First Reformed: An Interview with Paul Schrader
A filmmaker unafraid to tackle the most challenging of subjects – mortality, the nature of morality and the labyrinth that is our basest desires – First Reformed finds director Paul Schrader exploring life in a society perpetually at war, whilst looking back on themes that dominate his most acclaimed and controversial work. He talks to Ryan Hewitt about this film, faith and existentialism.
Given the breadth of films Paul Schrader has made, many of them cult hits, it always feels a cop out to define him as ‘best known for his Taxi Driver screenplay,’ not least because it doesn’t represent his full capacity as a filmmaker. It’s true, Schrader wrote the screenplay for one of the most lauded American films ever made, and he has as much ownership over that film as its director, Martin Scorsese. But Schrader is a prolific writer, director and producer of his own expansive filmography, and so to continually return to his second and most famous screenplay seems reductive. Even if his latest film, First Reformed, harks back to that 1976 masterpiece that made his name.
Perhaps the reason Schrader’s name never crossed over along with his most frequent collaborator (Schrader and Scorsese have made four pictures together: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999)) is because he has spent his career defying expectations. And in doing that, he has defied definition. Schrader has made genre films such as Cat People (1982) and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005). He has made pulp (The Canyons, 2013), poetic biopics (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, 1985), thrillers (Hardcore, 1979), and even dabbled with musicals (Light of Day, 1987). But despite all that, there’s always been the feeling that he’s holding something back.
Schrader speaks openly about his childhood and his strict Calvinist upbringing, and acknowledges that his past has often crept into his work. Deliberations on spirituality and theology are visible beneath the surface of much of his writing, yet he has always been reluctant to bring that to the fore. “I had written about spiritual films as a film critic, and a book about theological aesthetics,” he begins, “but when I became a screenwriter and a filmmaker, that wasn’t the kind of film I wanted to make. So, I went the other direction.” Following a 40-year career in that other direction, First Reformed is the film that Schrader’s admirers have long been waiting for.
First Reformed tells the story of Rev. Toller, a troubled but steady priest at a small country parish in upstate New York. His life is thrown into crisis when a pregnant parishioner, Mary, visits him and asks that he counsel her husband, Michael, a radicalised environmentalist who fears bringing a newborn into what he sees as a doomed world. Despite Toller’s best efforts to resist, Michael brings his despairing world view upon the fragile priest, setting Toller on a path to either self-destruction, or spiritual transcendence.
How is it that Schrader is finally telling this story? As it happens, it was a conversation with a friend that turned Schrader on to the idea. “Just a few years ago I was speaking with Paweł Pawlikowski who had done Ida, and we were talking about spiritual cinema and so forth. Walking up town that night I said to myself ‘it’s time now.’ It’s time for you to write the script that you always said you would never write. You’re going to be 70 next year and, it’s time.”
Schrader describes the particular kind of story he tells as “lonely man in a relatively bare room, writing a journal” and talks about this ‘man’ as though he is a singular soul. Reincarnated throughout Schrader’s career, “when he’s young he’s angry and he’s a taxi driver” (Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver), “when he’s middle aged he’s anxious and a drug dealer” (John LeTour in Light Sleeper) and “in older age he has despair and he’s a pastor” (Rev. Toller in First Reformed).
Schrader is unabashed about the debt First Reformed pays not only to his own past creations, but to those of other filmmakers. “The premise is from Winter Light. The opening credits are from Voyage to Italy. The opening shot is from Silent Light. And of course there’s the levitation from Tarkovsky.” From Bergman to Rossellini, Reygadas to Tarkovsky, First Reformed is a treasure trove of cinematic references. Of course, this being a Schrader film there is another legendary filmmaker whose work looms large. Since beginning his career in cinema, writing as a critic for the LA Free Press, Schrader has been a champion in awe of Bresson. "I really thought I was going to end it along the lines of Diary of a Country Priest, where the priest falls out of frame and dies and you’re left looking at the crucifix.”
While Diary of a Country Priest is an acknowledged and overt reference, there was another spiritual film that had an even greater influence. “Somebody was talking to me about Ordet, and I said that’s it, that’s the ending I need.” Ordet, the 1955 drama by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer tells the story of a devout family driven apart by the death of the matriarch. “There’s a miracle at the end: a woman is raised from the dead and her husband’s reaction to the miracle is not ‘oh my God, it’s a miracle’ but a carnal explosion of happiness, and I thought that should be the reaction to a miracle. Just enjoying the miracle.”
Schrader is truly a post-modern filmmaker, proudly borrowing from the greats to assemble his original works. “It’s all any artist does. Anyone who says they don’t is lying.” The references or “nuggets” don’t stop at cinema either. First Reformed nods to several works of literature, including the writing of Julian of Norwich. Schrader describes a paperweight in the shape of a woman’s hand with a hazelnut in her palm, glimpsed more than once in shots of Rev. Toller's desk. “This is a symbol for Julian of Norwich (we don’t know her real name). From 1300s, she was one of the first mystic writers. She wrote about holding a hazelnut in her hand and looking at it for hours until it assumed the proportions of the Earth.” The prop (easily missed) is a subtle reference to perspective and the elsewhere overt environmental issues with which the film wrestles. The spiritual and the environmental come into stark conflict in First Reformed, played out in battle between Rev. Toller’s hope and Michael’s despair. “I think we’ve made our choice. I don’t think this train gets turned around. You can choose hope, just to live, but events are not giving us much cause,” says Schrader, perhaps caught somewhere between his characters.
That spiritual conflict is further drawn out through the film’s immaculate craft. “Whenever you want to take an audience to a spiritual place, a non-material place, you have to start withholding things [like] music, camera movement, frame size, editing patterns, and bit by bit the viewer will start noticing this withholding as unease.” That this sense of dread will take each audience member to a different place, that some will find despair where others find hope, is a precisely calculated play by Schrader. “If you can get the viewer to start leaning into the film, you’ve started them on a journey and they’re not a passive part of the story anymore. And in order to do that, you have to leave room. It’s a style that owes more to meditation than it does to acrobatics.”
Despair and hope are words Schrader uses a great deal when talking about the film. Repeating them here risks leading an audience in either of those very specific directions, whereas First Reformed exists in more ambiguous territory. Schrader remains open minded about the film's message and wants audiences to decide for themselves. “There are various interpretations of the end. I don’t know which it is, and I tried to put them all in there.”.
First Reformed is an extraordinary film and is, in every way, a product of its filmmaker and his particular set of influences. Schrader is a filmmaker who has avoided defining exactly what he is throughout his career, but with First Reformed he may have finally revealed himself. “Good things happen while you wait. You have to get an audience to a place where they’re willing to wait.” For his fans, who have always wondered, the wait is over.
First Reformed plays in Curzon cinemas from Friday 13 July.