First Reformed is a disaster movie where the dread of Earth’s slow-drip destruction weighs on the protagonist’s, and the audience’s, shoulders. It’s a fantasy film in the sense that a spiritual mind is capable of transcendence (or in this case, astral projection). One could call it a horror movie, too: Toller (Ethan Hawke), the minister of a Revolution-era chapel in upstate New York, finds himself haunted by the death of his son, the capitalistic tendencies of a nearby megachurch and the plight of Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who recently lost her conservationist husband. The scares, bleeding out of his unraveling, are psychological, yet supernatural — not unlike The Bible.
Watching the film, out now in theaters, is like witnessing an accomplished mathematician scribble down the solution to a chalkboard-sprawled equation. The scholar at work is Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for four timeless Martin Scorsese films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead) and carved out a button-pushing directorial career with mesmerizing dramas like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Light Sleeper, Affliction and Auto Focus. Somehow, after 40 years of exploring cinema as both a critic (he claimed Pauline Kael as a mentor before contributing to the Los Angeles Free Press) and a filmmaker, Schrader’s work as never been recognized by the Academy Awards. That could, and should, change with First Reformed, a drama that works through every theory, dissertation, and obsession that’s ever come under the filmmaker’s lens. It’s a life’s work packed into two hours — and he was convinced he’d never make it.
Anyone who watches movies can learn something from Schrader, who at 71 is still ferocious, jovial and eager to experiment. Though First Reformed’s narrative absorbs the attention, the logic piecing it together (the macro of religious study, the micro of filmmaking techniques) can be broken down into calculus. Schrader is happy to show his work. In conversation with Polygon, the veteran writer-director spoke about the historical backbone of First Reformed, what “religion on film” looks like in 2018, which pop star is a divine idol, and why the true joy of this turbulent world is Words with Friends.
Polygon: You swore off making a movie like First Reformed throughout your career. A conversation with Ida director Paweł Pawlikowski convinced you to finally write it. Why?
Paul Schrader: I have a religious background and a theological education, and so I was interested in religious movies as a young critic, but I was only interested intellectually. I wasn’t interested viscerally. Viscerally, I was interested in sex and violence and profanity and outrageousness — what we’re all interested in in the movies. When I was a critic, I liked and respected religious movies, but they weren’t me. I wasn’t going to be making those films. I held to that almost 40 years. So the thing that happened when I was talking to Paweł wasn’t a sudden inspiration for a story or an idea, it was just an intellectual decision. And I just said, okay, it’s time now.
Polygon: So this is a movie of the moment, more than a long-gestating idea that you finally chiseled into stone?
Schrader: Yeah, absolutely. And so once I made the intellectual decision — you’re going to write that movie — then it was a matter of watching the two dozen or so films of this ilk that meant something to me, and trying to collect what it was about those films that meant so much to me.
Polygon: You’ve mentioned Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light as inspirations. What is religion’s relationship with film now compared to those mid-20th century films?
Paul Schrader: There is these things called “faith-based movies,” which are simply just Hollywood movies with Jesus shoehorned into the role that Tom Cruise plays, and these are just normal exercises of entertainment in the cloth of Christianity. But they’re not religious movies. They are not spiritual movies. They’re just propaganda. I could make a film which takes the proposition that Hitler is insane. I could also make a film that says Adolf Hitler is god. I would use the same techniques in both. I wouldn’t have to change a thing, just switch the dials. Well, that’s what it’s like when faith based movies try to use Hollywood techniques to convince you that Christianity is the only way. I, uh, don’t have much of a taste for that.
Polygon: In First Reformed, Toller attends a youth group meeting where a young churchgoer confronts him with aggressive, bigoted rhetoric in response to what he sees as the priest’s passive, Christian ideology. As someone who spends a good chunk of the day on the internet, that character ... was recognizable. Have you personally crossed paths with that devout-yet-radicalized perspective?
Paul Schrader: I would say it’s all over. It’s running our country. This notion that the poor are poor because they deserved to be and the rich are rich because they’re better. That happens to be the ruling logic of American at this time. That is not Christian logic and it’s certainly not what Jesus taught. But it is a logic of our overlords.
