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.
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.