Hollywood auteur Paul Schrader comes to IFFR with First Reformed, a (kind of) spiritual follow-up to his screenplay for Taxi Driver, and in a masterclass he conjured up a cinematic resurrection of a troubled Nic Cage pic. As always with Schrader, the devil is in the detail.
Paul Schrader is first and foremost a storyteller. His screenplays (the first being Taxi Driver, which until the end of eternity will be the title most associated with him) and the films he directed (American Gigolo, Mishima, Affliction among other) are proof of this. But so is the man himself, keeping the audience — most of whom hadn’t even been born when Taxi Driver came out and Schrader’s movie-making comrades such as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were making their mark on film history — hanging on his lips, throwing out punchlines as if he were a stand-up comedian.
It also helps that the 70+ veteran doesn’t mince his words, at times giving a brutally honest account of the pitfalls of filmmaking and his own mistakes along the way. A case in point: the making (or should we say un-making?) of the Nicolas Cage actioner Dying of the Light. “The most obvious mistake on that one was getting involved with people who didn’t respect me, or movies for that matter. This happens more often than you would think. Directors are by nature alpha creatures, saying: give me the whip, give me the chair, let me enter the cage: I’ll have all those lions sit upright. Well, sometimes the lions win. As was the case with Dying of the Light. A new breed of people have been coming into film in the last 10, 15 years. These are not movie people, they are investment people. When you talk to them, you realise they don’t know movies very well and are not interested in movies per se. In this case the investment model was I got Nic Cage, I had to have five action sequences, a specified running time of 92 minutes and of course I had to come in on budget. If I did all those things, they would make 17% on their investment. That was really what they were after. Once I finished shooting and I gave them everything that they had wanted, I was less of value to them in post-production.”
Exit Schrader. The movie was wrestled away from him, another editor was brought in, the final product dumped on VoD, without a theatrical release, “as I had sensed was the plan all along,” Schrader says. He made two more films, one of which is First Reformed, but the experience of Dying of the Light kept nagging. “I said to Nic, ‘We can’t let this stain stay’, meaning I can’t let this stain stay — he’s been stained so many times, he doesn’t care anymore.”
At the same time, Schrader came to the realisation that the nature of movies had changed: no longer a need for a unifying style, much more freedom in what images you use. “You can have a guy in a red shirt in one shot and in the following shot it’s a green shirt. In the old days you would call that a mistake. Nowadays you call it a choice. To really nail this new aesthetic, Schrader put together a team of youngsters, drawn not from a movie background but from other fields, like videogames and fashion. “I didn’t want people who could think outside the box, I wanted people who don’t even know there is a box.” The result was a gangster film called Dog Eat Dog that Schrader calls “the polar opposite of First Reformed, which is a contemplative film, while this one is profane and loud. The young editor I brought in was Ben Rodriguez, who had worked under Hank Corwin, a legendary figure and one of the editors of Natural Born Killers. I told Ben: we don’t need your skills for First Reformed, but I’m going to hire you anyway. Because that film will be cut rather quickly and on the side, I want you to re-cut Dying of the Light.” Easier said than done, with zero access to the original material and only three DVD cuts. So they came up with a rather original solution, as demonstrated by Schrader who showed the audience how Rodriguez just swiped his iPhone across the editing monitor to later incorporate those ‘new’ shots into the existing material. The result is rather gritty, messy, distorted (“Nic Cage meets Stan Brakhage”), reflecting the deteriorating mental state of the main character, who suffers from dementia. Because of all the bad blood surrounding Dying of the Light, the new cut – titled Dark – can only be shown in an educational context, such as an IFFR masterclass. What can be shown in public Rotterdam, is, of course, Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed, which leans towards transcedental cinema: “Wat happens when nothing happens?” In a Q&A the day before, the writer-director confessed its influences: “A reworking of Ingmar Bergmans Winter Light, a bit of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a County Priest and that levitation scene? That was me asking: what would Tarkovsky do? Well, levitating was his go to-position.” But let’s not forget one other obvious reference point for First Reformed: “There is a lot of Taxi Driver in it, yeah. Funnily enough I wasn’t so aware of that all along – my editor had to point it out in the editing room”.
Photo in header: Interview: Anton Damen