The Gospel of Paul Schrader

In a wide-ranging interview, Schrader discusses his Bressonian roots, the transcendental style, the Taxi Driver template and his gripes about Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time poll.

Paul SchraderPortrait: Matthew Salacuse

In 2006, at age 60, Paul Schrader speculated on how the end of his storied career might go: “I have, perhaps, ten years of films left in me, and I’m perfectly content to ride the broken-down horse called movies into the cinematic sunset.”

That decade has come and gone, and things happily haven’t turned out exactly as he predicted. Today, the writer-director is as prolific as he has ever been. The broken-down horse called movies keeps limping on and Schrader is still astride it. This summer brings the theatrical release of Master Gardener, the concluding entry in an informal trilogy he began with the Oscar-nominated First Reformed (2017) and continued with The Card Counter (2021). These uncompromising films prove something that feels increasingly impossible in our franchise-laden landscape: American cinema can be profoundly philosophical and have popular appeal. Schrader has thrown off the weight of studio pressures to work independently, making do with relatively low budgets and holding on to final cut – securing a crucial freedom after feeling that 2014’s Dying of the Light had been mauled by producers. These ‘man in a room’ movies follow solitary individuals with pasts that weigh heavily on the present. They are stories of guilt, forgiveness and redemption; stories that catch their protagonists in a tangle of worldly trouble and ask whether there is such a thing as righteous violence.

Schrader’s late style takes him back to the start. He is perhaps best known as the writer of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), his second produced screenplay, following on the heels of Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974). But the chilly restraint and pull away from realism found in his three most recent films recall an even earlier moment, one prior to his initial forays into screenwriting and directing. After a strict Calvinist upbringing, Schrader fell hard for the profane world of the movies and became a critic. In 1969, he saw a film that would transform his life and propel him towards filmmaking: Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). As he wrote that year in a two-part review for the Los Angeles Free Press, this finely chiselled film about a petty thief “concerns the progression of a soul from confinement to freedom” and “end[s] with an inexplicably spiritual act… an unpremeditated act of love” – attributes that notably also mark each instalment of the recent trilogy. Some obsessions don’t fade.

Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer built on the insights he gleaned as a short-form critic, delineating an ascetic form of filmmaking that “seeks to maximize the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretations of reality: realism, naturalism, psychologism, romanticism, expressionism, impressionism, and, finally, rationalism”. Shortly after its publication, Schrader crossed over from theory to practice, largely leaving behind the book’s concerns. His films sometimes flirted with elements of the transcendental style; references to Bresson, for instance, are peppered throughout his oeuvre, most obviously in the endings of American Gigolo (1980) and Light Sleeper (1992). But in large part, interest and opportunity led him elsewhere. Prior to First Reformed, Schrader could still rightly assert, as he did in 1976, that “the similarities between my critical thinking and my screenwriting are more coincidental than anything else; they just don’t seem to be part of the same thing”. It is only now, in what might be the twilight of his career, that he has begun to fully develop his own take on an approach to cinema that began to fascinate him so many decades ago.

Master Gardener (2022)

In Master Gardener, Joel Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, a horticulturist who tends the grounds of the Gracewood estate, a former plantation owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). When Norma arranges for her estranged and drug-addicted grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) to undertake an apprenticeship with Narvel, the biracial girl’s arrival upsets his carefully measured existence. Passions begin to flare. A former white supremacist, now in witness protection and yet still covered in tattoos that brand him with a memory of hatred, Narvel becomes swept up in the still-raging storm of the past – a past that is at once distant and recent, collective and individual, and which asserts its ongoing vitality in the present. The impulse to violence surges up again: “I have created this life, filled it with rules,” he writes in his journal, “Now seems the time to break one.” Approach Master Gardener like the conventional film it almost appears to be – a film in which things like plausibility, likeable characters and tight cause/effect chains are important – and it will fall short. But approach it as an endeavour of cinematic thinking – one with the same disregard for realism and psychologism that characterise the transcendental style – and the film yields rewards. Can a person truly change? Is forgiveness possible? When is care indistinguishable from harm? To what extent are power relations fixed in place and to what extent are they wildly volatile? These are just a few of the very large questions Schrader opens, leaving it to the viewer to ponder possible answers.

