Paul Schrader Details the Journey of God's Lonely Man from 'Taxi Driver' to 'First Reformed'

We chat with the filmmaker about his obsession with despair and the inspiration that drives him behind the camera.

First Reformed

We chat with the filmmaker about his obsession with despair and the inspiration that drives him behind the camera.

Why do we even bother? The world continually feeds us excuses to give up on life. There are days when I can’t even find a reason to crawl out of bed. Beneath the covers is warmth and safety, beyond the bed is fear, anger, and despair.

In his early twenties, Paul Schrader saw Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. The film changed his life. The protagonist that sits in judgment of the lives he wanders amongst would find himself at the center of several of Schrader’s films. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Julian in American Gigolo. John LeTour in Light Sleeper. Reverand Toller in First Reformed. They’re all the same haunted man.

For his twentieth feature, Schrader exposes the infected psyche of a small town priest trapped inside a historic parish on the verge of celebrating its 250th anniversary. Called to aid a man consumed by despair due to the deteriorating environment of Mother Earth, Toller rediscovers purpose in the doomed man’s actions. First Reformed feels like the climax of every Schrader film that has come before. The movie is a staggering examination of the hell we all face, and will certainly leave its mark on any audience that finds itself under its gaze.

I sat down with Schrader the night after he screened the film for the MPAA at the National Archives in Washington D.C. We discussed why he keeps returning to the God’s Lonely Man character he first inhabited in Taxi Driver, the anxiety of tackling the unforgivable sin, and the joys of withholding information from the audience. Schrader is a filmmaker continually inspired by the cinema he consumes and is eager to push himself into new arenas of narrative.

Here is our conversation in full:

Last night, during the Q & A, you mentioned how you’ve once again returned to the God’s Lonely Man archetype. What is that compulsion?

That’s just Pickpocket. It is. It’s this kid from Grand Rapids in 1968, going from a church environment. A sort of a sense of dislocation, a sense that you’re seeing everything through some impenetrable glass; you can’t actually reach out and touch anything. That partially came from being thrown into L.A., and it also came from growing up in a place where I knew I didn’t agree, but I also knew I had to bide my time.

How has that relationship with that archetype evolved since Taxi Driver?

I would say, I’m getting old. Taxi Driver is full of young man’s rage, and Light Sleeper is full of mid-life anxiety, and this new one is full of despair.

Despair is prevalent in a lot of your films. But in this one, it’s all-consuming. When I was a kid, I remember my grandfather sitting me down and saying, “Despair is the one sin God can never forgive you for.”

What religious background was this?

North Dakota Lutheran.

Well, in our church, we had something called “the unforgivable sin”. The unforgivable sin was the sin against the Holy Ghost, which essentially was a sin against hope. It was the same kind of notion that you were just talking about. In fact, in that long scene between Toller and Michael at the beginning, one of the sections I cut out was he starts talking about the unforgivable sin. But that was confusing. I took it out.

What excited me about that conversation between Toller and Michael was how it reinvigorates Toller. What does he say in his journal? “I was excited”?

It was “exhilarating”.

“Exhilarating”, right. Through Michael’s purpose, he finds new meaning.

Well, what happens is that he catches the virus.

So, that virus, did you bring that out from your own personal experience or your own point of view?

No. I have mixed thoughts about the character that Ethan plays. He is a sick man, sickness unto death. Despair. He talks about being on kind of a death trip. “Why don’t I keep this journal for one year?” What happens after that? But in Christian faith, suicide is a sin, and a rather selfish one. But martyrdom is not. St. Augustine said Samson went to heaven. But what did Samson do? He killed himself. So when Michael dies, he leaves behind, in a way, this cloak of martyrdom.

When you wear a cloak of martyrdom, suicide is no longer a sin. And it comes out in a very spooky exchange when he talks about his grandfather and he says, “Take my shoes off, the boy’s on unholy ground.” And he says, “When I think about that story, I think about Michael.” What he’s essentially saying is Michael’s suicide is holy. He has no real reason to say that, so that’s completely false.

Okay, so, the movie ends last night, and you do a Q&A. The first question from the audience was, “Are you in despair?”

I’m not so much in despair as I should be, because I know that I’m gonna get out of here in one piece, but it is a very despairing world at the moment.

I find myself falling into anger a lot, and watching your film, I related to that bubbling rage that you see in Toller. But you also said that you choose to hope, and –

I think it’s the only way to get through the days. I’m trying to think of the reasons we have for hoping.

Well, in First Reformed, that moment where Toller and Amanda Seyfried’s character lie face to face and have human contact … that’s the hope, right?

Yeah, but unfortunately, his mind is so corrupted that he takes it to the dark place, where it’s like the three panels of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”; they start in Eden, they go to the present, and they end up in the underworld. He takes himself there. From that point on, he starts really going on his journey.

