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Interview: Paul Schrader on Bridging the Past and Present with First Reformed

Interview: Paul Schrader on Bridging the Past and Present with First Reformed

 

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Critic and filmmaker Paul Schrader has been torn between innocence and guilt and purity and vice all his life. Famously raised in a strict Calvinist environment, Schrader found rapture in cinema, especially when he noticed in a certain strand of film a potential for heightened contemplation that’s usually associated with prayer and meditation. Analyzing the works of Yasujirô Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Theodor Dreyer at length, Schrader published the seminal volume Transcendental Style in Film in 1972. A few years later, Schrader helped to revolutionize American cinema with his screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which merges elements of introspection with a hallucinatory luridness, rendering a male alienation that’s more pertinent to discussions of American culture now than ever before.

There’s an irony to Schrader’s Taxi Driver fame, as the film bears Scorsese’s taste for highly florid formalism, which is at odds with Schrader’s own methods as an artist. Throughout his career as a director, Schrader has set about reconstructing the basic Taxi Driver scenario—of a miserable loner with the potential for radicalism—and casting it in the more intellectualized light of the work he first described in Transcendental Style in Film. These ambitions reach a pinnacle in First Reformed, in which Father Toller (Ethan Hawke) wrestles with Earth’s potential for environmental catastrophe while contemplating a violent response to a church that’s in bed with corrupt corporations. Drawn inexorably toward the pregnant, recently widowed Mary (Amanda Seyfried), Father Toller embarks on a Schrader-esque struggle to discern heaven in a place that increasingly resembles hell. Operating at the peak of his formal powers, Schrader transforms his fury with the modern world into arrestingly lucid icons of grief, hopelessness, and exaltation.

As First Reformed expands into wider release, Transcendental Style in Film has been reissued into an attainable new paperback edition, abounding in profound, morally urgent writing that also serves as a primer for Schrader’s own artistic methods. The book and film complete each other, bringing Schrader’s career full circle. Speaking on the phone with Schrader earlier in the week, we discussed cinematic structure, when to break and honor rules, and when an artist should show his internal critic the door.

I watched First Reformed a few hours after finishing the new edition of Transcendental Style in Film, and they feel like bookends.

Yeah, it’s funny. Almost 50 years ago in March of ’69, I was a critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, and I went to see a screening of Pickpocket in Los Feliz. It was only 75 minutes long, but two things happened during that 75 minutes. Two seeds fell into a petri dish. One was the idea that there was a bridge between my sacred past and my profane present—a bridge between the spiritual and the movies. And that it was a bridge of style rather than of content, and out of that feeling came the book way back when. Another thing happened during that screening. I was living in a house with a number of UCLA students who were making a biker film for Roger Corman and I was a film critic and I thought that they were kind of déclasseé. I was an elitist and film criticism was a higher calling. I had no interest in being a filmmaker. I was an intellectual. And I looked at this movie by Bresson about this guy who writes in a journal and commits some crimes and writes some more and talks to his neighbor and writes some more, and I said, “Wow, I could make a movie like that.” And then three years later I wrote Taxi Driver. It’s the same movie. Fifty years on, those two sprouts that grew from that screening have met.

Didn’t Godard say that filmmaking could also be criticism?

Godard said a lot of shit. About 10 percent of it is right, but the 10 percent that’s right is quite right. He also said the history of cinema is the history of boys taking pictures of girls. [Both laugh.]

In Transcendental Style in Film, you describe how Ozu and Bresson artfully suppress easy emotional responses to arrive at transcendence. Yet, when I watch their films I find the act of suppression to be moving in itself.

It’s this whole concept of duration, which is what happens when things take longer than they should. Good things happen while you wait, anyone who meditates understands that. And so how do you use a kinetic temporal medium like cinema to make people wait? Or how do you misuse it?

In the new introduction for Transcendental Style, devoted to “slow cinema,” you astutely observe that waiting in itself is a visceral act, once you can adjust to accommodate a filmmaker’s demand of patience.

It’s like when I first asked: What happens when Bresson doesn’t cut when someone walks out of a room? Well, something is happening. In real life, you don’t sit and look at a door after someone has walked out. What’s happening? It’s not about the door; it’s about the time you spend looking at the door.

You notice the art of the door. Perhaps you come to see this object that unceremoniously contains a portion of your life.

Yeah.

To apply this idea of waiting to First Reformed, I found the opening shots of the church to be striking. They’re crisp, evocative, and poignant, yet, like many of the compositions that you discuss in your book, they’re not quite giving you an emotional trigger. Yet something is unusual and noticeable.

Yeah. You’re being told that you need to slow down. Back off. Take it slow. Get in the bath. Let yourself immerse.

