When you sell your first screenplay for $300,000 you must think you’re going to be a superstar. Well, Paul Schrader did just that with his treatment for The Yakuza, a 1974 movie directed by Sydney Pollack, but things didn’t really turn out that way.
Okay, those of you out there who are really into cinema will know exactly who he is, and chances are everyone else will definitely have heard of one of his films, but since the 1970s Schrader has moved more and more towards the margins of Hollywood.
Let’s put his career into some context. The Yakuza ended up being a flop but it put Schrader firmly in group of young ‘New Hollywood’ upstarts that also included the likes of Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and, crucially, Martin Scorsese.
It was his work with Scorsese that thrust Michigan-born Schrader into the big league, writing the scripts for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, both of which are regarded as all-time classics. The buzz surrounding Taxi Driver allowed Schrader to make his own directorial debut with Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel.
From the late ’70s he has worked regularly with Scorsese but his own movies have been less commercially successful as the years have passed. Critics may have loved films such as Auto Focus (and we absolutely recommend it) but cinema audiences haven’t always agreed.
Now he’s back with First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried and Cedric The Entertainer. It focuses on Hawke’s pastor Toller, who is wracked by guilt from his past and through a chance encounter ends up becoming radicalised.
It has been talked of as a return to form for Schrader, and Hawke’s performance is being critically acclaimed from all who have seen it. There are echoes of Taxi Driver, too, the movie that set these wheels in motion all those years ago. Here, the director tells us all about it.
When you were writing First Reformed, did you realise that it was pure Paul Schrader?
Well, it felt good. Once I made the intellectual decision to write a film about the spiritual life, it just took off. I had been refusing to write this movie for so long, partially because I didn’t think there was a chance that it could get made. But film economics have changed, and when I decided to write this I was pleasantly surprised at how eagerly it came.
The film is darkly funny. Do you always feel there’s humour in people such as Toller?
When people talk about movies the first thing they talk about is plot, but the thing they remember long after is character. That’s what really sticks in the mind. To have the ability to sculpt a character of contradictions, and who moves in and out of the shadows, is a great privilege.
Did Toller’s state of mind tie-in to anything that was going on with you?
Once a person has an experience of clinical depression, that memory remains. You know, if a woman has been pregnant, she remembers what it was like to be pregnant. She doesn’t have to become pregnant again. And you don’t have to have clinical despair in order to write about it if you’ve had it before. Also, the connection of the spiritual darkness with this ecological darkness makes the film come alive.
Is the film is a comment on how people can’t really get by without finding of purpose?
Yes. We all find a way to get through the day. But the particular pathology here is when you start connecting your own despair with your own salvation as if you can affect your own redemption by suffering. It’s a pathology.
How did you feel about tackling your own environmental concerns in the film?
In the film that’s sort of addressed in the notion of holding two ideas in your head at the same time. We’re in this odd period in history where we have every reason to despair for the future of the species. And therefore we also must find a reason to hope. And so you have to wake up every day and choose to hope. Because how else can you live?
Taxi Driver comparisons are unavoidable with this film because of the character, the journal, the voiceover. How conscious were you of the connection?
In the script and the direction, I made a few little self-conscious nods to Marty’s [Scorsese] film. But I didn’t realise that the essential glue of the film was Taxi Driver.
You’ve said writing Taxi Driver was a sort of therapy for you. Was this similar?
No. Taxi Driver I wrote because I was afraid of becoming that character. I didn’t have that fear in this case. I’m 71 years old. I’m not gonna see the outcome of this century. No matter how bleak I think it might be, it’s not my problem. But what it did do was, it brought me home. You spend a lot of your life thinking you’re running away, and then one day you look up and you’re headed right back into your hometown.
Many films get compared to Taxi Driver, but the only person that can really do it is you.
[Laughs] But of course stylistically it is an entirely different package of goods. Marty is all flash and pillagery. And this is all restraint.
First Reformed has a great stillness and languid pace. What were you going for?
That’s a filmmaker’s way to start controlling the viewer’s sense of time. A director is really dealing with time, in a movie. It’s not like a novel where you put it down and pick it up, or a painting, where you can come and go. So often filmmakers don’t use the power of restraint because they’re so needy for acceptance.
Do you think the Trump era might affect filmmakers in a similar way to when you were starting in the 1970s?
I don’t think so; I think that culture has become so fractured. There is no Johnny Carson, there is no Walter Cronkite, there is no new Bruce Springsteen. Everything is splintered.
First Reformed is in cinemas across Qatar from August 2.