There are two things that everybody knows about Paul Schrader. Aged 71, having directed some 21 films and written many more, the filmmaker behind such post-Hollywood classics as Blue Collar and Hardcore, will always be introduced as the screenwriter behind Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
The pair have collaborated on other titles, notably Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead, but it's the 1976 Oscar-winner that will, he reckons, feature in the first line of his obituary. And he's okay with that.
“When you get involved in a cultural cornerstone, on the one hand, it’s enormously gratifying, and it’s very much a matter of luck,” says Schrader, in his vaguely Midwestern drawl. “I’ve always seen it as a token of freedom. I got that out of the way early on, so then I was free to get on with and do other things. I never had to worry if I would ever make a film that leaves a huge cultural footprint.”
The second thing that the proverbial dogs on the street might bark about Michigan-born auteur is that, having been raised in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, he did not see his first film until he was 17.
Speaking to Film Comment magazine in 1976 – not long after he and his brother Leonard earned a record $345,000 for the screenplay of The Yakuza – Schrader noted that: "I'm totally unlike all the people I know – the Huycks, Spielberg, Scorsese – whose whole adolescent consciousness is defined by movies. My adolescent consciousness is defined by the church and the family structure."
As a child he begged to see King Creole and Disney's Living Desert. His mother insisted that it didn't matter how innocuous the movie might seem, the admission price would support an evil industry.
“That’s where she was coming from,” says Schrader. “You’d argue that a certain film wasn’t so bad, and my parents would argue that you’re supporting all the other films that are bad. I suppose it’s an acceptable argument. But film is like any other medium. It may be largely profane but it doesn’t have to be.”
This sentiment recalls Schrader's celebrated dialogue with the film critic Pauline Kael. Writing in his 2006 essay, Cannon Fodder, the filmmaker recalled that Kael had "… attacked the wall of high culture – and the walls came tumbling down. Kill Bill is the apotheosis of Kael's movies-as-trash ideology. Movies are assemblages of pop culture; the only criterion is "fun". Is it fun? Is it cool? Is it hip?"
“Film was very different when Pauline was writing,” says Schrader. “I well remember her line about trash becoming all we were going to get. She never imagined that trash would prevail over everything else.”
There’s trash and there’s trash. Schrader remains a movie nut, even when it comes to some of Hollywood’s four-quadrant tentpoles.
"I'll go to watch Black Panther because that's something I haven't seen before," he says. "I went to watch Wonder Woman for the same reason. I don't need to see another Justice League. I have less interest in seeing a second or a third one of anything. But I am interested when they're making a new mould, like a black superhero or a female superhero"
In 1969, Schrader abandoned his plans to become a Calvinist minister, and took a university course in film studies. With a helping hand from Kael, he became film critic for a new underground magazine, the LA Free Press. He was soon fired for a negative review of Easy Rider, but not before he wrote about Robert Bresson's Pickpocket. In 1972 that film and director featured heavily in Schrader's first book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, a fascinating counterintuitive study of the sacred in a medium most, including Schrader's own parents, consider profane. Observant viewers can find echoes of Bresson's Pickpocket and A Man Escaped in Hardcore, and a loose quadrilogy comprising Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper, American Gigolo and The Walker.
Collapse of the species
"First Reformed has a sense of completion about it," he says. "It harks back to the book I wrote before I became a filmmaker and also harks back to the first script I wrote. It feels like the end of a 50-year cycle."
First Reformed, Schrader's 21st film as a director, is the most overtly Bressonian of his films to date. An interior, profound work, the film stars Ethan Hawke as the spiritually and physically afflicted minister to a dwindling flock in upstate New York. His crisis maintains a dialogue with two particular cinematic grapples with faith: Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light and Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest.
“Over the years you’ll not catch me being Bressonian,” promises Schrader. “I was always more interested in action and drugs and sexuality and violence. I just didn’t think I’d make a film like this, as much as I like them. But then the time came and I’m glad I did.”
Narrated by a diarist, First Reformed is introspective in a way that even the most thoughtful contemporary pictures are not.
Schrader laughs. "Yeah, maybe that's something to do with the fact that introspection is gone from contemporary life. There are a number of films that inspired it. But the thing that first inspired it was a conversation I had with Pawel Pawlikowski, after I'd given him an award for Ida. And afterwards I said to myself: it's time for you to do one of these movies. And I had just made Dog Eat Dog which was a completely outrageous, off the rails, profane, gonzo, Tarantino kind of film. And having made that I realised I had the urge to do the complete opposite."
The complete opposite sees Schrader assume the guise of Cassandra. Concerned by impeding environmental doom, First Reformed's protagonist considers suicide bombing as a form of radical environmental protest. The filmmaker is similarly convinced that humanity, as we know it, is unlikely to make it into the next century.
"One of three things is going to happen," says Schrader, who cites Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind as an influence. "An environmental collapse. A holocaust, likely a nuclear holocaust. Or an evolution. We're heading toward what they call a singularity, when we will no longer be able to distinguish between carbon-based and silicon-based life forms. Our technology is driving us further into ourselves. But that's really a byproduct of a larger collapse. Which is the collapse of the species. I don't know how upset you can get about Trump and white racism and all that other stuff when the species has about 50 years left to run."
