Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke on location for “First Reformed” | Photo by KC Bailey, courtesy of A24
Hit play below to listen to our Arts Alive feature with KUSC’s Tim Greiving discussing “First Reformed” with Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke.
Paul Schrader has often returned to the same obsessions—and often it’s about a man against the world. He became famous for writing Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s breakout film starring Robert De Niro is an unhinged New Yorker fed up with society. He wrote more screenplays for Scorsese, including Raging Bull, then became a director in his own right. Schrader’s films have dealt with morality and sickness in different forms. In American Gigolo, Richard Gere’s toy boy character is falsely accused of murder. In Cat People, sexual appetite literally turns a woman into a monster. His other films delve into the underbelly of desire, jealousy, celebrity, fear, and ethical dilemmas of all kinds.
His newest film, First Reformed, isn’t so much a summary of that body of work as it is a return to the beginning. Schrader was raised in a strict, conservative Christian home in Michigan—his parents wouldn’t even let him see a movie until he was 17—and in college, he minored in theology. There’s been a fascination with religion and morality throughout his work—most blatantly in his controversial script for Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Now, with First Reformed, the 71-year-old filmmaker is telling a story he’s been waiting to tell most of his life.
Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a divorced, retired military chaplain who oversees what’s basically a tourist trap of an old country church. He prays and confesses in the form of a journal, which we hear by way of narration, and he drinks too much at night to medicate his chronic grief and doubts. One of his young parishioners, played by Amanda Seyfried, asks Toller to speak with her husband. She’s pregnant, and he wants her to get an abortion. Toller learns that the husband is an environmental activist, and is in despair because he knows how bad planet Earth is likely going to be in a very short time… and he can’t bear to bring a child into it. Their encounter sets Toller down a morally thorny and conflicted path—and the film is about one man’s dark-night-of-the-soul that’s very powerfully of our time.
In this interview, Schrader and Hawke talk about their own background with religion, about making—and breaking—rules they establish for any given film, and why films about a person’s faith are so hard to make.
First Reformed is in theaters Friday, May 18th.