Paul Schrader, in the middle of filming. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures / Strizzi, Sergio / Album
He has taken the contemplative cinema of Ozu, Dreyer and Bresson to places never traveled. Paul Schrader, living legend of the best American cinema, returns with renewed energy with The priest. The story, starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, addresses doubts of faith in its usual style and raises deep debates about today’s society.
Paul Schrader (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1946) uses a western quote Duel in the high sierra (Sam Peckinpah, 1962) to define the personal relevance of his last film, The priest. In a conversation between the two leading cowboys, the one played by actor Randolph Scott asks Joel McCrea: What do you really want? To which his friend replies: ??All I want is to come home with the satisfaction of a job well done??. The dialogue assaulted the scriptwriter of Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) when I was editing the drama with which he returns to our cinemas on September 28: ?? Perhaps with this project I can justify my career. If it was the last thing I did, would that be a good end point ??, he asserted at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
In this highly emotionally charged and beautifully crafted plot, a former military chaplain played by Ethan Hawke serves as pastor of a small church in New York State following the death of his son in Iraq and the breakdown of their marriage. Her fragile mental balance falters as she tries to help a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried), whose husband is a radical environmentalist with a tormented vision of the crisis facing the planet.
In this anticipated epitaph of Schrader guilt, redemption, religious dilemmas and existential anguish connect the viewer with the author. But the visual and dramatic gravity of the proposal supposes a turn towards contemplative cinema of this epitome of the New Hollywood, always devoted to action, sex and violence.
Question.- In this film, a very formal style, which also opts for the traditional 1.33: 1 format, draws powerfully attention, as unexpected in its trajectory. What does this change respond to?
Answer.- In 1972 I dedicated a book to contemplative cinema, commanded by directors like Ozu, Dreyer and Bresson: Transcendental Style in Film. The slow film genre interested me because it linked my theology studies with my passion for film. I recently revisited that essay and updated it, so when I decided to shoot a spiritual film, I started to review those techniques. I reviewed, for example, the work of Andrei Tarkovski and tried to imagine the use of deprivation mechanisms during the process. Therein lies the difference between the cinema that alienates the viewer and the one that inclines him.
P.- What would those differences be?
R.- All Hollywood movies feature a speeding car, a naked woman, a catchy soundtrack, explosions … The viewer is constantly dictated what to feel. Everything happens through manipulation and passivity. On the other hand, contemplative cinema transcends, because the audience is stimulated. When you start to feel interest, the film is retracted by the color palette, the composition, the long static shots, the pace of the editing, the lack of music, the use of close-ups, the depth of field … The delicacy of the use of these elements is key so that at a certain point you get people to enter the proposal. Otherwise, they will leave the cinema.
Beyond the door …
P.- Where would the balance be?
R.- You must use boredom as a scalpel to outline an emotional reaction without turning into simple boredom. Bresson was among the first to handle the effect of that use of time. In his cinema a door opens, closes and the shot is held for five seconds. What’s going on? What goes through the viewer’s head? The audience stops looking at the door to look beyond. The experience no longer lies in the door, but in the time you spend looking at it. That connects with meditation. Contemplative cinema is a spiritual dance.
P.- Why have you decided to make a spiritual movie at this point in your career?
The advantage of these times is that you can start unthinkable before, even if no one gets to see them “
R.- It has to do with age and profitability. In the US it is very difficult to make non-commercial films, because there are no subsidies and the money invested will not be recovered, while in Europe you can use state funds. The turning point came during a dinner hosted by the New York Film Critics Circle where I met Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, head of Ida. He was telling me that he had received the offer to work in Hollywood, but he had preferred to return to Poland and not be bound by chains. We talk about the fact that nowadays films that were previously prohibitive are no longer so. Technology allows us to cut budgets substantially. Those films that during the beginning of my career took us 40 days, today can be solved in 20. The advantage of these times is that you can start projects that were previously unthinkable; the disadvantage, that perhaps no one will ever see them. The fact is that I walked to my apartment thinking: “The time has come to make one of those movies that you always declined.” When I got home I already had the idea for my film.
