It’s a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, and Paul Schrader is asking for forgiveness as an American flag flaps outside his window. If he appears distant, the 71-year-old filmmaker explains, he had a detached retina operation three weeks ago and his left eye is half-filled with blood. The screenwriter-turned-director who helped engrave Martin Scorsese’s reputation with his scripts for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull is wearing black pants and a nubbly black sweater over a white shirt. You could describe his style vibe as “casual priest” – a perfect look for talking about First Reformed, his tense drama starring Ethan Hawke as an alcoholic minister named Toller who’s politicized by questions of how an Old-Testament God can combat global warming.
But even before a violent environmentalist (Philip Ettinger) and his pregnant wife – named, naturally, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) – insinuate their way into his thoughts and prayers, the pastor’s faith is already failing. He’s suffering from health issues and a crippling sense of futility. His rural 250-year-old house of worship has been emptied by a glossy megachurch; their local celebrity preacher (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles) glad-hands with donors like the polluters who’ve driven Toller’s conflicted activist parishioner to suicidal despair. Soon, the holy man feels he has to do something, anything, to combat the tide of personal depression and eco-destruction. It does not end well.
It sounds heavy … and it often is. But it’s also a movie filled with moments lit up by Schrader’s cerebral sense of the absurd, as when he zooms in on the Reverend pouring Pepto-Bismol into his scotch as the bubbling pink blob looks like the formation of the universe. Or, after an hour of barren rooms and emotional austerity, Hawke suddenly flies through a hallucinatory vision quest that swoops from the creation of life to man’s destruction of the planet. Trippy, severe and literally sublime, First Reformed is Schrader’s best film in a decade, maybe longer – and throughout a conversation that swirls from faith to films, from an in-progress countdown to humanity’s extinction to the time Homeland Security thought he might kill the president, the supposedly dour director laughs often. If this is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimpering plea for charity and empathy, Schrader’s saluting it with a sardonic farewell.
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Your dad was very religious and didn’t let you watch movies growing up – he helped the campaign to block The Last Temptation of Christ from playing in your hometown. Do you think that out of all of your films, this might be the one that he’d have liked the most?
I think he would be proud of the people he knows who likes it. I don’t know whether he could make that opinion by himself. I went back to Calvin [College, founded by Christian reformers in 1876], which was my alma mater, and we … showed the film to 600 people. I did a Q&A and gave a lecture, followed up by a panel with faculty members discussing spirituality of cinema. That was a kind of terrific deal. So in that context, of course, my father would be tickled.
The first film you saw was The Absent-Minded Professor … and you didn’t like it. Do you think if you had seen a better comedy, you would have fallen in love with that genre instead?
No, no, no, because I just didn’t think films were very serious and I was a very serious kid. So it really wasn’t until I was in college that I saw the European intellectual cinema of the Sixties and all of a sudden I saw that the kind of person I was, the kind of things I respected, were also happening in the film world.
Growing up, I was very entrepreneurial. I was always selling stuff, starting stores, selling flowers door-to-door. I started out wanting to be a minister, I wanted to get on a soapbox. I said, I’m gonna be a lawyer, I’m gonna be Clarence Darrow. And then I realized I really didn’t like people that much. So then I realized there’s no other thing I can be but an artist.
One of the refrains in the film is, “Will God forgive us?” It feels like we’re living in a moment where forgiveness isn’t happening on even a mortal level.
God will forgive us. He doesn’t have a choice – that’s why we made him. That’s his job description! We will make you, God, but you have to forgive us.
The young activist’s first monologue about how global warming has destroyed the world – should we all be in that headspace right now?
It’s kind of amazing to think that that conversation has currency. In the midst of affluence, to say we have so little faith in the future that maybe it’s not a good idea – that’s kind of shocking and certainly not a question I asked myself when I had children. But I know it’s something people are asking. It gives a kind of weight to an argument and a discussion that has been over the centuries hypothetical: Where are we going? What will happen after us? It’s always been a hypothetical conversation, but now people are having it in not such a hypothetical context.
