“First Reformed” Director Paul Schrader Talks the Art of Taking Gambles

‘If challenge doesn’t turn you on, you can’t be a filmmaker. Resistance has to be your cup of coffee’


Although First Reformed (opening May 18) is immediately, undeniably a Paul Schrader film — with its lonely and unreliable narrator, unexpected violence, and constant hunger for some enormous transcendent moment — its director doesn’t dwell on these associations. “As an artist, you try not to, because they limit your imagination,” he tells the Voice. “Of course, as a critic, you’re always looking for them.” Schrader grew up in a Calvinist community in Michigan where moviegoing was absolutely banned, but when he fell from grace he fell hard, moving to Los Angeles and beginning a life in cinema. It’s a career he’s looking back on a bit these days. His classic 1972 book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, has been revised and reissued. And a new series he’s programmed at the Quad — “Origin Stories: Paul Schrader’s Footnotes to First Reformed” (May 11–15) — spotlights a dozen-plus of his own cinematic influences and artistic idols. (He’ll appear at the theater on May 11 and 12 for screenings of Ordet, Diary of a Country Priest, Silent Light, and Ida.) Sometimes the parallels to his work will be clear in the selections; sometimes they’ll be elusive. “It’s not a linear straight line,” Schrader says. “The series is meant to be eclectic as to the influences. Nicolas Roeg’s Performance influenced many people’s sense of editing. Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game inspired countless directors. It’s a little reductive perhaps to say that these films define me — but they moved an entire generation.”

Below are excerpts from our conversation.

I found First Reformed very striking — but not at all shocking. Although I think it may surprise some audiences — particularly its ending — for people who’ve been following your work, it seems like a film you’ve been leading up to for a long time.

Yeah, it connects a lot of things. There was a book of criticism I wrote, which tried to connect the world of my church background with the world of cinema, and that’s what sort of brought me into cinema. Then there was Taxi Driver, which was the first script I wrote, which brought me into the world of filmmaking. This film, and this program at the Quad, sort of reaches right back around and ties everything all together. Honestly, it really all began for me when I was a film critic in Los Angeles and I reviewed Pickpocket by Robert Bresson. I was like Paul on the road to Damascus — having this enormous moment of awakening. I couldn’t believe that movies could work in that transcendent way, could take you there. At the time I was in L.A., living with a houseful of UCLA filmmakers who were all working on a biker film for Roger Corman. I didn’t have much respect for what they were doing. I thought, “Filmmaking, that’s not for me.” And then I saw Bresson, and I thought, “Well, maybe.”

The Quad program is being described as movies that inspired you or First Reformed. But it also reads like a crash course in a kind of international, intellectual cinema that seemed to be a larger part of the conversation in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies than it is now. Have we lost our openness to these sorts of movies? 

I don’t know. We showed First Reformed down in Austin, and afterward Richard Linklater told Ethan Hawke, “No one’s made this kind of film in sixty years!” Is that a compliment? I really don’t know.

But those are the sort of films you keep coming back to.

Well, one of the unique things of my background was that I grew up without cinema, because of the church. I really came to movies as a college student, as an adult. And, you know, you always remember your first love. You remember everything about it — where you were, what they wore, what song was playing on the radio. It’s life-changing. And for people like Scorsese and Spielberg, who first fell in love with cinema as children — well, it was those movies, for them. But for me, my first movie love was the intellectual European cinema of the Sixties. That’s what first inspired me, and that’s why we’re showing it at the Quad.

You’re showing some contemporary films too, like Ida. And there’s one American film, one genre film, Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T.

The Tall T is there because of its idea of the protagonist as an icon; the Randolph Scott character even refers to himself in the third person. The film has this iconographic reality, this non-psychological reality.

And yet, while filmmakers like Ozu and Rossellini are represented by only one film apiece, you made room for two by Bresson: Pickpocket and Diary of a Country Priest.

