Paul Schrader learned what it meant to be a storyteller at an early age. Growing up in a Dutch Calvinist community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he heard a lot about hell. When he asked his mother what it was really like, her response epitomized the old storytellers’ adage that it’s better to show than tell. She took Paul’s hand and rammed a needle into his thumb. “You know what that felt like when it hit your thumb?” she asked. “That’s what hell is like all the time.”
That moment seems to have never escaped Schrader, both stylistically and substantively. The 71-year-old filmmaker is known for his intense style of cinema, fueled by certain thematic preoccupations that come straight out of his strict religious upbringing—the paralyzing power of guilt, the self-destructive impulse, the possibility of redemption.
Perhaps best known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese—he wrote the screenplays for 1976’s Taxi Driver, 1980’s Raging Bull (co-written with Mardik Martin), and 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ—Schrader has also stood out as a director with films like 1978’s Blue Collar, 1980’s American Gigolo, and 1985’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
Yet his latest film, First Reformed, might be the ultimate culmination of the psychic and cinematic obsessions he’s been exploring his whole career. Starring Ethan Hawke in his finest performance to date, the film follows the Rev. Ernst Toller, who leads a small church in upstate New York, as he heads deeper and deeper into an emotional and spiritual abyss.
A young woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), comes to him for help. She wants Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, an anguished ecoterrorist who thinks they should abort their baby. It’s wrong to bring new life into this world when the planet is on the brink of irreversible destruction, he says. Toller tries to steer him toward hope and away from unmitigated despair, but he’s unable to before Michael kills himself. Toller is left fixating on a question Michael once asked him: “Can God forgive us for destroying his creation?”
Toller is also plagued by his own demons. He blames himself for the death of his son in the Iraq war; it was he who encouraged his only begotten to enlist. He has a terrible stomach ailment but still drinks all the time, sometimes mixing Pepto-Bismol with whiskey. And his life gets even more complicated when he discovers his church—a hypothetical denomination that’s a spinoff of the Christian Reformed Church that Schrader grew up with—is bankrolled by the CEO of Balq Industries, one of the nation’s top polluters.
First Reformed is shot in a style Schrader defined as a 24-year-old film student, when he wrote Transcendental Style in Film, but had never before embraced in his own work. (The book was published in 1972 and has, not coincidentally, just been reissued.) Employed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Yasujiro Ozu, transcendental style is an attempt to withhold certain cinematic conventions—the use of nondiegetic sound (sound that doesn’t come directly out of the environment of the film) and kinetic camera movement—to evoke a spiritual affect. As did his heroes, Schrader breaks from that style twice in the film. The first is a poignant scene in which Toller and Mary lie on top of each other, while they try to synchronize their breathing, before they mysteriously start to levitate. The other is the film’s final scene, which is one of the most provocative endings of any recent film. (Lo, the spoilers begin here.)
Toller is preparing to lead a reconsecration service for his church’s 250th anniversary, where the Balq CEO is in attendance, as are hundreds of others. Alone in his living quarters, which is connected to the sanctuary, he puts on a suicide vest and covers it up in his minister’s garb. He then notices, while looking out his window, that Mary has entered the church, and suddenly he changes his mind. He wraps his body in barbed wire, which he collected earlier in the film, and begins drinking a cup full of Drano. Mary then mysteriously enters the room and they begin kissing while the camera swirls around them, until, suddenly, the camera cuts abruptly to black.
In a wide-ranging interview with Schrader on Monday, we discussed his perplexing ending. We also discussed the politics of this film and some of the cinematic influences that permeate it. Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
The ending is similar to that of Taxi Driver, where there’s this deliberate ambiguity about what’s happening, whether what we’re seeing is reality or a dying man’s fantasy.
Taxi Driver wasn’t so deliberate. People started to interpret it that way—that he didn’t survive. That wasn’t in my original thinking. I thought it was a valid interpretation, but it wasn’t really designed that way. This one is designed to be ambiguous.
When I came to First Reformed, I built it in by changing the lighting and changing the sound effects and stuff like that. After the screenings we had on the festival circuit, I would often ask, “Is he alive or dead?” It was usually like 50/50-ish. And I thought that was a good ratio.
And, of course, you won’t give the answer, right?
I don’t have the answer. Both answers are correct. On one level, it’s a miracle. Grace descends and he’s saved from his suicidal ways. On the other hand, there he is in Gethsemane with the cup in his hand and he’s saying, “Lord, please let this cup pass from me.” But he doesn’t, and he drinks it, and now he’s on all fours, purging out his stomach. And God, who hasn’t talked to him for the whole film, now comes over to him and says, “Rev. Toller, would you like to see what heaven looks like? I’m going to show it to you, right now. I’m going to open the gates. It looks like one long kiss.” And that’s the last thing he sees.
