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'First Reformed': Paul Schrader Injects His Education Into Another Agonized Outsider


In Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," Travis Bickle, a tormented cab driver roaming the streets of New York, had this to say about loneliness.


ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Travis Bickle) Loneliness has followed me my whole life - everywhere - in bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores - everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man.

GONYEA: Paul Schrader was in his early 20s when he wrote those lines for Scorsese's 1976 classic. It would launch a collaboration that includes the films "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation Of Christ." Paul Schrader would go on to direct movies of his own, many of them also agonized portraits of outsiders needing salvation. His 12th film as a director, "First Reformed," is no exception. Ethan Hawke plays another of God's lonely men, a pastor at a small church in upstate New York whose encounter with a radical environmentalist challenges both his faith and his spirit. Many critics are calling "First Reformed" a career peak for Paul Schrader, who joins us in our D.C. studios to talk about the film and his career.

Thank you for being here.

PAUL SCHRADER: Hello, Don. Thank you.

GONYEA: So I thought we would start by having you introduce us to Ethan Hawke's character. Who is this guy?

SCHRADER: He is a former military chaplain who came from a line of ministers in a line of patriotic soldiers, and he had, against his wife's desires, kind of convinced his son to enter the military whereupon his son was killed in Iraq and whereupon his wife left him and whereupon he quit the military and was lost.

GONYEA: So let's hear a little bit from Pastor Toller as played by Ethan Hawke. In this clip, he reveals some of his demons. As you said, he lost his son in the Iraq War. His guilt haunts him.


ETHAN HAWKE: (As Toller) My wife was very opposed. My son enlisted anyway, and six months later he was dead in Iraq. I talked my son into a war that had no moral justification.

GONYEA: It's a challenging film. It is also a contemplative film. I wonder how it came to you. It does seem, in some ways, that your entire career has been building toward this particular film, this particular story and character.

SCHRADER: Before I was a screenwriter, I had written, as a post-theology student, a book of theological aesthetics on transcendental style and film. And then I became a writer then a director, and whenever anyone tried to connect that book to my work, I said, No. No. No. No. That is not me. I like those films. I've written about those films, but I'm never going to make one. I'm too intoxicated by sex and violence and action and empathy to make one of those films. And that's the way it was for a number of decades, and then about three years ago, I was having dinner with this Polish director who had done the film "Ida" about a Polish nun, and it was a film in the spiritual style, and we got to talking about how much I like the film and how much he liked my book. And then I walked uptown afterward, and I said, well. You're going to be 70 next year. It's time to write that movie you swore you would ever write.

GONYEA: So you mentioned you were, at one point, a theology student. You thought it - at an early age, you might even become a pastor yourself?

SCHRADER: Well, I was raised - my father was a frustrated pastor. He had to drop out because of the Depression. So he raised his boys to be ministers, and we went to - I'm a product of the Christian Reformed Church in West Michigan, Grand Rapids West Side Christian, Grand Rapids Christian High, Calvin College. So, you know, that's my background. That's the software that was loaded into my computer.

GONYEA: With the taxi driver - obviously, your most famous creation is that character, Travis Bickle, played by, of course, Robert De Niro, but many of your films have - while they have varied in subject matter, in a panel discussion following a screening this week of "First Reformed," you talked about how you keep returning to, kind of, a version of Travis Bickle's character. He might be a gigolo in "American Gigolo" from 1980 or it might be Nick Nolte, the small-town policeman in "Affliction," and now, in this case, a pastor in "First Reformed." What is it about this character that warrants return visits like this?

SCHRADER: When I was a film critic, I lived in a house with other students at UCLA, and they were making a biker movie, and I thought that was sort of déclassé. I was a very - elitist. I believed criticism was a higher calling. And so I had no intention of being a filmmaker. And then I saw this film pickpocket by Bresson, and I was there as a reviewer, and it was about this guy who kept a journal, and he went out and did some petty crimes, wrote some more in the journal, went out - met his neighbor. And I thought, wow, I could make a film like that. I mean, that I could make. I can't make a biker movie, but I could make that film. And so that was my, kind of, point of entry. And three years later, I wrote "Taxi Driver," which is about that same guy.

GONYEA: I guess as you're about to open this latest film, do you, kind of, look back at the sweep of these 40 years...

SCHRADER: Yeah, and when...

GONYEA: ...And see this as part of a continuum?

SCHRADER: Yeah. In this case, yes. You know, 50 years ago, I graduated from Calvin College and went to UCLA. A few months ago, I was back at Calvin with this film and giving a lecture. So yes, there is a sense of completion, sense that I've tied it all together, and that is intimidating because it makes you think about, what should I do next? You know, I hope this isn't my last hope, but if it had to be, it's damn good last film.

GONYEA: (Laughter) Paul Schrader's "First Reformed" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and is set to expand to other cities in the coming weeks.

Paul Schrader, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SCHRADER: Thank you, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.