Sometimes you just have to say, ‘I don’t know why he’s doing this, but he does it. I don’t know why he’s saying this, but he’s saying it. I don’t know quite what this means. It’s a mystery to me, and I don’t want to know now.’
Despite being temporarily blinded by a surgery to remove blood from one of his eyes, Paul Schrader, legendary director and scripter behind the new film First Reformed, is alive with images. The 71-year-old icon shows only brief perturbation at being rendered largely sightless as he lucidly summons moments both visual and narrative from some of the films that formed and inspired him to pursue a life in cinema, from The Wild Bunch to Ordet.
Schrader is best known for his ‘70s collaborations with Martin Scorsese, for whom he wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull [Screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin]—still widely considered among the most important films in the history of cinema. But his path to movies was as atypical as they come: raised in Michigan as a Calvinist Christian, he famously never saw a movie until he snuck away at 17 and see The Absent Minded Professor, which did not impress him (he would later find many films, like Wild in the Country that did). Eventually he received an M.A. in film studies at UCLA and went on, with the mentorship of Pauline Kael, to a first career as a film critic, not a filmmaker. His first script for the film The Yakuza (Screenplay by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne, Story by Leonard Schrader), directed by Sydney Pollack, was a commercial failure, but it led him to write Taxi Driver solo, spawning a second, much longer career as a screenwriter and director of such films as American Gigolo and Affliction.
It sounds trite, but here it’s emphatically true, First Reformed is not like any film before it. It’s a potent, fearless outpouring from a veteran hand, visceral, disturbing, supernatural, and politically incendiary. While it’s peppered with momentary homages to great films, repurposed vignettes, it most strikingly references Schrader’s own oeuvre, giving the proceedings a valedictory tone that only dawns fully on the viewer after the screen goes dark, like a grand trick by a master magician. Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, a Michigan-born pastor at a small Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York during the run-up to its 250th anniversary. Toller is a former military Chaplain stricken by the loss of his only son in the Iraq War, a son he encouraged to sign up. He lives an austere, quietly tortured life alone in a barren room off the main chapel, where he makes daily handwritten entries in a journal and drinks whisky and Pepto-Bismol. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young parishioner in his tiny flock asks his help. She’s pregnant and her husband, a troubled environmentalist, wants her to have an abortion as he sees the world on the verge of a horrific new environmental cataclysm.
While the staid trappings of Reformed feel like new territory at first, it quickly becomes clear, this quietly sad middle-aged reverend is, like many of Schrader’s most iconic characters, a dark avenging angel of sorts, bent on what promises to be a violent act of fraught salvation. Played with desperate, self-punishing restraint by Hawke, Toller is Travis Bickle in a tab collar and cassock.
During a chat with the Writers Guild of America West website, Schrader explained that, while he knew he was reckoning with Bickle during the writing of First Reformed, he only realized the extent to which Toller and Bickle are narrative brethren during the editing the film. To that end, he illuminates the necessity, and difficulty, of sublimating one’s critical nature when creating. As he likes to say, a creator must let the magic be.
[SPOILER WARNING: Some of the film's critical plot points are discussed.]
Did you realize at the outset of writing how corollary to Taxi Driver you were going to be here?
Once I made the decision to do the film in the quiet style, to do an austere film, to do one of those kinds of films that I had written about when I was a young man, I touched back on the films that I remembered and started re-watching them and picking up elements that I thought I could use. Because the trick of stealing is that you have to steal around. You can’t just keep going back to the same 7/11, they’re going to catch you. So if you steal from many sources…at some point it starts to become your style and not mimicking other styles. I knew there were a number of films I wanted [this] to be inspired by. I suspected there would be some Taxi Driver in there. In the editing room the editor said to me, “You know there’s a lot of Taxi Driver in here?” And I said that I knew there were some, but I didn’t realize that there was this much.
You’ve said that characters that raise more questions than answers have a longer shelf life. Toller definitely accomplishes that here. Are his unknowable aspects what enable you to keep him empathetic and engaging, even as he does distasteful or potentially despicable things?
The trick of that is, you present the viewer with only one view of reality, and that is the reality of your main character. And you use narration to get under their skin, to manipulate them subconsciously. And you keep them along this path for, I would say, at least 45 minutes to an hour. Then the hook is firmly planted in and the character can start to veer off, they start to veer away. They start to do things that are not necessarily worthy of your empathy or identification, but now the hook is in, so you’re wondering how it will turn out. In the end, you find yourself identifying with a character for whom you feel no cause for identification.
So you’re almost like an unwitting, guilty accomplice?
Yeah, and what happens there, is a tiny fissure opens up in the viewer—either in their head or in their heart—and something has to escape, or something has to come in. The artist cannot really control all the specifics [of this reaction], but if the artist causes this fissure to exist, he knows something exciting is going to happen.
Is it essential to challenge and disturb viewers’ conception of good and bad, to keep them locked into a narrative?
I wouldn’t put it quite that way. You have to create in them a sense of unease, and you can do this often with stylistic tricks. Keeping the viewer on the front or back of their heels, or off to the side. [So that] there’s a disparity between what you’re seeing and what is real, and you can’t quite figure out what it is.
So it’s like a magic trick, a legerdemain of unease?
