God’s Lonely Man: Paul Schrader on leading with love

Joel Edgerton is Paul Schrader’s latest lonely man in Master Gardener.
Joel Edgerton is Paul Schrader’s latest lonely man in Master Gardener.

Master Gardener filmmaker Paul Schrader on finding roses among the thorns, fixing the film heirarchy, the importance of having final cut—and that Pickpocket ending.

I get teary at country music songs. I don’t cry over sappy love dramas, but if somebody’s dog gets run over by a car, then you got me. I guess that’s just part of my personality that I use to keep me from being too schematic and intellectual.

—⁠Paul Schrader

A priest, a gambler and a gardener walk into a bar. It could be the start of many bad jokes delivered by your drunk colleague at a work party, but for Paul Schrader these professions represent the latest permutations of a motif he has dubbed “God’s Lonely Man.” It can be traced through his career as both a screenwriter and director: men largely removed from the confines of society, whose daily routines are charted mostly in isolation, their nights spent scribbling existential thoughts into journals.

In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke’s chronically ill pastor finds himself rocked with a mortal awakening when one of his parishioners confronts him with the climate crisis-induced impending doom of humanity, which humanity has brought upon itself. The Card Counter sees Oscar Isaac’s former Abu Ghraib torturer and ex-con, who is spending his days making small wins at the card tables, when a young man comes to seek his guidance.

Schrader’s latest, Master Gardener, finds Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) working as a horticulturist at Gracewood Gardens under the employ of the domineering Mrs Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). When Haverhill’s troubled great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) arrives, the boss places her under Roth’s watch. While this new dynamic opens the gardener up to the promise of an intriguing connection with a like-minded soul, it also threatens to unearth his troubled past, forcing him to confront secrets he’s tried to keep buried.

Deep excavations into the roots of problematic men and questions over their possible redemption have been a source for Schrader’s transcendental filmmaking for decades, but these most recent three present what he has dubbed a thematic trilogy, his most spiritually linked works to date. Like a gardener tending to his roses, each film feels in conversation with another, while allowing for their own cultivars to bloom.

Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) ranks #57 on the Letterboxd Top 250.
Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) ranks #57 on the Letterboxd Top 250.

I wanted to start by picking your brain a little bit about the WGA strike. How do you see yourself in relation to others in the field? Do you feel a kinship there and a collective struggle? Do you see yourself more as a lone wolf and an outsider? Or somewhere in between?
Paul Schrader: I’m definitely the lone wolf. I began writing on spec. I was one of the first writers to work on spec, and I’ll probably be one of the last. This negotiation really involves writers who are working within a writing system and writing rooms. It doesn’t even affect minimums for original screenplays, just because nobody cares anymore because nobody writes them. So, it doesn’t really affect me.

I can read the numbers. I’m not stupid. I realize the writers are getting screwed, while the streaming hierarchy is getting rich. Welcome to America. It’s happening all over, and there needs to be a correction. I think this year, the guilds may align. Because if the directors—who hate to strike—and the actors, if they align up with the writers, then this whole thing will be over. If not, if the directors punk or the actors punk, this writing thing could go on for the rest of the year.

You wrote Transcendental Style in Film in the 1970s, which is a foundational text for a lot of writers, and for new generations now you have a status for many that artists like Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer had for you. Do you have any thoughts on yourself as a guiding light for emerging writers who can take wisdom from you?
That’s interesting because I now see in people’s eyes what I felt when I first met [Roberto] Rossellini. A giant, a visionary. That’s one side of the story. I met [Michelangelo] Antonioni, one of the great masters, and I traveled to France to interview Bresson.

On the other hand, I also remember a party I went to in the late ’70s on the West Side. It was all film students and a lot of Brits from cinema magazines and young American critics, a very young room of all of us. And Sam Fuller was there, holding court in the corner with his cigar telling his stories. I remember thinking at the time, ‘What’s the matter? Doesn’t he have any friends his own age?’ [Laughs] And now I’ve become that guy.

[Laughs] You feel like you don’t have any friends your own age?
I mean, when I go to these screenings of my films—we just had a screening in New York of Mishima, and I don’t think there was anybody at the screening who was born before the film came out.

Yaphet Kotto, Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel in Schrader’s directorial debut, Blue Collar (1978).
Yaphet Kotto, Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel in Schrader’s directorial debut, Blue Collar (1978).

One of my friends, Soraya, was at a recent Master Gardener screening in LA and in her Letterboxd review, she wrote “Paul Schrader is a big softie at heart and that’s why his lean, mean, tough and scary films have always worked for me. They all have a big beating heart buried in there.” How do you go about finding that heart at the core of thorny subject matter?
It’s a matter of empathy. I get teary at country music songs. I don’t cry over sappy love dramas, but if somebody’s dog gets run over by a car, then you got me. I guess that’s just part of my personality that I use to keep me from being too schematic and intellectual.

