Brow Beat

Paul Schrader Is Optimistic About Movies, Pessimistic About the Future of Humanity

Paul Schrader in 2007.

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Paul Schrader cuts to the chase: “Before you ask any questions, let me tell you the answers.” The 68-year-old director and screenwriter is busy. For the Monya Rowe Gallery in Lower Manhattan he has curated an exhibition called “Absent Friends,” which is running until January. He is keeping a loud kind of quiet about his new movie Dying of the Light—which is not really his, at least not creatively: The producers re-edited the film and Schrader, along with cast members Nicolas Cage and Anton Yelchin and executive producer Nicolas Winding Refn, took to wearing T-shirts featuring their “non-disparagement” agreement in silent protest. Schrader also has a Web series that will likely start shooting in the spring, inspired by the episodic storytelling of La Dolce Vita.

Where did you get the idea for “Absent Friends”?

It began as one of those serendipitous New York stories. Three years ago, I was walking outside my 23rd Street building when a young woman approached me and said, “My God, it’s you! I’ve been looking at your picture all day.” It turned out her name was Monya Rowe and she had a small gallery around the corner, on 22nd Street. She was in the process of curating a show titled “Being Paul Schrader,” a collection of art she’d chosen based on my films. I was very flattered and went to the opening and it was very nice. A couple years later, Monya contacted me again and asked if I would curate a show based on a theme of my choice. I chose the theme “Absent Friends” and mixed some work by her artists with art borrowed from friends, like Sally Mann and David Salle. And I got to thinking of this idea of absence. I live in Chelsea and in the time between “Being Paul Schrader” and “Absent Friends,” more high-rises went up. People are being pushed out.

Do you believe that makes the city less hospitable for art?

It’s all capital. There’s no difference between a canvas and a three-story condo. A canvas can remain empty because the painter doesn’t have enough money for the materials to paint it, and the condo can remain empty because the owner is halfway across the world. They’re the same thing and run by the same forces.

You made a movie recently, The Canyons, which was funded through Kickstarter and released on demand, as well as in theaters. Do those new avenues make you more optimistic about the future of film?

Everything’s up for grabs. It’s exciting in that way—unless you’re wedded to the 20th-century concept of a projected image in a dark room in front of a paying audience. If you’re wedded to that concept, you’re in trouble, because that concept is dead.

I’m guessing you’re not wedded to that concept. Some filmmakers seem nostalgic and very invested in 35mm projection.

I’m not. It’s all revanchist claptrap. The goal of art is not to tell people what tools they want to use, but to use whatever tools are around. The tools are always changing and the artists need to change with the tools. We didn’t have movies 100 years ago, and we did quite fine without them, and now they’re going to become something else again.

In your 2013 Reddit AMA, you advised young filmmakers to make short films every day. Are you familiar with Vine?

Yes, I’m familiar. When you change the concept of a theatrical film, then everything is up for grabs. So: What is a movie? A movie may be a YouTube video, a Vine, a Beyoncé video … It may be Mad Men, which runs maybe 60 or 70 hours now. But they’re all movies. And some of them you watch on your wrist and some you watch in an IMAX theater. Some you pay for in different ways. Some you participate in. It’s all movies to me. There’s no real difference.

There are certain things you can do in the hour-and-a-half to two-hour format that primarily came about for economic reasons, because it was the best way to monetize cinema projection. But in some ways that old three-act structure is getting a little risky and creaky as well. You can really feel it when you’re watching movies: “Oh, here we go. Now this is going to happen, now that’s going to happen.” Whereas when you start using variable lengths—whether it be 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or 40 minutes—you’re thrown into a different kind of storytelling and you don’t have the same predictable arcs. The climax can be in the second act.

What I’m trying to do with a new Web series I’m doing is … Well, I was thinking about La Dolce Vita. I was thinking, “That’s a very episodic film: three hours long. If Fellini were alive today, he would make La Dolce Vita as a Web series.” Because that’s really all it is. It’s scenes from the high life of Rome: People come and people go. It’s sort of a Web series. I thought I’d try my hand at that.

It’s changing so fast. The people who are financing this … It won’t be ready for a year. It’ll start shooting in the spring. They don’t even know how they’re going to release it, because I was talking to them and they said, “Whatever we decide on now is going to be different a year from now.” The important thing to do right now is collect content. We always know that people will want content. But how it’s delivered, how it’s paid for, how it is monetized—it’s changing every week! Now you’re starting to get these commercials. My friend Jeff Goldblum just did a four-minute commercial. But it’s not a commercial—it’s also a movie. You can’t run it like a commercial because it’s four minutes long. So you ask: What is that thing Jeff made?

Filmmakers my age are either quasi-retired, meaning they teach, or they’re lucky enough to still have conventional careers like Marty [Scorsese] and Steven [Spielberg]. But there are a handful of us out there who are still trying to, you know, play around with the thing. And I don’t know how much longer. But on this Web series I’m doing, I’m involved with five or six people, and I’m the only person over 30 in the group.

Re-watching Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, I noticed that Mishima always writes in a particular room. Do you have a strict process like that?

