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Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader created some of the most acclaimed films of the 1970s and 1980s, and as he releases his new film, Master Gardener, it’s clear age hasn’t wearied him. By Andy Hazel.

Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader.
Paul Schrader.
Credit: Ambra Vernuccio

On a bright afternoon, I stand in a plush hotel lobby watching Paul Schrader being photographed. “We done?” he asks the photographer as she moves in to take the shot above. She is not.

Schrader is wearing a black T-shirt, black shorts, a gold Rolex and an expression that fails to mask his displeasure. “Okay, thank you,” he says. When the shoot is over, he moves towards me carefully, shakes my hand and expands into a deep chair with a sigh. “As you can tell, I am getting older,” he says with a smile that doubles as a shrug.

The 76-year-old film critic, screenwriter and director was hospitalised several times over the past year following a severe Covid-19 infection and a bad experience with the diabetes/weight loss drug Ozempic. He refers to the Marrakech International Film Festival, where we meet, as “my last rodeo”. But then again, in 2017 he claimed First Reformed would be his final film.

Schrader is best known for writing Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead: films about men whose internal struggles have wide-reaching and usually violent consequences. Of the 24 films he has directed, many – including American Gigolo, Blue Collar, First Reformed and The Card Counter – are marked by, as film critic Adrian Martin wrote, “a certain fascinated, curious, even sympathetic feeling for social and personal alienation”.

He speaks with assurance and clarity, as if he has carefully considered every issue and is very sure of his conclusion. It’s easy to believe this serious-eyed confidence filled his parents with optimism about the souls he could save, and convinced producers to fund his ideas. He recently began going to church, he tells me, because it is a form of meditation and because it is boring. He can listen, sing and get ideas. “Good things happen while you wait,” he says.

Many of Schrader’s contemporaries, such as George Lucas, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and Scorsese – whom he refers to as “Marty” – have at one time or another opted to take a bigger budget and work with a bigger cast. But Schrader has stayed modest. “On one hand it would be nice,” he says. “On the other hand, I keep the budget down and get final cut. The big toys – which is what I call the cranes, the extras, the sets, the wardrobe, all that stuff – are necessary for a certain kind of film, but I don’t know if they’re necessary for a certain kind of quality.

“I said to Marty some years ago, when he was complaining about not getting an Oscar, ‘Marty, if the Oscar is your totem of self-validation, you need to rethink.’ But he got his Oscar, so he doesn’t have to rethink.” Schrader laughs and sharpens the jab. “I think De Palma is a good example of a guy who got overwhelmed by the big toys. There wasn’t that much substance there to begin with, but with the big toys it’s easier to hide the fact that there is no substance. I’ve never been a fan of the big toys. I work in this kind of handmade, miniaturist way.”

His new film, Master Gardener, is the latest in a series of terrarium-scaled explorations of a quiet man who keeps a diary as he works towards redemption for a bitterly regretted past. It is the last in a retrospectively labelled trilogy of films about “God’s lonely men”. In First Reformed, which earned Schrader his only Academy Award nomination, Ethan Hawke plays an alcoholic pastor experiencing a crisis of faith. The second, The Card Counter, follows Oscar Isaac’s former military prison guard turned professional card shark, as he drifts through casinos and hotels, wrapping his temporary furniture in white sheets before writing in his diary.

Master Gardener was originally planned to be shot in Victoria, a decision that brought Joel Edgerton on board until, as Schrader says, “Covid knocked Melbourne out for 14 months.” He describes the Australian actor as “a kind of ’50s guy, a Bob Mitchum type, a big slab of beans”. Edgerton plays docile horticulturist and reformed neo-Nazi Narvel Roth, who works in the estate of Sigourney Weaver’s wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill. Norma asks Narvel to teach her troubled great-niece, Maya, played by Black non-binary actor Quintessa Swindell. Maya and Narvel fall in love, which becomes complicated when Maya takes off Narvel’s shirt to reveal an array of white power tattoos.

Many people have asked whether such a relationship would be possible and, more searchingly, whether the questions Schrader poses about redemption can even be asked in a time of rising right-wing extremism.

“I have received some intelligent criticism on that point,” Schrader says, his eyes locked with mine as he sips a glass of water. “Cameron Bailey, who runs the Toronto Film Festival, told me that he did not believe you could redeem such a person – he’s Black, so he was speaking from first-hand experience.

“Yes, it’s very unlikely that you could take a Proud Boy and turn them around this way. There have been a few cases when this has happened, usually through evangelical conversions, but I thought this was a wonderful ‘what if?’ What if you have a person like this who is in hiding because he’s ratted out his friends? He’s in this estate, and he’s caught between a woman old enough to be his mother and another woman young enough to be his daughter, one of whom is Black, one of whom is white.” His face creases with delight. “I didn’t think of it as realistic, I thought of it as a hypothetical. More of a Flannery O’Connor story than absolute realism.”

