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‘I wrote Taxi Driver because I was afraid of becoming that character’ – Paul Schrader gets deep

The Hollywood legend on his hard-hitting new spiritual drama, First Reformed, and the legacy of Travis Bickle

By Alex Godfrey
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One of the most influential voices in contemporary cinema, Paul Schrader wrote ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ for Martin Scorsese before directing cult classics of his own. His latest, ‘First Reformed’, is a gut-punch of a film about a pastor (Ethan Hawke) grappling with spiritual and environmental concerns. We put Schrader on the couch.

The film is blackly funny – Toller’s extremity is entertaining. Do you feel that humour when you’re exploring such people?
When people talk about movies the first thing they talk about is plot, but the last thing they remember is character. That’s what really sticks in the mind. To have the ability to sculpt a character of contradictions, and who moves in and out of the shadows, is a great privilege.’

Did Toller’s state of mind tie in to anything that was going on with you, psychologically?
Once a person has an experience of clinical depression or existential despair, that memory remains. You know, if a woman has been pregnant, she remembers what it was like to be pregnant. She doesn’t have to become pregnant again. Also, the connection of the spiritual darkness with this new ecological darkness makes the film come alive.’

Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller in 'First Reformed’

For me, the film is a comment on existential malaise, that people can’t really get by without finding some sort of purpose. Is that you were thinking?
‘Yes. We all find a way to get through the day. But the particular pathology here is when you start connecting your own despair with your own salvation, and getting wrapped up in notions of suicidal glory, as if you can affect your own redemption by suffering. This is a sin. It’s a pathology.’

This obviously ties into the environmental situation – how did you feel about tackling your own concerns in the film via such desperate characters?
‘In the film that’s sort of addressed in the notion of holding two ideas in your head at the same time. We’re in this odd period in history where we have every reason to despair for the future of the species. And therefore we also must find a reason to hope. And so you have to wake up every day and choose to hope. Because how else can you live?’

As you wrote ‘First Reformed’, were you aware that it was pure uncut Paul Schrader?
‘Well, it felt good. Once I made the intellectual decision to write a film about the spiritual life, it just took off. I had been refusing to write this movie for so long, partially because I didn’t think there was a chance that it could get made. But film economics have changed.’

You’ve said that writing ‘Taxi Driver’ was like therapy for you. Did writing this film serve a similar purpose?
‘No. I wrote “Taxi Driver” because I was afraid of becoming that character. I didn’t have that fear in this case. I’m 71. I’m not gonna see the outcome of this century. No matter how bleak I think it might be, it’s not my problem.’

So many films get compared to ‘Taxi Driver’, but this one earns the reference – the only person who can really do it is you.
[Laughs] ‘But, of course, stylistically it is an entirely different package of goods. Marty is all flash and pillagery. This is all restraint.’

You’ve said that impactful films often became part of the conversation in the ’70s. Will the Trump era have the same effect?
‘I don’t think so; I think that culture has become so fractured. There is no Johnny Carson, there is no [news anchor] Walter Cronkite, there is no Bruce Springsteen. You can’t get two people with different opinions in the same room because they’re only talking to people like themselves.’

‘First Reformed’ opens Fri Jul 13.

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