What Would Tarkovsky Do? & Other Lessons From Paul Schrader & ‘First Reformed’ [Interview]

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Apocalyptic visions are in vogue at the moment, yet no one has been playing this game for longer than Paul Schrader, who as a young man traded in his ambitions to join the priesthood for a career first as a film critic, then as a writer/director, translating the fire and brimstone of biblical prophecy into the violent fantasies of loners like Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver.”

His latest, “First Reformed,” might deliver the most fevered vision yet by joining together some of the disparate interests that have defined Schrader’s career. Starring Ethan Hawke as a priest driven to a spiritual crisis, “First Reformed” takes some of the techniques (and specific plot elements) of directors like Bresson and Dreyer that Schrader first made his name analyzing, but despite all of the references, Father Toller is instantly recognizable as a Paul Schrader protagonist.

READ MORE: Paul Schrader’s ‘First Reformed’ Is A Gripping Spiritual Riff On ‘Taxi Driver’ [Review]

Opening Friday via A24 studios, “First Reformed” is an exciting example of reaching across generations to use older aesthetics and philosophies to give a fresh perspective on contemporary problems. I spoke with Paul Schrader about the film’s genesis and themes. 

Is it fair to say that this film comes closer than any of your others to the transcendental style you wrote about in the 1970s?
Yes. And I’ve updated that book, coming out next week. I wrote that book before I was a screenwriter and over the years people have tried to connect that book to my films and I said ‘No, that’s not me. I’m not working in that style. You can draw comparisons, but they’re wrong.’ And then about three years ago, after talking to Pawel Pawilowski [the director of “Ida”], I said ‘OK, it’s time. It’s time for you to write that script you said you would never write.’

But why was it time?
Two things. One is age. I was going to be 70 the next year and I said ‘It’s time now.’ But the other is the falling cost of making movies. So a movie that in this country would have been financially irresponsible twenty years ago is less so now because it costs about half as much to make a movie. When I began, I would have made this film in forty-five days, now I made it in twenty. The Europeans who do this sort of film usually get some sort of subsidy, but we get no subsidy so we have to justify everything as a potential return. I was saying to Olivier Assayas, ‘Boy if I was born in France my life would be a lot easier,’ because he get’s like a third of the budget every time. So I just never felt I could convince anyone to make this film because they wouldn’t make any money on it.

Was it refreshing to work within the confines of this more rigorous style?
Oh yes, when you set rules then you have a chance to be creative. Like if I said to you ‘Design a modern chair,’ or, ‘Design a modern chair, for someone who weighs 500 pounds.’ The second one, your mind is already thinking.

So you say ‘OK, we’re going to use this square format, we’re not going to pan, not going to tilt, not going to have music, not going to have expressive acting, that gives you the parameters in which you can work. And the other nice thing about having rules is that you get to break them. So you say we’re never going to dolly and then all of a sudden you put in a dolly. And you might say why make a rule if you’re going to break it? Well, you break it so you can go back and make it again.

There are two scenes that rather spectacularly break the rules, two of the most memorable in my opinion. Did you envision those from the beginning?
Well, with the transcendental style you always break a rule at the end. Whether it’s music or whatever, like in “Ida,” the last shots are moving, moving, moving when the whole film has been static. At the end, you do have to jump out of the material plane in some way. So I wanted to foreshadow that there was a parallel universe just over this one and that we may go there. So I was thinking, ‘How can I do a scene that indicates this?’ And I said to myself quite literally, ‘What would Tarkovsky do?’ Well, he would have them levitate. That’s his go-to position, “The Mirror,” “The Sacrifice.” So I had them levitate, but instead of having them just levitate, like Tarkovsky, I’ll take them on a tour. It’s like the Boschian triptych, “Garden of Earthly Delights.” You start with Eden, you go into the present, and you end up in the underworld.

Are you interested in working in this style again?
I don’t think so. Right now I’m interested in doing something completely different. There’s almost nothing in common between “Dog Eat Dog” and this film. For the next go round, if there is one, I’d like to find a new mountain to climb.

Considering its difficult themes and that it somewhat casts judgment, have you been surprised by the positive reception to this film?
Yep. It’s certainly the most positive reaction I’ve ever had for a film. And it’s strange because I set out to make a cold film and now I’m getting a hot reaction. Shows you how unpredictable these things are. People think they can calculate it, but then they lose it all. It’s hard to calculate. People have responded well. I’ve been with this film for nine months, starting with Venice and Telluride and taking it to festivals all over the world, lecture tour, and I find that the reaction is pretty much the same, whether in Rotterdam or Miami. The film seems to work. How and why, I’m not quite sure.

