May 26, 2023
Lead Image(Film still)
Paul Schrader wants you to know he’s good at parties. For 50 years, the Taxi Driver scribe has obsessively circled themes of guilt, sin and redemption as embodied by his fabled character archetype ‘God’s lonely man’, a black ticker tape parade of alienated males spilling forth from his pen in films like Mishima, First Reformed, Blue Collar, Raging Bull and American Gigolo. Raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan in a strict Calvinist household – a branch of Christianity his brother once likened to a “permanent form of mild depression” – Schrader is a wily and intractable intellect whose approach is perhaps best summed up by a testy exchange with Steven Spielberg in the mid-1970s, over his typically guilt-laden script for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “I refuse to send off to another world, as the first example of Earth’s intelligence, a man who wants to go and set up a McDonald’s franchise,” Schrader said of Spielberg’s vision for the film’s protagonist, whom Schrader had envisioned as a professional UFO sceptic who experiences a Damascene conversion after seeing flying saucers for the first time. “That’s exactly the guy I want to send!” replied Spielberg.
More recently, his visions of personal apocalypse have shaded into the literal, the trilogy of films begun with First Reformed and capped by Master Gardener – out now in cinemas – playing out against a backdrop of American and global decline. Look to the edges of the frame in these films, and you’ll see the markers of collapse everywhere: corporate megachurches in bed with big business (First Reformed), jeering MAGA goons at the casino tables (The Card Counter) and, in Master Gardener, a telling reference to the ‘Proud Boys’ clan that helped instigate the current wave of fascist blowhards. “There’s really no way around it,” the 76-year-old director tells me from an upscale residential home in New York, where he moved recently to be with his wife, Mary Beth Hurt, who is living with Alzheimer’s. “We now have the new four horsemen of the apocalypse – global collapse, nuclear holocaust, rampant viruses and AI, so it’s just a question of which horse gets humankind first,” he says. Does this make him difficult to be around at parties? He chuckles gruffly. “I’m great at parties.”
It’s difficult to imagine Schrader – who contracted pneumonia on the set of Master Gardener and now requires the use of an oxygen tank – gets to many parties these days. Then again, what do we know? When we speak, he’s just returned from LA where he has been promoting his new film and plotting his next, an adaptation of a Russell Banks novel starring Richard Gere as a dying filmmaker sifting through the mistakes of his past. On top of that, he’s writing a script for another film, which he says he won’t direct, about “three Black brothers in South Central [LA], all about 30, all very buff, and they hate each other, have always hated each other. One of them is a bent cop, the other is a drug dealer and the third is a serial killer, and they’re all trying to kill each other.” He beams mischievously at the outrageousness of his premise, but Schrader isn’t kidding around. “When you get an idea that’s so good it wants to go out and announce itself, it’s the greatest moment as a writer.”
Schrader got his break as a director in 1978 with Blue Collar, a gritty crime drama about three car-industry workers who get the idea to steal money from their union. A favourite of Spike Lee, it introduced Richard Pryor to the screen in his first dramatic role and remains an undersung highlight of the American new wave of the 1970s. He followed that with the overwrought Hardcore and the slick one-two of American Gigolo and Cat People, leveraging the commercial success of the latter two films to make Mishima, an ambitious biopic of controversial Japanese writer Yukio Mishima that is perhaps his most personal work. Mishima was the preeminent writer of Japan’s postwar period, an unshakable figure who went on to amass a private militia of acolytes before committing seppuku – ritual suicide – after a failed attempt to incite the Japanese army to insurrection. His lifelong obsession with the harmony of pen and sword mirrored Schrader’s own interest in the possibilities of violent transfiguration – except being an American, it’s more often a gun that finds its way into his characters’ hands.
In the 90s and 00s, Schrader fell on hard times as a filmmaker, producing flashes of former glories in films like Light Sleeper, with regular muse and former AnOther Magazine cover star Willem Dafoe, and Affliction, while struggling to secure finances for many of his projects. A nadir came with 2013’s The Canyons, which cast fallen teen-idol Lindsay Lohan opposite porn actor James Deen in an erotic drama now remembered more for the New Yorker piece that detailed its trainwreck production in agonising detail. But in 2017, just as Schrader was being written off as a spent force, he made First Reformed, a surprise critical smash about a priest (Ethan Hawke) who undergoes a crisis of conscience fraught with visions of ecological ruin. Heartfelt and nakedly existential, it was a film that, like much of Schrader’s best work, drags you to the absolute depths of despair without ever resorting to cheap nihilism, retaining a kind of vestigial hope in humanity that’s a product, I guess, of his religious upbringing. “Will there still be a God after there are human beings? It’s an interesting question,” says Schrader, who remains a believer to this day. “If you believe that God exists for all time then there’ll be a God even though we’re not here. If you believe on the other hand that we made God in order to fulfil some need then you start to wonder: will there still be a God if there aren’t people around who need him? It’s fascinating drawing room conversation.”
Schrader followed this late-career triumph with The Card Counter, starring Oscar Isaac as a professional card shark and one-time torturer at Abu Ghraib prison. Now, we have Master Gardener, another film about a man hiding behind his profession to atone for past sins. Played broodingly by Joel Edgerton, Narvel Roth is head gardener at Gracewood Gardens, a Louisiana estate owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) and, we have good reason to presume, a former plantation. That’s not the only service Roth provides to Mrs Haverhill, we discover, but his ordered existence is soon turned upside down when he’s asked to take on her troubled niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice. He is drawn to this young woman who is perhaps half his age, but there’s a problem: Roth is a former white supremacist sporting a horrendous collection of tattoos under his shirt, and Maya is a person of colour. Among various allegorical asides on the history and meaning of gardens, we get this invitation to consider the lily, Schrader-style: “It’s a plant that gives you a buzz, like the buzz you get before pulling a trigger.”