Ahead of Master Gardener’s UK release, on a sunny April morning I sat down with Schrader in the restaurant on the top floor of his Manhattan apartment building. Over coffee and croissants, we discussed his new film, his love of occupational metaphors, the enduring importance of Pickpocket, and a topic of great interest to both him and this magazine: the shape of the film canon and the significant reshuffling of the rankings in last year’s Greatest Films of All Time poll.

Paul SchraderPortrait: Matthew Salacuse

Master Gardener is one of a handful of films you’ve made with an occupation in the title. There is Taxi Driver, American Gigolo and, more recently, The Card Counter. You seem very interested in using work as a way of shaping a character.

Yeah, that started in Taxi Driver. I’ve found that when I can access personal and societal problems through an occupational metaphor, it opens up much better than if I try to do it semi-autobiographically. I made a film that was sort of about my father and another one that was sort of about my mother. I wrote a script that was sort of about my brother. And none of them were successful in my eyes.

In what sense?

They just didn’t have that final level, that final gear that kicks it in.

In your last three films, the focus on an occupation seems to be a way of setting the individual into tension with bigger social forces. Did you plan this as a trilogy?

I didn’t plan it as a trilogy, but at one point someone said to me, “You know, this is a trilogy.” I don’t know. If people call it a trilogy, it’s all right.

In all three films, we have solitary men who write in journals. They are haunted and conflicted; their personal histories bring them into contact with the violence that exists at the heart of the United States, whether it’s the Iraq War, environmental destruction or the afterlives of slavery. How do these films respond to these political issues? The Card Counter, for instance, both is and is not a film about Abu Ghraib.

It’s not about poker either! It usually starts with a personal problem which is also reflective of a social malaise, and then I find an occupational metaphor. Going back to Taxi Driver, the personal problem was young male loneliness. And the metaphor of the taxicab occurred to me. The thing about these occupational metaphors is that you have to break the viewer’s identification. When Taxi Driver came out, taxi driver characters in movies were like your brother-in-law: a funny guy who would talk too much. I looked at him and I said, “No, this is the underground man. This is the heart and soul of Dostoevsky. This is a kid locked in a yellow coffin, floating through the open sewers of the city, who seems in the middle of a crowd to be absolutely alone.” That was a good metaphor. That became the template: to learn about the self by finding a metaphor that’s not at all like you – gigolo, drug dealer, minister, card player, gardener – and using him the same way that Robert Bresson used pickpockets. Pickpocket isn’t really about being a pickpocket.

In Master Gardener, gardening is associated with care, routine and with being in harmony with the rhythms of nature. But it is also about control and the imposition of will.

Right, it’s about pruning.

The idea of weeding the garden comes up several times throughout the film. The question is: what – or who – are the weeds?

This is a very old metaphor; it’s probably the oldest one. We were hypothetically born in the garden, and then driven out of the garden. But there has to be something under the skin of it. For instance, watching poker on television, I thought, “That’s a strange occupation.” You just do the same thing over and over all the time. It’s like sitting in front of a slot machine. I asked myself, “What makes a person become a kind of a zombie?” And then I had an interesting occupation for The Card Counter. When people think about drug dealers, taxi drivers and card players, they have a cliché in mind. You have a little key to tickle the viewer’s imagination. It’s like saying to them, “Oh, you didn’t think it was this way? This is how it actually is.” In Master Gardener, the main character says, “Gardening is a belief in the future.” The viewer might say, “I hadn’t really thought of it that way.” Or they might not think of a gardener being a big Robert Mitchum type. I cast Joel [Edgerton] because he was a big hunk of a guy. Both Ethan [Hawke] and Oscar [Isaac] wanted to do it, but I wanted more of a lug, someone you don’t think of as a gardener. And so I had my metaphor.