Did you have other endings in mind that you were contemplating?
The first script had the Diary of a Country Priest [ending] in it, which is where the dying priest falls out of the frame and you’re left with the image of the crucifix and his diary. But then I showed that script to [film critic] Kent Jones, who said, “I thought you were going to go for the Ordet ending?” Now Ordet is a 1955 film by Carl Dreyer, where there’s a miracle. A man’s wife is raised from the dead from her coffin, and his response is not to say, “Oh my God, it’s a miracle. Thank you, Jesus.” No, his immediate impulse is totally common: “I have her back, I have her back. I can hold her. I can kiss her. She’s alive again.” And that idea of a Carl response to a miraculous event had the great seeds of ambiguity and fascination. As soon as Kent said that, I knew that was the ending.
And then, there was another possible ending, which is the Zabriskie Point ending. The Antonioni film. A huge house in the desert completely explodes and the last three or four minutes are just slow-motion shots of debris. I thought, he could blow up the church and we could have a four-minute montage of body parts and pews flying about. But I thought that that would not have the right affect.
So much of this film is allusive of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest—you have the voice-over, the diary, the stomach ailment—and Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. And then at the end, you break off and go to Dreyer, who is one of the three subjects of your book, Transcendental Style in Film.
Yeah. And there’s a little Tarkovsky in there. The credits are from Rossellini. The barbed wire is from Flannery O’Connor. That’s the secret of creativity. You have to steal around. If you keep going back to that same 7-Eleven, they’re going to catch you. So you go over to the floral shop, the gas station that nobody ever goes to, and you steal all this shit, and you put it together and people say, “Wow.” They think it’s yours.
I’m not sure how much of this was Paul Schrader or Martin Scorsese, but in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, the woman, the object of desire, is always garbed in white. She’s the ethereal, angelic creature. The Madonna. But in the final scene of First Reformed, it’s not Mary who’s in white, which is what you would expect, especially given her name, it’s Toller. Why is that?
Well, I mean, obviously, things have practical reasons. If he was still dressed in black, you couldn’t see the blood. That becomes the obvious reason. Plus—the fact that if he’s going to be incarnated, white is the color of incarnation.
Suicide is a big recurrence in your work. Toller contemplates suicide. Yukio Mishima, of course. We see suicide in your films over and over again. But suicide has also had a big role in your life. Your uncle died by suicide when you were 6 years old. His eldest son died by suicide five years later, on the same exact day. Then his second eldest son killed himself 10 years later, on the same exact day, as well. On the 20th anniversary of your uncle’s suicide, his third son returns to Grand Rapids saying he needs a job or else he’s going to kill himself.
I think the origins are obviously Christian, which is the pathology of suicidal glory. Now this is a sin, but you can understand it, because, at some point, you begin to believe that if you’re suffering mirrors that of Jesus, you will merit your salvation. Now Jesus didn’t tell you this. Jesus says it’s a gift, you can’t earn it. But you start to get the idea that maybe you can earn it: “If I suffer enough, I will earn it. And if I give up my life just like he did, then I will truly earn it.” You can understand the temptation. The temptation to go that way. It’s the same as jihadism. It’s the same temptation in Islam. It’s the same temptation that Mishima labored under: I will transform myself by this final piece of theater.
Your characters are often driven by the self-destructive impulse. The Rev. Toller is dangerous, and Travis Bickle is dangerous, but they’re most dangerous to themselves in a way. Where does that come from? Is that a reflection of you, or you at a particular point in your life?
Yeah, I never felt I was a threat to other people. At certain junctures of my life, I thought I was a threat to myself. I don’t think I would have ever attempted to assault or injure others. And that’s a natural temptation for someone who is hot-headed or on edge or ready to explode. But my explosions always tended to fire inward.
One of the ways Toller fires inward is that, as he takes up Michael’s cause and becomes more obsessed with the pollution of the Earth, he increasingly pollutes his body. That’s one of the central contradictions of that character.
Same thing with Travis Bickle. He talks about purifying his body, but he’s taking pills and drinking booze. They are full of self-contradictions. And the environmentalist cause is kind of curious, too.
I want to talk about the politics of this movie. The two major political issues it deals with are America’s adventurism overseas—its wars in the Middle East—and its failure to mitigate climate change. You depict climate change as less of a political failure than a religious one. What made you want to do that?
