Countless filmmakers have projects stuck in limbo by the recent crisis, but Paul Schrader has been one of the most public voices to struggle with it. In March, he had just a few days of shooting left on his “First Reformed” followup, “The Card Counter,” starring Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish, when another actor tested positive for coronavirus and the Mississippi-based production had to shut down. Since then, the 73-year-old auteur best known for his “Taxi Driver” screenplay has been holed up at his home north of New York City, trying to find a way to finish his movie when he isn’t sharing his thoughts with the world on Facebook.
And Schrader has a lot of thoughts. He has lambasted his producers for caving to coronavirus fears (“I would have shot through hellfire rain to complete the film”), explained his decision to buy a gun, and shared a wide range of reactions to the films and television shows he’s been watching.
Schrader is also eying the future. Last week, he wrote to IndieWire proposing a solution to the challenge facing all film festivals: the inability to hold public gatherings. The “virtual film festival” concept has divided the film community, with some consultants arguing that it does no favors for filmmakers, and others seeing it as the only way forward. Schrader falls into the latter camp, but believes it can only happen with major players at the table. (The idea bears some similarity to the “We Are One” festival announced by Tribeca and YouTube earlier this month, but its programming details remain vague.) We urged Schrader to hold off on elaborating to the world on Facebook and instead give us a call to talk through the idea as well as the questions it brings up.
OK, explain the idea.
There has to be a situation that creates festival buzz. That’s why I was thinking that you could have an all-star festival brought to you by Netflix, with selections from five or six festival heads, with different competitions. Netflix could advertise it, and you could create a simulation of the sort of buzz that independent films need. I’m editing my film right now, and it’s an ideal fall festival film, but I don’t think any of the fall festivals will happen.
So far, the major fall festivals — TIFF, Venice, Telluride, NYFF — are all saying that they will happen, even if they aren’t as impactful.
But you just have to follow the news. Thierry Fremaux says Cannes is on, then it’s off. [The festival has yet to announce its plans for a 2020 edition, but original attempts to postpone until June have been scrapped.] Now, Karlovy Vary and Locarno are off. Venice will be next. No one wants to go. There won’t be a vaccine. As for Telluride, Tom [Luddy] is trying to keep it alive. That’s why they tested the entire town. It’s a tourist town. They wanted to show that the town as safe. Well, some of the town tested positive. Now, you can’t advertise your town as safe based on that. Virtually all of these towns don’t have a large-enough local population to put on a real festival.
Under normal circumstances, how valuable would you consider the fall festivals for your new film?
Very valuable. Venice, which premiered “First Reformed,” has been calling me about it. They want to know what state the film is in. If we rushed it, we could have it ready. But why do that? One of the things that could happen is that there will be some simulacrum of a festival event organized by a streamer. The best way to do that is to get the big players to collaborate. At some point, all the big players will be looking at the same films — the ones that didn’t go to Cannes, didn’t go Karlovy Vary, didn’t go to Locarno, are all backing up into the films that won’t go to Telluride or Venice.
Why not wait until next year?
That’s the plan now, but at some point, there will be a huge backlog. I’m not even sure Berlin will happen [in February].
A lot of industry insiders are opposed to online festivals. Sales agents think they can sell movies without the festival context, and that putting them online actually might hurt those deals.
Well, there may be films that’s true about. Mine might be one of them. One the other hand, there are many films that won’t come above the radar without festivals. How would “Parasite” have gotten his head above the crowd without Cannes?
Right. So how do you replicate that online?
You have to have all the power players involved. If you have Netflix with its deep pockets, and the major festival curators to come up with a list of films at all levels of competition, and if you get an all-star jury of maybe two dozen actors, artists, and critics, you have an event. You have something Netflix can advertise as the Netflix fall festival of festivals. That would grab people’s attention.
But it would be very unattractive to Netflix’s competitors.
Yeah, but Netflix has the deepest pockets. It would have to be the festival of festivals. You’d have to get everyone to agree to it. That’s not going to be done by some local ad hoc group. That’s going to be done by somebody who can pay Scorsese $200 million to make a movie. The logistics are very large. All these festivals would have to get paid, because they can’t pay their own staff. Venice may be subsidized by the government, but Telluride isn’t. If you can get four or five of the main players to sign on, you’ll get the rest, because if Netflix says that Venice, Telluride, and Locarno are doing this, New York is going to want to be a part of it, too.
What about the “We Are One” YouTube festival organized by Tribeca Enterprises? It seems likely that it will be focused on older films, but we don’t know the specifics yet.
Tribeca doesn’t have enough muscle. You need to have the biggest gorillas in the room putting this together. You need to have the agencies onboard as well, but there are probably only three players with that muscle — Netflix, Amazon, and Disney — and I don’t think Disney would be interested. I imagine this as festival of festivals, something we could do this year, and not something necessarily needed to be done next year. Still, it’s a wonderful opportunity for someone like Netflix to create an event that pulls all these forces together. As a kind of “Ali vs. Frazier” stunt, getting everybody’s attention, the rumble in the jungle, this is something you have to tune into. Ted Sarandos is a very intelligent man. I’m sure this idea is cooking somewhere in his brain.
