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Director Paul Schrader Tests His Faith In 'First Reformed'

First Reformed, which Schrader wrote and directed, is up for an Oscar for best screenplay. It tells the story of a divorced minister experiencing a crisis of faith. Originally broadcast June 12, 2018.

14:01

Other segments from the episode on February 15, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 15, 2019: Interview with Spike Lee; Review of TV documentary 'Lorena.' ; Interview with Paul Schrader; Review of film 'Birds of Passage.'

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Even though his credits as screenwriter include the phenomenal "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver," writer-director Paul Schrader has never been nominated for any of his screenplays until now. His film "First Reformed," which he wrote and directed, is nominated for Best Original Screenplay. The film stars Ethan Hawke as the Reverend Ernest Toller. He's the pastor of a small, historic Dutch Reformed church that's operated as a sort of quaint tourist attraction by the megachurch that owns it. Reverend Toller is suffering from depression, something he shares with several of the few congregants attending his church.

One churchgoer asks the reverend for help and to counsel her husband. She's pregnant, and her husband Michael, a radical environmental activist, wants her to have an abortion because he's convinced the world basically would be unlivable by the time their child was grown. In this scene, Reverend Toller tries to convince Michael that his suffering isn't just about the environment. It's also about his own inner despair and depression. Michael is played by Philip Ettinger. The reverend, played by Ethan Hawke, speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST REFORMED")

ETHAN HAWKE: (As Ernest) Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can't know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously - hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.

PHILIP ETTINGER: (As Michael) Are you a drinking man, Reverend?

HAWKE: (As Ernest) It doesn't help.

ETTINGER: (As Michael) No, I suppose not. Can God forgive us for what we've done to this world?

HAWKE: (As Ernest) Who could know the mind of God? But we can choose a righteous life - belief, forgiveness, grace covers us all. I believe that.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Paul Schrader, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on this film. I really love this film. Thank you for making it. The movie is so much about living with hope and despair and whether faith can enable you to deal with despair and what happens if despair starts to win. Paul Schrader, what was the kernel of the idea for this film? What came to you first? Was it the idea of dealing with the environmental crisis or the crisis of faith?

PAUL SCHRADER: Ironically, Terry, the kernel was an intellectual decision. I had, as a young man, as a film critic, written about spiritual films but claimed that I would never make one. It wasn't me. It wasn't what I wanted to do. I liked those films, but I didn't want to make one. And then about three years ago, after a conversation, I said it's time now. You're going to be 70 next year. It's time to write a spiritual script not only in the time of my life but also in the life of this planet.

And so 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, and the various pieces - the lone man in his room, the despair we all feel over the environmental crisis, the need to do something even if it's destructive - those pieces started to fall in.

GROSS: You were a religious young man. You grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church. You proselytized when you were young. But I guess when you when you left the church, you really left it. You went to the other side (laughter).

SCHRADER: Well, you have to - you know, the only way you get out of an environment like that is the way a bullet gets out of a gun. And so there's a lot of impetus. You know, I was in Grand Rapids, Mich., the Christian Reformed Church there. And if you don't get out fast and furiously, you get about as far as Kalamazoo, and they pull you back.

GROSS: What were the pastors like who you knew?

SCHRADER: I do remember a couple episodes where I did go to the parsonage, you know, went to counseling. And they were always very considerate and generous because, you know, for a lot of Americans, the pastor is the stand in for the therapist, you know? They don't go to a therapist. They don't go to a psychiatrist. So where do you go? Well, you'd go to your pastor and say, look; I'm having these problems. You know, you need to tell somebody, and oft times that person is not your parent.

GROSS: So what would you tell your pastor that you wouldn't tell your parents?

SCHRADER: Just the anger you feel. And that was an issue for me as a young man, just wanting to do something - an explosion. A line in "Taxi Driver" all those years ago where Travis Bickle says, I just want to go out and do something, which means, you know, this urge is becoming violent. And so that's one thing you could talk about. This film has been compared to "Taxi Driver," and I think rightly so. Except that "Taxi Driver" is essentially an ignorant person, and Reverend Toller is an intellectual, and there's 40 years between them. So it's not the same movie.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to further the comparison (laughter). At the very beginning of the film, the pastor has started a journal. And he writes in the journal, and Ethan Hawke does the voiceover. And he says, the journal has some thoughts I confide in God when He's listening. It's a form of prayer without prostration. If only I could pray. So I want to compare that a little bit with one of the "Taxi Driver" journals. So this is from the soundtrack of "Taxi Driver."

