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Paul Schrader on ‘First Reformed,’ Why There’s No Cause for Optimism, and Directing Bob Dylan

Written by on May 16, 2018 

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The number of questions any reasonable journalist has for Paul Schrader would be massive, enough to fill a book if he had the desire to indulge curiosity after curiosity. It adds up that sitting with one of my favorite American filmmakers, speaking for both screenwriter and director, leaves many possibilities. So if the topic at hand is limited, it is because his newest film, First Reformed, offers a panoply of riches all its own, to say nothing of how evidently it stands with the best of a directorial career that turned 40 this year. So’s the jumping-off point for my discussion, which, of course, couldn’t just be about one picture — all the more so when his range of references runs from Peckinpah to Rossellini, back through his new, wild charting of slow cinema in the republished edition of his seminal Transcendental Style in Film.

Our conversation is as follows.

The Film Stage: You’ve said that while First Reformed is hopefully not your last film, it would nevertheless make a suitable one.

Paul Schrader: Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of intimidating to reach such a level of gratification and completion that you say, “Well, that was it. I did my job.” You know Ride the High Country? Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, two old cowboys. Randolph Scott says to McCrea, at one point, “What do you really want?” And McCrea gives an answer that Sam Peckinpah’s father, who was a minister, had said to him: “All I want is to enter my house justified.” So that’s sort of where I am now: I can enter my house justified.

Was there a certain point where that possibility dawned upon you?

Well, when I made that decision – to write the film that I had spent decades I wouldn’t write; to work in that spiritual style – then you commit yourself to that high-wire act, because it’s very tricky to be passive-aggressive in movies. You use all these withholding techniques – I keep giving you less and less – and, eventually, if I keep giving you less, you’re going to get up and leave. I’m using the scalpel of boredom. You make a mistake with the scalpel of boredom, and you have boredom!

When you talk about boredom and “movie time,” e.g. holding a shot on a closed door, you talk about the feeling. Because you’ve been watching and talking about those films for so long, does the idea of “movie time” begin to feel different? Can you sense a change in your perception of duration?

Well, actually, now it’s easier to do durational cinema because all of cinema is moving so fast, so multitasking. The number of splices in the average film seems to double every fifteen years or so, so you’re seeing twice as many splices as when you were a kid, and everything is going much faster. You don’t have to slow down as much to be slow, so it’s easier to be slower today than it was in the past.

But has your perception as a viewer changed as you’ve become older? Looking at the “Tarkovsky Ring” in your new edition of Transcendental Style makes clear that you’ve done the homework.

It was very time-consuming because there’s a lot of slow films out there, and they’re making them faster than we can watch them. Some of them work, but a lot of them don’t. It’s a kind of a mystery – which ones work and which ones don’t – and the whole notion of duration, how you can use duration. But I’ll tell you what’s most surprising about First Reformed: the first time I showed it to some friends, I said, “I’m forewarning you: this is a slow movie.” Afterwards they saw it and said, “That’s not a slow movie!” But I had been thinking so much about the slowness that I had sort of convinced myself that it was, or that I didn’t understand the potency of the argument – that it would actually just hold people. You could actually hear a pin drop in a discussion about the human race and the environment.

I first saw the movie at NYFF in October, and its environmental concerns have stuck with me because I think about these things often. I have to wonder what effect doing research on climate change and staging something so hopeless has on you, personally.

I don’t think there’s cause for optimism, but I’m out of here. I lived in the sweet spot of history: everything was leisure time and food and material goods. The greatest generation gave birth to the most selfish generation. I, obviously, am concerned for my children and their children; I don’t know how this will resolve itself. I can’t really imagine getting out of this century without some major disruption in either evolutionary patterns or the quality of life.

But knowing you’ll be out offers some levity.

[Laughs] Yeah. But the non-carbon-based lifeforms that will succeed us… they’re going to have a great museum. “The Museum of Humanity.” [Laughs]

First Reformed is part of your “Man in a Room” quintet, which starts with Taxi Driver and wound up here. When you’re asked about what becomes of Travis Bickle, you say, “Well, he becomes a gigolo, then a drug dealer…” I saw Mishima again about a month back, and it got me into his Sea of Fertility series and, though early on, I’ve already seen how it’s concerned with reincarnation. Given your close proximity to his writings and, perhaps, the connection of those ideas, do you see an overlap?

No. It’s just, as you age, different metaphors come to play. So the cabbie was a young man’s metaphor; the drug dealer a middle-aged man’s metaphor; the minister in despair is more of an old man’s metaphor. And you can’t write that film every year. But if enough time passes, you start sensing that he wants to come back.

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Your movies have exemplary voiceover, a kind that binds very neatly with the more externalized feelings, and what Ethan Hawke does here sort of plays as two performances. I’d like to know about the styles or mentalities at play when sculpting voiceover.

