Three Bullets in the Gun: Paul Schrader on Master Gardener
If a screenplay packs a big reveal, in which everything you think you know about the lead character is immediately upended, does the film live and die by its twist? Or is it even considered a twist when said reveal arrives 20 minutes into a 112-minute feature? Paul Schrader’s latest, the intentionally provocative but surprisingly gentle (for a Paul Schrader movie) Master Gardener, is not a film that lives or dies by what you know going into it, but, as is the case with most of his offerings, I’d advise you to not look up more than your local showtimes. This is an excellent film that, like its main character Narvel Roth (played by Joel Edgerton as Schrader’s standard “lonely man with an occupation and a history”), is hard to defend but easy to praise.
Shot over three weeks in Louisana, Master Gardener has been categorized as the conclusion of an unintended trilogy that began with Schrader’s First Reformed in 2017 and continued with The Card Counter in 2021. With these three films, Schrader has witnessed a resurgence of interest in his career, primarily amongst a younger crowd of cinephiles who, in addition to banging the drum for the director’s latest output, are devouring his earlier work and displaying their fandom proudly (can I interest you in a Hardcore tote?). And while Master Gardener—co-starring Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell, and Esai Morales—will be slightly more difficult to mine merchandise opportunities out of, the shock of its risque logline eventually gives way to a more modest, mature film about forgiveness and acceptance, told not with capital letters but in understated prose. Narvel has carried out some reprehensible actions in his past, but rather than conclude with Schrader’s recurring homage to the closing moments of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, the film begins with its law-breaking protagonist doing everything he can to distance himself from those sins.
As Schrader has been speaking with Filmmaker for the entirety of the publication’s existence (read Editor-in-Chief Scott Macaulay’s interview with him conducted over 30 years ago for the very first issue of the magazine), I spoke with Schrader two days before Master Gardener was to open in theaters courtesy of Magnolia Pictures and as the director was getting ready for a Q&A following a double feature of First Reformed and The Card Counter at Film at Lincoln Center. A few spoilers, minor but important to the narrative, follow.
Filmmaker: Your previous feature, The Card Counter, was released in September of 2021, and by February of 2022, you went into production on Master Gardener in Louisiana. There’s been an increased speed in which you’re getting your films made, and I was curious if, using your two most recent features as an example, you find yourself doing press for one film while you’re writing the screenplay and planning pre-production on the next. Are those wheels spinning simultaneously?
Schrader: That’s evenhow it is right now, as I’m preparing to start [production] on a new film in two or three months [a film adaptation of the late Russell Banks’s 2021 novel, Foregone] with Richard Gere, on a script that I wrote while I was editing Master Gardener. It’s always nice to have something in your back pocket. I particularly tell young directors that you don’t go out into battle until you have at least three bullets in your gun, because if you shoot that first bullet and it misses, you have no other bullets left and you will be forgotten about. But if you already have a second bullet in the chamber, by the time the first one goes off, you’re still in the game. When I started, I always thought about that three [bullets analogy]. Godard had said that “you get three shots in this business,” and I thought to myself, “OK…” So, the first two “bullets” were not successful financially but luckily the third one was, and I thought, “Hoo boy, I nailed it on the third shot.”
Filmmaker: And those first two bullets were…
Schrader: Blue Collar and Hardcore. They didn’t make any money, but I already had American Gigolo “loaded in the pistol” when Hardcore came out and that was the third bullet.
Filmmaker: So while you were on the festival circuit/press tour for The Card Counter [in the evenings], you were spending your days already planning pre-production work on Master Gardener?
Schrader: Yes, when I could, but pre-production, officially, is when you start ringing up the bills. There are earlier levels of pre-production, with various kinds of preparation and casting and meeting with people to [come aboard the project], but at that point, the meter isn’t running yet.
Filmmaker: You’ve spoken about how the occupation of your films’ protagonist will often inform the metaphor you’re attempting to incorporate within the film, or perhaps I’m misquoting you and it’s the metaphor that informs the occupation. Do you choose the occupation of the lead (a taxi driver, a card counter, etc.) because you view it as an apt metaphor for a larger commentary? In what ways does one dictate the other?
