Paul Schrader has, in a sense, achieved redemption. The 71-year-old screenwriter and director — who worked as a film critic before going on to write classics like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and becoming an acclaimed auteur in his own right — has recently gone on record saying that he had thought his days in Hollywood were done. A reported dispute with the financiers behind his 2014 film, the Nicolas Cage-starring Dying of the Light, ended with Schrader losing creative control of the picture. Cut to a few years later, and the filmmaker is earning raves for his latest feature, First Reformed.
“I’ve never had a film that has received such a favorable response,” Schrader said recently in the Manhattan office of A24, the taste-making distributor that’s releasing First Reformed. “I tend to make things that cause controversy and therefore you will always have pros and cons. But this one seems to be predominantly pro.”
Set to hit screens Friday, First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke (in a fully realized performance) as Reverend Toller, a damaged man of faith who self-medicates with alcohol and a diary. Amanda Seyfried plays a pregnant churchgoer who asks Toller to help her husband, a troubled environmentalist who’s spiraling and appears to be plotting an act of violence.
Once their paths cross, Toller “catches that boy’s virus,” as Schrader put it. Toller’s mentor, played by Cedric the Entertainer (credited as Cedric Kyles), senses something’s wrong and tries to steer his colleague away from despair. From there, the story builds to a finale that’s genuinely shocking and deeply unsettling.
It all adds up to a film that’s as bleak as its wintry, upstate New York setting — a work that’s rigid but not unfeeling, curious about faith but consumed by hopelessness. Mic talked with Schrader about the making of First Reformed, what it’s like to have a late-career masterpiece on his hands and why this film feels both reminiscent of Taxi Driver and well-suited to our current moment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: How and when did the script first come together for you? Was this a story that had been kicking around in your head for a while?
Paul Schrader: No. Before I was a screenwriter, when I was a critic, I wrote a book on spiritual cinema. But I never thought that I would actually make a film of that ilk. It wasn’t for me — I was too intoxicated with action and empathy and sex and violence. So when people would try to connect that book to my films, I would just say, “No, no, no. I’m not that guy. You won’t catch me out on that Bressonian ice.”
And then about three years ago, I was giving an award to [the director] Pawel Pawlikowski for [the 2013 film] Ida, at New York Society of Film Critics. And we got talking about that film, which I admired enormously, and about spiritual cinema in general. And I’m walking back uptown, to my condo in Chelsea, and I thought to myself, “You know, it’s time. You’re going to be 70 next year, it’s time to write that movie that you swore you would never write.”
I read recently that you were worried your career was over after Dying of the Light.
PS: Yeah, I thought it was. I thought that this was going to be it: It’d end in a debacle and I’d live out my days in resentment and regret, which is why I worked so hard to do another film with Nic [Cage, who starred in 2016’s Dog Eat Dog after Dying of the Light] and get final cut. So, now, I have a kind of parallel feeling, only it’s the other side. Back then, I thought it’s over because it’s ugly and now I’m thinking, “Well, what do I do next?” I’ve been saying, to various people, I hope this isn’t my last film, but if it is, it’s a damn good last film.
In the film, Reverend Toller starts keeping a diary. He plans to write down all of his thoughts for a year and then, after that year’s up, he’s going to destroy the diary. Is that just pure self-loathing?
PS: I think he’s giving himself a year. And at the end of that year, what will happen? Hopefully, he’ll have found a better reason to live. But in [my 1992 film] Light Sleeper, the main character also keeps a diary, and you have a scene in the film where he comes to the last line of his diary, closes the composition book, walks over to the trash can, and drops it in. It’s something about the impermanence of a diary, rather than the permanence.
If you said for decades you weren’t going to make a movie like this, how did it feel to finally bring this kind of film to life?
PS: I was very confident. I felt I knew how to make this film now. It’s a high-wire act when you make a film that recedes from the audience’s attention, and is not hungry for their attention. I just really felt that I knew how to do this now. And I wasn’t afraid of the whole commercial aspect of it because the film didn’t cost much money and I had final cut and it would be what I wanted it to be. And at that budget, I thought I was being financially responsible.
So you weren’t concerned about the dark subject matter turning people off?
PS: I made the film in 20 days, and with Ethan and Amanda and Cedric. So I thought it was a financially viable proposition. If it worked at all, somebody would get their money back and that’s all that I feel an artist is required to do. You do have to try to return your investment — you don’t have an obligation to make somebody obscenely rich.
How has it been working with A24?
PS: Yeah, just walking into this space, the space exudes an air of confidence. You have a feeling that these people are on the top of their game. And there’s a lot of topspin. I’m very glad I ended up here. And also, you know, I think it’s good for A24, too, because I can be their token geriatric director, and it doesn’t make them appear to be ageist.
Digging into some of the actual scenes in the film: During the scene where Toller is trying on the suicide vest he gets from another character, I was struck by the obvious parallel to Travis Bickle. Was that an intentional nod toward Taxi Driver?
