Veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader has always used issues of morality, faith and salvation as central tenets of his cinema.
He has never referred to his work as a ministry for his Christian Reformed tradition, which forbade film attendance in his youth. Yet he expressed its austere Calvinist theology alongside passion and perversity in his screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” and his 40-year career of writing and directing such dark thrillers as “American Gigolo,” “Cat People” and “Patty Hearst.”
The chief strength of his work is its courage in confronting grave and painful questions of the kind that Hollywood does its damnedest to avoid, including humans’ relationship to the holy.
Schrader’s latest is “First Reformed,” a provocative battle between man-made evil and divine silence. Ethan Hawke stars as a lonely upstate New York pastor troubled by the agony of a parishioner who sees mankind as a destructive species with delusions of grandeur. The young environmentalist’s despair over the ecological harm done to God’s former paradise makes him shrink from the imminent birth of his first child. He sees bringing an innocent new life into a cursed world an unforgivable sin. Trying to counsel him and his wife (Amanda Seyfried), Hawke finds himself trapped in spiritual and moral despair of his own.
The movie is receiving some of the best reviews of Schrader’s career, and the best of any film this year. In a phone conversation, he shared insights into the film’s disquieting story, the state of Hollywood and the place of religion in mass entertainment.
Schrader said that filmmaking is not fundamentally different from the ministry he was raised to pursue. It simply takes place in a theater rather than a chapel. “It’s a soapbox urge to get on the pulpit,” he said.
Schrader’s gospel has been receiving a strong following via a series of presentations of the movie at religious colleges.
“It has a nice afterlife,” he said. “I’ve never had a response so consistently positive.” (On the flip side, the reaction to his script for “The Last Temptation of Christ” was near-universal condemnation from conservative Christians.)
The new film is set in a 250-year-old church about to celebrate its anniversary. Hawke’s troubled man of the cloth brings full devotion to serving a largely empty chapel. Hawke’s character is “the kind of man who gets this job out of pity” following personal crises of his own. The film follows him as he moves toward what might be a tragic or uplifting catharsis, keeping viewers guessing until the final seconds.
Religion is rarely treated in a meaningful way by the U.S. film industry, Schrader said, because “religion is a very freighted word. I’m not quite sure how I feel about religion now, but I have very strong feelings about spirituality.”
Hollywood doesn’t share that view, he said. “Faith-based films, particularly in the past several years, have incorporated themselves into Hollywood melodramas successfully. In fact they’re indistinguishable from Hollywood melodramas in how they work and the tools they use. I don’t really know if these are spiritual films. I suspect they’re not. They’re just regular old movies with Jesus shoehorned into them.”
Schrader considers spiritual expression in film “closer to meditation and closer to being quiet. Things will happen in a quiet movie if you wait. If you’re doing the cinema of noise and music and exuberance,” he said, “it’s a propaganda film, not a serious film.”
In part because marketing independent films on religious themes traditionally has been difficult, Schrader had long told himself that a project like “First Reformed” was “a film I would never make.” But with technology driving down the costs of production, he changed his attitude. He made the film in a breakneck 20-day shoot with a frugal $3.5 million budget, something of a miracle in terms of quality production.
Schrader never saw “worldly amusements” such as films as a child or young man, he said. While attending Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., he found his door to cinema at a small theater near the campus running a monthlong Ingmar Bergman festival.
That was “my first experience with the intellectual European cinema of the ’60s,” he said. His only prior movie exposure was sneaking into a showing of the Disney comedy “The Absent-Minded Professor,” a worldly amusement about flubber that had not touched him at the same level.
He was stunned to discover that there were artists of intelligence tackling the same issues that were being debated in college and church, connecting the sacred life of ministry he had been trained for and the profane life he aspired to.
He views his new film as a great personal satisfaction.
“Bob Dylan says someday ‘I’ll paint my masterpiece.’ Other people may not think it, but it is kind of very gratifying to say that I finally put it all together.”