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First Reformed: An interview with director Paul Schrader
July 15, 2018
First Reformed is the newly released spiritual thriller starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, by veteran writer/ director Paul Schrader. Its a supremely tasteful and uber stylish affair, with minimal fanfare with its austere and clean setting. Hawke gives us another career best, as pastor Reverend Toller who through a series of events and personal ordeals culimnates to a full blown crisis of faith.
We were given the opportunity to interview Schrader a few weeks back, whose impressive CV includes classics such as the Robert De Niro starringTaxi Driver, American Gigolo and Raging Bull to the more recent Bret Easton Ellis collab, The Canyons with Lindsay Lohan. Schrader is a man entrenched in film, appear bubbly and happy-go-lucky, taking his newly acquired film’s success in its stride, talking to us about his new film with gusto a newbie director.
Hi Paul, where do we find you now?
I am in Basil, Switzerland, giving a talk about being a visionary… (Laughs)
Well that’s understandable, First Reformed is a truly visionary film. I am sure you have been told this a lot recently.
Yes… the response has been quite…. like I’ve won the lottery or something.
Really? Why? You have been making films for a while now.
Well yes… In a way I had a sense that this might happen. When we were editing the film, I said to the editor we will know a lot more about the film when we do advance screenings. And since then we’ve never had a bad screening, maybe….. or better, hopefully we won’t. A bad screening, I mean when there is no reaction, people not responding and in this instance, it hasn’t been the case.
You describe your career from the interviews you’ve given as a rollercoaster of a ride. Can you explain why?
I began writing on spec and I am still writing on spec. And I’ve been involved in the financing of nearly all my films. The times I wasnt, is when it didnt work. When I got involved with people who didn’t trust me or who didn’t even like me. I got caught a few times. When you put the money together yourself, you have more control and you become the centre of everything and everything goes through you. So, the success I feel I had in my career was when I was in control. As is the case with First Reformed.
What is the impetus behind First Reformed and what was process of its creation?
The initial impetus was the intellectual, which seems sort of strange. I wrote a spiritual script a long long time ago, but never really intended to actually make it, or anything like it for that matter. I would even always reject the idea when spiritual themed movies where proposed to me. Then about 3 years ago talking to various industry acquaintances of mine, I came to the realisation that the cost of making films has come down to embarrassingly low levels and that it’s not feasible to make these kinds of films anymore. And then it dawned on me, I’ll be 70 next year and maybe I should eventually make a film that I write about, before its too late. Once I made that decision, I allowed the beast into the room, or so to speak.
Can you elaborate on the idea of spirituality in the film?
I made a list of films that meant something to me. Like 20 films or so and I re-watched them and then sort of took elements of from each of them and a story started to emerge. The critical point is the notion of religious despair started to appear; that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. But now this has intertwined with global sense of despair. Even though the roots of the film are of the cinema of the 60s, the global connection is very much of this moment.
What are your own thoughts on religion?
I go to church, I was brought about with Christian parents, Christian school. So that was my whole world until I went to grad school. So it was always in my mind, like to believe or not. I left my own Church and I was Episcopalian for a while and then recently became Presbyterian. I personally like the idea of going to church and organising your week, almost like a form of meditation, being there and being quiet.
Reverend Toller, isn’t a preacher in the traditional sense of the word. He doesn’t come across as preachy and seems to refrain from using religious terminology. Would you agree?
In some moments yes, he maybe appear to be more of a liberal persuasion, still religious but perhaps has a sense of understanding for who he is talking to. I think you are referring to when he talks to Michael, I guess in that sense he would be talking to him in his terms. He talked to people on their terms, ones they would undersand and agree on.
The aesthetics of the film are very simple, yet there is a stylistic approach to them. Can you elaborate?
When you start fooling around with themes such as spirituality, you start using what we call ‘withholding devices’. There are about 10 of them, different directors use them in different proportions. One of them is music, freeze frame, over the shoulders, sound effects, delayed edits, etc. I made a list of all these techniques and studied how other directors use them. No two directors use them the same way. I started coming up with a pattern that would work with this film. And because we had such a tight schedule, once I decided not to move the camera, then that was that. There is no second guessing. Except when you decide you want to break your own rules, which I did, but then make new rules up again. It all makes sense in my head.
I guess I was refering to the austere mood and scenes being so clean and bare.
The idea was that if it moves then take it out. So, there is a stillness. Personally, I get distracted. Keeping it simple allows for the viewers to gaze around the space. I think some directors make the mistake of putting too much into one scene, too much junk and that is distracting.
The plot, often touches on the absurd to the point of nervous comedy. Why was that?
Well you need to break the tension a little bit. You know that scene where those kids in the underground railroad… obviously it has a thematic meaning, reminding audiences of a time when the church took a terrorist activist position. But ultimately that scene is like pallet cleanser and to break the tension. I had few of those spread out in the film.
How was it working with Ethan Hawke?
I wrote the script with him in mind. I sent it to him and he responded the next day. He had just the right age and look for the role. I always thought he would be an interesting actor.. Surprisingly his personality is opposite from what I expected… he is kind of goofy. When we sat down to discuss the role I told him every single instinct you have to entertain, I want you turn it around and stick it inside. And that gave for this interesting performance.
What is next for you?
We are at the end of the film cycle with First Reformed. So next?…. I’m actually a little hesitant… like I’m thinking is this my last film? Because if it was, it was a pretty good last film.. we shall see….
First Reformed is out now.
Word by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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