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Los Cabos: Paul Schrader on ‘First Reformed’ as His Last Film (Or Maybe Not)

The legendary director-screenwriter debates at Los Cabos whether it’s better to bow out in style

LOS CABOS, Mexico — Paul Schrader may have made his last film. Of course, so may any filmmaker in the world. But the source is Paul Schrader himself, sitting in a spacious hotel room at Los Cabos in Baja California, a deeply turquoise Pacific Ocean glinting behind him as he takes 10-minute interviews at a junket.

Is he working on anything new? Variety asked. Schrader’s writing an idea, he said, that he has been asked to develop, which could be a movie or a multi-part series. Whether it plays out is another question.

“I hope ‘First Reformed’ is not my last film but if it is, it’s a good last film. With that in mind, it makes you think twice before you commit to something. I’m in a nice position, I’ve rounded it off here.”

One wonders if it’s heartless to concede that Schrader has a point.

If “First Reformed” is Schrader’s last completely new feature, he will certainly bow out in style. “Schrader works in a stately, dark-toned style that’s far more compelling than the frenetic genre hash of his last two films, ‘Dying of the Light’ (2014) and ‘Dog Eat Dog (2016),” Variety opined in a review, coming into “First Reformed” as a summation of Schrader’s work: “Paul Schrader pours all his obsessions, from Robert Bresson to pulp violence, into a grindhouse art film you can’t stop watching.”

In contrast to having his name taken off the credits, as happened with “Dying of the Light,” “First Reformed” will also have excellent distribution in the U.S., being released by A24.

“You don’t really retire in this business, what happens is the phone stops ringing and they call it retirement,” Schrader said.

He added: “Finally at a point it gets too hard and you are too old and you aren’t in the loop, you feel behind the times and finally it’s too much to jump ahead again.”

One reason why he formed a team to make “Dog Eat Dog” and “First Reformed” of people who hadn’t made films before and were often just in their twenties.

The idea of “First Reformed” as a testament, as Variety puts it, is not one that Schrader rebuffs.

There’s a sense of Schrader coming full circle as well, and looking to safeguard his legacy. As is well known, Schrader came from a strict Calvinist family, did not see a film until well into his late teens. Decades later, his father was involved in a campaign to have ‘The Last Testament’ banned, though his son was its screenwriter.

But Schrader has updated the book he wrote in 1972 about spirituality, “my first bridge between my religion and film.”

Predicting a dire fate for mankind, “First Reformed” turns frontally on faith, spirituality and religion. In it, “I did what I thought and told people I would never do. I said you’ll never catch me skating on that thin ice,” Schrader said, talking about spiritual cinema.

In February, Schrader will be the subject of a two-day symposium at his alma mater, Calvin College.

The conversation – such as there can be much conversation in a near subliminal interview – turns from what Schrader will be doing next, the newshound’s perennial chime, to what great filmmakers did last.

Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira celebrated his 100th birthday on the set of a feature he was shooting, bounding around an impromptu celebration offering birthday cake to his crew, many of whom looked far more tired, though at least 70-years younger. He had no intention of ever giving up filmmaking, continued until he was 106. But then he had been a long jump champion in Portugal.

Luis Buñuel, who dallied with boxing, took a far more surreal approach, setting the bomb explosion which ends the last shot shot of his last film, “That Obscure Object of Desire” in a Paris shopping mall, where once had stood the hotel where he estimated he had been procreated.

Variety mentions this to Schrader, who reaches for his cell phone to show what he calls the best review he has ever received. When he was young, he recalls, his father always had two-or-three publications around the house. One was Christianity Today. Schrader locates online Christianity Today’s review of “First Reformed,” which is entitled “‘First Reformed’ imagines a stunning dark night of the soul.”

“Too bad my parents weren’t around to read that!” Schrader said.

Wouldn’t his parents now be proud of him? “Well, they weren’t when they were alive but maybe that would have changed their minds.”

As he says that, there is no glint of tears welling in Schrader’s eyes. This Variety writer, however, has rarely been more moved by an interview.

Though a doubt remains. Schrader is, after all, only 71, hardly old enough these days to be retired. Is he really thinking if bowing out, or rather, already, laying down the conditions under which he’d make his next film?

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