And to refresh everyone's memory or if you haven't seen the movie, you know, Travis Bickle is a Vietnam war veteran who's come home. He has a job driving a taxi. He drives around the streets of Manhattan, through Times Square and looks out, and what he sees is sleaze. And he finds it all very disturbing. So here's part of Travis Bickle's diary from "Taxi Driver."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAXI DRIVER")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Travis Bickle) May 10 - thank God for the rain, which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks. I'm working long hours now, six days a week, sometimes seven days a week. It's a long hustle, but it keeps me real busy. I can take in three, 350 a week, sometimes even more when I do it off the meter. All the animals come out at night - buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take them to Harlem.

I don't care, don't make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won't even take spooks - don't make no difference to me. Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the back seat. Some nights I clean out the blood. Twelve hours of work, and I still can't sleep. Damn, days go on and on; they don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person like other people.

GROSS: I hear so many echoes in "First Reformed" from that "Taxi Driver" journal. Travis is obsessed with all of the garbage on the street, meaning, like, the people who he sees as garbage, the people who he sees as the animals, the sleaze. Someday a real rain will come along and wash the scum off the streets.

Of course, in your new movie, it's the environmental crisis. It's not - it's like miles and miles and miles of junked tires and empty plastic bottles and trash fires and oil pollution. And God's lonely man - that could be the title for your new movie, God's lonely man. You know, Travis is lonely. That's one of the themes of the movie, and it kind of drives him to the good he tries to do and to the bad that he does. So I was wondering if you were thinking of, you know, the Travis diaries as you were writing the Reverend Toller diaries.

SCHRADER: Not too much. And I did a film in between those two called "Light Sleeper," which is also a diary film. And that's a drug dealer is writing in his diary, the same composition book as the other two. But I think that, you know, Travis being a juvenile, really, is experiencing loneliness in a very narcissistic way, whereas Reverend Toller, as an older man, is feeling that in an existential way. And so the expression is different.

GROSS: Paul Schrader, you proselytized when you were young. I mean, you went door to door, didn't you?

SCHRADER: Yeah, I went through a phase where - my father was a frustrated minister. He had to drop out because of the depression. So I was raised to fill that slot. And so it came quite naturally to go out, you know, with tracks in your hand and go door to door give people tracks. Ask them, you know, even though you're a kid, and...

GROSS: Ask them what?

SCHRADER: Have you met Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior? You know, that's a good place to start. And, you know, it's amazing how many people will actually talk to a kid who wouldn't talk to an adult. And my mother - it's a wonderful story because back then, a lot of people would go door to door. And so right next to the front door, she had put up a whole list of refutation texts for all of the various denominations. So if the Catholics came by or if the Christian Scientists came by, she would have a refutation text for them. And so she would invite them in and give them coffee and then start giving them the refutation text. And then they had to find a way out.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: And I remember watching this, so that was kind of the environment.

GROSS: What's a refutation text?

SCHRADER: A refutation text, you know, says why you're wrong. You know, the Bible is nothing but refutation texts, as we've learned. You know, you can use almost any text to counteract any other text.

GROSS: Paul Schrader, you became, like, an antiwar activist in the late-'60s. And I should mention here that, you know, both Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" is a veteran, and in the new movie "First Reformed," Ethan Hawke's character, the minister - his family had a tradition of being in the military. He talked his son into going into the military, and then his son was killed in Iraq after six months. So were you afraid - were you at risk of being drafted? Did you not want to be drafted?

SCHRADER: I was asthmatic and - even though our family was very patriotic. But I had to go to Detroit for the physical. My mother took me to the - a post office where the bus was. And my father didn't come, and I was surprised by that. And she took me. And just before I got on the bus, she gave me a brown paper bag. And she said, now, I want you to put this under your pillow tonight when you sleep 'cause the next morning was the physical. I got in the bus. I opened the bag, and it was a ragweed. And I did put it under my pillow. And by the time I had the physical, I was having a full-fledged asthma attack.

GROSS: Wow. That's really interesting. So your mother strongly did not want you to be drafted and go to Vietnam.

SCHRADER: Yes, but she couldn't say those words.

GROSS: Because...

SCHRADER: Because, you know, that conservative environment.

BIANCULLI: Paul Schrader speaking to Terry Gross last year. He wrote and directed "First Reformed," which has garnered his first ever Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new foreign language film "Birds Of Passage." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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