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Committed to Paper: Writer/Director Paul Schrader on First Reformed

Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried in First Reformed (photo courtesy of A24)

With Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, which has topped many critics’ lists so far this year, on iTunes today, we’re unlocking from our paywall Darren Hughes’s interview with the writer/director from our Summer print edition.

When discussing his latest film, First Reformed, Paul Schrader regularly recounts a conversation he had over dinner with the Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski. Schrader, who famously discovered cinema as a college student after coming of age in a strict Calvinist home, has very intentionally spent his career exploring darker, more transgressive aspects of the spiritual condition. He was intrigued, however, by Ida, Pawlikowksi’s quiet, black-and-white study of a young woman preparing to become a nun. “I left that dinner and was walking and thought to myself, ’You know, it’s time,’” he told Ariston Anderson for Filmmaker. “’It’s time for you to write one of these movies.’”

The protagonist, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), ministers dutifully to the sparse congregation who still turns out for Sunday services at First Reformed, his small relic of an upstate New York church. During the week he quietly bides his time, guiding tourists through the building and teaching visiting schoolchildren about the sanctuary’s role in the Underground Railroad. As the church prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary, Toller is assigned a minor role in the ceremony by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles), whose suburban evangelical megachurch, Abundant Life, and its wealthy benefactor keep the doors open at First Reformed. 

Divorced and mourning the death of his son, Toller is a familiar Schrader type—a soul-sick recluse whose efforts to stave off despair through ascetic discipline are upended by intrusions from the outside world. Toller’s crisis is precipitated by an encounter with a young pregnant woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), whose husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), has recently returned home after serving time in Canada for vague crimes he committed as an environmental activist. When Mary asks Toller to counsel her husband, the two men engage in a wide-ranging, thrilling debate that offers Michael cold comfort and infects Toller with a new kind of agony. It’s one of the finest scenes of Schrader’s career.

Essentially a reimagining of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, and packed with self-conscious allusions to the work of Robert Bresson, Carl Th. Dreyer, Andrei Tarkovsky and Yasujiro Ozu, First Reformed is exactly the kind of film one might have expected from Schrader—in 1972, when at the age of 26 he published his influential critical study, Transcendental Style in Film (recently revised and reissued by University of California Press with a new introduction). That it took him so long to finally make “one of these movies” owes partly to new economic realities that have forced him to experiment with new financing and production models. 

I spoke with Schrader at the 2018 International Film Festival Rotterdam, where he screened First Reformed (appropriate, given Calvinism’s roots in The Netherlands) and presented a master class in which he discussed, with typical frankness, the 2014 film Dying of the Light, which was taken from him and re-edited without his input. Schrader responded at the time by assembling a team of young and relatively inexperienced collaborators, and by throwing off all pretensions of politeness for his follow-up, the wildly grotesque and hilarious caper, Dog Eat Dog, starring Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe. It was clearly a liberating and instructive experience for Schrader, who used much of the same creative team for First Reformed.

Filmmaker: I knew you were working on an updated version of Transcendental Style in Film, but during your master class today was the first time I’d heard you mention a few of the directors you’ve added to the study: Wang Bing, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Béla Tarr. Are you proposing a new canon of transcendental filmmakers?

Schrader: That book ends just before Tarkovsky. So, what happens next? I do a cosmology as a graph at the end of it that starts with narrative here. [Schrader draws a small circle in the middle of a piece of paper.] As filmmakers escape from narrative, they can go one of three places. [He draws three lines extending outward from the circle.] They can go toward the mandala. They can go to the art gallery, where it’s just colored light. Or they can go to the surveillance camps. I chart where all the various directors are in this world. 

Right here is something I call the Tarkovsky ring. [He adds another circle, also centered on the page but larger than the first and intersected by the three lines.] When you’re leaving narrative, once you pass through the Tarkovsky ring, you move from theatrical and commercial cinema to museums and galleries and festivals.

Filmmaker: It’s been a while since I last read Sculpting in Time, but doesn’t Tarkovsky imagine a film that’s basically the lived, 24-hours-a-day experience of a single person? That would be pure surveillance, I assume?

Schrader: Yeah, yeah. 

