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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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

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