It’s an astonishing sequence because he goes on a metaphysical journey in that moment too, and your audience is either gonna go with you or they’re not. Is there anxiety in taking the film in that direction?

It’s a high-wire act. I was just reading a quote from Francis Coppola and he said, “Making movies without risk is like having babies without sex. It doesn’t happen.” Particularly, when you’re working in this passive-aggressive manner, it gets really kind of tricky, because you’re going across the grain of cinema itself. You’re working against what cinema does best. You’re working against the immediate reinforcements of identification and empathy and action. Every time the audience gets interested, you move back a little further, and if the audience goes with you, that’s the high-wire act. But of all these slow cinemas that I talk about here (pointing to his copy of “Transcendental Style in Film”), a lot of them … just because they’re slow doesn’t mean they’re good.

You do a lot of withholding in the film. The 1.33 aspect ratio is a different environment than we’re used to seeing right now in contemporary cinema. As you said yesterday, you’re letting the audience know, “I’m not gonna show you everything.” And then you proceed to have a very sparse set.

Yeah. I mean … all these clues that filmmakers give audiences to make it easy for them … if I showed the two of you here (framing the publicist and myself in a shot) … and I don’t come in for coverage … at some point, it depends how long the scene is … you start saying, “Am I more interested in what she’s saying, he’s saying, or him listening?” And now, you’re starting to have to edit them yourself. Normally though, the editors do all that work for you. First Reformed doesn’t have that question. The same thing goes with music and décor and … the sparseness of everything, the delayed cut.

I first noticed it in Bresson with the delayed cut. I wrote about it years ago, I didn’t quite understand what it was until I started rethinking. The delayed cut is – say someone walks out the door. Normally, you cut as the door closed. Delayed cut, you let the door close and you do “1, 2, 3,” boom. And now you’re watching a door, as a viewer. Something you would never do in real life.

So, what’s going on? Something’s happening. It’s not nothing, something is happening, and it’s not about that door. It’s about the time that you spent looking at the door, and that is this whole concept of duration and how that comes to play in the film experience, because in many ways, duration is one of the things that most films try to avoid.

So, talk about Bresson’s Pickpocket. How often do you revisit that film, or Bresson in general?

At least once a year.

Is that your primary source of creative fuel?

Oh, no, no, no. It all depends. The film I did before this [Dog Eat Dog] was the antithesis. It was vulgar and in your face and profane, so I get the inspiration, I guess, from sensing a task that I haven’t done before. It’s the same thing that you sort of get from Kubrick’s films. And every time out, he’s trying to figure out the solution to new problems. I made a film with Bret Easton Ellis and part of it was, is it possible? Is it possible for Bret and I to crowdfund a movie? You think we could actually do this? And we did, and I wouldn’t do it again. Then on Dog Eat Dog, the question was, is it possible for me to do a kind of Tarantino film? What would that look like?

No need for crowdfunding on First Reformed. You only made it for, what, two-and-a-half million dollars?

Three-and-a-half, yeah.

Three-and-a-half million dollars? That’s unreal.

Well, no, that’s all the new technologies. I had more dailies on this film than I would have had if I had shot it forty years ago in forty-five days. Because you’re using multiple cameras, you’re cranking through everything, you don’t spend any time with lighting, you spend a good deal of post relighting. Everything just goes so much faster, and in some ways, cheaper. We don’t even do signage anymore. You have a building and there’s no sign on it, you used to have to paint that sign.

Right. Now you just …

Drop it in.

You’re also a big fan of the film, Ida. You borrowed its aspect ratio for First Reformed.

Pawel Pawlikowski didn’t wanna pan or tilt. And so, if you have people sitting on the bottom of the frame and they get up, if you have it tipped, they technically go out of frame. And so he started composing for the bottom of the frame and leaving the top open, and it’s a really striking look. I don’t do that … I didn’t do that. But when I first had this idea to do a film of this nature, it was because I was inspired by Ida and I thought, well, I should do a movie like that. Black and white, 1.33 … and I was prohibited from doing it in black and white, but I did do it in 1.33.

And this is also really your first overtly religious film.

Per se, yes.

Were you inspired to finally take it to the forefront by Ida?

Well, it was from discussion with Pawel. I’d given him an award at the National Society of Film Critics. We were talking about spiritual film, we were talking about my book. I walked uptown, and during that walk, I said, “Okay, it’s time now. It’s time now to write that script you were sure you would never write.” And once I made that decision, then it started coming together quite quickly.

Part of it has to do with the economics. In the U.S., we don’t get subsidies. Those guys in Europe, they’re getting money from the government. Olivier Assayas gets a third of his budget from them. And so, all these years, I knew that if I pitched a story like this, or wrote a story like this, I wouldn’t get it made, so I didn’t. But now, the economics have shifted so that you can be financially responsible and make this kind of film.

Red Dots

First Reformed is now playing in New York and L.A. and will open wider on May 25th.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.