Filmmaker: I’m intrigued by your interest in Wang Bing. Talking about First Reformed, you describe making formal choices that “pull back” from the viewer and make him or her a more active participant in the experience. Wang seems to me an extreme example of this. He creates a space that makes me think deeply about essential questions in life—more so than any other contemporary filmmaker.

Schrader: Well, yeah, he’s way out here. [Schrader taps his pen on the word “surveillance.”] You know, it all starts with neorealism. And it starts with that famous shot that both Bazin and Deleuze talk about. The maid wakes up in the morning and goes over to light the stove to make some coffee. She gets a match out and strikes it, and it doesn’t light. She strikes it again. It lights, but the match goes out. She gets another match, she strikes it, it stays on, and she lights the stove. And Bazin was saying, “This is what is radical here—the use of time, real time.” Everything we’ve been doing [in classical cinema] is to tighten time. And now, time is starting to become the subject—you know, what happens. So, it starts with [the maid] and then she becomes Jeanne Dielman.

Filmmaker: You gave a talk at the Berlinale a couple of years ago about how the opening moments of your films are designed to teach the audience how to watch the movie. First Reformed opens with a long duration, planimetric dolly shot toward the exterior of the church where most of the action takes place. It puts us immediately in the world of Bergman’s Winter Light.

Schrader: It’s a 1.33:1 image, and that immediately sends a message. No sound, that sends another message. The slow, incremental move. Obviously, this is this kind of movie. Get used to it. And just because the move has stopped, we’re not going to cut just yet. We’re going to wait a little bit longer. You have no idea how long we’re going to wait. 

The one shot that I put in to really tell the viewer, “This is this kind of movie,” is when Toller visits the house of the young couple. The camera is locked off over here. [Schrader sketches a 1.33:1 frame and draws a house in the middle of it.] A woman with a dog walks across the screen, walks all the way across the screen. She exits. Then I cue Ethan. This is how we’re going to treat your need for information. The information right now is a person with a dog walking across the screen!

Filmmaker: You return to almost the exact same composition later in the film, but the second time the camera isn’t locked down. You dolly to the right so that we can watch Ethan and Amanda walk back to the garage. Each time I’ve watched First Reformed, that camera move has been a pleasant surprise.

Schrader: One day, as they were leaving the garage and going into the house, I said to the cinematographer, “Do you have a dolly track in the truck? We’re going to lay some track.” And he said, “We don’t like track.” I said, “No, we’re going to do it now because I’m just watching this, and I think I need to break the rule just so that I don’t have to reinforce the rule again.” The one thing I learned when studying slow cinema, static cinema, is “make a rule, break a rule.” The first people to break the rules are the people who make the rules. So, you make a rule: “The camera is never going to move—no tilt, no pan, nothing.” And then, of course, you break it. 

Filmmaker: You just said “slow cinema” and then you corrected yourself and said “static cinema.” Do you make a distinction between them?

Schrader: No, no, no. Slow cinema is a very wide term. Static cinema is locked-off cinema. Béla Tarr is not static cinema. He’s slow. Ida is static. When I was talking to Pawel, I said, “You know, the last two shots are moving, but you do have one tilt and one pan earlier.” He said, “Oh, you mean shots 18 and 36?”

Filmmaker: Speaking of formal choices, I timed it yesterday, and the conversation between Toller and Michael is twelve minutes. After watching too many movies over too many years, nothing gives me more pleasure as a viewer than that moment when I realize a scene isn’t what I thought it was going to be.

Schrader: This is a warm bath. Just settle in. The master [shot] was 15 [minutes], and it was our first day. I said to them, “The first day, we’re going to do a 15-minute master.” They were really prepared. And the trick there [is] you don’t want to move the camera, but you need to keep it alive for 12 minutes. So, there’re two voiceovers and one move. The voiceovers—where you hear what he’s thinking while the other person is talking, like he’s writing in his journal—just break it up and allow you to come back in again.

One of the things I learned from doing The Comfort of Strangers with [Harold] Pinter was if a scene is good, there’s no arbitrary length. Just let it play. But you do have an internal clock. That script is 85 pages long, so the financier said we had to deliver a 90-minute movie. And I said, “The movie’s going to be long.” I put everything in the film for the first cut. Usually, I whittle it out right away, but I just didn’t know how long this film could hold. And it was two hours and two minutes. After I watched it with a bunch of people, I said to the editor, “I got a feeling for it in the room.” Because that’s what you do when you’re with other people. You just feel it in the room. I said, “I think the running time of this movie’s an hour and 46 minutes.” And it ended up at an hour and 47. I just had a sense that that’s how long this movie could hold.