‘Anger and blackness’
Filmmaking has not always been an easy business. Peter Biskind's squabbling version of the making of Cat People takes up a sizeable chunk, a debatable chunk by Schrader's account, of the post-classical Hollywood chronicle, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. For Blue Collar, Schrader's 1978 directorial debut, he had to juggle the egos of three actors – Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto – each of whom believed he was the lead. In 2003, having shot an Exorcist prequel (Exorcist: The Beginning), he was dismissed by the studio and replaced by Renny Harlin (two years on, Schrader's Exorcist attracted decent notices; Harlin's did not). A 2013 article published under the heading 'Here is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie' in the New York Times, outlines the troubled production of The Canyons, a tale of house arrests, dubious doctors' notes, and car crashes. These incidents have nothing, however, on the American auteur's experiences on Dying of the Light, a 2014 psychological thriller starring Nicolas Cage as a government agent who must track down and kill a terrorist before he loses his full memory from a disease.
“I just gave a lecture about my experiences last week at Rotterdam,” says Schrader. “I really thought – I was dreadfully afraid – that this was it. I was going to end my career with this horrific experience and it was just going to be anger and blackness from here on out.”
Dying of the Light was, he says, a casualty of the movieverse's new breed of investor. The maths were precisely calibrated around Cage. With that actor, five action sequences, a specified running time of 92 minutes and a budget of $5million, the bean-counters would make an estimated 17 per cent on their investment.
"Before, you were always dealing with people who came up through the movies and who loved the movies," sighs Schrader. "So you could always sit down together and find a resolution to any disagreement. But in the last 10 or 15 years, the people who finance movies don't particularly like movies or particularly watch movies. They have a financial model. And if you adhere to the model, you can work. And if you don't, you get replaced. And that's what I fell into with Dying of the Light. I had written the script and they hired me as director and I assumed they had hired me because they had some respect for me."
Once Schrader had finished shooting, the film was taken away from him, cut, and dumped into the VOD market.
"And then afterwards one of the men involved gave an interview to Indiewire saying 'Schrader was a director for hire who morphed into an auteur after the film was cut'. I couldn't let that stand. That stain. And that's when Dog Eat Dog came along. It wasn't my most important picture. But I had final cut."
Despite the unpleasantness around Dying of the Light, Schrader insists that in most respects, filmmaking is easier than it once was.
"First Reformed is not a film I could have made years ago," he says. "The shoot would have taken 45 days; now it takes 20. That's the benefit of the new technologies. The downside is that it is virtually impossible to make money off these kinds of films. The filmmakers are still out there. The audiences aren't."
He is not sure that there’s a neat, easy way to coax thinking patrons back into cinemas. The post-classical period that spawned Schrader and others may, he notes, be heavily romanticised. But it would be virtually impossible to replicate in the current cultural climate.
“I think it has to do with the fragmentation of culture,” he says. “When culture was more unified it was a place where people could meet: a town square in the arts. There was a social element to activism. It didn’t matter if it was abortion rights or gay rights. We made movies about it and people talked about the movies. Now there’s no place where everyone goes. And nobody talks to each other anymore. It’s hard to talk about an artistic life when you’re only seeing things that have been pre-approved for you and that you agree with.”
Against this – not to mention the thoroughly Calvinist doom that underscores his newest film – Schrader remains grateful for the timeliness of his existence and glittering career. With certain caveats, of course.
“I love the movies and at my age I have lived in the sweet spot of human history,” he says. “I was born into the wealth of American of 1947. I had the best of healthcare, the most leisure time, the most material goods. What did we do us baby boomers with that extraordinary privilege? We ruined everything for our grandkids. I don’t know what our successors will make of us. But I’ll bet they’ll build us a hell of a museum.”
Paul Schrader will present First Reformed at ADIFF on February 22nd
The Schrader Season
Paul Schrader will take part in a public question and answer session at the Irish premiere of First Reformed. The filmmaker will, additionally, be on hand to introduce three of his favourite films.
Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)
There are hints of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in Bresson's timeless depiction of a young man (the Uruguayan Martin LaSalle, in his screen debut) who fancies himself as being above the law and a high-minded inspector. "An unmitigated masterpiece" by Schrader's account.
Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)
Chas (James Fox), a London gangster with enemies, takes refuge in the house of fading rock god Turner (Mick Jagger). Psychosexual shenanigans ensue. One movie executive's wife at Warner Bros reputedly vomited "in disgust" at a test screening. Schrader, conversely, calls Performance "the real thing".
An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu, 1962)
A widower (Chishu Ryu) divides his ritualistic life between drinking sessions with friends and home, where he is tended to by daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita). A brush with the bitter spinster daughter of his former teacher reminds Hirayama of what might happen if he keeps the girl at home. Yasujiro Ozu didn't know that this unbearably poignant drama would be his final film. A fine summation of an unrivalled career.