Polygon: You have a strong Facebook presence, so you may see this kind of angry voice pop up in discussions of movies and TV shows.
Paul Schrader: You’ve got to shut that down! I mean, one thing I’ve learned from Facebook is don’t engage with crazy people. Just don’t do it. Don’t go to that place. Hit delete and walk away.
Polygon: For me, that kind of terror, punctuated with pangs of violence and surreal imagery, earn First Reformed a place in the horror genre. Would you agree? Your recently updated book Transcendental Style in Film dissects and contemplates the notion of “slow cinema,” but do you see a distinction between the conventions of horror movies and that technique, which you build on in First Reformed?
Paul Schrader: I’ve only made one real horror movie, Cat People.
Polygon: You also made an Exorcist prequel.
Paul Schrader: Right [laughs]. I guess so. But I’m thinking about Cat People because three days ago in Switzerland I met Nastassja Kinski for the first time in 40 years! But, no, when you deal with spirituality in cinema, you’re always dealing with holding devices. There are about a thousand of them, and directors use them in different degrees. But spirituality is about withholding. What is horror about? I’m not quite sure, but you know, the secret of getting the viewer to come to the quiet place is a secret of how you can withhold and sustain their interest.
Polygon: How would you describe the holding devices in First Reformed?
Paul Schrader: It’s all about “the scalpel of boredom,” and how you wield the scalpel of boredom. How you make things take a little longer than they should. How you wait to come into the coverage. How you withhold over-the-shoulder [shots] and play with the metric composition. How you withhold music. These are all techniques and may or may not stand out so much in First Reformed as they would stand out in, say, a film by Béla Tarr, but the accretion of these withholding techniques — withhold a little here, withhold a little there — starts to create a durational experience and in the duration is when the soul starts to move.
Let me give you an example of this called “the delayed cut.” Bresson was the first to use this. So a man enters a room. Normally you drop the splice as the door closes. Bresson doesn’t do that. He waits: one, two, three seconds. Now you are looking at a closed door. That is not what you do in real life. You don’t hang on the door after someone exits, you turn your head and look at something else. But now you’re in a movie and you’re looking at a closed door. What’s happening? Well, it’s not nothing. You can’t say nothing is happening because something is happening and it’s not even about that door. It’s about the time you are now spending watching a closed door. That durational phenomenology has an effect on the viewer. What happens if you look at the door for five seconds? What happens if you look at the door for 10 seconds? Duration happens. That’s what I call the scalpel of boredom.
Polygon: Does the rapid-fire pace of a movie like Avengers: Infinity War impact where you draw the line between slow and boring?
Paul Schrader: No. It actually makes your job easier to work on the slow side because people are so adrenaline-addicted, with their Tony Scott multi-cuts. Once you start slowing them down, you have better control of them now than you did 30 years ago.
Polygon: I read that you wrote a yet-to-be-produced film about ayahuasca. With all the methodical staging and transcendent imagery in First Reformed, I wondered if there was any connection to between the two projects.
Paul Schrader: Some years ago, I really wanted to do a multi-experiential film about ayahuasca, with about 20 minutes of trips. You would simulate trips in the theater. It never happened, and maybe it’s a good thing it didn’t happen. That is a different kind of spirituality. That is not a spirituality of meditation but a spirituality of excess. But it is as rarefied and as unique. It’s interesting, religious experience and all the forms that takes.
In the film there are two types of churches: There’s the kind of austere, old fashioned church where people go in there to be quiet and live with their thoughts. And then there’s this other new church which is an arena entertainment-based church, which has become so successful now that being in one of those mega churches is like being at a football game or a Taylor Swift concert. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, because there are good Christians in both and there are bad Christians in both. But I prefer the quiet one.
Polygon: Have you been to a Taylor Swift concert?
Paul Schrader: I would love to go! I don’t know how to get a ticket.
Polygon: I would think Ticketmaster.
Paul Schrader: Taylor Swift is the closest thing we have to the godhead in this country. We only live by her good graces. She is the essence of the life force. She’s keeping us together. If Taylor were to leave us, everything would fall apart.
Polygon: You often describe movies as either “leaning in” or “leaning away” from the audience. What’s a movie that leans in successfully?