Filmmaker: I’m curious to know where that long conversation between Toller and Michael came from. You’ve told the story many times of growing up in a strict Calvinist home and not getting to see movies until you were a teenager. I wonder, 50 years later, how much of your own internal monologue still speaks in that Calvinist voice? Was writing that conversation an opportunity to purge something?

Schrader: No. I mean, I remember those kind of conversations from being a kid in the church. It’s a delicious situation because Toller can talk about a sickness unto death, a Kierkegaardian despair. And he’s describing it to the kid, but he’s the one who has that. He’s describing himself.

I don’t know if I told you the story about the softcore house in Grand Rapids?

Filmmaker: No!

Schrader: There was a cinema that showed softcore porn—Radley Metzger kinds of stuff—and it was not doing very well. The owner had this idea to do a month-long Ingmar Bergman festival. And, of course, for everybody from Calvin College, it was the first time they saw these films. And no one from Calvin was really aware that you could make films in their arena that had quality. That’s where it started for me. It started with Through a Glass Darkly.

Filmmaker: I’m glad you mentioned that film in particular because I was reminded of it by the final shot in First Reformed. I don’t know if you remember, but after Harriet Andersson’s character has her schizophrenic breakdown and is flown off to the hospital, her father offers her younger brother words of encouragement about love and hope. The scene is so wise because his sincere advice is undercut by the terrifying scenes that preceded it. I like the dissonance—in Bergman’s film and in yours.

Schrader: I haven’t seen it in a long time. I wrote this script, and the ending was more or less from Diary of Country Priest. Toller drinks the plumber’s fluid, he dies on the floor, and the camera pans up to the cross. I asked Kent Jones to read it, and he said, “Oh, you went with the Country Priest ending. I thought you were going to go for the Ordet ending.” The Ordet ending is you have a miracle, and the response to the miracle is not saintly. It’s carnal. His dead wife comes back, and it’s not, “Oh, praise God!” It’s just, “How much I desire you!”

Filmmaker: “I loved her body, too,” he says. That adds a nice complexity to the hymn being sung over the final embrace in First Reformed: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Schrader: People say, “That’s from Night of the Hunter. That’s the song Lillian Gish sings.” But I didn’t take it from there. That was a real staple of the Billy Graham campaigns, and my father used to take us. George Beverly Shea was singing that song. I’ve never really forgotten it.

Filmmaker: The thought of you attending a Billy Graham crusade is hard to reconcile. I suppose First Reformed gave you a chance to revisit the world of American organized religion.

Schrader: It’s so easy to make fun of the church. The church really helps you in that way. So, I had to figure out how to make this an interesting drama, without making the church seem too superficial. That’s why I cast Cedric. Because I knew that if I cast [the head pastor] as an old white guy, like Pat Robertson, it would just be so obvious. And Cedric has such a great personality. When you walk around with him, you see people actually light up when they see him. That’s why I went to him—because he was black and because he had that comic aura that I could get him to be a much more interesting character.

Filmmaker: I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s but in an environment probably not too dissimilar from your childhood. By the ’80s, it had become Reagan-era evangelicalism, an earlier version of Abundant Life Church in the film. 

Schrader: Yeah, well, what killed my church was, of course, TV because you can’t live in isolation when TV is coming into your house every day. You weren’t able to lock off the outside world at that point. But my relatives who came from this country [The Netherlands] came because they were the oppressed and nobody liked them. So, they came to Michigan and they came to New Jersey and Ohio, and they tried to set up a theocracy.

Filmmaker: American churches have learned a lot of lessons from TV over the years. The marketing and branding of Abundant Life that is sprinkled throughout the film might play like satire to some audiences, but I live in the land of megachurches and know that world well, and your version is hardly over the top. For example, the conversation between Toller and the choir director (Victoria Hill): They sit together in the church cafeteria and then you cut to a wide, planimetric shot that reveals a wall behind them that is decorated with Bible verses.