I can read the numbers. I’m not stupid. I realize the writers are getting screwed, while the streaming hierarchy is getting rich. Welcome to America. It’s happening all over, and there needs to be a correction.

—⁠Paul Schrader

Often your films focus on men as the primary characters, but it’s the women who are the impetus for these characters breaking from their patterns and forging new paths. Could you talk a bit about the significance of the women in your work?
A woman in the audience asked me that question last night, and they accused me of using women as symbols of redemption. I said, “They are not symbols of redemption. They are in fact redemption.” As a line from Affliction says, “Those poor, sad women who have the misfortune to love us.”

I write from a context that I’m very familiar with. I know these guys, I know what they think. I know what they’re thinking even when they don’t know what they're thinking. Last year, I wrote a female version of this type of character, about a nurse in Puerto Rico. I wrote it and it’s quite good, but I realized I couldn’t direct it just because it was too far out of my personal kin and there are too many good female directors around.

Now, when I did Blue Collar, there were probably two or three Black directors getting studio gigs, and now there’s hundreds of them. I’m writing this idea about three Black brothers and we’ve been talking to Antoine Fuqua’s company and maybe when the strike ends we’ll do it over there. I had the guts to do Blue Collar in ’75 or ’76 because it wasn’t seen as an affront to Black sensibility for a white filmmaker to direct a film about three people, two Black and one white. Whereas now, today, if I directed a film about these kids in South Central, not only would I feel out of place, I think the Black audience would feel I was out of place.

Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Paul Schrader on the set of Master Gardener.  — Photographer… Bonnie Marquette
Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Paul Schrader on the set of Master Gardener Photographer… Bonnie Marquette

When the trailer first dropped for Master Gardener, fans of yours, including myself, saw that image of Joel Edgerton alone in a room, lit by a lamp, sitting at a desk and writing in a journal and we practically lost our minds. What is it about that image that keeps you returning to it with these characters?
I first saw it in Pickpocket and Diary of a Country Priest. It’s a man alone with his thoughts, wearing a mask and the mask being his profession. He’s waiting. It’s just him and the room. Those are two characters, and he’s waiting. Something is going to happen, and there’s that tension of ‘what is it going to be?’

I’ve been going to that from Taxi Driver on. There’s a line in Taxi Driver where he writes “The days can go on with regularity over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next. A long continuous chain. Then suddenly, there is a change.”

I know what these guys are doing, they’re waiting. They’re waiting just like the poker player is playing, day after day after day, waiting for something to happen. That’s what appeals to me about these kinds of characters, because good things happen while you wait. That’s one of the secrets of life.

You do great work with these characters who are drifting, getting by with these routines, and then they’re woken up by something or someone to become actualized again. Has there ever been a time in your career where you felt like you were drifting yourself, maybe going through the motions to get by and something came and re-energized you?
There’s been a couple of points. When I swung from non-fiction to fiction, when I wrote Taxi Driver, that gave me an energy. Also, when I realized I had a debacle film that I did with Nic Cage [Dying of the Light], and it was taken away from me and they tried to kill me.

I don’t even say that jokingly. It was being edited by somebody else in Los Angeles, and if I left Los Angeles, that would be considered quitting the film and they didn’t have to pay me the money they owed me. I was sitting there in a hotel room drinking, and I realized after about four or five days of that, I said, “They want me to die. They want me to die in this hotel room drinking all day long, and I’m not going to die that way and I’m going to leave town and they can keep their money.” Out of that, I started saying to Nic, “I want to right this wrong. I want to do a film with you, and I want to get final cut, and if you take a price cut, we can do it.”

Paul Schrader.  — Photographer… Franck Ferville
Paul Schrader.  Photographer… Franck Ferville

That film came out to be Dog Eat Dog, and I got final cut on that film. The technology had just dropped in cost and I was able to get final cut. All of a sudden, films that I was afraid to make because they were career-killers or they had a small audience appeal, I now felt I could make them because I would make their investors whole. That’s all I felt I was required to do, and now I could do that and still control the final cut. I wouldn’t have to listen to anybody say “Make it clearer. We don’t understand his motivation. Does the girl have to be that young?”, like in Master Gardener.

Dog Eat Dog definitely does feel like a turning point. I’ve seen Dying of the Light and I’ve seen Darkthe version you cut, that you leaked online. It’s great you were able to get that out there on your terms, because watching Dying of the Light you can certainly feel that you aren’t in it.
Yeah, no, no, no. Plus, the music’s terrible. Maybe it would not have even been a great film if I had finished it. That was one of the reasons why I got in trouble. I realized that it wasn’t working and we had to do something. I was starting to think about what I could rewrite and reshoot, and that’s when the problems really started because they felt they had enough footage to complete it.

This was a company called Grindstone for Lionsgate. They do straight-to-video, pulp action stuff, and they had enough footage to make money. I was trying to get them to spend more money to have a better film, and they weren’t in the business of making better films. They were in the business of making money. So that’s how the problems all started. It was my fault. I mean, I was the one who didn’t get it right the first go around. I had no doubt about it.

