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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 just what a force he has been over the years in Hollywood — and 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 he wrote and directed.

Paul Schrader with writer Iain Blair.

Schrader has also written and/or directed The Last Temptation of Christ (reteaming again with Scorsese), 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.

Why did you want to make this type of film?
When I first began my career as a critic in the early ‘70s, I wrote a book, “Transcendental Style in Film,” about spirituality. It looked at various theological concepts in the work of such auteurs as Robert Bresson, who was a big influence on this film, Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer. While I liked those films, I never thought I’d make one myself. It just wasn’t me. I was too intoxicated with action and violence, empathy and emotion back then, and these are not really parts of the spiritual tool kit.

When people tried to make connections with my films and the book, which is now coming out in a new updated edition by University of California Press, I’d just say, “No, that’s not me at all.” But then three years ago I started thinking, maybe it’s time for me to do one of these films.

What did Ethan and Amanda bring to their roles?
I cast Ethan for several reasons. He’s the right age, for one thing, and he also looks the part — and by that I mean that his face and the way he carries himself were right for the character. Toller has a sickness of the soul, what Kierkegaard called sickness unto death, or “angst” in German and despair in English.

He tries to deal with his struggle with faith in various ways: by following all the rituals of the church, writing in his journal every day and drinking. But when he tries to counsel Amanda’s husband, who doesn’t feel there’s any future or any reason to keep going, he catches his virus in a way. This manifests itself in despair about the future of human life on the planet. So I told Ethan, “This is a role to lean back from. As the audience moves in, you have to recede. Don’t come to the viewer. Keep leaning back.” And he understood that completely. He’s very smart. He’s a writer, director, playwright and musician and instinctively knew what to do.

With Amanda, we got very lucky because she’s not only a great actor, but she was pregnant in real life, and that’s actually quite hard to fake on film. So often, women who play pregnant women have the stomach, but the face isn’t any different, and of course that changes too. She was on hiatus, because of her pregnancy, but we managed to make the schedule work for her.

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.

Where did you post?
At The Post Factory (now Sim Post) in New York.

Do you like post?
I love it. It’s very collegial and relaxing after the shoot. I love editing, even when things go wrong. About five years ago I made this film Dying of the Light, a psychological thriller with Nic Cage. It was a bit of a debacle, and the film was taken away from me. While I was doing the next film, Dog Eat Dog, I realized what I should have done with editing Dying. So I said to Ben Rodriguez, the editor on Dog, who was trained by the great Hank Corwin, ‘I don’t need you on First Reformed, since it’s a very sedate film, but we should be able to re-cut Dying while we’re also working on this.

I had permission to do this, and if you Google “Schrader Rotterdam Dark,” you’ll see a lecture I gave earlier this year detailing how and why I decided to do the re-cut, which is now titled Dark. So we were editing both the glacially paced First Reformed and the completely over-the-top Dying at the same time, and it was a lot of fun.

What were the main editing challenges on this?
Keeping the right tone and pace, and I actually thought it was going to be slower than it is, as I’d decided to make slower films. So when I first showed it, I warned people that it was slow, but then people disagreed with me. The thing with slow cinema is that you have to modulate when you withhold from an audience, and if you withhold all the time, it becomes sort of monotonous. So you have to withhold a little, and the pacing becomes critical. In the end, there was very little left on the cutting room floor. We shot very close to the bone and hardly wasted anything.

This is obviously a performance-driven piece, but there are some impressive VFX sequences — notably where the two leads begin to levitate and then fly off through all these fantastic environments. Do you enjoy working on VFX like that?
No, I don’t. They were all done by Cloak & Dagger VFX and Atomic Art. Cloak & Dagger’s Brian Houlihan was the VFX supervisor. They did wonderful work and I’m very happy with the results. The great thing about VFX today is you can do all the cleanup so easily, and you don’t do signage anymore. You do it all in post. But I don’t enjoy the long process involved and all the waiting.

