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Paul Schrader On Writing ‘First Reformed’ and ‘Cracking Open the Audiences’ Skulls’ Like He Did in ‘Taxi Driver’

In the latest episode of IndieWire's Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Schrader breaks down the narrative devices he uses to destabilize his audience.

"First Reformed"

“First Reformed”

A24

On the surface, the story of a New England country priest experiencing a crisis of faith and Travis Bickle’s violent psychotic breakdown in “Taxi Driver” make for two very different types of movies. But in writer-director Paul Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” the filmmaker employs a combination of the same storytelling devices that he used to unsettle the audience in his screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic.

So far, that seems to have struck a similar chord: Following its positive reception on the fall festival circuit, A24 opened “First Reformed” in limited release last weekend, when it scored over $100,000 on four screens, making it one of Schrader’s most successful releases in years. The timely thriller, which stars Ethan Hawke, has been generating comparisons to “Taxi Driver” for months, and Schrader has embraced the parallels.

“That petri dish was seeded all those years ago,” he said, in an interview for IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “This moment for me is quite satisfying, because there’s a sense of completion about it.”

Among the key elements linking the two movies: Bickle and Father Toller (Hawke) both keep a daily diary, which is shared with the audience through voiceover narration.

“The diary voiceover is a form of intravenous feeding – I got a tube, I got it in your arm, I’m nourishing you and you can’t taste it,” Schrader said. “So I’m slowly changing your physical feelings without you realizing it.”

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Beyond the voiceover, both “Taxi Driver” and “First Reformed” are structured so that the only perspective the audience has on the events comes from the protagonist. Schrader refers to this trapping of the viewer in a singular point-of-view as “monocular vision.”

“They work in tandem,” Schrader about the diary voiceover and the overall perspective of the story. “I’m depriving you of any other view of the world than that of the main character. He’s in every scene and we see the world that he sees. While you are hearing his thoughts, many of which are inconsequential, while you are getting those as nourishment, you’re seeing only his world.”

After 45 to 60 minutes into the film, Schrader believes this powerful combination “locks in” the audience, so that they feel comfortable inside the character’s subjectivity. It’s at this point that his protagonists start to do things that make the audience uncomfortable, as the characters lose their grasp on reality.

“He starts to verge, he starts swinging away – a little at first, then more – until you as a viewer come to a point where you have identified with a character that you no longer think worthy of identification,” said Schrader, referring to both Hawke and De Niro’s characters. “That is a wonderful thing to do to a viewer, because it cracks open their skull because they’re in a very uncomfortable place and how they deal with that [discomfort] is the magic of the movies – you can’t predict how they’ll deal with it, but you know it’s going to be interesting.”

Taxi Driver

“Taxi Driver”

Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures

Bickle’s late-in-the-film need to cleanse the filth of New York City leads him first to a failed plot to assassinate of a presidential candidate, before he turns his violent intentions on the pimp (Harvey Keitel) who has a 12-year old prostitute (Jodie Foster) he is determined to save. The bloody, surreal ending of “Taxi Driver” leaves the audience on unstable ground, which is similar to the impact of Schrader’s surprising and intentionally “enigmatic” ending in “First Reformed.”

Schrader, who has been on the festival circuit with “First Reformed” since its Venice premiere late last summer, told IndieWire that he knows the ending has frustrated some viewers, but he has been enjoying the “you can hear a pin drop” silence that takes over the theater during the third act finale. He is also deeply satisfied with the near 50/50 split when he asks the audience what they think happens to Hawke’s character after the film’s final image – something he hasn’t decided yet for himself.

Also on the podcast: Schrader talked about why he cast Hawke over Oscar Isaacs and Jake Gyllenhaal, the two alternate endings he considered for “First Reformed,’ and why, at age 70, he decided to attempt for the first time a spiritual film that adapted the cinematic language he detailed in his influential 1971 book “Transcendental Style in Film.”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud and Google Play Music. Previous episodes include:

The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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