NEW YORK, N.Y. – Usually by now, the prolific filmmaker and legendary screenwriter Paul Schrader is already on to the next one.
But after finishing the religious thriller “First Reformed,” which has been hailed as Schrader’s late-life masterpiece, the 71-year-old filmmaker is taking a breather. “I’ve just decided to let this one play out,” he said in a recent interview speaking by phone from his home in Putnam County, New York.
“First Reformed,” which A24 will release Friday, is a kind of capstone to Schrader’s relentless and volatile career. Raised in Michigan by a Calvinist family, Schrader famously didn’t see a movie until he was 17. He was a critic first, and a protege of Pauline Kael’s. Then, in a fit of delirium, he wrote “Taxi Driver” at the age of 26.
Schrader became one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood, writing other Martin Scorsese films, including “Raging Bull.” His script to Sydney Pollack’s 1974 “The Yakuza” set a record for a screenplay. He also became a major filmmaker in his own right as the director of, among other things, “American Gigolo.”
At 24, he wrote the recently republished classic “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer,” and Schader has long contemplated making a spiritual film but always gravitated more to lurid thrillers.
“First Reformed” is both. And like “Taxi Driver,” it’s about the ominous descent of a journal-writing loner heading toward a bloody reckoning — only the protagonist here is an upstate New York pastor (Ethan Hawke) whose faith is shaken after meeting a suicidal environmentalist (Philip Ettinger) and his pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried).
AP: Does “First Reformed” feel like a culmination for you?
Schrader: Yeah, it does, but it’s also kind of intimidating because you think about what to do next. I hope this isn’t my last film but if it is, it’s a very good last film.
AP: You didn’t see a film until you were 17. Do you think your Calvinist upbringing was foundational to what kind of filmmaker he became?
Schrader: I can’t imagine that it could not be. My personal computer was programed by the Christian Reform Church of Grand Rapids Christian High and Calvin College. It’s pretty hard to un-program that computer.
AP: Is cinema connected with spirituality for you?
Schrader: That’s very difficult. Everything inside cinema rebels against spirituality. Cinema is based on action and based on empathy. These are not elements in the transcendental toolkit. In many ways, people who try to do spiritual or contemplative films are working against the grain of the medium itself.
AP: Your films vary pretty wildly between the sacred and the profane. Your 2016 film “Dog Eat Dog,” about a kidnapping of a baby that goes awry, was especially lurid.
Schrader: Yeah, I would say the one just before this was the essence of the profane. About five years ago I was involved in a soul-crushing experience where a film (“Dying of the Light”) was taken away from me. What haunted me at that time was the feeling that this would be my last film and that I would end my career with this debacle. I fought my way back from that, got final cut, did another film with Nic (Cage) and did this film.
AP: In 2013, you directed “The Canyons,” from a script by Bret Easton Ellis, and partly funded the production through Kickstarter. Was “First Reformed” easier to get made?
Schrader: It’s never been easy. I’ve always been one of the scavenger dogs of film financing, picking up money here and there. I’ve been doing that all my life. This was one was relatively easy because certain costs have gone down so much. I made this film in 20 days whereas 30 years ago, it would have been made in 42.
AP: How explicitly did you want to echo “Taxi Driver” in “First Reformed?”
Schrader: When I was in the editing room, the editor said to me: ‘You know there’s a lot of ‘Taxi Driver’ in this movie.’ And I said to him, ‘Yeah, I knew there was some. I didn’t realize how much until we started cutting this film together.
AP: You wrote “Taxi Driver” over 10 days. Where did it come from?
Schrader: It was written as self-therapy. I was in a particularly dark phase of my life and I was sort of becoming this character — living in my car, drinking. I got a bleeding ulcer and I went to the hospital. I realized I hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks. When I was in the hospital, this metaphor occurred to me of this boy caught in this yellow metal coffin floating through the city, trapped, surrounded by people yet alone. I said: I’ve got to write down this kid because I’m becoming this kid.
AP: Did that work? Did you exorcise him?
Schrader: Oh, yes. Up until that point, I had been writing non-fiction. I had been writing criticism. And I hit the wall and I said: Non-fiction won’t do. The place I’ve come to now, non-fiction won’t do. You have to create flesh and blood avatars. Otherwise, they’re going to create you.
AP: You have several grown children. Do you share the despair of the young father-to-be in “First Reformed,” who’s obsessed with the relatively imminent ecological collapse of Earth?
Schrader: I certainly do. I’m 71 years old so I’m going to get out of here. But we’ve really left our children and our grandchildren in a terrible bind. And it’s hard to be optimistic. This dilemma, which didn’t occur in my young manhood, is: Should I bring a child into this world? I know more and more young people actually deal with that question. It’s kind of mindboggling.
AP: Do you believe in God?
Schrader: I choose to believe. I don’t actually believe but I choose to believe. Like the minister says: You can choose hope. You don’t actually have to have hope, but you can choose hope.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP