In veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed, Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Toller, a anguished priest from a small-town parish. He struggles to tend to a dwindling congregation, torn apart by political radicalism and overwhelming despair. The film’s stylistic approach is one of a static camera and minimalist look, borrowing from the vernacular of Robert Bresson, Schrader’s long-time cinema hero. As Toller finds himself increasingly drawn into extremes of both emotion and ideology, his journey presents a series of philosophical and religious questions to the moviegoer—the likes of which are rarely seen in contemporary American indie.
On the eve of First Reformed’s Sundance London premiere in June, we took a phone call from Paul Schrader to discuss the film, Christianity in America, working with Ethan Hawke, and creating rules only to break them.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve long been interested in the behavior of men who turn to violent extremism, in one way or another. The whole ‘Here is a man who stood up…’ school of thought. What is it about that psychology that fascinates you?
PAUL SCHRADER: Well, it’s somehow embedded in the DNA in these Abrahamic religions: Christianity, and Judaism and Islam. It all starts with the blood. Everybody sacrifices: there are the symbolic bloody sacrifices of the son, the symbolic drinking of the blood for communion. And so...Christians often go off in this way. They’re connecting their suffering to Christ’s suffering. They’re suffering their way into heaven, and they can therefore redeem themselves. Christ doesn’t want our suffering, but [Reverend] Toller is too far down the road. He has already committed himself to this grand expression, whereby he will be transformed by his own suffering. This is the same pathology that’s in Islamic jihadism.
NOTEBOOK: Ethan Hawke is doing some incredible work here, and all his easy charm is gone. Toller seems to struggle in the role of a person in whom he's supposed to get people to confide. He’s a little bit awkward and solemn. How did you two work together on fine-tuning that performance?
SCHRADER: His personality is really sort of goofy. He’s not like this! But he has this physiognomy, and he’s the right age, and he has the intelligence. So I thought it was just the perfect choice. And the first thing I said to him when we met was, you know, this was a ‘lean-away’ performance. If you feel the viewer leaning towards you, lean away. And if they get closer, lean away further. Never give them what they want.
NOTEBOOK: I remember you saying something similar about the work of Robert Bresson, and I thought it was a brilliant characterization of his work, also. But Hawke’s self-contained, slightly awkward persona in this film is really great. It takes away the other cinematic associations you have to him, which is really impressive.
SCHRADER: Yeah, I think he only went out of character once. The thing when you create all these arbitrary rules for yourself is that you can then break them. I never move the camera, then I go and move the camera once, but I go back to not moving it again. And it was the same way with Toller, in that last long scene with Reverend Jeffers [Cedric the Entertainer], all of the sudden he starts to break down. That’s not in the script and that’s not in the instructions. Ethan actually came up to me and said, "I know we agreed not to let him show any emotions—but I just felt this is the moment to break that rule." But after he said, "let’s go back and do it the other way." But I said no. I think he instinctively knew when to break the rule. We’ll go back and do it that same way.
NOTEBOOK: So what were these arbitrary rules in your head when you began filming?
SCHRADER: 1.33 format. No music. No tilts, no pans. No dollies. No bright colors. Planometric composition—meaning all of the action is on one plane. Centering all the subjects in the middle of the frame. No over the shoulders. And heightened sound effects. The one thing all those rules have in common is that they are all withholding rules; they’re all holding something back that the audience wants.
NOTEBOOK: The film is critical of corporate religion and the concept of the megachurch, but is also ambivalent about Reverend Toller’s more contemplative, sort of self-consciously old-fashioned approach to religion as well. In your view, where does that leave contemporary Christianity?
SCHRADER: He doesn’t live in the real world. In order to run a large religious outreach operation, you have to be a CEO. It’s an inherent contradiction in Christianity.
For me, there’s a rather dire spectacle going on across the world, where Christianity and nationalism are on the rise again. It started in Russia, and you can see it in Italy. It’s a major factor in the U.S. And it’s very dangerous. You know, Sinclair Lewis once said when fascism comes to America, it will be wearing a robe and carrying a cross. So it’s a little chilling, now. I personally think these radical right-wing religious groups are in the minority. I’m sure they’re in the minority. But a powerful minority are often able to bend a majority to their will.
NOTEBOOK: In some way, Hawke’s character’s position is—maybe not explicitly, but it’s thought of as— a left-wing position.
SCHRADER: Yeah. Well, I mean, he has a sickness. Despair. He tries to overcome it by doing liturgy, writing in his journal, drinking. He’s given himself one year to overcome this. Then he meets a young man, his own son’s age, who suffers from the same sickness. He identifies with the young man. He picks up the virus from him. Now, is he really a radical environmentalist? Or is he just taking on the mantle of this boy, because it satisfies him? It’s an interesting question.
NOTEBOOK: First Reformed has been doing very well at the box office so far. If you compare it to your previous film, Dog Eat Dog, at least on the surface, you might assume that a genre film might have success at the box office where religious drama might not. So it’s interesting that those expectations were changed by First Reformed’s success.
SCHRADER: Yes, it’s on track to be an independent hit. You know, it’s a strange thing, in the U.S. Only about ten or twelve indie films get their head above the crowd in any given years. Out of many thousands. But I did Dog Eat Dog in order to get the power of final cut. And we used it to do just about anything we wanted. And I got to thinking, now I have the power of final cut, and I can also use it to do nothing. I can use it not to play music; not to have a dynamic camera. Dog Eat Dog is a perfect film for VOD. You can watch it on a plane, on a phone. With First Reformed, I think the conversation has to begin with people who saw it in a theatre. And who have given it that kind of time consideration. Then it can move on and be seen on other formats.
NOTEBOOK: I heard rumors this might be your last film. Is that true?
SCHRADER: It’s a good rumor. Because I haven’t started anything, and I have said to people that I don’t know if it will be my last. But if it is, it’s a good film. I’m working on a few things, but the important thing is what I do next has to be completely different in terms of form. I can’t go back and do the same thing.