Master at Work: Paul Schrader on “Master Gardener”

By Will Sloan

Paul Schrader’s career has been eclectic enough to encompass biopics of Mishima Yukio, Bob Crane, and Patricia Hearst; adaptations of books by Ian McEwan, Russell Banks, and Nikos Kazantzakis; genre films that meet the expectations of the horror, thriller, and romance forms; and star vehicles tailored to bring out the best in icons as disparate at Richard Pryor, Richard Gere, George C. Scott, and Lindsay Lohan. But as with John Ford and his cowboys or Martin Scorsese and his mobsters, when we think of a “Paul Schrader movie,” most of us conjure up a very specific set of themes and images—chief among them that of a solitary man in a mostly empty room, writing in a diary.

The image derives, of course, from Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951), but as with the fingers-against-the-glass ending of the French filmmaker’s central masterpiece Pickpocket (1959), Schrader has accomplished the impressive feat of taking that influence and making it his own—partly through sheer force of repetition, but also because he has kept the reference from becoming ossified by thoughtfully adapting it to new contexts. Once the man was a taxi driver, isolated and alienated from the Manhattan surrounding him; later, he was a priest whose church has become hopelessly beholden to capitalist interests. In Schrader’s new film, Master Gardener (2022), the man is Norvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a former member of a domestic terror group who is now in the witness protection program and seeking absolution for his sins. 

Norvel is now a gardener, plying his trade on the plantation of the wealthy Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), from whom he receives room and board in exchange for sex. (The garden here is a metaphor for rebirth and renewal, but also violence and death; the symbolic weight of the plantation speaks for itself.) The plot stirs into motion when Mrs. Haverhill requests that Norvel look after her mixed-race grand-niece, a troubled young woman named Maya (Quintessa Swindell) who struggles with an abusive boyfriend and a drug addiction she shared with her late mother. In his ensuing quest to save Maya from her demons, Norvel and his charge build a dynamic not dissimilar from that of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle and Jodie Foster’s Iris in Taxi Driver (1976), with the crucial difference that here it develops into something like love.

Do the metaphors sound a little blunt? Does the romance seem a little far-fetched? Master Gardener is fascinating and imperfect, which means it fits neatly into Schrader’s fascinating and imperfect body of work. I say this with affection and respect, because Schrader’s filmography is that of an artist with a restless mind and indomitable artistic integrity who has spent decades on the edge of bankability, with all the scars that brings. More than most of his generational coevals, Schrader has remained engaged with the zeitgeist and adaptable to the marketplace. Since Schrader’s final, ill-fated experience with a major Hollywood studio on the initially unreleased Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005), his films have sometimes felt like a series of conceptual experiments to determine if, how, or in what form a filmmaker like him can survive, with spirit intact, in an unforgiving industry. This path has led him to places that would be unthinkable for a Scorsese or a Spielberg, including a purposefully tawdry, Kickstarter-funded erotic thriller (The Canyons, 2015) and two Nicolas Cage B-movies (Dying of the Light,2014; Dog Eat Dog, 2016). However, Schrader’s late-period trajectory clicked into focus with First Reformed (2017), in which he triumphantly synthesized his artistic interests with the current moment, melding the influence of Bergman and Bresson with the aesthetics and production model of current-day American independent cinema while also directly addressing contemporary political concerns.

Schrader has been a public figure since first emerging as one of Pauline Kael’s many protégés, but his visibility has only increased in the social-media era. He cannily allowed the behind-the-scenes story of The Canyons—from its innovative crowdfunding campaign, to its bumpy production, to its then-novel simultaneous VOD/theatrical rollout—to become an extension of the text. When Dying of the Light was re-edited by its financiers without his participation, Schrader responded by self-distributing his own recut, Dark (2017), through Pirate Bay. His open defiance of industry politesse has an analogue in his unguarded candor about his personal life: in Alex Ross Perry’s short documentary profile Paul Schrader: Man in a Room (2020), he spoke on his struggles with alcohol, and in a recent spate of interviews tied to the release of Master Gardener, he has been open about relocating with his wife to an assisted-living facility. (He is far from retired, however, and intends to shoot a new movie this year.)

In recent years, Schrader has also become an unchecked Facebook presence, posting seemingly without filter about film, politics, and whatever else is grinding his gears that day (anyone who follows him has surely torn their hair out over at least one of his pronouncements). In Master Gardener, the provocateur who likes to wrestle with difficult issues in public converges with the aesthete who wrote Transcendental Style in Film, the Hollywood screenwriter who wrote Rolling Thunder (1977), and the industry lifer who made Dog Eat Dog. I was happy to encounter all these Schraders and more when I spoke to him over Zoom.

