Paul Schrader doesn’t think he’s made a spiritual film before First Reformed. Not really. Despite writing one of the most famed neo-noirs ever about a man in search of purpose on this earth with Taxi Driver, not to mention an honest to God Exorcist movie, plus a script about Jesus Christ titled The Last Temptation of Christ, the legendary filmmaker had never attempted to grapple with his own doubts until he sat down to write the Ethan Hawke-starring film.
Set in a fictional and historic First Reformed Dutch Church in upstate New York, the picture centers on a minister called Toller (Hawke), a figure of genuine compassion and faith to the outside world but a total train wreck of despair when alone with his thoughts. This brutal irony is displayed early when Toller is introduced as the film’s narrator via long-form journal entries and voiceover. It seems that since the death of his son, and the end of his marriage, our ex-military chaplain has pledged total faith in saving the world while struggling to find a strand to salvage his own personal one. He vows to always be honest with his thoughts, and thereby the audience, and to never rip or stricken a single word from his pages…
Yet he soon breaks this token of faith too as he finds himself driven more and more to imagery of “martyrdom” while growing disenchanted with a world that refuses to take responsibility for its own self-destruction.
When Den of Geek was able to sit down with Schrader and Hawke, it was a few hours before the SXSW premiere of First Reformed, which previously bowed at the Venice Film Festival. And I was immediately struck by Schrader’s comfort with the ambiguity of faith, even though it has apparently given him decades of discomfort. During our interview, we discuss Schrader’s history with religion, how Hawke views the duality and contradictions of his character, and how even though the movie features suicide and contemplations of ecological terrorism, neither filmmaker considers it a violent movie.
We also discuss with Hawke that while he is satisfied with ending the Before Sunrise series where it has currently left off, he is at least open to having discussions with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy about the characters of Jesse and Céline… and what that future could possibly look like.
Den of Geek: So I’m aware that you screened the film at [your alma mater of theology] Calvin College. What was that like?
Paul Schrader: We had a theater and 600 people there. It was interesting to watch the film, because there was no subtext. Usually this film is full of subtext. Everybody in the audience understood everything. Even to the spooky degree of a woman, who was sitting next to me, was humming along with the hymns, which I thought was probably very specific to that audience.
And on the movie side of things, when I hear “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” I go “Oh, that’s ominous,” because I think of The Night of the Hunter.
PS: Actually for me it came from George Beverly Shea and the Billy Graham Crusade.
Well, I think a good place to really start is did either of you ever keep a long-form journal for a year?
PS: No, I wish I had. I wish I had.
Ethan Hawke: I kept a journal for years, a long-form journal like that for years. That was kind of my daily thing, and then my briefcase was stolen one day when I was about 41. Somebody ripped my briefcase out of my car, and it had my journal in it and I was petrified, for some eccentric reason, that it would go online. My handwriting is extremely legible, and the fear of it rendered the point of writing a journal—I just could never start a journal ever again. This guy, whoever stole my journal, robbed me of that.
But he never did publish?
EH: No, I think that dude was looking for a wallet. I’m sure my journal was in a garbage can, but the idea of it was so petrifying to me.
I could believe that. In this film alone I think the journal is an interesting way to explore your character, who is a man of God who, as with what Paul mentioned as subtext, suffers from doubt. Could you talk a little bit about your complicated character in this contradiction?
EH: Well, it’s so exciting to get to have a character in crisis. To get to play a person who’s educated, who’s experienced a lot, and whose life has led them directly into the mud and is clawing his way out. It’s a very exciting character where on the surface everything is still and inside there’s absolute chaos. I found it, in a certain way, easy because it was so well written.
It’s an interesting way to look at your character, because I viewed him as an unreliable narrator because he said so at the beginning, “I’m not going to rip out any pages,” and then here we are, he ripped out some pages. What happened?!
EH: [Laughs] That is a great example of what I find so often—I always feel like with a great performance you can smell that guy, like the person is a complete person, and I think he means not to rip anything out. It’s just then something is so—But he’s also getting worse as the movie goes on. That moment is a reveal to you, the audience, that he is no longer reliable. He might have been reliable for a minute.
PS: It’s very hard to act subtly. No, act subtlety. You can be subtle, but you can’t act subtle, and so that’s a real challenge for an actor to somehow convey this notion of, as he says, two contradictory ideas existing together without emoting it. From the outside, some viewers might say, “Oh he’s not acting.” But he is acting. He’s just not emoting.
EH: That’s at its essence what I think a lot of the film is about, to me anyway. It’s about dualistic thinking. And people—one of the things that this country or a lot of people [in this country], they think something’s either right or wrong, it’s either left or right, or its either this or that. This dualistic thinking is when you can hold both those truths, then you’re looking at some kind of mystery.
I felt one of the most interesting contrasts for me in the film was we see your minister speaking with an environmentalist who loves this world, even though he doesn’t believe in God. Then we see your minister also have a debate with a patron of the church, a man who has no doubts but doesn’t care at all about polluting God’s Kingdom.
