Filmmaker Paul Schrader grew up in a religious Christian household but he swore he'd never make a film about faith. Instead, he went on to work on the screenplays for the seminal 1970s films Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
"I was intoxicated by action and empathy, sex and violence," Schrader says of his early work. These themes, he felt, were "not in the transcendental tool kit."
But a few years ago, as his 70th birthday approached, Schrader began to feel the pull of a more spiritual project. And, he says, "Once I made the intellectual decision to go there — to the place where I swore I would never go — then things started to fall in."
First Reformed, which Schrader wrote and directed, centers on a divorced minister who is experiencing a crisis of faith related to the death of his son in the Iraq War. The movie touches on themes of spirituality, environmentalism and despair. Schrader describes it as a meditative film that withholds action in an effort to "give you less — and make you want more."
Ethan Hawke, who stars as Rev. Ernst Toller, says his performance was purposefully understated: "We weren't going to be trying to entertain you," he says of his work in the film. "We were going to be trying to do something else, which would be to invite you into the movie."
On how First Reformed compares to Schrader's screenplay for Taxi Driver
Paul Schrader: This film has been compared to Taxi Driver. I think rightly so. Except that [the] Taxi Driver [character Travis Bickle] is essentially an ignorant person and Rev. Toller is an intellectual, and there's 40 years between them. So it's not the same movie. ... I think that Travis ... is experiencing loneliness in a very narcissistic way, whereas Rev. Toller, as an older man, is feeling that in an existential way. And so the expression is different.
On how First Reformed practices "slow cinema"
Schrader: "Slow cinema" essentially refers to those films that are slow, long, and where not much happens. But, beyond that, it doesn't have much definition. "Slow cinema" can be shown in a museum as an artwork; it can be shown as a surveillance video; it can be shown in a meditation environment. But what all slow cinema has in common, whether it is made for the commercial arena, for the theatrical arena, or whether it's made for the museum arena, is these withholding devices. ... And there are various techniques you use to do that, and I use a number of them in this film. And, obviously, when you push them too far you'll get cinema that is not designed for popular audiences anymore. That is just essentially an installation.
Ethan Hawke: We sat down to have coffee to talk about the script [and] one of the first things [Schrader] said to me is: "Do you know what a recessive performances is? A lean-back performance?" And I did know what he was talking about.
On why Hawke wanted to play Rev. Toller
Hawke: [It] felt like he was giving voice to something that was on my mind. There's something about Rev. Toller that, to me, was like a scream, just some kind of a roar. ... I felt it immediately and without any confusion. ... Where are the grownups? Who's leading? Am I supposed to lead? What am I supposed to do? Why am I here? Why was I born? Why do bad things have to happen all the time?
These are very obvious questions that are always being asked, but they are set in a way that gave them meaning and clarity for me anyway. It made me want to play the part.
On why Hawke, at 47, was just the right age for the role
Schrader: He was just coming to a very interesting place in his physical life. By that, I just mean [the] physical quality of his face that I thought "You know? I think he's the right guy right now for this." You can see a number of lessons in his face that he doesn't have to act. Life has put them there.
Hawke: Experience is the best tool to give you confidence. And sadly, the best teacher is failure, you know? Doing things wrong. I remember when I did Dead Poets Society, I thought making a good movie was super easy. You know? It's just a breeze. Of course, life taught me otherwise. ... Life has given me things to cry about over the last 47 years. And I was appreciative of having a role that was complex enough to put some of that energy [into].
On why Schrader goes to church to "be bored"
Schrader: For me, I like to go to church on Sunday mornings to organize my thoughts, organize my week, and be quiet. And you don't walk out of a church because you're bored. You go to church to be bored — to have that time. And you can have it in your room in the lotus position or you can have it in a pew. It's essentially the same sort of thing for me and that's what I enjoy about it.
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.