Well, as I said, Bresson’s work is what made me think filmmaking might be possible for me. But I’m also inspired by his sense of time, which I understood only partly when my book first came out. I realized later, watching these films, that duration is phenomenological. In his films, he shows someone leaving a room — and then he holds on that closed door for three seconds. What’s happening? Well, nothing. Nothing’s happening, but the shot isn’t about the door. It’s about you watching the door. It’s an insight he picked up from the Neorealists — movies are time. And you can sculpt that time by using the scalpel of boredom.

Back in your reviewing days, even in your early raves about Bresson, you warned readers that he could send some of them to sleep.

It’s a very different approach to cinema. I mean now, as a filmmaker, I have a sense of timing that’s different from yours as an audience. Things aren’t going to happen in the way you’re going to expect, necessarily, but if you get on my time-wavelength, something will happen. This is something Bresson did brilliantly. He’s not the first, and compared to some who followed, Bresson now looks like Michael Bay. But what he did was, instead of leaning forward, desperate for your attention, he leaned away. That’s a very tricky dance, because the viewer can then lean toward you — or leave the theater. It’s the kind of aesthetic, contemplative cinema we see in Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Mizoguchi, Béla Tarr. It’s not always spiritual, as it is in Bresson. But it’s always a gamble.

Winter Light, which you also included, might not be the first Bergman film that comes to mind when many people think of you, or even think of Bergman.

Yes, well, I had to have that film. I didn’t really have a choice because in a way the whole premise of my film comes from it. I knew, if I didn’t include it, someone would say, “He’s pretending there’s no Winter Light in his movie!” But there were other inspirations. Diary of a Country Priest, of course. And you know, as I worked on the script for First Reformed, I was contemplating a number of endings. Should I go with the Dreyer ending? The Bresson ending? Or a real Sam Peckinpah ending?

We won’t tell readers which one you choose.

I knew whichever one I went with would have knocked a few people out of their seats. When I did finish the film, I showed it to a friend of mine, a psychiatrist. And the film ended, and the screen went black, and she said, “Are you fucking with me?”

When we started this conversation, you said your new film “connects a lot of things,” and certainly there are themes in it that are such a singular part of your work. And then there are other things, the stylistic touches, which draw from so many other artists. Like the levitation scene, which feels like a nod to Tarkovsky.

Well, you can’t have levitation without Tarkovsky!

Or the pacing, which, again, goes back to Bresson.

Cinema gives you a whole buffet of devices, and no two directors use them in the same proportion. But we all eat from the same buffet. We all steal. The trick of being a cinematic thief is you have to steal around. If you keep going back to the same 7–Eleven every time, they’re going to catch you. So for one film you go to the liquor store, another film you hit the gas station, the flower shop. You keep moving. For me, making a movie, the two questions are always: “Have I done this before?” and “Can I do this?” One of the reasons Bret Easton Ellis and I did The Canyons was simply, “Can we pull this off? Can we make a film without anyone’s permission, without anybody saying ‘No, you can’t hire Lindsay Lohan, no, you can’t hire James Deen’? And then finance it through crowdfunding?” And it turns out we could, and I was really glad I did it. Once.

And then you went from that movie, where you had total control, to Dying of the Light, which was taken away from you.

Which was a horrible experience. It was re-edited and re-scored, without my input. So, I took workprint DVDs, and edited it into my own cut, Dark. I don’t have the legal right to the footage, so I can’t release it. But I have used it as lecture materials, and if you go to my website, you can see it in the context of a lecture I gave at Rotterdam. It’s alright to use it in that way, or make it available to scholars for research, but I can’t show it. That’s why after that experience I wanted to do another film with Nic [Cage] where I did have final cut, so we did Dog Eat Dog. It’s a lot easier to have final cut if it’s a low-budget film.

Given all this — given some of the other experiences you’ve had, with studios and the box office — how do you keep on going in this industry? How do you keep making art?

Well, if challenge doesn’t turn you on, you can’t be a filmmaker. You look out the window and it’s raining, and you’re supposed to be shooting a scene in the park that day — well, great, let’s figure out how to shoot it in the rain. I remember waking up one morning, shooting Mishima, and thinking, “Wow, absolutely nobody thinks I can pull this off. Isn’t that terrific?” That kind of resistance has to be your cup of coffee. You have to get up every day and say, “OK, world, here I come!”