Considering your discussion of narrative structure in Transcendental Style, I noticed how you prepare the audience for the miraculous ending in First Reformed. I probably missed a few, but at least two major scenes anticipate the film’s conclusion: the bicycle ride that Mary and Father Toller take and their shared vision, which lead us to their embrace at the end.

I knew at the end of the film—like at the ends of all these kinds of films—that we have to be allowed to jump into the unknown. The soul has to leap into that parallel world that we know is there but can’t see. So while I was writing, I was thinking that I should foreshadow this ending. I should foreshadow the fact that there’s a world right next to these characters, running right alongside of them, which they can almost reach out and touch, but it’s invisible. How do you foreshadow an invisible world? At my desk I asked myself what Tarkovsky would do. I created the vision scene as an homage to The Mirror and The Sacrifice but also as an indication of where I wanted to go.

I find the chronological ordering of these scenes—the bicycle ride, the shared vision, and Toller and Mary’s final embrace—to be fascinating. Depending on how literally you wish to take the vision scene, it’s arguably the most important of the three scenes. Yet the embrace is granted the stature of serving as the finale.

How long can you hold a shot of two people looking at each other? It’s not boring. I probably could’ve held it longer if I had more film. [Both laugh.]

The ending also upsets one’s expectations. Those familiar with your work, particularly Taxi Driver, might expect First Reformed to opt for the violent, hopeless vigilante ending.

There were three endings that I imagined. One was the Sam Peckinpah/Zabriskie Point ending, where you have a slow-motion montage of an explosion and body parts and eyeballs flowing through the screen at 120 frames per second. If I had gone there, it would have been very expensive to shoot and would have been appropriately shocking, but it would not have been very gratifying. So then I thought that I might do the Diary of a Country Priest ending, which is where the priest falls out of frame and you’re left looking at the crucifix. And then I was talking to a friend about it, and he said, “Well, you did Country Priest, I thought you were going to do Ordet.” As soon as he said that, I realized that he was absolutely right. This poor guy has been trying to talk to God for so long, and now is dying, and God finally comes over to him and says: “Reverend Toller, this is what heaven looks like and I’m going to show it to you right now: It looks like one long kiss.”

It’s a beautiful moment. Watching First Reformed, I also thought of how you discuss in Transcendental Style the studious use of non-expressive acting, particularly in Bresson’s cinema. How does the transcendental style change when you use recognizable actors such as Ethan Hawke?

Ethan brings with him a certain repertoire of associations, which is very, very good. All you have to do is flip him 180 degrees and make him internal. He’s this kind of post-hippie with an oddball personality. And you just say to him, “Okay Ethan, we’re going to flip it. This is going to be a recessive performance and every instinct you have has to be internalized now. Every time you sense attention being paid to you, retreat.”

He’s remarkable. You could say there’s an extra tension, as viewers may be expecting a more traditionally outward Ethan Hawke character.

Yeah. Ethan only broke that constriction once, during one of the last scenes when Toller is talking to Reverend Jeffers and starts to break down. Ethan came back to me after that take and said, “You know, we agreed that I would never show any emotion, but I felt it was right then.” I said to Ethan, “You’re absolutely right. The power of making rules resides in the ability to break them.” If you know when to break the rules, you really understand the rules.

By that point in the film, you guys have earned that emotion. Though I also find an earlier scene between Toller and Michael to be highly emotional as well as intellectual. I think it’s one of the finest scenes of your career.

It’s a 12-minute scene now, and it was a 15-minute take when we shot it.

Maybe this is a ridiculous question, but did that scene, and by extension the entire film, feel special? As in “I know I’m getting something here.”

I always thought this was working. It felt good. Once I crossed that Rubicon and made the decision to enter into this high-risk arena, rather than feeling frightened I felt confident. I had always resisted making a spiritual film because the potential for failure is so great, and to fail in this arena is to doubly fail because you tried to do something uncommercial and it’s…uncommercial. You’ve fallen through the ice and you should’ve never gone out on that ice. Any fool would tell you not to go out on that ice. I guess it takes a number of years to assume that confidence.

As someone who has gone deep into the medium of criticism, how do you turn the critic off as an artist?

That’s a very good question. Sometimes you don’t, but you have to try. I’ve made this comparison in the past: Critics are like medical examiners, as all they want to do is get that body on the table and open it up and find out how it lived, while an artist is like a pregnant woman, and all she wants to do is give birth to a living thing. Let the critic into the birthing room, and he will kill that baby. So if you’re both these people—the critic and the pregnant woman—you’ve got to work really hard at keeping that critic out of your process. At a certain point you have to be willing to say to yourself “I don’t know the answer, and I don’t want to know the answer.”

I have a theory that wider audiences yearn for the quiet contemplation that transcendental cinema offers, particularly in these incessantly, superficially stimulating times. They just don’t know it.

Well, I’m on my knees beside you. It’s hard to get people to that place, but, once they get there, they wonder why they haven’t been there before.