Schrader: It’s gone both ways. For example, I had the “problem” before I had the metaphor on Light Sleeper, and that problem was someone experiencing a midlife crisis. I’d just turned 40 and that’s what I wanted to write about. I couldn’t find a character [to attach it to] at that point, but then the character of a drug delivery boy came to me, and I said, “Now that’s a great character [to explore] a midlife crisis with.” People think of him as a bad guy, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s just a 40-year-old guy who doesn’t have any skills and whose boss is going to go into another line of business. However, for the card players in The Card Counter, I was thinking of people in casinos and the kind of purgatorial existence they share when the’re sitting there for hours and hours. What’s appealing about that? What’s appealing about the anesthetic of the mindless? Gamblers don’t even have to pull a lever anymore; you can just push a button or, if you’re really lazy, you can just set it on continuously.
Filmmaker: And then people come around to serve you drinks.
Schrader: Yes, and so I was thinking about what kind of person that would really appeal to. It’s a person who wants to be numb, and that’s also what alcohol does. Then I started [writing], and the idea went from there to there to there.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the use of flashbacks in your writing and when you choose to implement them. I was watching Affliction [Schrader’s 1998 film co-starring Nick Nolte and James Coburn, also based on a novel by Russell Banks] the other day, and in that film, the flashbacks are very prominent and help to visualize the abuse suffered by the main character as a child. The flashbacks there have a very specific look to them that, I want to say, were shot on 16mm film, but I could be wrong.
Schrader: Yes, we shot [those scenes] on 16mm, but then projected that footage [in a theater] and filmed that on 35mm with a zoom lens. That’s what [you’re seeing].
Filmmaker: It provides the flashbacks with a very disorienting effect. I was also curious about the use of flashbacks, as in Master Gardener, as a narrative device in which the viewer is getting momentary glimpses of key information. For example, I think the first flashback we get is of a motorcyclist crashing their bike, then we eventually learn why that occurs as we receive a plethora of shots of a bearded Joel Edgerton to depict Narvel’s “previous life.” Are those fragments of backstory something that comes out in various drafts of your screenplay? In the edit?
Schrader: Well, preferably, I would like to do it like in Taxi Driver, where there are no flashbacks or the flashbacks occur in the viewer’s imagination. That way, you can let the audience know that this is a former Marine, as he has the jacket and the t-shirt, etc. and you [can tell] he was in the service. People knew enough about Vietnam at the time that they could put it together themselves. In First Reformed, all the lead character has to say is, “I told my son to enlist. My wife didn’t want me to, and she left me, and he died.” I don’t have to show you that. But then you start getting into The Card Counter, and the character is talking about Abu Ghraib and the hallucinogenic nightmare that Abu Ghraib has become for him, and that’s when you say [as a writer], “Oh, I’d better show that.” Theoretically, I could have just shown the tattoos on Narvel [in Master Gardener] and maybe I should’ve tried an edit with no flashbacks at all, but I always thought of this film as [having them].
Filmmaker: Speaking of Narvel’s tattoos, was revealing that visual information to the viewer something that’s order changed throughout your drafts? Specifically, the first time we see Narvel with his shirt off before the scene fades to black.
Schrader: I had just moved a scene around it. It was originally going [to be revealed] when Sigourney’s character takes Joel to bed, or asks him to go to bed, with her. When we originally shot the scene, it has Joel removing his clothes and that was the end of the scene. But in the edit, I realized, “Well, wouldn’t it be interesting if I put the tattoo reveal before we get to that scene so that, when see Sigourney looking at his body, we already know that that’s what she sees?” Then in post we added the line where she says, “I want to see you.”
Filmmaker: I was curious about the primary setting of the film, Gracewood Gardens. You obviously needed to find land laced with extravagant botanical exteriors, but then there are the more classical living spaces Norma resides in and the comparatively quaint, on-site living quarters of Narvel and the modest greenhouses that Norma’s staff works in. Were the exteriors all taken from one location?
Schrader: Yes, that’s the Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge. It’s the same plantation that was used for [Antoine Fuqua’s film] Emancipation [right before our film]. The site was used for our exteriors, and there’s a house down the road that’s very similar [to Rosedown’s architecture] that productions often use for interiors, so that’s what we did.
Filmmaker: What made you choose Rosedown for the exteriors?
Schrader: I wanted a private estate garden and we had to be in Louisiana due to the time of year we were filming in. I wanted to shoot in the Midwest or in the Northwest, but since we were going to shoot the film in March, the only place you can shoot is in the South, and the only place in the South that gives you great [tax] incentives is Louisiana and all the great gardens in Louisiana are former plantations, so there you have it.