Cinema Scope: Most of your contemporaries who are still active in the movie industry are making period pieces, and the same is true of most of the best-known filmmakers from the generation under you. Your recent movies are all set in the present day, and are also focused on present-day concerns. Why do you think you’re exploring the present when so many of your colleagues are not?

Paul Schrader: Well, I won’t speak for my colleagues, but I do like the sniff of things. That’s an odd way to say it—a sense of the zeitgeist; what’s going around. I’ve been fortunate in the past. You can’t plan to hit the bull’s-eye of the zeitgeist, but it came pretty close with Taxi Driver, came close with American Gigolo (1980). I’m looking for these occupational metaphors that sort of get a sense of what’s going around now, and that interests me much more. Obviously, there’s a truth to the life of Napoleon and a truth to the life of Oppenheimer, but I’d rather try to work on a smaller scale and get something about what it means to make contact today.

Scope: When Master Gardener was showing at festivals, an ambient sense I got from its critical reception was that it was dealing in “problematic” subject matter, quote-unquote…

Schrader: There’s a console of hot buttons to choose from. You can be upset by May-December romance. You can be upset by “mandingo.” You can be upset by Dirty Harry (1971) aspects. And you can be upset about the white nationalism. When I was working on the script and people were worried about the May-December—which used to be the norm, and is now the abnorm—they said they want me to tone it down and make the girl older. I said, “I got a better idea. Why don’t I just put another thorn on the vine?” At that time [Norvel] was an ex-hitman who was in the witness protection program. I said, “I’ll make him an ex–Proud Boy in witness protection.” That way, they’ll get confused about what is most offensive to them. And then I thought, when I was casting, “If we really want to get their heads spinning, let’s cast Kevin Spacey. Then they won’t know how to get offended, because they’ll be offended by too many different things at the same time!”

Scope: I guess the Kevin Spacey casting didn’t work out…

Schrader: No, no, I don’t think I would have got financing for that.

Scope: Your past several films have all had strong central metaphors. Did the metaphor of the garden incite this one?

Schrader: Yeah. You’re looking for occupations that are more complex than they seem. I started with Taxi Driver—you know, back in the ’70s there was this sort of myth that the taxi driver was a funny guy who wore a hat and told jokes. He was your brother-in-law, and then I looked at him and I said, “Not unless you’re Dostoevsky…” That’s the deep, black hole of despair riding around in a yellow coffin.

So when you take an occupation that people think they know and point it in another direction, then you create a gap, or chasm. Then the viewer has to help fill that chasm. Well, that’s what art does. You have two poles; you get them to a certain point and the spark’s gonna fly. When that spark is supplied—by the reader, the viewer, the listener—then you have high-quality art. When you don’t let the spark fly, then you just have commerce. You want a hot dog? Here’s a hot dog—okay, thank you.

People think of gardening and they have this kind of idea of horticulture and manicured gardens and bouquets, but there’s a lot of violence in the occupation. There’s a lot of weeding and deadheading and pruning and cutting, and a lot of manipulation of nature. So that’s a metaphor that can work for both sides. They can talk about the beauties of the garden, but the white supremacist can also say, “We’re gardeners. We’re pulling out the weeds.” The metaphor works both ways. And of course, the garden is the oldest fable we have. You know, we all began in the garden, and if we hadn’t listened to that damn snake we’d still be there.

Scope: You mentioned Taxi Driver, and obviously, for many reasons, I thought of that film while watching this one. Travis Bickle is a racist, while the Joel Edgerton character is a reformed racist. The relationship between him and the Quintessa Swindell character also reminded me a little of the dynamic between De Niro and Jodie Foster. That said, it’s a much more hopeful film than Taxi Driver.

Schrader: When I was writing it, actually, it occurred to me. I said, “What if Cybill [Shepherd] and Jodie had coffee together…?” I was able to have the two women sit down for lunch!

Scope: Has your perspective shifted since Taxi Driver?

Schrader: Well, yeah. I mean, you grow older. When you’re younger, you really think that you can batter the wall down. You’re going to change the world, or you’re going to rebel, make a mark. And then, life is a whole process of accommodation and acceptance, and then finally you get to a certain age and say, “Well, that wall’s not so bad. Maybe it just needs a coat of paint. I think I’ll let it stand and I’ll just repaint it.” That’s just the process of aging.