Master Gardener connects the idea of weeding the garden with white supremacy.

There are a fair number of hot buttons in the film. You start with the May-December romance, which used to be the norm and now is outré. You move into revenge clichés and then to the interracial clichés. I was a little concerned that people would get too hung up on these clichés and wouldn’t see it as a character piece. So I said, “I know what to do: instead of backing off, we’ll go one step further and make him a Proud Boy. The film will have so many hot buttons that they’ll get confused.”

‘Master gardener’ is a term in horticulture. But to say ‘master’ is also to invoke the slave. The film is set on a former plantation.

It wasn’t written that way. Originally, we were going to shoot in Melbourne but then they went into lockdown for 17 months. We ended up shooting it two months early in Louisiana. The location in the original script was just a hypothetical estate, but once we got to Louisiana, all those hypothetical estates were former plantations. So it had that iconography, nothing you can do about it. I tried to avoid all those clichés, ergo, the jellyfish wallpaper you see in the house. It’s not the conventional plantation decor. I also have a reverse Mandingo [1975] scene. In Mandingo, the kitchen girl services the master of the house, but here the gender dynamic is reversed.

Master Gardener (2022)

Is this a film about white guilt? It’s certainly a film about guilt and atonement on an individual level, but I wonder how much we can also think in broader terms.

That hovers in the background. The moment you articulate it, it falls apart. There are just certain things that can’t be said. They can be said, and most movies do say them – but the moment you say them, the audience doesn’t have to think about them. By not articulating it and using all these garden metaphors, something else happens. In The Card Counter, for example, you’re shown how to count cards. And you think, “Oh, the movie’s going to be about that.” But it’s not about that. It’s a way to pass the time, as the character says, to ingratiate yourself with the audience, to start to build an empathy that then you can later manipulate. This is the Taxi Driver formula: you have a guy who writes in a journal and goes from place to place. That goes on for quite a while. You start to identify with him, because you’re hearing his inner voice, which is coming through you intravenously, like nourishment that you can’t taste but which is there. You’re following his every movement. There are no other perspectives, no other characters, no cutaways. With Taxi Driver, I went to the European model of the existential hero of Dostoevsky, Camus and Sartre, where you’re just inside that person. You get into his life and it’s interesting enough. But maybe 50 minutes in, it starts to aberrate a little bit. You think, “That’s odd.” And then it aberrates a little more. And by the time you’re an hour and 15 minutes in, he’s no longer a character you would identify with, but you already have. You think, “I’ve gotten to kind of like this guy, I sort of understand him, but now he’s behaving in a way that I don’t condone. What’s going to happen?” That’s the formula.

What you say reminds me of a line in your book Transcendental Style in Film. You write, “The purpose of transcendental style is not to make you emote, but to make you understand.” The idea is to “gradually replace empathy with awareness”. I wonder if this is a way of thinking about what your films do and how they relate to big political and philosophical questions.

Yes. It goes back to the things that can’t be said. You have to get the viewer to a place where they start putting it together. It’s as if you have two ideas and they’re like two wires. When you put them together, the current flows through. The question is, how far can you pull them apart and still have the current jump? What’s happening between these two poles? The viewer is making a connection. But if you ever let those wires touch, there’s nothing for the viewer to do.

It’s striking that Master Gardener never offers any explanation of the protagonist’s conversion from white supremacy. We never find out what makes him turn on his entire community and become an informant. There is an abyss at the centre of the film. You never give it away.

Maybe because I can’t. Maybe because it’s only hypothetical. Is it possible for a Proud Boy to become a good person and racially tolerant? I suppose. But movies aren’t stories about the way things are; they are fables. The gist of Master Gardener is, what if? What if there was a white supremacist hitman who for one reason or another reversed course? There have been a few who have gone to the police and ratted out their friends. If we use that as a hypothetical, where does it take us? What if a taxi driver was really a damaged psychopath? What if a drug dealer was an intensely moral man who just happens to deliver white drugs to white people?