Yes, but it comes from many different directions. For example, the fact that these people don’t have anything in their houses, what would they feel? They don’t have carpets, they don’t have anything on their tables. You don’t really think of that, but that contributes to the unease, the fact that there are no over-the-shoulder [shots]. We often consider over-the-shoulder to be one of the basics of storytelling, and there’s not a single over-the-shoulder in this film.
That thing you’re referring to—the man alone in his room—is a theme of yours. It’s very Travis Bickle—and obviously it’s Toller here—is total austerity, total barren room, isolation. That helps lend to the unease…
Yes, it does.
Sitting in the editing bay, realizing the extent to which Toller and Bickle are corollary, do you see them now as sort of narrative brethren?
Well, at the Metrograph next week they’re going to show these five films which are in varying degrees a-man-in-his-room films. And that is Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, A Light Sleeper, The Walker, and First Reformed. Periodically over the years I’ve come back to this character, sometimes he’s more superficial like in Gigolo and Walker, and sometimes he’s more tortured. But he’s also just a guy in a room.
Bickle and Toller are men in a room, but they’re also writers. They’re men alone writing journals. Aside from the fact that writing itself is obviously inherently solitary, they also write under this heavy shadow of the fear that no one might ever read these words or care about them unless they commit some kind of violent act, really.
In the case of Light Sleeper, you see him actually filling up one of those composition books, writing the last line, closing the book, and dropping it in the waste pan.
When you write, are you possessed by that fear of oblivion? That this is a tree falling in the forest that no one will ever even hear?
If I am writing something that I don’t think will get published, for me, I will quit.
So you’re not insane [laughs]. You have a certain confidence—I mean, obviously you do—you’re an icon, but were you possessed even early on with the sense that what you write will be heard?
Yeah, and sometimes you come to a point 30 pages in, 40 pages in, you thought that this was going to work, and it’s now dying on you. There’s nothing for you to do but just let it die.
Public assassination was still a fresh trauma in the public psyche when Taxi Driver appeared in ’76. And here, [SPOILER ALERT] Toller dons the explosive vest that’s the physical representation of our current era of terrorism. Why do you place your protagonist in the role or garb of what is most frightful or contemptible at the time?
It’s what we spoke of earlier. When you take a character who you’ve gotten a viewer to identify with, how far off can you carry it?
How do you know if you haven't pushed too far?
I was contemplating three endings for First Reformed. The first ending is simply the explosion and a kind of Wild Bunch flurry of body parts that would be quite a nightmarish afterworld. Then I decided to go with a The Diary of a Country Priest ending, which is where he drinks the Drano, falls out of frame, and the camera rests on the crucifix. Then I said no, “I don’t like tragedy,” so the Ordet ending to twist a miracle on its head, where the characters’ response to seeing a person raised from the dead is 100 percent carnal.
What film are you citing for the ending?
Ordet [directed] by Carl Dreyer. In that case a man’s wife is raised from the dead by his idiot brother who thinks he’s Jesus, and the man’s response is not, “Oh my God, a miracle!” but, “Oh my God, I get my wife back!”
You came up as a film critic. There are not many who do that. There’s Jean-Luc Godard and James Schamus, who is an academic, an analyst of film. Criticism is essential to art, but when it’s emanating from the creator himself during the process, it can be death. How do you, as a critic, not destroy what you have called the great mystery of the process when you’re writing?
Well, there’s a song I refer to called Let The Mystery Be [by Iris DeMent]. You have to respect the mystery. Sometimes you just have to say, “I don’t know why he’s doing this, but he does it. I don’t know why he’s saying this, but he’s saying it. I don’t know quite what this means. It’s a mystery to me, and I don’t want to know now.”
You just have to let it go.
But don’t you have a chronically critical mind?
That’s why it’s hard. You have to work to keep yourself from doing things that are too programmatic. To not be frightened by the illogical or the unexpected.
Have you gotten better at that with age? Or worse?
It comes and goes with certain projects. You’re certainly not nearly as frightened of it as you were when you’re younger. You say, “I think I’m going to do a levitation scene here.” And you say, “Yeah, why not?”
But 30 years ago you might have belabored that a bit?
On a logistical front, when, where, and how you write generally? When you’re the man in the room alone writing, what’s your ritual?
No, no. I’m a spurt writer. I don't write every day. I think every day. I outline extensively, but I don’t write until I have been outlining for at least several months and I know pretty much everything I’m going to do.
So you’re one of those where the actual writing is almost like dictation?
Yeah, with the exception, of course, that there will always be some creative surprises.
So is your most pleasurable part the breaking of the story in the outline?
Yeah, maybe it is.
There’s a lot that’s incredibly bleak about First Reformed. We’ve discussed the various endings you were considering. Do you feel a thread of redemption or hope in this film?
All the endings might have it. If it’s real, well it’s a miracle that she has found him and he has found her at this moment. If it’s an ecstatic afterlife vision, that’s kind of fabulous too, a glimpse into the doors of heaven opening up, and if it’s an apocalypse, well, that’s the other kind, that’s the doors of hell opening up.
From your Calvinist background, do you still view things in that religious, binary way?
I try not to, but its part of the programming. It’s how my personal computer was programmed.
And you’ve never been able to reprogram it.
No one can. Name me one person who can.
© 2018 Writers Guild of America West