The S.G. Goodman song [“Space and Time”] at the end of the film says, “I never wanna leave this world without saying I love you.” As I said in Venice, I used to believe I didn’t want to leave this world until I said, “Fuck you.” Now, I don’t want to leave until I say “I love you.”

Scope: If I can prod at that metaphor your brought up a little more: what is that wall that you wanted to demolish in the ’70s? How would you define that?

Schrader: Did you happen to read that profile in The New Yorker? It talks all about my upbringing in the Dutch Reform Church and the rigorousness with which I was raised. I speak in there of leaving the CRC [Christian Reformed Church] in Grand Rapids the way a bullet leaves a gun, because that’s the only way you can leave—otherwise, the gravitational pull will pull you back. So you have to explode out. The way of becoming free and independent is, you have to knock our wall out to get out. So, it’s necessary to do that. Now you get over it and you look back, and the wall doesn’t frighten you as much.

Scope: When First Reformed came out, you spoke a lot about making something in the style of the “transcendental cinema” you used to write about. Correct me if I’m misquoting, but you would often in those interviews draw a dichotomy between the “sacred” that you appreciated in cinema, and the “profane” arena that you so often worked in as a writer and filmmaker…

Schrader: I was raised in the sacred arena, and then I went in 1968 to Los Angeles, working at counterculture publications and within the cinema school and so forth, which is about as secular as you can get. So there was that kind of dichotomy built right in. One of the ways I accommodated that contradiction was first by writing Transcendental Style in Film, which says that spirituality is not a matter of content, it’s a matter of style—therefore, it’s how you do things, it’s not what you do. And then the other one was Taxi Driver, where you’re trying to deal with those matters, those hostilities, and whether or not they can be reined in.

Scope: Possibly you’ll disagree, but this new film feels to me like a synthesis: it shares a lot with something like First Reformed, but certain of the elements, like the vigilante plot, feels like part of that “profane” realm.

Schrader: Yeah, it does traffic in that. In an early draft of the script, there were more bad guys at that time, and I had him go in and kill them all as I would have 40, 50 years ago in Rolling Thunder or something. And I just realized I don’t want to do that. I just had him shoot a bullet into the ceiling and stereo, and kneecap him, and offer his protégé, his surrogate daughter, the opportunity to kill him—and she doesn’t want it either. And that just seemed to be a better way to resolve that. Although The Wild Bunch (1969) is a great film.

Scope: Well, I certainly agree with that. On another note, something I’ve admired about your later career is how adaptable you seem to be to however the marketplace shifts. You’ve obviously experienced more than your fair share of public humiliation from financiers and executives. A lot of filmmakers would probably take their ball and go home, but you made The Canyons, Dog Eat Dog, First Reformed—all of these films that are, among other things, reflective of the marketplace they’re in. I guess my question is, why have you persisted?

Schrader: Well, I’ve been aided enormously by technology. When you make a movie, the pen and the paper and the brush and the canvas are very expensive. There are no Emily Dickinsons in the cinema. Now, technology is changing. When I started, it took 45 days to make a film. The last several…well, Canyons was 14; this last one was 20, and the one before was 20. The next one is scheduled at 22; I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes down to 20. In that way you can raise money, if you are smart enough and economical enough not only as a director, but also as a writer. You can’t go around writing scenes that you’re going to cut out. The scripts get shorter and shorter. Master Gardener I think was 82 pages, and The Card Counter (2021) was 76. The new script started out at 70, and now it’s all the way up to 78. They teach you to write a page a minute, and a script should be 115 pages, but the truth is, it’s 115 pages and then you’ve cut out four scenes. If you can figure out what those four scenes are before you shoot them, you get two more shooting days. You learn those tricks.

Coppola instructed us all, at that age and that era, how you just go in there with financiers. Francis was a master at this. You say, “Look. This is your lucky day. All you care about is making money. All I care about is making money. Let’s make some money together.” And sometimes they would actually believe you! Until, of course, you started making some films, and then they’d realize you were conning them. But now, with this new financial structure, you can actually say to investors—and all of these last four films were equity financed—“I can get you your money back.” And you won’t be lying—you can get them their money back. “And not only can I get you your money back—you get to wear a tuxedo at a major film festival, because that’s where my films go!”

But you have to keep the budgets down between $4–5 million. The actors have to work pretty much at scale. Somebody asked me once how I got actors to work so cheap, and I said, “I pay them.” In the room at the time was the cover of Cahiers du Cinéma, with Oscar Isaac in Card Counter on the cover. I said, “I paid Oscar right here. Look at it. He got paid!”

