Conversations with Schrader
For years, Paul Schrader was revered for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, for his other collaborations with Martin Scorsese, and for films he’d directed himself: Affliction, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and Mishima, among others. Then, he hit a lull. Dying of the Light, a spy movie with Nicholas Cage, was taken away from Schrader and butchered in post-production. ‘These people tried to kill me,’ he said, a few years ago. ‘I fell into alcoholism, depression. I thought that was it.’
Approaching seventy, Schrader might have retired. Instead, he made his own cut of Dying of the Light from workprint DVDs. Then, as if to clear the air, he made another movie with Cage: Dog Eat Dog. Manic, violent and slightly unhinged, it looked much more like a Paul Schrader film, though the script was written by somebody else. He followed it, almost immediately, with First Reformed, casting Ethan Hawke as a pastor coming to grips with climate change and the end of the world as we know it.
Working quickly and cheaply, Schrader made a magnificent movie no one had expected; the kind of film he had written about, in his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film, but sworn never to make: ‘You’ll never catch me skating on that thin Bressonian ice.’ Last year, with his thriller The Card Counter, he did it again. Now he’s gearing up to shoot Master Gardener, the last film in what looks to be a trilogy made according to principles he set out fifty years ago.
Last month, I drove out from Brooklyn to visit him. It was incredibly warm for December: 18°C. That morning, Schrader had posted Shawn Triplett’s photograph from Mayfield, Kentucky to his Facebook feed; tornadoes that swept through the state, killing dozens, had ripped the back off a movie theatre, leaving a window to the ruined street where the screen had once been. Omicron had arrived in New York; I’d taken two rapid tests before leaving.
But Schrader’s house, at the end of a road by a man-made lake that’s been drained for the winter, was quiet and peaceful. The coffee table was piled high with books: Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings, a biography of James Coburn (who’d appeared in Affliction), a prayer book of St Gregory of Narek, brought back from a trip to Armenia. As we talked, it was easy enough to forget the world outside.
We had agreed to talk about slow cinema, the subject of an essay Schrader had written a few years earlier. He’d been invited to a conference in Baltimore where there was a panel on Transcendental Style: ‘I took the train down,’ he said. ‘I didn’t talk. I listened.’ But on his way back to New York, Schrader said to himself: ‘If I’m still alive, and I still have my faculties, and if anyone should rethink this, I should.’ That line of thought led to the essay, which picks up where his book left off and serves as the introduction to a revised, 2018 edition. As Schrader worked on it, he found it kept throwing off sparks.
‘I had always refused to write a spiritual script,’ he told me:
1) because I didn’t think it was my métier. I was too interested in violence and empathy and revenge and sexuality. I didn’t feel I was by nature an austere filmmaker. Even though I appreciate those films. And 2) I knew it would be a flop financially. Someone was going to lose money. And I’d kept my career alive by making films that – with the exception of Mishima – had some credible possibility of returning their investments …
At the time I was still in that hustle business: ‘I’m going to make you some money. I’m going to make myself money. We’re going to do this together.’ But as I was researching slow cinema I realised that film technology had changed to the point where I could make that material – and not lose money. I thought: ‘Well, why not do one yourself? You’re not building your career anymore. Your career is at its end. If you don’t write it now, you’ll never write it.’ Fewer and fewer films were making money theatrically. But everybody on First Reformed got paid back. Everyone on Card Counter made a little money. Not much, but they had a film that was prestigious and they made a little money. The people you lie to and say: ‘You’re covered’? Well, I didn’t lie to them. They were covered.
There are downsides, of course, to the opportunities that technology and streaming afford. It’s possible now to make theatrical films on an iPhone, but harder than ever to cut through the static. ‘It helps that I have an analogue name,’ Schrader said, ‘from the predigital era.’ If he were starting out today, ‘I’m not at all sure I’d be a film director.’
The two generations before me went into the theatre. They became novelists. What would I do with these creative impulses? Maybe I’d be exploring new forms of communication. Maybe I’d be writing code. My brother was only three years older than I was. He aspired to be a novelist and I aspired to be a screenwriter; that’s sort of the line. Now, fewer and fewer aspire to be screenwriters. So, I don’t know where my impulses would lead me if I were young, seeking to break through in some way. I don’t know whether cinema is the ideal medium. I can’t say it is and I can’t say it isn’t. Certainly it’s been very useful to me, but these people who are dealing with immersive art forms – they are doing in some way what I would be doing, but I’m too old to be doing it.
Reading Schrader’s essay on slow cinema, I had been struck by his refusal to go in search of ‘transcendental style’ in today’s movies, where it may no longer exist. He traced, instead, the tendrils the style had shot forth. That seemed a young person’s move: going wherever the material takes you and not looking back. Even if, in Schrader’s case, the road led back to his point of departure.