This conversation between Eric Kohn of Indiewire, writer/director Paul Schrader, and actor Ethan Hawke took place following a screening of FIRST REFORMED at 2017’s Telluride Film Festival. Spoilers follow.
ERIC KOHN: Paul, first of all, anyone who’s seen your films knows that a lot of what’s going on here is very personal to you. Just how personal is this setting and the things that we see you working through here?
PAUL SCHRADER: Not that personal. I didn’t have to do much research to do. But you try to find a metaphor, whether that be a cab driver or a drug dealer or a small town reverend. So that’s not really me, but that’s a metaphor that’s close enough. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that would actually autobiographical.
EK: Ethan, what was it like for you to sort of discovering this character the way Paul wrote him? I mean, he’s got this long line of deeply conflicted protagonists, but this guy is really a unique case in the sense that we’re sort of in his mindset for the whole movie, and the transitions that he goes through are so unexpected. I’m sort of curious what it was like for you to discover him for the first time.
ETHAN HAWKE: Well, I spent my life reading scripts, and I can honestly say that this was one of the top three scripts I’ve ever read in my life. When it arrived to me, it was a staggering piece of writing. Most movies to me often feel like plans for a party, that’s what the scripts feel like anyway: ‘Well, maybe it this happened, and maybe if that happened, it might be pretty good.’ In Paul’s writing, this material was meticulous.
My great-grandmother, when I was born, decided that I was going to be a preacher, you know. And it was something that really terrified me because she told me to really listen for The Calling. And I really didn’t want The Calling, I wanted to be an artist, you know. I spent much of my teenage years afraid of The Calling. I told her that someday I’d be able to play a priest. So when this script arrives, I thought, ‘Shit, it’s 50 movies in 30 years, but I’m finally here!’
PS: I was raised by my father, a minister as well, and I actually did knock on the door. The door, the door, have you met Jesus Christ? But then I found a pulpit of another kind, as the character in the movie says: ‘I found another form of prayer.’
EK: Right, so it sort of comes full circle here in a way. But it is a kind of fascinating world that you build here. There are some obvious cinematic reference points, but also the way that some of the films that we’re thinking about are sort of layered on top of this very topical theme, environmental activism and so forth. Tell us a little bit about conceptualizing that.
PS: Well, there’s a lot of term papers hidden in this movie. And if any of you are teachers out there, I suspect you’ll be reading them.
Before I was a screenwriter, I was a film critic, and I had written a book on Transcendental Style in Film, which is to be re-issued next year. I was a big admirer and a student of films about the spiritual life, but I never ever thought I would make one myself because I myself was just too addicted to empathy and action and sexual volatility, and those really aren’t big idols in the spiritual toolkit. But then two and a half years ago, I had dinner with Pawel Pawlikowski because I was giving him a little award for Ida. Just listening to — he also shot that film in 1:33 — and I was walking out of town, I thought, ‘Boy, it’s time. All these years you said you would never write this script, well now it’s time to write it.’
EK: Ethan, how did you sort of work with Paul to figure out the essence of this character? Like I said before, he goes through such a fascinating transition from the start of the film to the end.
EH: My whole body felt grateful for the opportunity to put so much of what I’ve been thinking about. So many of the issues of the movie feel so close at hand. Part of the wonderful thing about being an actor is to have someplace to put your own inner life. We made this movie in the wake of the last inauguration, and there was a deeply unsettling feeling, and it was certainly wonderful to have this character and this crisis. And I read the script years ago, I mean, a couple of years, eighteen months or so… it’s not about the timeliness of it, but the way I’ve been feeling about it at this moment in my life and I found the whole scene with the young man [played by Philip Ettinger] such a fascinating scene to get to play. What was it, twelve pages long, just the two of us?
PS: Well, yeah, the take, it was a fifteen-minute take. So that was a lot of—
EH: It was our first day.
EH: This poor young actor, Philip, he’s so great, but, ‘Do you do this a lot? This is exhausting!’ We both slept for like fourteen hours after that. It was beautifully constructed, you know the whole: holding hope and despair simultaneously and how they relate to each other. So much of what I think about in my daily life is present in this role, and it’s exciting to have a place to put it all.
EK: Paul, talk a little bit about writing that scene because it is an interesting sort of transitional moment or sort of planting the scenes of the transition that comes later. On the one hand, it seems like he’s hearing these radical sorts of conspiracy theories, but with time, something clicks something changes.
PS: There are a number of seeds that are planted. He says: this is not about your baby, this is not about—your life is about you, and you have a soul sickness, you know. Then he mentions the Kierkegaard phrase: The sickness unto death. Well, he’s the one who has that disease. He’s diagnosing this kid with it, but in fact, he has it. And that’s the one disease that’s eating him up. And he just grafts this kid’s obsession with the environment as yet another kind of metaphor. Then in that same speech, the kid says to him, ‘Do you believe in martyrdom?’ And then that shoe drops.
EK: Which is also kind of fascinating the think about how things play out with these characters. The scene that you have with Amanda when you’re lying on top of each other is just so unexpected. We don’t need to go into too much detail to explain what happens there but I would like to hear a little bit about what it was like to work through that scene from an acting standpoint.