Filmmaker: You experienced a health scare where you contacted walking pneumonia by the end of production. Did the illness keep you off set for an extended period of time? Did you return with even more determination to complete the film?
Schrader: Oh, I never left set.
Filmmaker: You never left set?
Schrader: I finished [production] and went right from the wrap [party] to home [in New York] and then to the ER.
Schrader: I think a lot of it had to do with COVID. I had walking pneumonia by the time [I returned home to New York], but I was in the hospital three times last year, and both Richard Gere and Glenn Close, good friends, were in the hospital the last few months with bronchial pneumonia, and they did not have a history of it. I think what ties all of this together is long COVID, as one-fifth of people who have COVID get long COVID, and you’re seeing more and more people going to the hospital who wouldn’t normally be going. The only explanation I have for it is long COVID.
Filmmaker: When your films are invited to well renowned international film festivals, are you ready to humor the conversations that come with them? Are you anticipating the reactions before you even screen them for the first time? I ask this as a recent New Yorker profile noted that, after an invite-only rough cut screening of Master Gardener, you were left unsure if the film worked. Are you following those reactions in a broader sense?
Schrader: You read them, but you read them more than you listen to them. You can feel it in the room whether you have them or you don’t, whether it’s making sense or whether you’re losing them. Regarding that piece in The New Yorker, I realized it wasn’t working. Nobody had to tell me that there was something missing. I kept editing and editing, and finally I figured out what was missing, then we re-shot for a day. I wrote a new scene and put it in the film.
Filmmaker: What was the film missing?
Schrader: The scene in the cafeteria where Quintessa’s character, Maya, exposes Narvel and she finally gets angry. There was no scene in [the first cut] where Maya gets angry. That was a mistake I made as a writer and then as a director, but one I fortunately caught as an editor. The worst thing that happens is when you catch a mistake after the film is released, and you say to yourself, “Oh, that’s the scene I was missing.”
Filmmaker: At a recent screening of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, you observed that the screening was primarily made up of young people, many of whom hadn’t seen the film before. How have you taken this wave of youthful audiences discovering your past work? Is it inspiring or invigorating as it pertains to your current filmmaking? I mean, there are Twitter accounts that exists merely to share screenshots of your Facebook posts.
Schrader: When I was a young film critic in L.A., I remember going to a party once and it was all young film students, film critics, a lot of British contingent, and then there was an old guy in the corner with a cigar telling stories. It was Sam Fuller, and everybody was around him listening to Sam tell these great stories. I remembering walking out, thinking to myself, “Gee, doesn’t he have any friends his own age?” Now I’m that guy! [laughs] I’m that guy in the corner with the kids walking out saying, “It’s so sad, he doesn’t have any friends his own age.”
Filmmaker: Maybe there’s also the A24 component of it all and their releasing First Reformed. But these past few years, this trilogy of films, have definitely felt like a career resurgence for you, at least from my perspective on the outside looking in.
Schrader: It all started with the technology and the fact that I was now able to get final cut. After that one film [2014’s Dying of the Light] was taken away from me [by Lionsgate in a heated dispute between filmmaker and production company/distributor], I was determined to obtain final cut [on subsequent films]. Once I received it, then I had the courage to just do things.
Filmmaker: I know a lot of people have been asking you about the Writer’s Guild of America strike currently in progress and the threatening AI component hovering above many of these disputes. In your opinion, is this much ado about nothing? Something we can’t avoid?
Schrader: I don’t think we can avoid it, and in many ways, AI has already come into our business and many other businesses. For example, if you think of a minister preparing to give a 10-minute sermon on the beatitudes, AI could write that sermon just as well as the minister could. If you’re going write an episode of CSI, AI could probably write that episode for you. But when you imagine AI writing a Bob Dylan song (there are 700 songs of his to choose from, to mesh all together with all the history of folk music and pop music), maybe on the millionth try, yes, the AI writes “Masters of War.” OK, but the real question then is, could AI write a Bob Dylan song if Bob Dylan had never written? Then you begin to wonder if eventually maybe it could. Maybe AI can crunch all of this information and musical traditions together and eventually come up with “Masters of War.” But if AI comes up with “Masters of War” as one of a million stabs at it, how are we ever going to know? Who’s going to know?
This current strike is [about] people who work on salary and people who work on spec. None of my financial interests are at stake in this current strike, but it is a good strike, a strike with the right principles. It’s just that I don’t have a dog in the hunt.