×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Listen: Oscar Nominee Paul Schrader Reflects on the Long Journey of ‘First Reformed’

PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.

Paul Schrader is finally an Oscar nominee. Not that it’s anything he ever coveted. The 72-year-old filmmaker has carved his own path through the industry, a true writer-director packaging his projects independently, digging into the same themes that have kept his attention for more than four decades. With “First Reformed,” which brought him a nomination for original screenplay, he has encountered something utterly foreign to him: The long-haul awards campaign. His film debuted at the Venice Film Festival in 2017 and here Schrader is, still promoting it a year and a half later.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

“An independent film can have a very short life, sometimes as long as three or four days,” Schrader says. “We’re now in the 16th month of this film’s life. To have it be sort of in the conversation that long is kind of amazing … I have a rather peculiar career. I work on spec. I’ve done a few assignments over the years but mostly I have my own little shop. Rather than do something this past year I just decided to play this out, because it was a real sense of fulfillment, of a circle being rounded off. [This film has been] the greatest sense of completion, of, ‘Whatever I came to do, I’ve done it.'”

Well-known by now is how the film came to him. Schrader says that though he wrote the book (literally) on transcendental style in film, he never wanted to make a movie about spirituality and end up “on that Bressonian ice,” as he puts it. When he saw Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2014 film “Ida,” he finally felt the charge. It’s nice, then, that he’s been able to ride the circuit with Pawlikowski, who was nominated for directing “Cold War” this year.

“There was first an intellectual decision to make a film about spiritual life,” Schrader says. “When I met Pawel I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time to write that film you swore you wouldn’t write … I think art can be very, very functional. You can drive a nail into a piece of wood with art. I still, more or less, operate in the same way I [always have]. Not every film, of course, but every several years you return and say, ‘What issues are troubling me now, at this stage in my life? What are the possible metaphors for that issue, and how can a story be explored with that metaphor?'”

It’s unfortunate, though, that the film’s star, Ethan Hawke, was passed over for a nomination. This despite being the most laureled actor during the critics’ awards stage of the season. It seems that spot may have gone to “At Eternity’s Gate” star Willem Dafoe, who worked with Schrader on 1992’s “Light Sleeper” and could partner up with the filmmaker on an upcoming western as well, so it’s hard for Schrader to be too upset. Still, he saw in Hawke at this stage in the actor’s career a real sense of gravitas that was perfect for the story of a reverend haunted by the existential questions of our time.

“Ethan, he’s not like this character,” Schrader says. “He’s an Austin hippie. He’s a Texas goofball. But at this age now, he has this striking presence, those wrinkles, and a kind of gravity to his appearance that we associate with tortured men of the cloth. So I started thinking about him while I was writing. I was also thinking about Jake Gyllenhaal and Oscar Isaac, but Ethan was 10 years older. I realized that because he had such a reserve, maybe something good could happen if he didn’t try to please you. I said, ‘Whenever you sense the viewer getting interested in you, just lean back. Don’t do anything to curry their approval. See what happens.’ So that was the approach we took. I was just talking to Richard Gere about it and he was so impressed by it he said, ‘How can he do that? How can he not show anything? Doesn’t he have any emotions?'”

For more, including thoughts on the evolving independent film landscape and Schrader’s adoration of Lady Gaga’s work in “A Star Is Born,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below.

iHeartRadio
Hear more episodes of “Playback” at iHeartRadio.
– Listen at Spotify.
– Subscribe via iTunes.

Paul Schrader photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety

More Film

  • John Wick Chapter 3

    'John Wick: Chapter 3' Tones Down the Blood and Gore to Keep Look 'Totally Real'

    When Jeff Campbell, a visual effects supervisor with VFX studio Spin, initially set to work on the first “John Wick,” the 2014 action thriller from director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, he started with an industry-standard test: Establish a single, simple kill effect meant to get a sense of the look of the violence [...]

  • Louise Courvoisier’s ‘Mano a Mano’ Wins Cinéfondation

    Louise Courvoisier’s ‘Mano a Mano’ Wins Cannes Cinefondation Selection Top Prize

    CANNES–“Mano a Mano,” by Louise Courvoisier of France’s CinéFabrique, won the first prize Thursday at the 22nd Cinéfondation Selection,the Cannes Film Festival’s top film school shorts awards. The prize was awarded by a jury headed by French director Claire Denis (“Beau Travail”). The jury also included French actress Stacy Martin (“Godard mon amour”); Israeli writer-director Eran [...]

  • The Traitor

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Traitor'

    What surprises most about Marco Bellocchio’s Mafia drama “The Traitor” is just how straightforward it is. Given its subject — Tommaso Buscetta, the highest-ranking Mafia don to sing to the authorities — there were expectations that the director would deliver a theatrical drama along the lines of “Vincere,” but notwithstanding a few operatic flourishes, his [...]

  • Perfect Strangers

    Zhao Tao, Rajkumar Hirani Join Shanghai Festival Jury

    Italian director Paolo Genovese and Chinese actress Zhao Tao are among members of the jury for the upcoming Shanghai International Film Festival. They join the previously announced jury president, 2014 Cannes Palme d’Or winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turkish director behind last year’s “The Wild Pear Tree.” Genovese’s 2016 film “Perfect Strangers” made $7.7 million [...]

  • ‘An Easy Girl’ Wins Cannes Directors’

    ‘An Easy Girl’ Wins Cannes Directors’ Fortnight French-language Movie Prize

    CANNES  —  One of France’s most highly-regarded young women filmmakers, Rebecca Zlotowski, has won the Directors’ Fortnight prize for best French-language movie for “An Easy Girl,” a sensual coming of age tale set on France’s Cote d’Azur. From reviews published to date, “An Easy Girl” marks a return to form for Zlotowski after the disappointment [...]

  • The Secret Life of Pets 2

    Film Review: ‘The Secret Life of Pets 2’

    Illumination’s “The Secret Life Of Pets” films do something the “Despicable Me” studio’s other offerings have yet to accomplish: They allow younger audiences to explore their feelings about new life experiences in a silly, lighthearted way through the travails of adorable animated animals. Despite being an overly loud and caustic clone of “Toy Story,” the [...]

  • Chris Hemsworth (H) with Em (Tessa

    'Men In Black: International' Heads for $40 Million Opening

    Sony’s action comedy “Men in Black: International” is heading for a $40 million launch in North America on the June 14-16 weekend, early tracking showed Thursday. New Line’s opening of its “Shaft” sequel, starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher and Richard Roundtree, should wind up in the $18 million range during the same frame, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content