In an interview you did with Bresson in 1976, you said, “Movies should be about symptoms rather than about causes.” That feels like a good way to describe this aspect of Master Gardener. You’re not trying to show the root of anything; you’re surveying all the symptoms generated by something that the film will never, or can never, represent.

Yes. “I was raised to hate people and I was good at it.” That’s all you need to know. There are a lot of people out there like that.

Pickpocket (1959)

You mentioned that a film needs to get to a “final level” for you to deem it successful. What makes a good ending? Each film in the trilogy concludes with a heterosexual union of sorts, but none of them can be characterised as a conventional happy ending. There is a strain on plausibility, which comes back to your idea of film as fable. In The Card Counter, you explicitly reference the ending of Pickpocket, as you have before in American Gigolo and Light Sleeper. But I wondered if the famous last line of Pickpocket could apply to Master Gardener as well: “Oh Jeanne, what a strange path I had to take to reach you.”

Yes. “I found a life in flowers.” How unlikely is that? It all goes back to a day in March 1969. I was a critic at the Los Angeles Free Press and a film student at UCLA. I went to a screening of Pickpocket, which was opening ten years after it had opened in Paris. The movie’s not long, 75 minutes. And in that 75 minutes, my life pivoted and defined itself, because two things happened.

The first was that I had a religious background and was now living in a profane world. I thought there was no connection between the two. I looked at this film and realised that there was a connection between the way I was raised and the way I was living. It wasn’t a connection of content but one of style. There’s a way of doing things that can evoke the Holy Other. You can do it in gardens, cathedrals and music – and you can do it in movies. That was the seed of Transcendental Style in Film, which I wrote very young and prematurely. It ended up being my master’s thesis. I saw a connection that had been dealt with in the other arts, but not in film.

The second thing that happened was that I realised I could make films. I was not a filmmaker, but I lived in a house with four guys who were filmmakers and were working on a Roger Corman film called Naked Angels [1969]. They dissed me for not making films. And I saw Pickpocket and thought, “I can make a film like that.” He sits in his house, writes a diary, goes out, commits some petty crimes, writes some more, the police visit him, he writes some more, runs into his neighbour, writes some more. I can do a film like that. That was in March 1969; two years later was Transcendental Style and three years later was Taxi Driver. Both came out of that 75 minutes.

I was looking at your 1972 Sight and Sound ballot, and surprisingly Pickpocket is not on it. You chose Diary of a Country Priest [1951]. Since then, you’ve changed your favourite Bresson to Pickpocket.

I had to. Country Priest was the obvious choice because it’s the religious one and I wanted to only choose one film by any given director. But I thought, “If you’re going to put a Bresson on there and you keep remaking Pickpocket, I guess you have to choose that!”

I wanted to ask you about the idea of the film canon. You were going to write a book on the subject at one point.

I thought myself to be Harold Bloom there for a moment and did all this research. It was going to be a very ambitious project and then I realised that I wasn’t the right person to do it. I also lost faith in the entire enterprise of the canon. But since I had spent the better part of a year reading, thinking, and making notes, I said to myself, “I’ve got to do something with all this work.” So I wrote a piece for Film Comment.

In that article, you mention the importance of beauty and the ability to stand the test of time as important criteria for evaluating films. Another criterion you mention is morality. What is the role of morality in making a film great?

It has to do with the conundrum of the way I was raised, the inherent conundrum of Calvinism: man is incapable of good, but he must try. You won’t earn your way to heaven, but you have to try anyway. I’ve never really fully understood that combination of free will and predestination. How can you be predestined and have free will at the same time?

It’s a major theme of many of your movies.

Yes it is. It’s the riddle of Calvinist theology. But you do have to keep trying, because it’s the only way to be a decent occupant of the world. And, of course, it is full of contradictions: how do you respect life and then eat a hamburger?