That’s the way I was raised. We are stewards of this Earth. That’s one of God’s instructions, to attend to his garden, to take “the call to stewardship,” as it’s referred to in the church. But of course, the Bible is full of contradictory things, so it also says the opposite. It says you must subdue the Earth. And in the process of subduing the Earth, we have neglected the call to stewardship.
There’s a tremendous sense of guilt in this film. There’s two levels almost: There’s Toller’s guilt—over his son killed in Iraq after he encouraged him to enlist—and there’s this sense of collective guilt embedded into the conscience of the movie. I think back to the 1970s, when Pauline Kael said the most important filmmakers at that time were all Catholic—Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman—and that was because their background meant they truly understood guilt, which was the prevailing American emotion during and after the Vietnam War. You are bringing this cinema of guilt to a different moment in American history, after the Iraq war and the election of Trump—his pulling out of the Paris climate accord is most relevant here—and it has a similar resonance, certainly for the vast majority of serious moviegoers.
Well, Pauline was not always on the mark. Altman’s relationship to guilt was tenuous. But obviously being raised with the doctrine of total depravity, which Calvinists believe in—once you’re raised that way, you tend to feel guilty.
But you project those feelings of guilt onto our wars and our failure to adequately address the planet’s deterioration.
I suppose. Why is it, as Toller asks, that man can’t sacrifice his present needs to preserve the history of the human race? And he says that if man can’t do that, the only reaction would be despair. That’s the world we live in now. It used to have an option: hope or despair. Now it’s an instruction, to hope in spite of despair, because we don’t have much cause for hope. You almost have to say like Camus, “I don’t believe, I choose to believe.”
Why don’t you think we have cause for hope?
I think we made our choice. I don’t think there’s any way to roll back this technological evolution. The planet is just fine. If there’s a nuclear holocaust today, in 50,000 years the planet would be up and running again, healthier than ever because we’re not on it. And maybe evolution would take a little smarter course next time. The only thing that’s endangered is us. I don’t really see a way how this species emerges from this century. I don’t see a scenario for that. This is the world my kids live in, the world you live in. I’ll be gone before that time. But as Michael says to Toller, you will live to see this unlivability. So, if you’re optimistic, you’re not paying attention.
This film is sort of a culmination of your thematic preoccupations. Yet it’s also your first full embrace of transcendental style. There is some diegetic sound in First Reformed, but it’s transcendental style to its core. Why was now the time for you to make that kind of film?
The timing was because of my age. I finally said, “It’s time.” Transcendental thoughts in film don’t usually come to young people. I thought, what have I got to lose? The other issue was film economics. I would not have tried to make this film in the ’70s. It would have been then a financially irresponsible film, because there’s no way it could have got its money back. Now with the lower cost of film—I made this film in 20 days; Taxi Driver was made in 60 days—it’s become a financially responsible investment. Doesn’t mean it’s going to make money, but there’s an element of responsibility in it. I felt earlier in my career that if I did something so financially irresponsible, I’d never work again. Now I felt it was responsible, and I didn’t give a damn if I don’t work again.
There are two scenes that break from that style. There’s obviously the levitation scene and then the ending. What was the meaning of having those two scenes deviate from the style of the rest of the film?
At the end, I knew we had to leap to the other world, the nonmaterial world, the world that’s running right alongside us, so close sometimes you can almost touch it. And I started thinking, I should foreshadow this. I should tell the viewer there is another world than this very mundane one we’re looking at. Just be aware of another plane of reality, because we may go there. I thought to myself, what would Tarkovsky do? I thought, he would have Toller levitate. He loved to levitate people. And I said, OK, we’ll have him levitate. And then I realized that Toller’s mind is so corrupted by this anger, he’s going to take this Edenic levitation to the dark place.
How did you decide to cast Ethan Hawke for this role?
There’s a certain physiology of a suffering man of the cloth. We sort of know what he looks like. We’ve seen him in other films. So you’re still looking for an American version of that type. And so you start thinking, well Jake Gyllenhaal, he’d be good. Oscar Isaac, he could do that. Not Leo. He has too much other baggage. Ethan Hawke, well, Ethan Hawke is interesting, because he’s 10 years older. You know, he’s 45 now. Life is finally putting its lessons onto his face. You can see he’s lived a life now. So I thought it was right for him. Also, he’s an actor who tends to be a bit of an entertainer, he’s a little bit of a goofball in person. And I thought, well, he’s the perfect guy to just flip that all around and instruct him that whatever instincts he has to entertain—they have to be turned inward and rejected. I said, I bet you that would make him fascinating.
I mentioned Pauline Kael earlier. She kind of launched your career.