Scope: I watched The Canyons again recently, and I had always thought of it as being quite different from a movie like First Reformed, but something that unites both films is how not pretty they are. First Reformed has this very purposely cold, digital look; Card Counter and the new one are set against these very bleak landscapes of contemporary America. What can you say about the atmosphere and visual style of the films?

Schrader: It gets back to the cinema of sparseness. In Transcendental Style, it’s a buffet of sparse things you can do. Everybody who works in that slow-cinema way picks different elements. Planimentric compositions where everything’s on the same focal plane—there’s no foreground, there’s no background. Centre-punching the actor. No music. Heightened sound effects. All these little tricks that you use. Another one is that you don’t luxuriate. Now, I’ve done luxurious films—The Comfort of Strangers (1990) was intentionally very, very luxurious, because [screenwriter Harold] Pinter took care of all the…I was full-on with nastiness from Harold, I needed to put some sheen on the apple!

I like empty rooms. Production designers take stuff out of rooms and set decorators put it back in, and what I like to do is take everything out that isn’t absolutely necessary, and then put one thing back in. What is that one thing? Maybe it’s a lamp the shape of an eyeball, or maybe it’s jellyfish wallpaper—just one little odd thing. But not much furniture, and people don’t really catch you. In First Reformed, it has this big room, and there’s one chair in it—that’s it. And do people say, “Why is there only one chair in the room?” They don’t really say that. They say, “Oh, there’s only one chair in the room.”

It disciplines the eye. I think one of the worst mistakes filmmakers make is thinking they have to fill up the frame, and then the eye just gets confused. It’s like looking at a bulletin board. Where does the eye go first? No, the eye wants to know. It wants to be trained. It wants to know where to go first, where to go second. And you only do that if you take a lot of stuff out of the room.

Scope: It’s funny—there are plenty of scenes in The Canyons where it’s one person in a room, and yet the effect is extremely different than the opening of Master Gardener.

Schrader: Yeah, well, it’s Bret Easton Ellis. Bret has a very unique sensibility—that film is as much Bret as it is me, maybe more. Just like Comfort of Strangers is as much Pinter as me. And those are the only two times I’ve worked with material that I thought was strong enough to stand on its own. I was happy to do a Bret Easton Ellis film; happy to do a Harold Pinter film.

Scope: You’ve been very open in recent years about your health issues, and your family’s health issues. If it’s not too personal a question, can I ask how these experiences have informed your work? Or if they have?

Schrader: Well, the next film I’m doing is my Ivan Ilyich—you know, the film about the deprivations and degradations of death. It’s from a novel by Russell Banks, who had written this while he was still healthy, and then he ended up being the character he was writing about and died in January. I thought then that it’s time for me to do an Ivan Ilyich. So I’m adapting that book. I’m doing it with Richard Gere. It’s called Oh, Canada, and it’s about a documentary filmmaker in Montreal who’s dying.

So yes, obviously, when you get to a certain age, there’s no queue at the edge of the cliff anymore. You don’t have to take a number, it’s there 24/7. All it takes is one phone call from your doctor saying, “Oh, would you come by? I want to talk to you.” And you say, “Oh fuck, that’s it…”

Scope: Do you anticipate this new film will be in a style similar to the recent trilogy?

Schrader: No, no, it would be a different style. This is more of a mosaic—it would be more like Mishima (1985). Fractured times and styles, screen formats, everything. Back in the time of Mishima, you could only shoot in one format; now you can have Panavision intermixed with 1.33, 1.85, and you can do all this stuff. This is more of a mosaic of a life. Some sections of life are totally stylized like Cries and Whispers (1972), and other sections are burnt out, so it’s going to be more of a kaleidoscope than these last three.

Scope: Finally, I just want to ask: where are you these days spiritually?

Schrader: Well, I’m in Manhattan. I moved here. I used to go to church every Sunday, but I haven’t found…I haven’t really gotten into the habit. I’m still looking around for someplace, because I like that. I like the idea of organizing the week, composing yourself…it’s more in the sense of meditation. Quiet time. I like the quote from John Lennon: “I don’t like God much once I get him under a roof.” You know, once they have a club, and uniforms, and dues, and rulebooks, it gets much less interesting.

So as I told my minister—he said from the pulpit that I had said this—I said to him, “You don’t leave church if you’re bored. You go to church to be bored.”