Schrader: Yeah.

Filmmaker: Like the unexpected dolly shot, that 90-degree cut is thrilling. What other tools does static and slow cinema make available to you as a director? And how predetermined was your approach?

Schrader: When you go 1.33:1, one of the first things to go is the overs because there’s not much room for a shoulder here. There are no overs in First Reformed, which has a subtle impact. People are so used to seeing overs. And when they’re not seeing overs, they don’t know they’re not seeing overs, but they know there’s something different. 

The other technique is a recessive acting style. As I said to Ethan, “This is a lean-back performance, not a lean in.” And he knew exactly what I was saying right away. He only leans in once in the whole film, and this is when he starts to come apart at the end, when the minister tells him he’s got to do something. I didn’t know Ethan was going to do that. After the take, he said, “I know that you didn’t want me to do that, so I’m happy to do it again.” And I said, “No, I think your instinct was absolutely right.” You know, make a rule, break a rule.

Filmmaker: During your master class, you mentioned that when you began editing Dying of the Light, you realized you had made some mistakes when you were filming it and that the footage wasn’t there.

Schrader: Yeah, well, because of the lack of support I had, I had become progressively more cowardly.

Filmmaker: In what sense?

Schrader: Because every time I would think of something that wasn’t totally predictable or the way it should be, I would get real strong feedback. And it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re in that environment, that takes its toll, and you stop thinking outside the conventions. I didn’t have a producer who knew movies.

Filmmaker: Is that the new normal? Is it possible to build a strong creative team on relatively small budgets?

Schrader: When I came to First Reformed, I took it over to Killer Films. I already had Ethan. I couldn’t deal with financing, but it was the same people who had financed Dog Eat Dog, so I knew their mindset. I said to Christine [Vachon], “You’ve got to get me a producer to protect me,” and that’s what she did. That was Killer’s contribution.

Filmmaker: Who is that?

Schrader: Frank Murray. He’s Ang Lee’s guy. That was really indispensible. If I had had Frank on [Dying of the Light], we wouldn’t have made these mistakes. Of course, if I had had Frank, he would’ve gotten fired.

Filmmaker: You worked with the same team of relatively young collaborators that you first assembled for Dog Eat Dog. How did the process evolve with First Reformed?

— Well, it’s totally different. Dog Eat Dog, there are no rules. We can do anything. First Reformed, it’s all rules. 

Filmmaker: I’ve heard you say that because so much is possible now in post, it almost doesn’t matter who shoots the film.

Schrader: Cinematographers used to have secrets, and they held their secrets very close to their chest. If you wanted a James Wong Howe look or a Gordon Willis look, you paid for them and they gave you their look. Now digital is so malleable that you can go to an NYU film student, show them a [Vittorio] Storaro and say, “That’s what I want,” and he’ll do it. I mean, they just knock it off. There are no real secrets anymore. The lights are so small, and it’s all computerized. They’re lighting from their iPads. They can re-light in post. The idea of the cinematographer’s secrets is not what it used to be. But that said, you do need a cinematographer who is really smart.

Filmmaker: Has anything been lost for you in that transition? 

Schrader: No. I mean, I miss having a trailer. There’s no time for them anymore. You set up the shot and you go to your trailer, and by the time you get there, there’s a PA behind you calling out, “We’re ready.” Oops, didn’t make it to the trailer today. 

There was so much downtime in old moviemaking—guys sitting in their trailers and smoking dope and hanging out with their friends, just killing time. There’s virtually no downtime for actors now. We shot First Reformed in 20 days. It would’ve been 47, 20, or 30 years ago. And we got more dailies in 20 days than we would’ve gotten in 45. The actor never stops working. He never gets out of the sun. Ethan was saying, “I think this is better. You don’t get out of character. You don’t have two hours where you’re sitting and start making phone calls.”

There’s another school of thought here. You lose the time to live with the process, when you move so fast. Like, The Graduate was shot in 100 days. Today, it’d be shot in 25. Dustin Hoffman was talking recently and said it wouldn’t have been as good in 25. Well, who knows? Other people, like me and Ethan, say, “Quality improves because you never get out of the mindset.” You’re doing it 12 hours straight all the time. You’re always at a high point of creative urgency.

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