When you’re writing it. Voiceover only works if it’s written as part of the script; if you do it afterwards, it’s never going to work, and the actor has to know when the voiceover is occurring. Then the trick of voiceover, despite being flat – it has to be flat – is to mix in triviality with, every now and then, a bit of consequence. So you’re just saying, “Well, I came home and turned on the TV and nothing was on. I checked that the dog had water and the dog had water. By the way, my mother died.” [Laughs] That’s how you do it.

The Toller character is writing something at the film’s climax, and it might be the one time he doesn’t voice it.

I took it out. What he had in there was, he had written something about the environment and crossed it out. He had written “Magical Mystery Tour,” crossed it out. Then he wrote, “I wish I could have another form of death.” I just came to realize that it’s more interesting for the viewer to imagine what his last thoughts might be – at what point he just closes the book and it’s over now. It’s like the words on the cross: “It is accomplished.”

I grew up near where this movie is set, and there’s something about how homes in that part of the country sound.

[Laughs] Yeah.

Walking through them when they’re empty, when it’s cold out.

You walk on the floorboards.

I’d like to know about the technical specifications of harnessing that.

Well, one of the withholding techniques is a lack of music, or only using diegetic music. We are so used to being totally informed by how to feel by music – “I should feel scared” or “I should feel happy” – that when people don’t have music they get anxious and don’t know how to feel. There’s a kid here with his head blown off and all I can hear is some birds. Shouldn’t there be some music to tell me that’s not a good thing? That’s one of the more universal techniques that’s used by contemplative directors: realizing you can’t hold somebody’s hand if you’re asking them to take a step forward. But then we’ve also entered a phase of the motion picture where the concept of sound design and context of musical composition have no merged. So there is no music in this film; there are no actual musical instruments. It’s all sound design. The composer calls himself a composer because that’s the only way he gets royalties; sound designers don’t get royalties.

This is small, but relates to that: I love the title’s effect at the start, the flourished text and title in quotes. Why that design?

Voyage in Italy. Everything is from Voyage in Italy.

[Mild spoilers follow in the next exchange] You usually leave your characters in uncertain states. This is one of the first times I’ve actively wondered, on a literal level, what happens after the cut to black – even the next few minutes.

Well, you have to sort of decide – is he dead or alive? If he’s dead, then this is an ecstatic vision. He’s on all fours and God opens the door to Heaven and says, “This is what it looks like. Welcome home.” That’s one completely valid reason. The other is that this is a miraculous event – she appears – and God’s grace has now just descended upon him and he is saved. But it ends when it goes to black. Characters in art and literature only exist to the extent that their creator wants them to exist. I just did a talk with Rachel Kushner, who’s a novelist, at the public library, and she was making just this point: “When the book ends, it ends. I don’t know what happens after that.”

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What is the “picture-puzzle script” alluded to in a recent talk?

I’ve written two episodes and a Bible for a five-parter about this man, Steve Hodel, who is convinced that his father was the Black Dahlia killer. It is all a puzzle, because it’s jumping from all different time frames with different bits of information here and there. There’s no real throughline; it’s a collage. I don’t know what will become of that. I think somebody will want to make it; I don’t know if it’ll be me.

While I have time: among my favorite works of yours is the music video for Bob Dylan’s “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love).”

[Laughs] Boy, was that a mistake. I said to Bob while we were doing it, “Bob, if you ever hear I’m doing another music video, take me out in the backyard and hose me down.” I didn’t understand music videos; I’m much too linear. I just didn’t understand the free randomness of the imagery, particularly with Dylan, who’s very random in his imagery as well.

How did that come about?

Bob asked me. I met Dylan at the time of The Last Waltz, with Marty. Then I was friends with him during his Christian period, and a couple of albums like Street-Legal – you know, in the studio. So I knew him. In fact, for Light Sleeper, the whole thing was structured as five songs.

From Empire Burlesque.

I asked Bob for permission, and he said, “Okay, but I think you’ve got the wrong songs.” He pulled out five other songs; one was “Summertime” by Gershwin. It was a non-starter. He said, “No, that’s it. You want the songs? Those are the songs, and they’re free.” So then the music supervisor brought in Michael Been, who had a Christian group. So “Something’s Burning, Baby” from Dylan becomes “World on Fire.”

I know Alex Ross Perry is working on a documentary about you.

Not a real documentary; a little Criterion snippet.

How was being a subject?

He just has shown up a few times and stood around and asked me a few questions. It really wasn’t a full-on documentary. Someone is talking about doing something now that would be much more comprehensive. But I’m waiting for them to come up with a strategy. They want to take me back to Grand Rapids and all that kind of stuff.

First Reformed enters a limited release on Friday, May 18.


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