Do you know who Yuval Noah Harari is? He had a bestseller a couple years ago called Sapiens, a history of intelligence; he has another book called Homo Deus, which is the future of intelligence. He’s quite a brilliant guy, an Israeli out of Oxford, and it’s one of those gob-smackingly brilliant books. But I was recently watching an interview with him and he said long-range thinking isn’t 2000 years. It isn’t 200 years. It’s 20 years.
The tone, even just with the political news … we’re not shaking out of despair and exhaustion into action.
We’re defeated, in a way. Occasionally on Facebook, the first of every month, I post something that says, “Stay mad until November.” Hopefully we can stay mad until November, because that will be maybe the last chance. The mechanism of democracy is under siege.
You also posted something on Facebook that brought the Department of Homeland Security to your door. Do they tell you they’re coming ahead of time or do they just show up?
No. I was in the editing room and the doorman called me and said they were here. It was because of Alex Jones. He put me up on this website as someone who had threatened the life of the president. Then, of course, that’s an automatic thing. All his people, they call up. So now Homeland Security’s getting all these messages about me as a threat to the life of the president, and therefore they have to follow up – because if they don’t follow up, and I happen to actually be one, they look like fools.
How do you convince them you’re not a threat?
It wasn’t very hard. I just explained the five stages of grief. And that anger was one of them.
Do you get the sense that the loudest religious people right now aren’t promoting soul-searching as much as hypocrisy.
Yeah. It’s kind of confusing for the general public, because the loudest voices in the room are the most hate-filled. But they’re not the majority. Because they are so loud, people think that these evangelicals represent Christianity. And they certainly don’t. But that’s what happens when you play that media game and obviously, intentionally, say things to get headlines.
There’s a rich businessman character in First Reformed that argues that he doesn’t believe climate change exists, despite factual science. Somehow that’s connected to faith?
I once asked Michael Wolff why intelligent people would deny climate change. And he said, that’s because they’re exceptionalists. They simply don’t believe the rules of life apply to them. That they will somehow escape. That’s in their in their DNA. But I do think that we have made our decision. We’re all hoping that deus ex machina will somehow rescue us. It’s getting less and less likely.
Back to the film: What did you like about the pairing of Ethan and Amanda?
Well, I liked the fact she was pregnant. She was pregnant when we shot.
“God will forgive us. He doesn’t have a choice – that’s why we made him. That’s his job description! We will make you, God, but you have to forgive us.”
I got a list of 10 actresses who the financiers would be happy with. And I was asking about them and the casting person said, we’ve been trying to get Amanda to do something, but she’s turning everything down. The reason she was turning things down was she was pregnant. So I met her and she says, here’s my date. That actually came in handy because we were having cash flow problems, because financiers hate to actually start paying money. I explained to them that if you don’t get cash flow on Monday, we’re gonna lose Amanda and I will give you her obstetrician’s name if you want to call him. I don’t think he’ll negotiate.
You cited so many film influences for this: Diary of a Country Priest, Winter Light, Ordet, The Sacrifice. When you add it all up, does it still feel like yours, or do you mostly see your nods to what you love?
Oh, absolutely. The secret of theft is to steal around. You can’t go back to the same 7-Eleven – they’ll catch you – so you go to the floral shop, you go to the gas station, you go to that little hot dog stand that nobody goes to. If you steal enough stuff, it starts to feel like it’s yours.
Comparing Ethan Hawke’s austere little chapel to the megachurch that Cedric the Entertainer hosts – shiny, appealing, non-controversial – almost feels like the difference between black-and-white Bergman films and modern faith-based cinema.
Faith-based cinema, like Hillsong, like those churches, there’s a real buzz there … but it’s the buzz that you get from being in a group. It’s the same buzz you get in a football stadium, in a political rally, in a military rally. We are a group, wearing the same uniform, making the same gestures. That’s a real buzz, but I don’t think it’s a spiritual buzz. It’s a buzz of the comforts of conformity.
When the tone of the film is so severe, was making it and being on set … fun?
Oh yeah! It was fun because it felt right. Of course, you’re moving very fast because to make a film like this, you have to do it inexpensively. So the film took 20 days to shoot – you’re moving so fast that you don’t have time to second-guess – and you don’t have a trailer, because by the time you get back there, somebody’s saying, “We’re ready now!’
A tribute to austerity in a film about austerity.