I wouldn’t be in the movie business without her. I was a student at Calvin College and got interested in movies. And of course, I couldn’t see any. So I spent a summer in New York going to Columbia, just to see movies. Through happenstance, I ended up at her place with a friend of mine who was a friend of hers, Robert Warshaw.
I had, at that time, seen maybe a couple dozen films in my life, but I was full of opinions. We talked late into the night, and basically, I passed out on the sofa. The next morning, she made some coffee and as I was leaving, she said, “You don’t want to be a minister. You want to be a film critic. We’re going to keep in touch, and you’re going to send me everything you write. And that’s that.” Then she got me into UCLA film school. I had no right to go there. She just called up the head of the department—it was 1968, you could do that in those days—and said you should admit this kid. Then she got me a job at the L.A. Free Press [reviewing films], so my journey would have ended up in another place had I not had that happenstance meeting with Pauline. I remember my senior year at Calvin, lying in bed thinking to myself, “Lord, don’t let Pauline die, because if Pauline dies, I’ll never get out of here.”
Can you talk about your relationships with your mother and father? Peter Biskind’s book says that that your mother would prick your fingers as a child and tell you that is what hell is like every second.
Well, because I asked her what hell was like. That wasn’t mentioned in Peter’s book, but she didn’t exactly volunteer. Everyone was always talking about hell, so I asked her, “What is it really like?” So she said, “I’ll show you.” And she took a needle and pricked my thumb. She said, “You know what that felt like when it hit your thumb? That’s what hell is like all the time.” So I thought, “Oh boy, I don’t want to go there.” But those were just the tools of a good storyteller.
Show don’t tell.
What about your father? He was harsher, right?
I used to think that he was harsh. Now I think that he was just frightened. Harshness often is a manifestation of fear. I think he was frightened of everything.
What do you mean by that? Go deeper. What was he frightened of?
Frightened of this world, about surviving the Depression as a kid, frightened about keeping his job, frightened about not being accepted by others, frightened by not fitting in. He was a deeply conformist man. My mother converted. He was much more religious than she was. He was like the story of the reformed whore, who is more virtuous than the normal girl. He had a sense that, because he gave up on becoming a minister, both my brother and I were raised to fill those footsteps. There was a library in the house that was all theological books. This was supposed to be our library.
What was his response to your becoming a filmmaker?
We never discussed movies. That’s just the way it was. He didn’t approve. But he called me when The Last Temptation of Christ came out. He asked me about it, then he called a second time and wanted to know what theater is this going to play in. I thought, this is weird. I said, “Dad, are you by any chance part of the group that’s protesting this movie?” And he said, “Yes, but only locally.” And, in fact, they did block it locally.
How much was Last Temptation on your mind when you were making this movie?
They were totally different approaches, but what was on my mind was the ability of the radical religious right to bushwhack you. That’s what happened with Last Temptation. They got in the first blow and we never recovered. That’s why I went on a lecture tour of the seminaries, so that I could get the temperature of the Christian humanist tradition and have that ammunition, should the religious right come after me. But they never did. I was expecting it, I was really expecting it, because that’s what these people do, that’s how they get their hits on the internet. I had a nice bullpen of theologians ready to come to my defense, but we never went into extra innings.
First Reformed does mark an astonishing comeback for you after the commercial and critical failure of Dying of the Light.
Dying of the Light was a particularly nasty slap. [The film’s financiers claimed Schrader’s original cut diverged from the script, so, according to Schrader, they edited, scored, and mixed it without his input.] That’s why I re-edited the film illegally. I can’t show it except at UCLA and MOMA. I gave a lecture about it this year, where I went through the whole process and what lessons I learned from that humiliation.
You know, when they have you on the ground and they’re kicking you, in some ways, it’s easier to get up than when they’re applauding. I kept saying to Nic Cage, we have to work together again, because we have to get this stain off our cloths. But in fact, he has so many stains he’ll never get them off. And so when this idea, this script came for Dog Eat Dog, I said to the producer, I think I can get Nick Cage for this, but I have to have final cut because of what just happened to me. So then I went to Nic, “Let’s do this one, I’ll get final cut.” Now we did it and I had a final cut. With Dog Eat Dog, I used final cut to just be outrageous. Do any goddamn thing. And then I said, what else can I do with final cut? I could do nothing. I could not move the camera. I could be quiet. That’s even more outrageous than being Tarantino-esque. Be Bressonian. That’s how I used the final cut this time. And it worked.
You said it’s easier to get up when they’re kicking you than when they’re applauding you. They’re applauding you now, so where do you go next?
I happen to be intimidated by the success of this film—because of that issue. You know, what are you doing next? I hope this is not my last film, but if it is, it’s a good last film.