You’ve always had great music in your films, like David Bowie in Cat People and Blondie in American Gigolo. Can you talk about the importance of sound and music in this and to you as a filmmaker.
It’s so important… if you get it right. But when you start to work on the quiet side, on the contemplative side, music becomes very tricky, as it’s the easiest way to dictate emotion and feelings — happy, sad, frightened, angry — to the audience. You’ll get them coming towards you by telling them how to feel all the time. But you should let them wonder how they should feel.

So a lot of films in this style don’t use music, or very little. They only use sound effects. That’s what I started doing on this, for about two-thirds of the film. But then I started working with Lustmord, a composer who works in ambient sound and who’s basically a sound designer, and now I think the two disciplines — composer and sound designer — have combined.

What about the DI?
We did it at Company 3 in New York with colorist Tim Masick (who used Blackmagic Resolve), and I love the process. It’s fun and not at all stressful compared with the shoot, and I’m pretty involved with it. We chose not to go with the usual film look on this one. It’s so easy now to apply an algorithm in the DI and make your movie look like it has film grain. But the DP, Alexander Dynan, and I both felt it didn’t need that, and I love the cool, austere look we ended up with. (Check out our interview with Tim Masick here.)

It’s interesting how that aspect of post has really changed. When I first began, you’d shoot for 10, 12 weeks and do just three or four days of color. Now, you shoot for three weeks and do color for three weeks, and that change has helped lower costs all around.

Did it all turn out the way you pictured?
It did, and I’m very happy with it. In many ways it’s a kind of high-wire act, making this kind of film, as there’s very little room for failure when you deal with spiritual matters and such serious subjects.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Director Kay Cannon on her raunchy comedy Blockers

By Iain Blair

At a time when women are increasingly breaking down barriers in Hollywood, writer/director Kay Cannon is helping lead the charge. The director of Universal’s new film, Blockers, got her start at such comedic training grounds as The Second City, The iO West Theater and The ComedySportz Theatre.

Kay Cannon

While writing and performing around Chicago, she met Tina Fey, a fellow Second City alumna. When Fey began 30 Rock, Cannon joined the creative team and worked her way up from staff writer to supervising producer on the show. She’s a three-time Primetime Emmy-nominated writer, twice for Outstanding Comedy Series and once for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. She has also won three Writers Guild of America Awards, as well as a Peabody, all for her work on 30 Rock.

Cannon, who also served as a co-executive producer on New Girl, a consulting producer on Cristela and co-produced the hit feature Baby Mama, received rave reviews for her debut screenplay for the film Pitch Perfect, and she wrote and co-produced the hit sequels. She served as the executive producer, creator and showrunner of the Netflix series Girlboss, based on Sophia Amoruso’s best-selling autobiography, which starred Britt Robertson.

Now, with the new release Blockers, Cannon — one of only a handful of women ever to direct an R-rated comedy for a big studio — has stepped behind the camera and made an assured and polished directorial debut with this coming-of-age sex comedy that takes one of the most relatable rites of passage and upends a long-held double standard. When three parents discover their daughters’ pact to lose their virginity at prom, they launch a covert one-night operation to stop the teens from sealing the deal.

The film stars Leslie Mann (The Other Woman, This is 40), John Cena (Trainwreck, Sisters) and Ike Barinholtz (Neighbors, Suicide Squad). It is produced by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and James Weaver, under their Point Grey Pictures banner (Neighbors, This is the End), alongside Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (Harold & Kumar) and Chris Fenton (47 Ronin).

Cannon leds an accomplished behind-the-scenes team, including director of photography Russ Alsobrook (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad), production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly (The Big Sick) and editor Stacey Schroeder (The Disaster Artist).

I recently talked to Cannon about making the bawdy film, which generated huge buzz at SXSW, and her advice for other aspiring women directors.

This is like a long-overdue female take on such raunchy-but-sweet male comedies as American Pie and Superbad. Was that the appeal of this story for you?
When I read the script, I really connected on two levels. I was a teenager who lost her virginity, and I’m also the mother of a daughter, and while she was only two at the time, it made me think about her and what might happen to her in the future. And that’s scary, and I saw how parents can lose their minds.

