Paul Schrader: Looks Back on His 50 Years in Cinema

Paul Schrader Looks Back on His 50 Years in Cinema: “I’ve Been Very Lucky”

The director met the press on the Lido to discuss his latest existential thriller ‘Master Gardener’ and his Golden Lion for lifetime achievement.


This year Paul Schrader receives an honorary Golden Lion from the Venice Festival for his contributions to cinema.

Which of the films he’s directed best represents him?

“Directors like and dislike their children for different reasons,” he replied. “Probably my favorite is Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, just because it’s the damnedest thing. I still can’t believe I ever made that film. The most personal for me is First Reformed or Affliction. The best stylistically is Comfort of Strangers. Cat People is kind of special. Others, for other reasons.  I’ve been very lucky. But I’ve made some zeros, too, like we all do.”

Timothee-Chalamet at Venice premiere of 'Bones and All'

Schrader added that making art that can stand the test of time has increasingly become a preoccupation of his. He explained: “More and more, films seem to have a shelf life, and that’s a very tricky thing with art — how do you give a film or work of art a longer shelf life? How do you make a film that will bring people back to watch it 20 or 30 years later?”

The director recalled a conversation he once had with Bruce Springsteen on the topic. “Bruce was very calculated about it,” he said. “He would go into a song and blur certain lyrics so that you can’t understand them for two or three readings, all to build shelf life. Of course, you will never know until 20 or 30 years later whether you were successful.”

When asked which aspect of his career he thinks is most being recognized by Venice with the Golden Lion for career achievement he will receive next week, Schrader noted the various phases he has had throughout his career. “I began as a film scholar, became a screenwriter and then a director,” he said. “But I also became a kind of entrepreneur — because how else do these odd little films get made, except for some poor schmuck like me hustling his ass around with a begging bowl? So that, in and of itself, is worthy of the Golden Lion,” he said to laughs from the crowd. “But I guess it’s for all of those things.”

Wishing he had directed screenplays he wrote for other filmmakers?

“Thank god, I didn’t direct Taxi Driver,” he quipped. “I was arrogant enough to think I could have directed it–and that could have been a career killer. Instead, I learned by looking over the little guy’s shoulder.”

On his transition to the director’s chair, he said, “It wasn’t so much that I thought my scripts were getting fucked up. Maybe there were some of them I could have made better, but there were definitely some I would have made worse. What it really was is that I felt like half a person as an artist. I told myself, ‘If you want to be a writer, be a real writer and have people read your words. If you want to be a filmmaker, be a real filmmaker so people see your films.’ What is this thing called screenwriter? So, that’s what moved me on from just screenwriting to directing.”

“Years ago, I came across a character who was sort of product of European literature — Dostoyevsky, Camus, Sartre — and he ended up walking into movies as taxi driver,” Schrader said of his method. “He was a new character in movies, and he’s been with us in movies ever since. Occasionally, When the technology became possible and the budgets lower, I had more freedom. So, I have revisited him three times in a row.”

Schrader’s biggest difference with the character today is that he has aged, as the director has, with the thematic interests that adhere to him shifting. “When he was a younger man,” Schrader said, “he would approach an older man, like Peter Boyle (in Taxi Driver), and say, ‘I have these terrible thoughts in my head.’

Now he’s the older guy and young people approach him–the environmentalist (First Reformed), the kid who wants revenge (The Card Counter), the girl from inner city (Master Gardener). That’s just a process of aging and how this character has evolved.”

“Hopefully, I’m done with him,” he added with a chuckle.

Like all of his “man alone” stories, Master Gardener deals with absolution — although the sins in need of forgiveness in this film’s case are provocative even for Schrader. On this topic, the director said: “I don’t know whether [the gardener, played by Edgerton] can be forgiven. I don’t know whether this story is even possible — that you can be a white nationalist and be forgiven by a Black girl in the garden. That may be a fantasy, but it is a very interesting fantasy. And that’s what we do in art. We create these hypotheticals that are worth ruminating about.”