Paul Schrader: Every single movie leans forward. A minute fraction of films lean away. Leaning forward means they crave the viewers’ love. They will do anything for the viewers. They will tell jokes, they will show a pretty people, they will have explosions — just anything. Love me, love me, love me. I like these movies. As I said, I love Ms. Swift, but it doesn’t mean that the other way doesn’t work as well.
Polygon: Which modern, American filmmakers have mastered leaning in?
Paul Schrader: In America, [Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff director] Kelly Reichardt works that way. Gus van Sant did that three film trilogy [Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days].
Polygon: Have you seen any modern studio movies lean away? Is it possible given the industry?
Paul Schrader: Well, the studio system is dead, so who cares?
Polygon: Your 2013 film The Canyons was a response to the changing movie industry where the shock of casting Lindsay Lohan and porn star [James Deen] worked as a sales pitch for VOD. Now you have a religious character study slowly opening in theater around the country, and making actual money [over $1 million at the box office, as of publication.] How do you feel about movie-going now?
Paul Schrader: Yes, The Canyons was a movie that was designed for VOD, and that’s why it opens with shots of empty theaters as a way of telling the viewer: This is the reason you’re watching this on your computer. The theaters are closed and that was the movie of that moment. Now, you have First Reformed and another one of my films, Dog Eat Dog. I would love for you to watch those on VOD. Watch it on your phone, have a good time. First Reformed is a little different because it’s a quiet film. And so I was very invested in having the conversation about this film begin with a theatrical audience. All the people who talk about First Reformed that you’ve read after this date have all watched it in a theatrical environment and they have now set the tone for the discussion. So three months from now, when it’s available on VOD, people who watch that First Reformed them, they know the context in which they’re going to watch it. They’re not watching it in a kind of, “Oh, here’s Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, I wonder what this is about?” They’re watching it in the context of “give this movie some air.” It’s going to require something from you. And if you don’t want to watch a movie that requires something from you, then watch something else.
Polygon: Speaking of technology, I also gleaned from your Facebook page that you’re an avid Words with Friends player.
Paul Schrader: I’ve got a lot of cool Words with Friends friends. Most of my Words with Friends friends are people of accomplishment and people I respect. So if I’m playing with [retired Irish soccer player] Robbie Doyle or someone and I start getting in conversations, it becomes very interesting. You meet a lot of people who you’ve known about and you wouldn’t meet otherwise — all of a sudden there they are online! Like this guy who wrote The 25th Hour, David Benioff, I’ve been playing with him and I thought his book was a great book. I’ve never met this person, but now I’m playing Words with Friends and we’re talking. That’s kind of cool!
Polygon: Between making movies, you also find time to watch films and television series. You had thought about Killing Eve.
Paul Schrader: I was disappointed in that. I know everyone loved it. I just found it just too clever, too in love with itself. But I loved Berlin Babylon. The truth is that you can only watch one show at a time, and there’s hundreds of them out there, so social media is one of the things that instructs you to say which one show should I watch? So you hear about Killing Eve. Okay, I’ll give that a try because people are talking about it on my Facebook. Didn’t take. You hear about Collateral. People are mentioning that. Okay, I’ll give that a try. It did take, you know, the David Hare thing was fabulous. I loved it. But how do you find out about Collateral, Killing Eve or Berlin Babylon without Facebook? It’s almost impossible. So that’s social media doing what it does best.
Polygon: Have you ever considered working in television?
Paul Schrader: Scorsese and I tried to do something 10 years ago. We wanted to do a series about crime and post-war Tokyo. The series was called Tokyo Underworld. I wrote a script, I wrote a Bible, Marty was riding high, then HBO was also interested Boardwalk Empire. And so everyone thought it was going to go. Then, nope, it didn’t go.
Polygon: We started off talking about how you resisted writing a movie like First Reformed for a large chunk of your career. What’s your takeaway having finally done it? Or, to quote Toller, will God forgive us?
Paul Schrader: God has to forgive us because that’s why we made him: I do believe in the holy. But I am not a partisan or parochialist. There is another world out there. It’s right next to us. Some days you can almost reach over and touch it, and that’s the world of the spirit, but it doesn’t have names. It’s out there. We all find that in our own way.