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In writing ‘First Reformed,’ an intellectual decision soon became overwhelmingly emotional

In writing ‘First Reformed,’ an intellectual decision soon became overwhelmingly emotional
Paul Schrader told himself long ago he'd never make a spiritual movie. But, nearing 70, he decided, “It’s time to write the script you swore you’d never write." And so "First Reformed" was born. (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

“First Reformed” is the script I swore I’d never write. As a young film critic, I’d written a book about spirituality and cinema (“Transcendental Style in Film”), but ’60s Hollywood came in like a howling wind and hauled me away. I became enamored of psychological realism, action and empathy, sex and violence — these are not in the transcendental tool kit.

When interviewers would try to connect the films I’d made with the Transcendental style I wrote about, I’d say, “No, no, no. I like spiritual movies, I wrote about them, but I’ll never make one. That’s not me. You’ll never catch me skating on that thin Bressonian ice.”

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As a young person, I didn’t see films for the simple reason no one in my church saw films. They were proscribed by synodical decree. I can’t say I felt I was missing much. I came to movies as an adult, as a college student in the ’60s, and fell in love with European art cinema: Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson, Resnais, Godard, Fellini, Buñuel. That was the music that was playing when I walked into the corridors of cinema, and I’ve loved it ever since.

Ethan Hawke in a scene from "First Reformed."
Ethan Hawke in a scene from "First Reformed." (A24 via AP)

Having left Grand Rapids and Calvin College 50 years ago for UCLA Film School, I assumed that my “sacred” past and my “profane” present would never meet. Then, in March of 1969, as a critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, I attended a screening of Bresson’s “Pickpocket” at the Los Feliz Theatre. In the 75 minutes it took to watch the film, I realized two things: (1) There was a bridge between my past and present, and it was a bridge of style, not content. Out of that realization came “Transcendental Style in Film” two years later. (2) I realized there might be a place for me in the world of filmmaking. Out of that came “Taxi Driver” three years later.

Three years ago, I gave Pawel Pawlikowski an award for “Ida” at the New York Film Critics Circle dinner. He knew my book, I loved his film and we talked about the ways cinema can evoke the spiritual. That night, walking the nine blocks uptown from Tao to my Chelsea condo, I thought to myself, “It’s time to write the script you swore you’d never write. You’ll be 70 next year. Do it just like Pawel did it. Black and white. Academy ratio. What can you lose? It’s time.”

It was at heart an intellectual decision, not an emotional one. Could I write and direct such a film? If so, how would I do it? But once I made the intellectual decision, the emotional implications became overwhelming. It was as if a dam broke free and 50 years of thinking about and making movies came bursting in.

I re-watched the dozen or so films that had informed my thinking 50 years ago. I then watched the several dozen films made in the intervening years that approached the transcendent with austere and contemplative techniques (Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopoulos, Béla Tarr). I began to pick and choose, creating my own buffet of story elements, characters and stylistic choices. From this assemblage (no artist actually creates anything new), a script evolved. And it felt like it was mine.

Several things surprised me during the writing of the script. First, how “of the moment” it felt even though my reference films were over 50 years old. Second, how much the ghost of Travis Bickle (the protagonist of “Taxi Driver,” my first screen character, written in 1972) came to inhabit the body of Rev. Toller, my new character. I had not expected this. When I sensed this happening, I resisted. At first. But Travis was not to be denied. I let him in. Third, although the subject matter was dark and disheartening, the writing felt weightless. Writing could still do that thing it does.

The result is a sense of completion. The two seeds that fell into my petri dish that morning in March 1969 had grown tall and finally met. I felt that with “First Reformed,” I’d done whatever I’d set out to do 50 years ago, and I’m still not sure what that was, but I had done it.

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