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Paul Schrader’s very candid, conflicted feelings over his first Oscar nomination

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Screenwriter Paul Schrader, at the 2019 National Board Of Review Gala on Jan. 8 in New York City, received his first Oscar nomination, for “First Reformed.”
(Angela Weiss / AFP/Getty Images)

Paul Schrader received his first Oscar nomination Tuesday, for original screenplay for “First Reformed.” Schrader also directed the film, in which Ethan Hawke stars as a small-town parish pastor undergoing a deep crisis of faith.

Schrader has a long career as a screenwriter and director of films in which angry, lonely people confront a largely indifferent world. As a screenwriter, his collaborations with Martin Scorsese include the films “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” As a director, his films include “Blue Collar,” “American Gigolo,” “Light Sleeper,” “Affliction” and “The Canyons.” Schrader was reached at his home Tuesday in upstate New York.

FULL COVERAGE: Oscar nominations 2019 »

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Congratulations. This must be a very exciting day for you.

Yes. It’s a day like many others, but it’s good day.

Where were you this morning when the nominations were announced?

I was sound asleep.

And how does it feel for you to have this be your first nomination?

That’s a very complex question. If the critics had not liked my film and if the academy had not liked my film, I would still know it was a good film. So my validation is not contingent on the academy or the critics. On the other hand, it is very heartening to realize that other people acknowledged what you tried to do.

It was only when the movie was coming out in the summer and people were talking about the fact that you had never been nominated before that I even realized that was the case. Was it something that you were particularly aware of? Has it bothered you through the years?

Not so much. I had a discussion with Scorsese some years ago because Marty was very fixated on winning an Oscar. And I said, “Marty, look, if an Oscar is your priority, you need some new priorities.” I felt that then; I felt that now. You know, this is a very difficult conversation because I have never really respected the Academy for their choices. On the other hand, I’m enormously gratified that they have selected me. So you live in a kind of conflicted world. Where on one hand you say it truly doesn’t matter. And on the other hand you say, ‘Well, I guess it does matter.’

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But that world of kind of ethical conflict, that’s the world of Paul Schrader movies.

It certainly is.

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

Ethan Hawke in a scene from “First Reformed.” Credit: A24
Ethan Hawke in a scene from "First Reformed."
(A24)

And the fact that “First Reformed,” as a movie, seems to summarize so many themes from your body of work, it’s a movie that from hearing you talk about it, it’s obviously very personal and meaningful for you. So to have a screenplay like this that you’ve put so much of yourself into and have this be the one that gets recognized in this way, that must be gratifying.

Extremely so. But make no mistake, if it wasn’t recognized, it would also be gratifying. I just got off the phone with Ethan Hawke, and I said, “Ethan, you’ve won. You may not have gotten nominated, but you won. Your performance has made an impact, and never forget that.”

Have you been pleased as well just with the audience response to the movie, the fact that it has seemed to have reached so many people, and the themes of the movie have really touched people?

It has an enormous shelf life. An independent film can have a very short life. It can have a three-to-four-day life. We are now on the 16th month of this film’s life. That is extraordinary. And it’s a film that lingers in mind. And it’s a film that every day, I get an email from someone who has said, “I saw your film, and I’m thinking about it.” Well, I don’t think there’s a better compliment than that.

And as well to have made a movie that deals with these environmental themes, very deep issues of religious faith, to have made a movie that’s this serious-minded and people still have responded to, that’s just fantastic.

If I wasn’t such a deeply pessimistic person, it would make me feel optimistic.

What is it about this screenplay and this story that’s gotten you as excited as you’ve been in in making the movie and in talking about it?

Well, I’ve come full circle in my quest for spirituality. I am the product of the Christian education system, Christian school kid. I found another life in the profane industry of motion pictures and it eventually led me back to my origins. That, my friend, is gratifying.

Ethan Hawke (“First Reformed”) and Willem Dafoe (“At Eternity’s Gate”) share notes about their working experiences with director Paul Schrader.
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And you’ve said as well that if “First Reformed” ended up being your last film, you would be okay with that. But now it’s been announced that you’re going to be doing a movie with Ethan and Willem Dafoe. So you’re not done yet?

No, I’m not done yet, but should a lightning bolt emerge and strike me on my way to the car, I can’t say I’d complain.

Well Paul, this nomination for you is one that I was really rooting for. I was so happy when you were nominated today, so congratulations.

[Distributor] A24 told me a couple of days ago, they said, “Look, in this award business as you reach the finish line, there’s a surge of mediocracy and don’t be surprised if you don’t get nominated.” Oh, the doorbell just rang; we’re done with this conversation. Thanks, bye.

Oscar nominations 2019: See the full list »

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