EH: Well, the movie is asking a lot of you as a viewer. And it’s relationship to its philosophical point of view, to its political point of view, and to, for lack of a better word, its spiritual context. And to really do that, I feel, you have to leave the literal. The movie takes a turn there, and you’re not sure where you are. Are you in his head or are you in the authors? Where are you, exactly? And I think it actually takes your brain more into Toller’s space. It’s very successful for me because it’s what it feels like to have a connection, you know? When you have a connection with another person, it’s the best thing in the world. The major events of our lives, the few rare times where we have a true connection with another human being, it’s very hard to dramatize that feeling in cinema. And one of the things I was so interested in about getting to work with Paul, one of the things that is the hardest things to do in cinema is the spiritual life. Literature loves it, but the movies react strangely to a person falling on their knees with tears in their eyes, being moved profoundly. What’s happening in here [points to his chest] is so difficult to translate for the camera, and Paul has to work in a unique way to try and get your mind to—
[A woman in the crowd commends Hawke’s description.]
EH: Oh, thanks.
[Laughter from the crowd]
EH: I just made that up.
EH: No, but, that is how I feel about it, and it’s what makes making the spiritual movies so difficult. And it’s what makes any of us talking about our inner life difficult. It’s extremely personal, and it’s why Gabriel García Márquez feels so spiritual, because of magical realism: it takes your brain somewhere else.
EK: Paul, what was the seed of inspiration for writing that sequence?
PS: Well, I knew the trick of this kind of style is make a rule, make a rule, make a rule, break a rule, make a rule… So, you get the audience viewer, ‘Oh, he’s never going to move the camera. He’s never going to pan; he’s never going to tilt. Everything’s going to be planimetric; everything’s going to be squared off.’ And then, boom! Break the rule. … Great artists who loved to make rules are the first ones to break them because you know you have to break them. And so, I had been locking this thing off, holding it back, and now I’ve got to break. And I know I’m going to jump [cut] at the end, but I think I should jump cut at the end of second act too, so the audience knows where capable of jumping. And then I just, like any lazy artist, said what Tarkovsky do?
EK: If not, Ozu or Bresson or…
PS: And I said: Well, Tarkovsky would just have them levitate.
EK: So, since everyone here has seen the film I think we can talk about the ending a little bit. Which is kind of fascinating because you spend a lot of the movie staying one step ahead of this guy: Where is he going? Is he totally going to lose it? Is he going to pull things together? And you still pulled something out that was completely unexpected on many fronts. Not to be too obvious, I was definitely thinking a little bit of Taxi Driver, in a way in which you have someone who’s very reserved going through this psychological transition — and you just don’t know how extreme he’s going to wind up. But, what were you thinking about in terms of where the viewer was going to be with you in relation to expectations?
PS: I don’t think an artist should preclude any interpretation of his or her work. … Whatever interpretation you have, of my painting, of my song, so whatever interpretation you have, I tried to lay in a number of possible interpretations, I can tell you a number of those — and they’re all valid. So, I don’t have that answer, and I don’t think it’s smart to have that answer because what you are trying to do is set the mind, the spirit, in motion. To make the spirit leap. And once the spirit leaps you can’t really predict where it will go. That’s what you’re trying to do, so you can’t say it means this or that.
EH: For me, one of the things I enjoyed about playing is early in the first scene where he talks to the young man, Reverend Tolland says to him: ‘Wisdom is holding two opposing truths in your mind at the same time.’ In a way, he’s died; he’s killed himself. In a way, he survived and found love. Both are possible. The movie is holding them both simultaneously. That’s what it felt like to me.
EK: And the song, “Leaning On Everlasting Arms,” is such a crucial part of that scene. How did you land on that choice?
PS: My father loved George Beverly Shea, who was a singer for the Billy Grahame Crusade. I grew up listening to George Beverly Shea and therefore grew up listening to that song. But I did kind of like that perversity of him with the barbed wire, her pregnant, while the woman who wants to marry him is singing about everlasting love.
EK: It’s a nice punchline.
EK: I do want to ask you a little bit more—
EH: Some people like ET floating across the moon, some people like barbed wire, death, and hymns.
PS: Just a general point of interest, you probably ascertained this in watching the film, Amanda was pregnant during the shoot.
WOMAN IN THE AUDIENCE: What was the last word?
EH: My name. She says my name: Ernest. It’s the first time you hear my name, the whole movie.
[The audience ahhs in collective understanding.]
EH: It’s kind of arresting, the last line of the movie is the first time you hear the protagonist’s name.
EK: Did you know that name when you first started writing the script?
PS: The first ending I went to was more like Diary of a Country Priest, where the priest just dies; alone, in his room, stomach cancer. And then Kent Jones [programmer of the New York Film Festival], I showed him the script. And he said to me: ‘Huh, you went with the Country Priest. I thought you were headed toward the Ordet ending.’ … Which is another film I’ve written about, by Carl Dryer, ends with a miracle: a woman comes back from the dead. And the husband’s response is to have the most carnal, corporeal embrace that he can imagine to a miracle. His response to a miracle is to just devour this person physically. And soon as Kent said that, I went: ‘You’re right, you’re right. The Ordet ending.’
EK: Not that he got a story credit or anything. … So, not to put too fine a point on it, you’ve been making films for almost forty years, almost consistently, you’ve never slowed down. What is it about this movie, right now, that was so important to you that you had to make it now?
PS: I feel very good about the film. And it is sort of unlikely that at the age of 71, that sort of have done that thing.
PS: In Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country there’s two old cowpokes, Randy Scott and Joel McCrea. And Randolph Scott says to Joel McCrea, ‘What do you really want, with your life?’ And Joel McCrea says, ‘I want to enter my house justified.’ And that’s somewhat what it feels like. So, if this is the last one, it’s a good last one.