Well, Mishima was a real writer. His nickname in gay circles was Cinderella, because he had to be back in front of his desk at midnight every night. Real writers like Mishima write every day. I’m a binge writer, meaning I’m a screenwriter. I write now and then, and I write kind of compulsively, and then I do something else, like get involved in film financing, which is 90 percent of filmmaking. Real writers should write every day. That’s someone like Mishima or Capote or Styron. The rule of thumb for a writer is you should write an hour a day, even if you’re only doing correspondence. It’s just like going to the gym. Once I’m into it, I can write almost anywhere. I don’t need the discipline of the room because I’m on a binge.

If you’re not a binge writer, what they call “the discipline of the room” is extremely useful. Because once you go into that space and close that door, there’s only one thing you should do in that room. And if you’re not doing it, you should leave the room! Philip Glass wrote his first music while he was a cab driver, which makes total sense to me.

Going back to the idea of “Absent Friends,” do you create for absent artists, either long or recently gone?

It’s not just people who are absent—it’s everything that isn’t there anymore or maybe what was never there. When you’re a child you have imaginary friends. As an adult, you look back at your life and say, “Maybe I never knew those people, ever.” Maybe they were all imaginary friends.

Thinking more and more about the spaces in between, I watched a film I wrote about again last night, Diary of a Country Priest, and I was realizing how much stuff in that movie Bresson got rid of, over the next 10 to 15 years. He just kept whittling away, realizing he needed less and less. In a way, that’s the whole thing about absence. The less you need, the more the viewer is going to provide. And the more the viewer provides, the more powerful the work is, because that’s the goal of what an artist does—to get the viewer to leap, to get the viewer to listen or move. And if you give them too much, they don’t move, they just lay back and soak it in. That’s why films themselves are not that great for artists, because they’re too much. They don’t leave enough room for the viewer. It’s the most passive art form we have. You don’t even have to stay awake to watch a movie.

Do you think that changes when people watch TV or movies online?

I don’t think so. Well, it can. What they’re trying to do now, getting people to tweet during movies, they’re trying to get people to be somewhat less passive. Of course, they’re not doing this because of art, they’re doing this simply because you get more advertising if people are watching it live rather than recording it.

Do you enjoy social media?

I use Facebook. If you start using them all … Facebook is just enough. The friends I have are only people I know, of course, and they’re only people whose opinion I’m interested in. A lot of them are film critics and artists and lit critics, and so I hear a lot about films and books and articles over Facebook. If I read something that’s really interesting, I’ll put it on Facebook. I’ll say, “I just read this article in the New York Review of Books, I found it quite fascinating.” And if somebody else puts something up like that, then I’ll read that article too. It’s become a kind of intellectual grapevine for—well, I don’t think this is what Zuckerberg had in mind when he created it—but it’s become useful for me to see certain films and go to certain art shows that I wouldn’t go to, just because people I know are recommending them.

Bret Easton Ellis put up something about a film. He said it was the best film of the year. So I went and saw it. And I agree with him. I think it was the best film of the year, so I put it up. And now other people are responding to me and saying, “Hey, you’re right about that film.” This is Force Majeure. I don’t think the trailer was very representative of the film. If Bret hadn’t put that thing up, I wouldn’t have made an effort to go see it. It’s the closest thing to a Bergman film that has been made since Bergman died. It’s very, very Swedish. It’s hard to describe, but as you start to get into it, you realize it’s really that metaphysical, Swedish kind of movie, and it’s just so full of angst and dread and fear that anything can go wrong in life. It’s a very, very strong film. They kind of described it as a marital dramedy, but that’s not what it is. [Laughs] How do you describe a thing that doesn’t fit into anything that’s out there?

Do you find yourself watching a movie like that and then want to make a movie like that?

Absolutely! Absolutely. Within three or four days I started having an idea like that and within the week I was in an email conversation with a director who just happened to be on Facebook. That’s how quickly it all happens. You talk about the new Facebook generation, and social media: Several years ago, when Bret and I were working and he was writing The Canyons, he tweeted—Bret has a very promiscuous twitter finger—he tweeted, “I’m writing something and the inspiration for the main character is porn star James Deen.” And James tweeted back and said, “We should get together.” So Bret and James had lunch and at the end of the story, James ended up in the movie!

I know you can’t say much given the non-disparagement agreement, but I wonder if your experience with Dying of the Light makes you more likely to go the crowdfunding route in the future.

Well, I fell in with some bad people. It happens. Because film directors are such personalities, you think, “Put me in the cage with the lions. I know how to treat the lions. I’ll have them all sitting on their stools.” It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the lions win.

I’m in the middle of negotiating several things now. Every time something like that happens, you swear it’s not going to happen again. But the problem is, they always come up with new ways to fuck you. You think, “OK, they’re never going to fuck you that way again.” Well, they’re probably not, but they’re going to find a new way. It’s kind of hard to protect yourself completely.

Particularly now, there’s so many people involved in motion pictures that don’t really care about movies. Movies used to be made by people who actually liked movies. There are so many people who really don’t care much about movies one way or another. Those are the kind of people I got involved with and I thought they had respect for me and they didn’t. So I got fooled that way.

Considering all that, you still have hope for the future?

Well, I don’t have any hope for the future, period. I don’t know what role art plays in that at all. I think we’re at the end of our run as a species. Whether climate change or nuclear holocaust. But more likely—we’re evolving. We’re creating a new form of ourselves. And within 50 years, we will be in the singularity. And we will no longer be able to distinguish between human and artificial intelligence, between carbon- and silicon-based life forms.

This interview has been condensed and edited.