When that happens, something good is happening. So, whatever actor was playing this, if that starts to happen, then whatever they bring to it, it will be playing them.
Can you ever divorce the character from the actor in cinema?
Hawke: Well, in a good movie I really think they become one and the same. What’s wonderful about film versus theater is you define it. Michael Corleone is Al Pacino, and they’re the same. Their DNA is intertwined in a way that’s really accepted.
Schrader: Yeah, but some actors can only play themselves, and nobody can play them as well as they can. Other actors can go back and forth. I have a project I’m working on for both Ethan and Willem [Dafoe], and one character is like Randolph Scott, the righteous lawman, and the other character is the slinky antagonist, the weasel. And so I was thinking, Ethan and Willem have both played both. They’ve both been an upright, they’ve both been weasels. So, which one should play which? Then I realized I could have it both ways, start Ethan out as the righteous one, Willem as the reprobate, and then at the beginning of the third act, flip ’em. So, all of a sudden, nobody in the story actually knows it, but all of a sudden they are playing the opposite roles. Now, I couldn’t do that with an actor who can only really play himself.
You saw that in Face/Off, when they tried to do that, and Travolta did a pretty good job of playing Nic Cage, but unfortunately for John, Nic Cage was still doing Nic Cage. All of a sudden you had two Nic Cages.
Hawke: That’s an interesting thing too because Nic is so specific that he’s actually easier to imitate. Travolta’s less specific. What a Travolta performance is is a little harder to pin down. Your average guy at a bar can do an OK Nic Cage impression.
Schrader: Or Chris Walken.
Hawke: Or Jack Nicholson. Some people just have a real specific identity. But that would be fun. You know, I saw Willem recently. In a lot of these industry situations, people can gravitate towards phoniness so quickly, but Willem is kind of like an antidote. He’s always himself. He’s always laughing.
The reviews for this film were off the charts, but you’ve both had work that hasn’t resonated in the same way. How does that change your relationship to those projects?
Schrader: Let me give you the answer. We’re both appreciative that critics like this film. But if they didn’t like it, it would still be a good film. That’s where your center lies. You know, I made a good film. Maybe I got unlucky with the timeframe of its release. Maybe 10 years later, it will have another perception. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good film. And the opposite also holds true sometimes. You say, “People think this film’s better than it is.” You know, but they don’t quite realize how flawed it is. I’m not going to tell them, but they’ll figure it out [laughs].
Hawke: I had an amazing experience on this subject when I was 18. It was 1988 and it was the weekend Dead Poets Society was coming out. Peter Weir had felt a little responsible bringing all of us young people into the zeitgeist a little bit, you know? And he took us out to dinner right before the weekend it opened, and he said, “Now, let me tell you guys this. If any of you get a bad review, know that I’m very happy with your work and that I could have edited the movie a lot of different ways and asked you to do a lot of different things. If somebody doesn’t like your work, that’s my fault. You gave me what I asked. And you’re young people, and there’s only one person of which you need to be concerned with the reviews, and it’s mine. And you did a great job. Now, if people say this is a great film, it isn’t. It’s a good film. If people say it’s not good, they’re wrong. They’re really wrong. And if somebody attacks the film, you can know that I’ve dedicated my life to film, and I know it’s good. I also know it’s not great. There’s a couple things wrong with it that are really frustrating to me, and I was never able to fix. If anybody says it’s great, and you think you’re hot shit, you’re not. There are a lot better films out there made, and I hope to make one someday.”
I always think of it, because it’s a great orientation of confidence.
Schrader: Where was this? Where did he do this?
Hawke: Café Un Deux Trois. You remember that? I mean, I’m sure it’s still there, in New York. But anyway, it’s something I often think about, and I felt that way the second I saw the movie. I had no idea what people would think of First Reformed. But I knew it was the film that you set out to make, and it was the one I wanted to be in, and I was happy to have done it.
Schrader: Here’s something that surprised me, having gotten bitch-slapped on The Last Temptation of Christ by the Evangelicals, I was a little worried. I made a point of trying to soften-up that market. Not going for a faith-based market, but going for the upscale Christian audience. I gave a lecture and screened the movie at Calvin College, my alma mater, at Fuller Theological here in Pasadena, at Yale Divinity. I wanted to get a collection of respected ministers and philosophers behind me.
Hawke: At least for them to understand the attempt.
Schrader: Right. But also so that when the bad people showed up, I could call on them to defend me. But the bad people never showed up. I was very surprised that I never got attacked. The conservative Christian community liked the film very much, even though it’s a liberal jihadist kind of film. And I discovered the reason why was that it took the pastoral obligation very, very seriously. For many Americans, the only access they have to psychological counseling is their minister. They don’t really have a psychiatrist, they don’t have a doctor, they don’t go to a clinic. If they have a problem they talk to the minister. And, ministers feel this weight of having to talk to girls who have gotten pregnant, marriages breaking up, etc. Nobody quite appreciates the pastoral obligation. This film took that seriously, and I think it’s one of the reasons the Christian community likes the film.
Hawke: I have to say, I was very grateful. I have a lot of serious Christians in my family. I’ve been forwarded a lot of reviews from different Christian papers and Christian church pamphlets, and I was very grateful for how seriously they took the film.
Over the course of my life, about three different times, I’ve done retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton lived and worked. And one of the things that was interesting if you do a retreat there, is you know who else is there? Ministers, that’s who’s there. You see how seriously they do take that job. How grateful they are to meet the monks and get counseling from the monks about how to counsel. Even a pastor needs a pastor, do you know? And that was in the back of my mind while we did this movie. All these guys I would watch praying at these different retreats, and how seriously they took their life’s work. It wasn’t something they were cavalier about at all. In fact, the opposite. I do think the movie does respect that. And I think you learned a lesson on Last Temptation—
Schrader: That a lot of movies don’t. They just assume that the stereotype of the financial hustler is the norm.
Hawke: You know, one of the greatest performances of my lifetime is Willem in that movie. And people are so scared of that movie, they don’t talk about his performance. But the balls of that! The balls to play Jesus Christ of Nazareth, you know? And to play it at that level, and with that complexity… It’s an amazing performance.
I still think that the reaction to Last Temptation was extremely unfair and did a disservice to the Christian community, because it made it seem like you’re not allowed to talk about faith in movies. And it’s a huge mistake for the spiritually-minded community. You remember there was a documentary at Film Forum called Into the Silence?
Schrader: Oh, I love that film!
Hawke: It’s an amazing film about monks. The movie played for nine months! That’s what let me know, when we started this, there is an audience for it. People aren’t being spoken to about these subjects. There a lot of people that are interested in faith and why they’re born and why they die, what we’re doing here. And yet movies are not allowed to talk about it.
I remember going to see Last Temptation, Paul, and man, I could barely get in. I went to see it at The Zeigfeld, and the protesters were so scary—they were yelling.
Schrader: Well, I loved it. Marty [Scorsese] and I had offices next to each other in the Brill Building, and I was going over to the first screening. I said, “You want to come?” He said, “Ah, no, no.” He was terrified. I said, “Marty, we set out to upset people. Now they are upset. Why are you so surprised?” He said, “Well, I didn’t think they’d be this upset.” So I went over there, I walked into the theater, and there were two guards on either side of the screen left and right, to prevent people from coming up to spray paint or slash the screen. I thought, I’ve made a movie that had to be protected. The street had to be protected by the cops. This is great!