Willem Dafoe as God’s Lonely Man in Light Sleeper (1992).
Willem Dafoe as God’s Lonely Man in Light Sleeper (1992).

[Warning: Spoilers for ‘Master Gardener’ follow in the next answer]

At Venice last year, you made a really touching reference to the S.G. Goodman song “Space and Time, which closes out Master Gardener. You said that you used to be an artist who never wanted to leave this world without saying “fuck you,” and now you’re an artist who never wants to leave this world without saying “I love you.” What inspired that transition from one to the other?
Just age, as the characters become older. But also, in Taxi Driver, the young man seeks the older man’s advice. De Niro looks up to Peter Boyle. But then in First Reformed, it starts going around the other way—the older man is the troubled one, and the younger man is coming up to him. When I first sort of imagined Master Gardener, I had a kind of cliché, programmatic, shootout ending with lots of people dead, and it was just bothering the heck out of me. I don’t even know if I’d written it yet, but I had outlined it with that ending.

Then I heard S.G.’s song, which I had heard because she helped me on Card Counter too. I thought about how I would love to use that song, and maybe that’s the ending. Maybe killing people is not the ending, and maybe that’s where I’ve come to. So I rewrote the ending so nobody gets killed. So originally, once he had killed people, he had to go on the run because he’s in witness protection, so I rejiggered it. Since he didn’t kill anybody, he didn’t have to go on the run and he could stay and live, as he says, as husband and wife with this girl, his surrogate daughter.

That’s interesting that you started at a place with Master Gardener where the ending was the violent shootout and then you went the opposite way. For Light Sleeper, which is one of my favorite films of all time, you did the opposite—where the studio mandated you needing to have the shootout towards the end of that one, which wasn’t your original intention.
But I wasn’t smart enough to come up with anything better. I knew I was falling back into the Taxi Driver cliché, and I was bothered by it, but I knew that I could get the film financed with that element in it. If I had been able to come up with something better or if I had final cut, I probably wouldn’t have done that. So I ended up with the shootout. What I tried to do to mitigate it in that case was I made the shootout part of a song ballad. Which I think helped to throw it off.

Richard Gere getting a good look in American Gigolo (1980).
Richard Gere getting a good look in American Gigolo (1980).

Then it ties back to Pickpocket, where Light Sleeper is one of several films of yours that ends with an homage to Pickpocket, with two characters placing their hands against each other, with something usually separating them. Similar to the image of the man alone in a room with a journal, what keeps bringing you back to that ending and coming up with your own musings and meditations on it?
It’s sort of a magical ending, where he’s been on this convoluted path and the neighbor comes to visit him in prison. He reaches across and says, “Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.” That’s a great bit of self-knowledge and wisdom, and I like that ending so much.

I stuck it on the end of American Gigolo, but I’ve never really felt it belonged there. I just put it there because I liked it. Then, I was doing Light Sleeper and I said, “No, this is where it should be. It should be in this one.” So. I said, “Well, I’ll just do it again. Who’s going to say I can’t repeat it?” So, I did it again. Then I’ve had the other kinds of variations on it in these last three.

You mentioned American Gigolo
[Smiling] I can see the poster of it on your wall over your shoulder there.

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s an original print too. Obviously, I’m very excited that you’re reuniting with Richard Gere for your next film, Oh, Canada. We’ve barely seen him on screen in the last handful of years, so it’s great to see you back together. What made this the right project for you to reunite on?
I wanted to do a film about dying. My friend Russell Banks had died and he had written a book about dying. He wrote the book before he got sick, and I wanted to adapt that book. So, then you start thinking about what actors and I have to put a few things together: I have to get actors who say yes, and I have to get them to work for nothing and I have to have them available this year.

So, I send De Niro a message saying, “Bob, I’ve written a script. I think I want you to do it on three conditions. We’re not going to pay you anything, you have to do it this year, and you have to give me an answer in a week. If not, I won’t send it to you.” And Bob calls me back and says, “Don’t send it to me. I’m booked. I’m booked.” [Laughs]

But I knew that Richard, I could do that to. Just like I did to Oscar and Ethan and Joel. I knew he would say yes, and I knew it would be right. And I like the kind of top spin of doing the dying gigolo, the emaciated man in the wheelchair, bald and sick, and trying to get his life straight.

Now I have to cast a younger version of him. So there’ll be two characters. When you package these kinds of films, you have to keep in mind a little bit of the buzz, what I call the top spin. Bret Easton Ellis said to me the other day, “I was told that you’re doing a remake of American Gigolo.” I said, “I’m not, but if they want to think that and it can help me get money, they can think that.” [Laughs]

Good things happen while you wait. That’s one of the secrets of life.

—⁠Paul Schrader

Master Gardener’ releases in limited US theaters May 19 from Magnolia Pictures, and in UK cinemas from May 26 via Vertigo Releasing.

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