Schrader’s attraction to transgressive stories can be traced back to his youth in Michigan, where he was raised to enter the ministry by devout Calvinist parents. Schrader first saw a film when he was in his teens and only discovered European cinema years later. The match was struck, and in 1966 he moved to New York’s Columbia University to study film theory.

Within months he had forged a friendship with film critic Pauline Kael, who sponsored him to study at UCLA, where he began reviewing movies for the Los Angeles Free Press.

“I had been raised in a theological background and I was now at LA Film School,” he says. “There was a dichotomy between the sacred principles I’d been educated with and the profane pleasures that I was now experiencing.” It was then he saw the film that became his “totem of filmmaking”, Pickpocket, the 1959 low-budget crime drama written and directed by Robert Bresson.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, there is a connection between my past and my present. There is a connection between the sacred and the profane, but it’s not a connection of content. It has to do with style. There is a style that people use to get at these two elements.’ ” This revelation resulted in his 2018 book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer.

“I still identify with critics way more than I do with directors,” he says. Occupying these two roles is a constant balancing act. “The critic in you is like a medical examiner. It wants to get that body into the morgue, on the slab, open it up and figure out how it’s working. Why it worked, why it lived. But there’s another part of you that is a pregnant woman that doesn’t want to know, it just wants to nourish. All that matters is that the thing be born alive. If you invite a critic into the birthing room, he will kill that baby. The critic in you wants to dissect this thing that is being born, that is full of contradictions and illogic.”

He brings up his film The Card Counter. “Why does he wrap his furniture up in sheets? I don’t know. It’s kind of cool, though. It means something to him. And the critic will say, ‘I will give you a reason for that.’ Well, you don’t want that reason. So, when Oscar Isaac asks me, ‘Why does he wrap his furniture up?’, I give him the reply I give to actors and directors: ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ ”

After a personal and professional crisis, Schrader spent much of 1971 hitchhiking around America. As he travelled, he became aware of another, troubling version of himself and feared that if he didn’t write about this character, he might become him. Schrader describes this forced march into fiction as “a psychological exorcism”. He created the character of Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of Taxi Driver, and forged a new identity as a screenwriter.

Most of Schrader’s films – even his remake of the 1942 horror classic Cat People – have autobiographical elements. His script for Close Encounters of the Third Kind was rejected by Spielberg – who wrote his own screenplay – for being “too guilt-ridden”.

“I’ve never driven a taxi, I’ve never been a gigolo, I’ve never been a minister, I’ve never been a card player, I’ve never been a gardener,” Schrader points out. But watching his films it is as if, to paraphrase Albert Camus, Schrader is on a slow trek to rediscover the simple image of Pickpocket, in whose presence his heart first opened.

“There is always an aspect of waiting in my films,” he says. “It started with Taxi Driver, when Travis writes, ‘The days go by, every day like the last day. And then there is a change.’ They’re in a kind of limbo or purgatory. The very first thing the Master Gardener says in the film is, ‘Gardening is a belief in the future.’ That’s the kind of character I’ve described quite often, films about a man in a room – it’s usually a man, but I just did one about a woman. A man in a room wearing a mask. His mask is his occupation, and he’s waiting for something to happen.”

In January, Schrader moved from his home in upstate New York to an assisted-living residence in Manhattan to better care for his wife of 40 years, actor Mary Beth Hurt, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Despite a series of serious health complications of his own, his work rate seems to be, if anything, increasing.

He decided his female-centred screenplay about a trauma nurse working in Puerto Rico, Amber Light, was not his story to tell. Instead he shopped it around woman-led production companies and the film will mark the directorial debut of actor Elisabeth Moss. Schrader will also reunite later this year with American Gigolo star Richard Gere for an adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel Foregone.

“Movies are much faster now,” he says. “Everything about the process is quicker. The movie we [once] made in 45 days, we now make in 25, and this means you become financially viable in a way you weren’t before. Now that films are so easy and cheap to make, there are a lot of good filmmakers coming up because anybody who has one of these” – he waves his phone – “can make a movie and so you see more, not fewer, good films. The irony is that anybody can make a film, but nobody can make a living.”

Schrader’s creative burst aligns with a deepening connection to his and Hurt’s children, Molly and Sam. The three work together to care for Hurt. The experience has softened Schrader and made him even more reflective.

“There was a friend of mine who had written a song and it had this wonderful lyric, ‘I never want to leave this world without saying “I love you”,’ ” he says. “The musician Dev Hynes recorded the song and that’s how Master Gardener ends, with Dev singing that lyric. When I was younger, I used to believe that I never wanted to leave this world without saying ‘fuck you’. And now I never want to leave this world without saying ‘I love you’.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2023 as "A master class".

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