I’ve heard that you’ve taken the film to seminaries, can you describe the reactions there?
I did three cities for two days, the first day I’d show the film, Q&A, the next day I’d give a lecture from the new book and I’d do a panel with the faculty. So I did this at Calvin College, at Fuller Theological in Pasadena, and at New Haven. My first thought why I would do this went back to “The Last Temptation of Christ” and how we got blindsided and how the opponents of the film got the first blow in and then we never really recovered. And so I thought in this climate now, who knows who takes offense at what, and who knows who might rail against this film? And I don’t want them to have the first shot, so I’m going to take it out to the humanist, mainstream Christian community, because I had gotten a good review in “Christianity Today,” and I thought it would play in those communities, even though it’s not a faith-based film. Then even if they do come after me, I at least would have a reservoir of reputable religious scholars who will stand up for me. I still hope it doesn’t happen, and now I’m starting to think maybe it won’t, although one website, they gave a write-up and they had misinterpreted the trailer and thought the environmentalist was a bad guy and the minister was the good guy (Laughs).

What was the impetus for this film? Was it to write about religion, or to write about climate change, or more a response to your ideas on transcendent cinema?
It was the idea that it’s time now. You cross that Rubicon of saying it’s time now, and you go back and watch all the movies of this ilk that mean something to you, picking up pieces here and there. A character from “Diary of a Country Priest,” setting from “Winter Light,” ending from “Ordet,” levitation from Tarkovsky, opening shot from “Silent Light,” a little bit of “Wise Blood,” you’re just collecting these elements. What I didn’t understand, I thought I would put all these elements together and they would work. What I didn’t notice until later, what I didn’t notice was working, was “Taxi Driver.” The glue, the obsessive glue of “Taxi Driver,” was holding all these elements together. My editor said to me, ‘There’s a lot of ‘Taxi Driver’ in this film.’ And I said ‘I know there’s some, I put it in there.’ And he said ‘No, there’s a lot.’ And he was right, there is a lot. And it’s that obsessiveness, that throbbing urgency, that keeps it from feeling so cold.

Where do you stand on the central question of the film? Do you agree with Michael?
I don’t think there’s much cause for optimism. I think we as a species have made our decision, I don’t see how this decision can be reversed. Everyone’s hoping for a deus ex machina, a magic bullet, but I don’t see that coming.

The vision of the film is you must choose to hope. Because you can’t live the other way. Like Camus said, ‘I don’t believe, I choose to believe.’ The meditation says you must choose to hope, hold that in your mind, otherwise, it’s all despair. But of course, he’s not hoping. So you can hope, but I see very little evidence how this would work except through some magic bullet.

But on the other hand, we’re on the cusp of an evolutionary change anyway, and maybe the species of the future, the species of the singularity, non-carbon based life forms, they will hopefully adapt to the world. But for our species, getting out of the century is, I think, quite unlikely.

Was Ethan your first choice? He seems perfectly cast.
Yes, he was. There is a certain physiological type, for a priest who’s struggling, whether that’s Montgomery Clift in “I Confess,” or Claude Laydu in “Diary of a Country Priest,” so I was thinking of types like that, Jake Gyllenhaal or Oscar Issac, but Ethan had ten years on them and I thought that was an interesting ten years, he’s getting some interesting lines in his face now. The first time we met, I said ‘This is a lean back performance. Whenever you detect the other person is interested in you, move a little further away.’

Thinking about Jeffers versus Toller, do you think Toller’s self-critical brand of faith is lacking in today’s world?
There’s a whole type of Christianity now that is entertainment based, rather than soul-searching. And I have a problem with that because I think the question of divine being, or God, is a very private and quiet thing. To come into the presence of the holy is something you do yourself, you don’t do it in a football stadium. So when I see these evangelical rallies, it seems to me like everyone wearing red and doing the chop at a football stadium, or everyone at a Trump rally, or everybody at a Taylor Swift concert. It seems to me to be about the pleasure one gets from being in a group and all doing and saying the same things, and that to me is not what holiness is.

[Here we had some back and forth on liberal Christians being so overshadowed in the national conversation by conservative Evangelicals.]
When I’ve been going around to these conservative but mainstream seminaries, all these people, ministers, professors, just felt they had walked into a wall and were saying ‘what happened?’ The alt-right and the evangelicals have the loudest voices and they do such outrageous things, call so much attention to themselves, that people actually start to think that they represent Christianity, that it’s OK to give Trump a mulligan, which is just stunning. It’s very clear that Trump has driven a slice of the Christian church off a cliff. But actually I was quite heartened to visit these seminaries, which is of course where I came from, they are much more liberal now, in terms of homosexuality, in terms of creationism.

I found it interesting that the most fervent ‘believer’ in the film may have been Michael, who wasn’t really a Christian. Was that intentional?
Well, he’s the most committed. But that’s not entirely healthy either. You don’t have an explosive vest in your garage if you’re a healthy person. But what is interesting is the degree to which Toller is an environmentalist, or the degree to which he just caught the virus.

From Saint Augustine on, suicide is a sin, it’s selfish, you can’t repent, unless you’re Samson, and then you can pull the temple down right on top of you. Maybe what happens to Toller is he sees this greater mantle that he can wrap around himself that justifies his self-loathing, and he’s no longer just a guy drinking himself to death, he’s now spearheading a greater good. That may be his mental pathology and that may have as much to do with his environmentalism as anything else.

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