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Paul Schrader Thought He Was Going to Die, So He Went Back to Work

The filmmaker went to extreme lengths to make "Master Gardener," which finishes the trilogy he began with "First Reformed."

VENICE, ITALY - AUGUST 31: Paul Schrader is seen arriving at the Excelsior pier during the 79th Venice International Film Festival on August 31, 2022 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Paul Schrader in Venice for the premiere of “Master Gardener”

Getty Images

Paul Schrader woke up in New Orleans with four days of shooting left on his new movie, “Master Gardener,” when he thought he was going to die. He had severe breathing problems and trouble seeing out of his left eye, so he decided to get up and go to work.

“I knew if I called 911, those bastards would never let me out of the hospital, and the film would not be finished,” Schrader said. “So I lay there in bed and said, ‘Well, maybe I won’t wake up tomorrow — but would I rather not wake up tomorrow or wake up in the hospital room, knowing I can’t finish my film?’ And so I made my decision.”

Schrader still hasn’t figured out the specific cause of those ailments (“the cardiologists say it’s my lungs, the pulmonologists say it’s my heart”), but the 76-year-old’s commitment to filmmaking at all costs isn’t a surprise. “Master Gardener” is another of Schrader’s man-in-the-room dramas, with Joel Edgerton as a macho horticulturalist with a dark past who finds a second chance through his romance with his employer’s young niece.

It’s also the completion of a trilogy he began with “First Reformed,” followed by “The Card Counter,” that finds Schrader directing against the clock to make a series of cautionary fables for our divisive times. Finishing “Master Gardener” meant the last two movies were finally finished as well.

“I am hitting the same kind of themes,” he said. “Here’s a man who feels needs to be punished, who’s waiting for that punishment to come, and then instead hopes that punishment will be some sort of redemption.”

Schrader lives in survival mode. Since the success of his 1978 directorial debut “Blue Collar” in the aftermath of writing “Taxi Driver,” he has cranked out 25 movies with a fiery sense of purpose. Over the last two decades he worked on a smaller, cost-effective scale, to mixed results.

Then came “First Reformed,” a crossover hit that reestablished his tough blend of lonely, complicated men compelled by guilt to change the world. It landed him his first Oscar nomination and set the stage for last year’s “The Card Counter,” which almost didn’t get finished due to COVID shutdowns. Schrader has been pushing himself to make angry, challenging movies at a stage of life when most people start to mellow out.

“This one is going to piss people off,” Schrader said of “Master Gardener.” “Obama’s not putting it on his top 10 list.”

Posters for “First Reformed,” “The Card Counter,” and “Master Gardener”

That’s where “The Card Counter” wound up, but Oscar Isaac’s PTSD-stricken Abu Ghraib veteran isn’t nearly the subversive gamble of the filmmaker’s latest protagonist, in which Edgerton portrays a former white supremacist. Originally, Schrader imagined his character as a former mob hitman, but recent headlines sent him in a more contemporary direction. “The outrageousness of having a Proud Boy find love was just too outrageous to pass up,” Schrader said. “This theme of American racism kept growing.”

Schrader tends to construct his protagonists’ conundrums around the isolating nature of their work, from taxi driving to card counting, and that’s how the scenario for “Master Gardener” came together. “I was watching some garbage reality show about gardening and thought, ‘That’s an interesting character because if you’re hiding, that’s a good place to hide,’” he said.

Narvel Roth (Edgerton) works under the employ of a wealthy landowner (an icy Sigourney Weaver) who asks him to look after her widowed niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Schrader saw Edgerton’s gritty, reserved presence on a continuum with his most recent leads, Isaac and Ethan Hawke.

“I thought he was a kind of ’50s guy, a Bob Mitchum type, a big slab of beans,” Schrader said. “When you meet this guy at a bar, you don’t want to pick a fight with him.” Schrader initially wanted to shoot the movie in Australia, where Edgerton lives, but Netflix wanted to put “Bright 2″ into production. Schrader  transplanted his production to New Orleans in a rush, only for Netflix to decide it didn’t want “Bright 2” after all. That gave Edgerton plenty of time to dig into Schrader’s role.

“Joel took that million-dollar paycheck, put it in his pocket, and said ‘Thank you,’” Schrader said. “I didn’t have to press him at all.”

Narvel’s life gets complicated when he not only falls for the much younger Maya but also realizes she’s in trouble with some dicey characters. Swindell’s performance is a daring turn, a spiritual extension of Jodi Foster in “Taxi Driver.” The potential for a biracial woman to confront Narvel over his past while deepening her affection for him required a brave performer.

“Master Gardener”

Best known for her roles on Netflix’s “Trinkets” and a brief stint on “Euphoria,” the nonbinary actor’s talent was new to Schrader. “The only actress out there for this role that had any economic weight was Zendaya and there’s no way she was going to for the kind of money I had,” Schrader said. “You can call Zendaya’s agent, the only thing you hear on the other end is someone laughing.”

Schrader was struck by Swindell’s distinctive look and powerful delivery. “I was looking at the monitor and saying, ‘This is Lena fucking Horne, I’m making a movie with Lena fucking Horne,’” he said. “She’s so luminous, but she also has an attitude, and she conveyed all of that.”

Those familiar with Schrader’s work will instantly see his touchstones, including the lead character’s extensive voiceover. Narvel waxes poetic about the resilience of plant life as he contemplates his own potential for survival. Like his last two movies, the story exists within the confines of its character’s subjectivity. “I guess it really is a trilogy,” Schrader said. “These men cannot forgive themselves, and then the redemption comes.”

Schrader continues to struggle with crafting divisive material in a sensitive cultural landscape. “People want something to argue about, but on the other hand, they’re being very woke in a counterproductive way,” he said. “All it takes is one internet asshole to call this a ‘slave master sexual fantasy’ film, then that could be repeated until it’s a meme. This film is a real gumbo of no-nos.”

All health hardships aside, Schrader continues to challenge himself. He recently finished a new script that takes him into fresh terrain — by his standards. “I have written a new script about a woman,” he said. “They say write what you know, and I’ve been doing that for years, so now I’m writing what I don’t know. What happens when you take this peculiar wine I’ve been pressing for the last 40 years and put it into a female bottle?”

Schrader speaks about his current physical state in dire terms, referring to his trip to the Venice premiere of “Master Gardener,” where he’s receiving a lifetime achievement award, as a “last rodeo.” At the same time, he wasn’t about to retire. “If I can get over this hump I’m on, then yes,” he said, “I would love to make another film.”

“Master Gardener” premiered out of competition at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking North American distribution.

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