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Prolific writer/director Paul Schrader
on his latest, First Reformed

By Iain Blair

With his latest film in theaters now, a look back at director and screenwriter Paul Schrader’s movie credits shows what a force he has been in Hollywood — especially in the ambitious, serious and hugely influential cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

He wrote Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. He reteamed with Robert De Niro and Scorsese on 1980’s boxing saga Raging Bull. That same year saw the release of American Gigolo, starring Richard Gere as a high-priced male escort, which Schrader wrote and directed.

Schrader has also written and/or directed The Last Temptation of Christ, The Mosquito Coast, Cat People, The Comfort of Strangers, Affliction, Bringing Out The Dead (yet another Scorsese collaboration) and Dog Eat Dog.

In his new film, First Reformed (his 21st feature and 12th as writer/director), Schrader examines a crisis of faith centered around a former military chaplain devastated by the death of his son in the Iraq War. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a solitary, middle-aged parish pastor at a small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York about to celebrate its 250th anniversary.

Once a stop on the Underground Railroad, the church is now a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation, eclipsed by its nearby parent church, Abundant Life, with its state-of-the-art facilities and 5,000-strong flock. When a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, the clergyman finds himself plunged into his own tormented past, and equally despairing future, until he finds redemption in an act of violence.

I talked recently with Schrader about making the film and his workflow.

You shot on location. How tough was it?
It was fast — just three weeks — and no big problems. With all the new technology, shoots are so much faster, and actors like it much better. In the old days, you’d spend hours lighting and blocking, and they'd spend most of the day in their trailers. Now, there’s hardly any waiting around in between scenes and setups, and it’s better for everyone.

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