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Five Questions for First Reformed Director Paul Schrader

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed

Paul Schrader returns to form with a deeply introspective film, First Reformed, which, following screenings in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, screens tonight at the New York Film Festival, where it was a late addition to the program. The writer of films including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and director of films including American Gigolo and Affliction delivers a new work that both contains echoes of his previous pictures depicting “God’s Lonely Men” while also being quite unlike anything he’s ever done. (Plus, argues Vadim Rizov, something of a treatise on the role of Slow Cinema today.)

Ethan Hawke stars as a former military chaplain, Toller, who can’t get over the death of his son. When he meets a radical environmental activist, Michael (Philip Ettinger), he doubts both his faith and his purpose in life. After Michael’s suicide, Toller finds a connection with Michael’s young widow, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried. Schrader originally wanted to shoot the film in black and white until his financiers demanded a color delivery. The resulting film, shot in a boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, is anything but colorful, containing moody grays, greens and purples, a palette befitting First Reformed‘s heavy themes, which include mental illness and the extinction of the human race. We spoke to Schrader about how Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida influenced him to write the story, how climate change is taking center stage in films and the secret to writing a compelling story about despair.

Filmmaker: What drew you to make a spiritual film?

Schrader: Before I became a screenwriter, I was a critic and I wrote a book on spirituality and films, Transcendental Style in Film, which is being reissued now. So it was always a kind of film I was interested in. I never thought I’d actually make one. I was more interested in some of the more aggressive qualities of film: the action, empathy, stuff like that.

Then, a couple of years ago I was having dinner with Pawel Pawlikowski, and he was talking about his film Ida. I left that dinner and was walking and thought to myself, “You know, it’s time. It’s time for you to write one of these movies.” Once I acknowledged that, it became easy. But also it had to do with the financial realities. It’s now possible to make this film financially in a way it wasn’t 10 years ago, just because the budgets have come down so much. 20 years ago this film would have taken 40 days, this year it took 20 days. That’s a whole different financial reality, and it applies across the board to all films. So the upside is it’s very easy to make a film now. The downside is it’s almost impossible to get it seen.

Filmmaker: What would you say is at the core of Toller’s character?

Schrader: This guy has a sickness that Kierkegaard called a sickness unto death — a lack of hope, despair, angst. This sickness has manifestations. The cloth of the clergy is one, the diary is another, the alcohol is another, and finally the environment is a manifestation of his soul sickness. So he grafts this cause onto himself — in fact, picks it up as a kind of virus from another person. But if it weren’t the environment, it would be something else.

Filmmaker: Why did you make climate change such a big part of this story?

Schrader: Theologians and philosophers have been having this discussion for four or five thousand years, and all of those discussions are now in boldface because we are actually at the point in human history where there may be an end to those discussions. You start talking about what is the purpose of life, what is the purpose of humanity, what does it mean to be human, what does it mean to have consciousness? If you stand on your tiptoes and look, you can start to see the end of that conversation. Therefore it’s a very exciting time to be alive, and a frightening one as well. So the environment takes these classic religious and philosophical debates and puts them in neon and starts flashing them at you.

Filmmaker: From Travis Bickle talking to himself in a mirror to Toller journaling, what’s the key to showing internal despair on screen?

Schrader: I’ve done a number of these films, I call them monocular films because it’s like looking at life this way. You don’t see any other life than your character’s life; there is no other life. In fact, if you saw another reality other than the taxi driver’s, it would break the spell. So you lock into a kind of a person, and the goal, hopefully, is to get the viewer to start to empathize because we do this naturally, just like we form constellations out of stars. The stars don’t actually look like a dog or a lion. We do that; that’s how our mind works. So we form these empathetic relationships with performers, and once you do that, you end up identifying with someone who you come to realize is not worthy of your identification. And that’s a very interesting place to put a viewer. Because they are too far in to leave, and they are too invested not to care, but they no longer believe in the rightness of the character.

Filmmaker: What were your thoughts on Martin Scorsese’s recent faith-based film Silence?

Schrader: In fact, I tried to steal that script from him 20, 30 years ago; he caught me. I think he had a very big problem with that film setting it in the past, because the premise under which that book was written no longer applies. It was the premise that the missionary effort was inherently a positive one. We used to believe that 50 years ago; no one believes that anymore. Now everyone thinks of the missionaries as the spearhead of colonialism. So the book was predicated on the fact that the missionary effort was a positive one, and not even Marty believes that anymore. So he ends up making a film where Kundun and Last Temptation of Christ have a debate, and no one wins.

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