There is a line in your essay about film canons that I love: “Canon formation has become the equivalent of nineteenth century anti-sodomy laws: repudiated in principle and performed in practice.” If this was true when you were writing in 2006, it’s even more true today. There’s been so much discussion around last year’s Sight and Sound poll.

It’s also list-mania. That clickbait thing.

If I understand it correctly, you are anti-list but pro-canon. It’s an interesting distinction.

They’ve discovered that people are more likely to click on something called ‘13 Best Topless Movies’ than something called ‘The Best Topless Movies’.

They need the number.

Yes, they need the number.

In your 2022 Sight and Sound ballot, you said that you would not consider films for inclusion until 25 years after their release. Most voters seem to have proceeded differently: there are so many recent films on the list. It’s suggestive of a film-historical amnesia.

You have to let history weigh in. I think history has weighed in on In the Mood For Love [2000], even though it hasn’t quite been 25 years. Certain films just grow. Everybody knew Persona [1966] was a great film, but they didn’t know it was one of the great films. As time went by, it became clearer and clearer that this was a landmark in the history of cinema.

In the Mood for Love (2000)Courtesy of Janus Films

The opposite can also be true. Something can be heralded as a landmark in its moment, but then fade.

Yes. Or you have a film like The Godfather [1972], which was heralded at the time and didn’t fade. But a lot of those films have faded. Bonnie and Clyde [1967] sort of holds up, but Coming Home [1978] and An Unmarried Woman [1978] seem to be a part of
their time.

Given that you excluded recent films from your ballot, can I ask which contemporary films most interest you? The second edition of Transcendental Style in Film, published in 2018, has a new introduction in which you talk a lot about slow cinema.

It’s hard to keep up. They’re making slow movies faster than we can watch them.

It has certainly become codified as an international style. But is there anything from the past 20 years or so that strikes you as a future contender?

I remember that when I first saw Pulp Fiction [1994] at the New York Film Festival, I instantly recognised it. I turned to my wife during the screening and said, “Everything I have done is now outdated.” I realised that the ironic movement had surpassed the existential movement. ‘Existential’ now had quotes around it. It’s a very important film in film history. It would be interesting to see it again and see how well it holds up, now that it has become the subject of endless imitation. The Godfather is also the subject of endless imitation, but it holds up and the imitators don’t.

And so slow cinema was something that interested you primarily in relation to transcendental style rather than being a real passion of yours?

Yes. I started thinking about what became of the transcendental style. I wrote that book before Tarkovsky and was interested in asking what had happened since then. Slow cinema is for the academy, museums and festivals. Very little of it has a theatrical life. I still believe in commercial cinema.

I believe that people who invest in movies should get their money back. We don’t have government grants in the US. The whole American sentiment is based on the idea that if the film can’t make its money back, you shouldn’t make it.

On your Facebook page, you were very critical of Jeanne Dielman [1975] coming in at number one.

Because they put their thumb on the scale.

Weren’t there always thumbs on the scale, just different thumbs?

No. They did two things to rig the ballot, and a third thing happened societally. The first was that they vastly expanded the contributors. You’ve got people who are not actual film critics weighing in on a critical poll, and the voting list goes from 500 or 600 to 2,000. That’s a big change. The second is that they’ve counted each film as equal [Ed’s note: Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films poll has always counted each film as equal]. And then you had the #MeToo movement, which meant that everyone thought there should be a female a director on their list.

My friend Elena Gorfinkel likes to refer to this as the rule of one: you put just one woman on the list with nine men.

Yeah. And so who will it be? It can’t be Leni Riefenstahl, it can’t be Ida Lupino. Agnès Varda…

Claire Denis?

Yes. Jeanne Dielman ended up being a lot of people’s number six, seven or eight, which counted just as much as their number one. The thumb was on the scale.

Chantal Akerman with a poster for Jeanne DielmanMarion Kalter

I wonder if Jeanne Dielman coming in on top is also related to the contemporary prevalence of slow cinema. Perhaps it’s a way of underlining the importance of Chantal Akerman as a precursor to many filmmakers working in this mode today.