PS: The editor said to me, in the editing room, “You know, there’s a lot of Taxi Driver in this movie.” I said, “Yeah, I know, I put it in there.” But I didn’t realize it was so much. I dropped a few intentional nuggets in, but I didn’t realize the whole back half of the film was going to be propelled by that obsessive nature of Taxi Driver.
This might be me reading into it, but were you thinking, “Well, this might be my last film, so it could be nice to bookend things”?
PS: Well, I’ve been thinking that now for the last 10 years — every film is the last film. But there was a sense of resolution, of completion, while I was doing this, particularly with the ending.
When the editor told you there was a lot of Taxi Driver in here, were you like, “Oh, god, I’m going to have to talk about Taxi Driver again”?
PS: No, no. It was something that I obviously was sort of thinking. And then when he said it, it was like, “yep.”
So you’re prepared to get that question.
PS: I referenced a number of films — Diary of a Country Priest, Winter Light, The Mirror by Tarkovsky, Ordet by Dreyer, Silent Light by Reygadas, Wise Blood — but what I wasn’t quite so aware of was the glue that would hold all of these disparate elements together was Taxi Driver. Even though it’s full of references and you could actually make a footnoted version of the thing, ironically, it feels very contemporary. Even though Richard Linklater told Ethan, “No one’s even tried to make this film in 60 years,” it feels oddly of this moment.
I’d like to talk about Cedric’s character. How did he get involved in the film? He’s great in it, but I’ve never seen him in this kind of part.
PS: I have an enormous predisposition to stereotype ministers, particularly ministers of large congregations — CEO kind of ministers. And I was just thinking, “How can I keep the audience from putting [the character of Pastor Jeffers] in that box, of being Franklin Graham, Joel Osteen, Falwell Jr.?” And, so, I thought I should get somebody who sends off a different vibe.
The casting person said, “Well, what is this guy actually like?” I said, “Well, he’s a little like Steve Harvey.” And she said, “Well, you can’t get Steve Harvey — he’s the hardest-working man in show business. He’s never off the air.” And then she came back the next day, and she said, “What would you think about Cedric?” I said, “That’s a brilliant idea.”
He has done straight work, acting work — it’s not like he’s doing it for the first time. The first time I talked to him, I said, “I did not cast you to be funny,” and he said, “I know that.”
His character is really interesting, because it seems like Reverend Toller comes to see him as corrupt and complicit —
PS: Not really. He sees him as a father figure. He rescued him, he gave him this job. He tells the kid, “I was lost. Reverend Jeffers heard about my situation. He offered me this job.” He has saved him, and when they meet he says, “We should have more of our talks.”
However, Jeffers lives in the real world. He says to Toller, “You don’t live in the real world. You don’t know what it’s like to run an organization, to finance an organization like this.” And he doesn’t. I love that line [from the film]: “You’re a minister at a tourist church that no one attends. That’s your contribution.”
I did my best to try to present Reverend Jeffers as a good man in the real world, not a bad man. Sometimes that means looking the other way. If you have the ballet company in Lincoln Center, and David Koch wants to fund it, what do you say? “I don’t like your politics, Mr. Koch, therefore I won’t take your money”? No, you take it and put his name on the side of your theater.
I read in an interview with Variety you said you didn’t think humanity was going to make it through the century.
PS: Homo sapiens? No. I don’t see much cause for optimism. As we are presently defined, I don’t think we will. Now, unless there’s total annihilation, there will be a permutation. And I’m a believer in singularity. So that if we don’t extinguish ourselves with weapons or pollution, we will then evolve into somebody, hopefully, who has better adapted to the world we’ve created. They’re going to have a hell of a museum — the museum of humanity.
Is it fair to say then that the film’s outlook on the environment and humanity’s corruption of it is something that you carry with you?
PS: I think we have made our decision as a species around the globe. I don’t see how that decision is reversible anymore. We all have this hope of a technological deus ex machina, that somebody will just find the magic bullet and it will all be fixed. And it has happened before: You think of Malthus. Malthus said we’re gonna eat up all of the food on the planet, we’re going to start starving. What he didn’t know was that we would be able to technologically increase the yield exponentially.
Does that just make you feel awful, or are you at peace with it? Do you despair at all?
PS: I despair for my children, and their children. This notion that, in good times, like we have now, someone would be afraid to bring a child into this world — that’s horrifying. You can understand it in terms of starvation, or war, but why, in this scenario? My generation, we landed in the sweet spot of history. We had the most of everything: leisure time, medicine, peace, prosperity. My parents, the so-called “greatest generation,” they suffered to get us in this place. And what was our response? Selfishness and greed. And, basically, we’ve said to our children, “Too bad for you.”
Last question: Is there any particular message or something you hope audiences take from the film?
PS: There is another plane. And I hinted at it with the levitation [scene]. There is another world that runs beside this one and, at times, you can see into it. If you’re quiet enough and still enough, and wait enough, you can glimpse in.