It’s no surprise that Paul Schrader, a filmmaker associated with such dark classics as “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo,” has a pessimistic streak. But it’s still bracing to hear him argue that humanity, as we know it, is unlikely to last through the next century.
In an interview at the Toronto Film Festival, Schrader said he believes that global warming is accelerating at such a rate that there’s little that can be done to arrest the ecological changes. His Cassandra-like streak informs “First Reformed,” his new drama that’s been screening to strong reviews at the fall festivals. The film grapples with issues of faith while also sounding a warning about the destruction of the natural world. It follows Ethan Hawke as a small-town priest who toys with becoming a suicide bomber in the service of a radical form of environmentalism. Schrader spoke to Variety about religion in film, working with Hawke, and why he believes the world will be well rid of the human race.
Why did you decide to make this film?
I’d been an admirer and a student of spirituality in movies. I’d written a book on the subject, but I never really thought that I’d work in that direction. I liked action and empathy and sexuality — things outside the spiritual toolkit. But I always had admiration and interest in films that were more contemplative. About two and a half years ago I was speaking to Pawel Pawlikowski, who directed “Ida,” and we were talking about the new economics of filmmaking and how it might be possible to make a film like that in this country. Now the technology is allowing us to cut the budgets substantially. When I left dinner with him, I thought it’s time for you to make one of these movies. You said you would and now it’s time.
Your film doesn’t just grapple with faith. It’s also about the environment. What interested you about that topic?
We have this contemporary crisis of ecology, which takes all the historic, philosophic questions of meaning and puts them in boldface. Man has always wondered whether life has any meaning and what comes after death. Now that we can sort of see the end of the role in the physical world the questions have an added urgency.
You’ve been screening the picture at Toronto and other festivals as the U.S. is being buffeted by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Does that drive the point home more for you?
I wouldn’t isolate these events. They’re part of the new normal. It’s not just hurricanes. The icebergs are falling into the seas. California’s on fire. It’s an accelerating process.
I would think that homo sapiens as we know them will not outlive this century. When they create a great museum of the animal world, hopefully the filmmakers will get a room.
That’s a very pessimistic view. Is there any reason to be hopeful or are we just screwed?
Anyone who is hopeful is simply not paying attention. There may have been a reason to be hopeful ten or 15 years ago, but we’ve played our hand now. We’ve indicated what our priorities are. Our priorities are our immediate comforts and not the existence of future generations. I don’t think intelligent life will end with humans. There may even be moral life after humans. But we have more or less soiled our nest. The universe will be well rid of us.
What is the difference between spiritual films, of the sort you described earlier, and so-called faith-based films?
The so-called faith based film is not much different than a typical Hollywood film. It’s all based on emotion. It’s all based on manipulation. I will make you feel threatened, so you can feel relief. I will make you feel sad, so you can feel happy. It will play the music for you. I will have the characters do this and that. I will have the editing do this and that. You will think that you’ve actually had an experience, but it’s all pressing buttons. That’s what movies do and the faith-based movies just do it with the subject of Jesus. They’re really no different than any other manipulative kind of movie.
There’s another kind of movie. It seeks not to put its hand on your throat and force you to listen and feel. It leans away from you and asks you to come toward it. Sometimes these are called contemplative films or spiritual films or slow films. The power of this kind of film is that it puts the viewer in motion rather than letting the viewer be totally passive.
How is new technology, like digital cameras, changing filmmaking?
The films that took 45 or 50 days to make when I started now take 20 days. The price drops, so you can make films about subject matters that would have been prohibitively expensive to make. That’s the good news. The bad news is you can make a film for $50,000 and you can lose $50,000, because nobody sees it. We’re now making so many different films that it’s becoming very difficult to monetize. For 100 years movies had a special relationship with capitalism, which made them the exception to the artistic norm. The rule was if you will come to see it we’ll make it for you. That made it possible for movies to be very successful. Movies made money, unlike any other form of art. Music doesn’t make money. Painting doesn’t make money. Writing doesn’t make money. How many painters make a living? Five percent? How many writers make a living? But filmmakers made a living. We were lucky, but now technology has broken that special relationship and now we’re just like any other starving artist. We can make movies a lot cheaper, but it’s much harder to make a living.
Why was Ethan Hawke right for this role?
When you write about a script you try not to think about an actor because it makes you a lazy writer. You hear that actor doing your dialogue. But while writing it I saw Ethan’s face and his physiognomy. I realized he’s the right age and look. Casting is really a matter of catching an actor or actress with the right story at the right point in their life more than it is about their skills. If they’re cast right, their skills will blossom. If they’re cast wrong, there’s nothing their skills can do.
Do you want your movies to be seen on the big screen? Do you care if people watch your films on their tablets or phones?
No. The artists should not be dictating the tools. They should be using the tools. If that tool is a small screen than use it.
You are seen as one of the preeminent filmmakers of the 1970’s and people view that era as a renaissance in American film. Do you agree with that assessment?
It certainly is overhyped in terms of the quality of the films. We made a lot of bad films in the ’70’s, both technically and artistically. Something that was happening in the late ’60s and early ’70s that made the movies so great was that movies were in the center of the cultural conversation. Whether it was civil rights or sexual freedom or drug experimentation or the war in Vietnam or gay rights, movies defined the conversation. So movies like “Coming Home” or “MASH,” we were in the center of the debate, so therefore movies were important. When Americans talked about America they often talked in terms of the movies. When movies are important, important movies get made. Now we don’t think they’re very important and it’s hard to get important movies made because people don’t look to the movies for answers the way they did.
It was a unique period in the history of motion pictures. It’s not a cyclical thing. It’s not going to come back. The confluence of post-World War II events, the baby boomers coming of age, created a golden decade for movies. It was the times, it wasn’t the talent.