What’s the Paul Schrader method for preventing online piracy?
Well, that’s an interesting question, because piracy is happening anyway. Virtually everything is torrented already. Films that haven’t already come out are always torrented. We’ve learned to live with torrents. All the other forms of piracy we can block. We can block piracy posted to YouTube. If we can live with torrents, why not live with this? If I sent my little film to all the critics, it’s going to get pirated anyway. The moment you put it online, someone can sneak in and take it.
Some buyers might be reticent to pick up a movie that already streamed for free online.
Yeah, but on the other hand, how do they know what the rest of the world even thinks of these films before some of the world sees them? That’s what happens at a film festival. That’s the buzz. Well, you won’t have that buzz this year.
When did the industrial value of festivals first become clear to you?
It was very clear at Cannes when we went with “Taxi Driver” in ’76. We were there, Fassbinder was there, Sergio Leone was there. The film had already opened in the U.S., but Cannes made it pop in Europe. Telluride became hot much later, as did Toronto. Venice has only become super-hot recently. It was an all-Cannes world there for about two decades. You would go to Zurich, Munich, San Sebastian, Moscow, but there wasn’t the hotness that you had at Cannes. Now, we have five or six “hot” festivals, and 10 times as much product. So how do all those little films get noticed if people can’t see them?
How would say the festival environment helped you sell “First Reformed”?
If “First Reformed” had gone VOD, it wouldn’t have had the profile that it did. A24 only picked it up because of the profiles of Telluride and Venice. In fact, [Sony Pictures Classics co-president] Michael Barker said to me at Telluride that he couldn’t figure out a way to sell the film. Then [A24 acquisitions executive] David Laub saw the film and said, “I know how to sell this.” Why did he say that? Because he saw it in a room with people. He saw how quiet the audience was. The stillness afterward. You have to create that same thing, but right now, you can’t create it in the room. That’s why you have to have a huge jury of respected people. Then you’ll have your winners and testimonials from them. You’ll have Spike Lee saying, “This is why this film won.” All of a sudden, you’re creating buzz, because people are wondering why Spike said this was the best film.
It’s just hard to envision how you generate the same kind of noise around a film that would come from the physical experience of the event.
Netflix was able to generate noise for Marty’s film, “The Irishman.” OK, they also used the festival circuit with New York Film Festival opening night. But if you have this festival of festivals for the virtual world, then maybe you can rent theaters with social-distancing and have a few actual screenings, which couldn’t make a dime if you only have 40 people in a room for 200. But that could be a physical counterpart to the real festival happening online.
I get the sense that this proposal is coming from a place of self-interest.
I think it’s in the self-interest of smaller, intelligent films. It’s not in the best interest of “Trolls: World Tour.” That movie can take care of itself, and so can a comedy like “The King of Staten Island.” But when you look at the films that came out of last year’s festivals, how many of them can survive without this sort of buzz?
On a related note, you recently posted on Facebook that you had been watching “Devs” and “The Plot Against America,” adding that they were better than anything in theaters. You asked, “How does a standalone art film like the one I’m finishing compete with these addictive long-form dramas? Would even I go out and pay to see my own film?” Have you completely lost faith in feature-length filmmaking?
I think everyone has. It will return, just like the Philharmonic will return, but it won’t return with the same profile it had before. I mean, there will still be film clubs, movies for families, teen movies. But the mainstream theatrical experience was wobbling, and now corona has come along to peel its fingers off the wall, and it’s in freefall.
What sort of advice are you getting from other filmmakers right now?
Well, I spoke with Soderbergh, who’s heading this DGA committee to restart production. I have about 85 percent of my film done. I could create a simulated version. He said not to do it, to wait, because a simulated version will never be the same thing. There are a lot of films out there where I don’t know if they’ll be able to go back. Michael Mann shot for a week in Tokyo. When is he ever going to be able to go back to Tokyo? Will I be able to make a film again over the next year? Have we seen Scorsese’s last film? Eastwood’s last film? Ridley Scott’s last film? My last film? If we can’t go back to work for a year, who knows what our health will be like?
What do you hear from Scorsese?
I talked to him a little bit about this. He’s waiting like everybody else. He assumes his film will get made. He has the money and everything. But it can’t get made until the restrictions ease up. We’re talking about going back to work on my film on June 9. I don’t think that’ll happen. Mississippi says it’ll open up. I don’t think that’ll happen. But if it does, I only have four days left. I’ll go back and finish it up. There just won’t be any extras. SAG says you can’t have more than 10. We were going to get through under the wire. But then our casino we were shooting in closed. Casinos are one of the most vulnerable environments. Every card, every chip, every slot machine is a germ carrier.
And your film takes place in a lot of casinos.
Yes. So now we’re trying to find out if we can shoot in a casino if it’s not open. Can we pay them to turn the lights on? A lot of interesting discussions are going on. But it’s not going to be the same. By the time this virus is defeated — in 18 or 24 months, whatever — the industry will have warped into another form. You can’t switch the lights back on that.