I think that’s part of it. But mostly it’s just the female director thing. As Tom Stoppard famously said, in democracy, it doesn’t matter who gets the most votes, it matters who counts the votes.

But it is important to try to move towards a more inclusive idea of film history.

It gets back to this whole issue of the canon and its standards. I remember speaking at my alma mater, and a student made a comment about the importance of not being elitist. I said to him, “What the heck do you think you’re doing in college? The whole idea is elitist. It’s about getting more knowledge, it’s not about being like everybody else.” There’s nothing wrong with being elitist. There is a modern myth that you can be an elitist and a common man at the same time. You can thank Quentin [Tarantino] for some of this. He’d say, “‘Killer Car Girls’ is one of the great films.’ But ‘Killer Car Girls’ is not one of the great films. No matter how many times Quentin says stuff like that, it still doesn’t make it a great film.

Elitism or opposition to elitism is one thing, but we have to acknowledge that the values that have informed the canon have never been objective.

I don’t agree. You can go into a museum and see modern paintings and go to a pre-school and see children’s paintings and tell the difference. Parents say, “Oh, that looks just like a Franz Kline. It looks just like a Pollock, it’s beautiful.” No, it’s not.

It’s often said that film criticism is in crisis. Is this a sentiment you agree with?

The crisis is not limited to film criticism. It’s a crisis of film culture, which includes audiences, financiers, artists and critics. There was a period when film criticism blossomed, but that was because audiences wanted better films. There was a shift from “Let’s go to the movies” to “Let’s go to a movie”. How do you find out what to see? You read. This made film criticism an elite intellectual profession, one created by the market. When that market shifted and print shifted, it started going away. There are more film critics today than at any time in history. Everybody has a blog. But only a handful of them actually make a living out of it, and it’s hard to do for a whole lifetime. So then when you talk about this four-legged creature of film culture, one single leg cannot lift the horse up again. Criticism can’t do it on its own. If audiences suddenly had a taste for more engaged films, things might change. When we were experiencing the multiple cultural crises of the 1960s and 1970s – anti-militarism, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, sexual freedom – movies bloomed because people wanted to know what was going on. What is wife-swapping really about? There’s a movie about it, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice [1969]. But when audiences don’t want important movies – movies that, even if they’re bad, talk about substantial subjects – then it’s very hard to make good movies. More and more, you have cinema that is made for suspended adolescence, the kind of movies that you liked before you went to college, before you became an elitist. Movies with people who wear capes. Will that reverse itself? I don’t know.

Is the theatrical experience important to you?

It’s almost impossible to go to a museum and not see a movie, or to ride out on the freeway and not see a movie. Billboards are now animated. Everything is animated. But the notion of committing yourself for a fixed period of time in an isolated space to a film is like going to church. You don’t leave church because you’re bored. You go there to be bored, to just sit and think and maybe feel something. With theatrical cinema, people have made a commitment. They’ve left home, paid a certain amount of money, gotten a babysitter, or whatever. They are now committed. I have them for at least 15 or 20 minutes. With multi-channel television, how long do you have them? Five minutes sometimes.

I mentioned a possible amnesia around film history today, but this changed media environment we are discussing has also caused a huge surge of interest in all kinds of films from the past – a new kind of digital cinephilia.

There’s very little that you can’t get your hands on. If you’re willing to swim in the polluted waters of torrents, it feels like there is actually nothing you can’t get your hands on – even films that haven’t been released yet. But then going to torrent sites is like drinking from the overflow pool next to the chemical plant.

When Philip Roth was around the age you are now, he said he would no longer write or read contemporary fiction. On Facebook, you mentioned this and wrote, “I wonder, is that date coming for me? And when it does, will I even recognise it?”

I’ve thought about whether to keep up. There’s no reason to try any more. I’m going to go back and reread the stuff that has mattered to me. I don’t care what’s on the cover of the book review this week. I think that’s a very natural, reasonable thing. But I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m still just too damn curious.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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