“I liked this idea of gardening as a metaphor that could be interpreted in different ways,” says Schrader. “Most people think of gardening as life-enhancing, nourishing, beauty-enhancing, but it’s also full of violence – cutting, pruning, weeding, deadheading … Gardening is a kind of eugenics, in a way.” Among the film’s thornier aspects is its toying with the idea that Roth’s repentant Nazi could be redeemed, a treatment that made Cameron Bailey, head of Toronto Film Festival, sufficiently uneasy to pass on the film for its premiere. (The film was eventually shown in Venice.) “I was a little thrown by that,” says Schrader, “not by the fact that he’d made the comment, but I guess [I’d felt] there was something about the tone of the film that had the feeling of a fable. You know, some films say, ‘This is how the world is,’ and this one says, ‘What if the world could be this way?’”
“Most people think of gardening as life-enhancing, nourishing, beauty-enhancing, but it’s also full of violence – cutting, pruning, weeding, deadheading … Gardening is a kind of eugenics” – Paul Schrader
To walk the delicate line his story demanded, Schrader had to rely on his young actor, Black Adam star Quintessa Swindell, to guide their character’s emotions. “I did make a mistake, it was corrected in post, but I realised I had not written a scene that the character needed,” says Schrader, referring to the moment Maya discovers Roth’s secret. “[Quintessa said] Maya needed a character blowout, that she couldn’t yield to her desire to have a father, in a sexual way, without really expressing her anger; and therefore I wasn’t really selling [their] sex scene. So I wrote a scene just before it, in the cafeteria.”
It’s a nice acknowledgement from Schrader, whose bullish social-media pronouncements have landed him in trouble before, leading his studio backers to ask him to refrain from posting while promoting his last three films. But to paint Schrader as a culture-wars reactionary would be unfair. When drawn on the subject of recent changes to Academy rules that require best picture nominations to have a certain percentage of actors or crew from underrepresented ethnic groups, he offers up a curt, “To my mind there’s only one thing worse than making a politically incorrect film, and that’s making a bad film.” He adds that his last two films included Black performers in prominent roles – Cedric Kyles in First Reformed and Tiffany Haddish in The Card Counter – though his chief interest in casting them was because they were comic performers looking to take dramatic roles, and therefore motivated to work for less money, as Pryor had done on Blue Collar.
Indeed, it’s interesting to note how far the pendulum has swung in this regard. In Peter Biskind’s New Hollywood expose Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, the author notes that studios were reluctant to back Schrader’s debut because it featured one white character and two Black characters in the leading roles, where Hollywood wisdom at the time dictated it should be the other way round. “I said no, it has to be two Black characters,” says Schrader, “because if I do it with one Black character he has to be ‘good’, so he’s gonna be boring, but if I do two Black characters I can make them both part-good, part-bad, and I don’t have to do a Sidney Poitier job on them. And so that’s why I wanted to do it that way.”
For Master Gardener, Schrader envisaged Narvel as a “fleshy, big [character] in a Bob Mitchum kinda way”. Edgerton plays him with a stoical drawl pitched somewhere between John Wayne and Eeyore on downers. He’s a big man who’s learned to make himself small, obsessing over the minutiae of his craft so he doesn’t have to think about the past. Weaver, as his boss, is all breezy aristocratic bonhomie before the mask slips to reveal something darker, with one bedroom scene hinting ominously at the depths of her depravity. “She’s about ready to reach for that Charlotte Rampling whip and cap [in that scene],” laughs Schrader.
Roth is also, of course, another of Schrader’s God’s lonely men – or “men in a room”, as the director has also dubbed them – part of a personal canon reaching all the way back to Travis Bickle and the first of his collaborations with Martin Scorsese. “With Taxi Driver, people had an image of what a taxi driver was,” says Schrader. “He’s a friendly, garrulous guy, you know – he’s your brother in law. But what I saw was a guy imprisoned in a bright yellow coffin rolling through the sewers, getting angrier and angrier. And so by projecting my taxi driver on to the cliche of a taxi driver, you get a frisson, you get a slight discrepancy, and in that discrepancy is where I like to live. And the gardener is the same way.”
Schrader chalks up his obsession with this solitary-male archetype to Pickpocket, the 1959 Robert Bresson film that made him want to become a filmmaker in the first place. If the director has been accused of rehashing the same character in the past, he’s entitled: viewed through the prism of recent US history, Travis Bickle has become a prophetic figure, a ‘toxic male’ and an incel before any of these terms entered the discourse. Look at where the country’s at now, with riots on the Capitol and a convicted sexual abuser riding high in the polls, and it’s easy to feel like these ‘men in a room’ have taken over. “If they were [still in their rooms] we wouldn’t be in so much trouble,” says Schrader, as ever the life and soul of the party. “Before they stayed in their rooms masturbating and getting angry. Now they stay in their rooms firing each other up with hate and untruth and evil logic. They’re not alone any more.”
Master Gardener is out in UK cinemas now.