How did you first envision the film?
I grew up in a small town in the Chicago area and I was inspired by John Hughes and all his great teen comedies. I could really relate to them, and I felt he was speaking to me, that he really got that world and the way it looked. I wanted to do that too, and show how people really live, and I wanted it to feel real and grounded — but then I was also going to go to a very crazy place and got very silly. (Laughs) That was very important to me, because I wanted to make people laugh really hard, but also feel emotion.

Did you always want to direct?
It wasn’t always my dream. That’s shifted over the years. I started off wanting to be an actor on a sitcom, then writing one and then wanting to have my own show, which happened with Girlboss, so that was my focus for the past few years. To be honest, I’d kind of do movies when TV didn’t work out for me. A pilot didn’t happen, so I wrote Pitch Perfect, and then did Pitch 2 when another pilot didn’t go.

How did you prepare for directing your first film?
Being the showrunner on Girlboss was great training because I could shadow all the directors and watch them work, and I felt definitely ready to direct a film.

What was the biggest surprise of directing for the first time?
I pretty much knew what to expect — and that there will always be surprises on the day and stuff you could never have anticipated. You just have to work through it and keep going.

How tough was the shoot?
It was hard. We shot in Atlanta for nine weeks, and the last five were nights, and that’s very tough. I had a very long script to squeeze into the shoot. But Russ, my DP, was a huge help. We’d worked together before on New Girl, and he’s so experienced; he really guided me through it all.

Where did you do the post?
All in LA. We started at Sunset Gower, and then we took a break and did some reshoots in January, and then finished at Pivotal Post in Burbank.

Do you like post?
When I was at Girlboss I’d never experienced post before, so I was really afraid and uncomfortable with the whole process. It was so new and a bit daunting to me, especially as a writer. I loved writing and shooting, but it took me a while to get comfortable with post. But once I did, I loved it, and now it’s my favorite thing. I’d spend the night there if I could! As they say, it’s where you actually make the film and where the real magic happens.

Kay Cannon on set directing Leslie Mann and John Cena.

Your editor was Stacey Schroeder (pilot for The Last Man on Earth, for which she got an editing Emmy nom). How did that relationship work?
We’d worked together before on Girlboss, and we have a great partnership. She’s like my right-hand, and we’re automatically on the same page. We very rarely disagree, and what’s so great is that she’s extremely opinionated and has no poker face. I’m the same way. So it’s very refreshing to sit there and discuss material and any problems without taking anything personally. I really appreciate her honesty.

What were the biggest editing challenges?
Trying to balance the raucous comedy stuff with the serious emotions underneath, and dealing with some of the big set pieces. The whole puking scene was difficult as we shot three times the material you see, and there was a whole drug thing, and it was very long and it just wasn’t working. We previewed it a couple of times and it was seen as a poor man’s Bridesmaids. (Laughs) And then I saw Baby Driver and it hit us — what if we put the whole scene to music? And that was so much fun and it suddenly all worked.

Resistance VFX did the visual effects shots, and there seemed to be quite a few, considering it’s a comedy. What was involved?
You’re right. Usually comedies don’t have that many and we had a significant amount, including the puke scenes, and then all the computer stuff and the emojis. And then they did such a great job with all Amy Mann’s tears at the end. I really loved working with VFX, and the fact that they can create all this magic in post. I’d be constantly amazed. “Can you do that?” They’d sigh and go, “Yes Kay, we can do that, no problem.” It was a real education for me.

Where did you do the DI?
At Technicolor, and I was pretty involved along with Ross. I loved that whole process too. Again, it’s the magic of post. (Maxine Gervais was the supervising senior colorist. She used a FilmLight Baselight 5.)

Did it turn out the way you hoped?
Absolutely.

Do you want to direct again?
Definitely, if I get another chance.

What’s next?
I’m writing a movie for Sony — another comedy — and I’ve got a bunch of projects percolating.

What advice would you give to any woman wanting to direct?
Do the work, and don’t quit when it gets hard. I think a lot of women quit before the magic happens, and there were times when I wanted to quit, but you can’t. You have to keep going.

Kay Cannon Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert (c) 2018 Universal. 


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.