Part of the visual aesthetic was if it moves, take it out. These people don’t have anything. No carpets, nothing, just take it out. The worst thing you can do for the eye is show a cluttered billboard. The eye doesn’t want to see all that. That half wine bottle [pointing to an opened bottle of wine next to the television], that’s enough. You don’t need anything else. You empty out that house and you say to the production designer, “Okay, we have room for one idiosyncratic element – and I think it should be a lamp.”
If it’s possible to make good-looking films for a $3.5 million budget like this, why aren’t studios doing it? Why can’t they afford a small risk?
We don’t really have studios anymore. The middle has gone out, so now we have this tsunami of independent films, of which eight to 10 get their head above the crowd at any given year. And then you have the event films and family films – so the dramas have migrated to longform where they reside on TV. But TV is not as free as you might think. This film, First Reformed, was turned down by Netflix and Amazon at the script stage and at the completed stage. So you’re free to have transgressive things, but you’re not free to have quiet things.
Is there anybody making films today who excites you?
A lot of people. In fact, there’s so many that it’s hard to keep up because so many people are enabled by technology. People who couldn’t afford make films a decade ago are making them. It’s almost a cliché to pick up the paper, read a website and see: “Brilliant film by first-time director!” So many people are now getting to have a voice that didn’t have a voice, so there’s brilliant films. And of course, you have a whole generation of filmmakers who have been trained. If you don’t know how to make a film by the age of 12, you’re behind the curve.
You’ve been going back and reevaluating the movies of the Sixties and Seventies. Was it the times that made the films great? Something else?
It was the audiences. Whenever audiences ask art for answers, art will rise to the challenge and there will be great art. And there was a period there where movies were the center of the culture, which isn’t true anymore, and there were about six or seven questions going around that society was wrestling with. Women’s rights, civil rights, homosexual rights, the drug revolution, the anti-military revolution, wife-swapping, whatever. Movies responded. They said, you want an answer? We’ll give you an answer. And on the other hand, when people don’t want serious movies, it’s almost impossible to make one.
What your film does is talk about how destructive young men aren’t sure where to put their energies.
Of course, that’s the same thing as Taxi Driver 45 years ago.
Do the angry young men of today get the wrong idea from Taxi Driver?
Yeah, I think that’s true. Obviously, Taxi Driver hit the zeitgeist. That’s the oddest thing. How do you plan on it? You can’t. It just sort of happens.
And then to watch it change underneath you as people just superficially think of the mirror and the gun and reinterpret it for their 21st century lives.
Yeah. Often men – always men – will come to me and say, “Taxi Driver is the film that made me want to be a filmmaker, the film that changed my life.” And I say, “Let me guess, you saw it when you were 14.” They say, “How did you know?” And I say, “Because that’s the spot where you’ve been watching action films, male violence films and somebody recommends Taxi Driver. You see it in that context and you realize, ‘Oh, there’s a different way these movies can work – it isn’t all about superheroes.'”
This is the closest we’ve ever seen to our country losing its mind—and having things to talk about. Is it, at least, a time where art’s important again?
You just shuddered.
You certainly want to believe so. You know, I used to believe the way we talk about freedom. We want to be America the free. I think it’s just the opposite. I think we’re terrified of freedom, and the only reason we talk about freedom is the only way we can justify our fear of it. We crave chains … and those of us who are craving chains use the word freedom, but we don’t want freedom. I remember years ago John Dean, who was part of the Watergate scandal – in the later part of his life, he joined a think tank and they put out a study about human nature. They said that about 25-percent of people wish to be told what to do, and one-percent hate to be told what to do. So that if you are mounting a fascist operation, you already have a quarter of the people. All you have to do is convince another quarter to join.
So if you were president, what would you do?
I’m afraid that’s too much of a hypothetical, but … [exhales, thinks]
Is “God” an easier question?
I mean … on November 9th I more or less stopped watching the news and reading the newspaper. I know everything that’s going on – you can pick it up through secondary and third news sources – but just to have to see those terrible people talking on the news is an agitation that is bad for your health. It’s like walking into a room full of polluted air. Why do you want to breathe this air, these people? So I don’t watch anymore. I know what they’re doing. It’s pretty hard not to figure out what they’re doing, but at least I don’t have to watch them.