Schrader is integrated into the pantheon of the seventh art with contemporary classics as well as a screenwriter, case of Wild bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980), as in the director’s chair, with titles such as American Gigolo (1980), The kiss of the panther (1982), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) the Affliction (1997). For years, in his own words, he has been doing “the devil’s work.”
Ethan Hawke protagoniza The priest, a deep spiritual reflection
In recent times, the veteran filmmaker has found himself immersed in a experimental stage in which it has embraced both the supervening forms of distribution and the new technologies. Maybe Hunt down the terrorist (2013) and Like wild dogs (2016) are not his finest films, but a sample of his restless and indomitable spirit. With introspective The priestSchrader not only challenges himself when it comes to cinematic style, but also in the conflicts it raises. Its protagonist is still a lonely man, abandoned by God, but unlike other films with a religious axis, avoids hope, raises doubts of faith and debates of political and social significance, with the extinction of the human race at the gates as a result of environmental collapse.
P.- As you pointed out at the beginning of the interview, he trained as a seminarian. With this film, did you want to send a message about the current crossroads of faith?
R.- Religion and spirituality are two different things. Religion is an organization, a company that has rules, real estate, affiliates, hierarchy … As John Lennon said: “I don’t like God too much when they put it indoors.” In the heart of The priest there is despair. The protagonist suffers from what Kierkegaard called a fatal disease. Draws hopelessness, anguish, and tries to redeem himself through drinking, writing and religious rites. I don’t even know if he believes, but he has a reason to suffer. And Christianity has a persistent relationship with suffering, beginning with the sacrifice of animals and continuing with the symbolic passion of Christ. In the Bible everything is quite bloody and, therefore, for a religious person thrown into despair it is very easy to think that suffering and physical pain give him a vital meaning and some relief.
Artificial intelligence arrives
P.- Spiritual reflection is woven into the film with the environmental challenge. Why have you given so much weight to climate change?
R.- This film raises several questions: the role of man in the world, what it means to have conscience, what is the meaning of our lives and what is there after death. All of these issues have been debated theoretical questions for thousands of years. Now, with Artificial Intelligence, it may be the end of that discussion. The phrase of Descartes? I think, therefore I exist? has lost meaning, because there are machines that think better than us. The collapse of ecology, for which man is responsible, together with the evolution of species, has changed the framework of thought and has given these questions greater urgency.
P.- Ethan played roles as a teenage hunk early in his career, but lately he has carved out a career with deep characters. What roles of yours were the ones that encouraged you to call him?
I was looking for a sufferer profile for the protagonist. I opted for Ethan Hawke, who now has a facial gravity that I wanted to explore. “
R.- When I was thinking about my protagonist, I had in mind a profile of a sufferer, of the type Jake Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac … Ethan is a very serious man: theater actor, director, playwright and screenwriter, but he has that childish face that has accompanied him for 20 years. Now he’s a middle-aged guy with a facial gravity that he wanted to explore.. The castings They consist of giving the correct person the appropriate role for their age and appropriate to their theme. Your skills will already be demonstrated during the process.
P.- Was it difficult for you to respond to his offer?
R.- Ethan answered me within 24 hours, so that means he opened the envelope and read the script right away.
P.- Why did you think of Amanda Seyfried? To what extent did your actual pregnancy weigh when it came to casting you as a co-star?
R.- We were looking for an actress in that age group, and when we found out she was pregnant, the director of casting told me I was perfect for the role. I agreed with him, not only because we would not have to use prosthetics to fake his condition, but because when you are financing a film, everything is postponed due to treasury forecasts. However, when I pressed our producers with the argument that if we delayed the start of filming we were going to lose Amanda, the batteries were put. Of course I could have talked to the gynecologist, but I didn’t think he was going to extend the deadline for us (laughs).
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In Hollywood, the viewer is dictated what to feel?