PS: I mean, he lives in the real world and in the real world, certain compromises have to be made. So he does care a lot, and he talks with Reverend Jeffers, he talks about global warming and stuff. But when it comes to offending a major contributor then you have to make an adjustment.
For you personally, I know you return again to the subject of Jesuits or exorcists or, in this case, First Reformers, and I wanted to ask what draws you again to this eternal conflict of doubt?
PS: I mean, I was raised in the church. I’m a product of the Christian Reform Church in Western Michigan, Grand Rapids. West Side Christian, Grand Rapids Christian High, Calvin College of Seminary, so it’s baked in. No matter how far or how fast you run, you do not outrun your childhood. So I keep circling around these things. I never thought that I would make a spiritual film. I was just too intoxicated by action and sexuality, and empathy and violence. I said, “That’s not me. I’m not gonna’ go there.” And then two, two and a half years ago, after having dinner with Pawel Pawlikowski who had done Ida, I got to thinking and I said to myself, “You know, it’s time. It’s time to write that script that you swore you would never write.” There’s a sense of completion about it.
Do you see a connection between doing a horror movie like The Exorcist prequel and doing a real film about faith, in a genuine and almost a philosophical film?
PS: No, I don’t. I think this is the only film I’ve done about spiritual life. I think all the others are psychological films. Other people disagree, but I have a rather narrow definition of what a spiritual film is.
I did want to ask was the church in this film based specifically on a church? Because I’m from New York and of course I thought of the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow.
PS: Yeah, there is one there. There is a First Reformed Dutch Church in Fishkill, but we wanted this to play upstate. So Sleepy Hollow, which is a great church, but it’s just too close to the road, and the one in Fishkill is right on a big highway. And we found this church in Queens on the border with Long Island. It was a square block that had been built up on a hill so that when you were on church grounds you didn’t see the fact that you were in the middle of a city. That became a good one.
Well it’s a beautiful church, but again I do think of the Old Dutch Church, given that Ethan’s character is a historian for the one in the film. In Sleepy Hollow they say, “George Washington was here.” And then, “Oh, and if you come in October you can meet the Headless Horseman.”
EH: [Laughs] Yeah, right.
For your character, how do you view his relationship with the church itself? Do you think he can both love the history, because I think he does, but does he also resent the history of the First Reformed?
EH: I think it seems to be moving. It’s a moving target, you know what I mean? Some of the people that I’ve known in my life most intimately, to the extent that I was aware of their inner life—my stepfather’s a deeply religious man. I’ve had a lot of different teachers in that way. Their relationship to the church is always moving. It’s not one thing, and I think he both looks up to Cedric’s character and then is equally frustrated by him. He both admires his calling and loathes his calling. That they’re both true, and he’s just kind of caught there.
I really enjoyed Cedric in this movie and I personally have not seen Cedric do a role like this and I wanted to talk about working with him and doing this film with him.
PS: The big challenge in writing a mega church minister is the audience’s enormous predisposition to stereotype him. Virtually almost any actor you put in there is gonna end up like Joel Osteen or Pat Robertson, and the audience is going to just think of him as a type. And so in casting, I had to free myself of that and by casting a black comedian who has such a friendly aura. When I was walking around with him in Toronto you could see in people’s eyes as he approached you they would just light up ‘because-
EH: They liked him already.
PS: Yes, Cedric was there. So that spared me from two dimensional-izing him, because I wanted him to be a good guy who is sort of caught in a bad place but is, for the most part, 90 percent a good guy. So Cedric helped me do that.
I wanted to mention the violence in the film. What role do you think violence has in spirituality?
PS: There is no actually violence in the film. They do come across a dead body, and then there’s a threat of violence, but in this case the violence is tied into this rather icky Christian notion of self-sacrifice, which is sinfulness and pride taken to an egotistic extreme of God requires my suffering, but then [he] essentially says I get to be God. But I don’t think actual violence in this film would have been helpful.
Ethan I did want to bring up briefly that I know Richard’s in town, so I just wanted to ask if we’ve seen the last of Jesse and Céline?
EH: It’s about time for us to revisit that conversation. I have no—the project feels complete to me. It never felt complete before and it feels complete now, but that doesn’t mean Julie couldn’t change my mind tomorrow.
It’s been about five years. What do you think the two of them are doing right now?
EH: I have no idea. [Laughs] I mean that’s usually—about five years after each of the other ones is when we start writing the next one. So it would be time to have a meeting soon and figure out what they’re doing. Getting ready for their 50th birthday.” [Laughs]
PS: But then Criterion would have to put out a new set.
EH: I know! And that would just ruin everything [Laughs]
Well, I love all three of them, so I hope this begins the process of the conversation to see if there is another one there.
EH: Thank you. You know what I think it would be? It would start something new with Jesse and Céline. I doubt it would be titled ‘Before’ if you know what I mean. It would start some new thing. That cycle I think is finished, but you could begin another cycle with those same two characters.”
EH: Something like that.
A24 releases First Reformed on June 22.