Master Gardener: Paul Schrader on Third Successive Film to Premiere at Venice

Schrader on Race Relations in his New Venice Title ‘Master Gardener’

Master Gardener
Courtesy of Bonnie Marquette
Vet Writer-director Paul Schrader is enjoying a late career renaissance, with “Master Gardener” being his third successive film to premiere at Venice after “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter.”

Master Gardener premieres out of competition at the Venice Film Fest on September 3.

The Premise:

The film follows Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), the conscientious horticulturist of the historic Gracewood Gardens estate, owned by wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). When she demands that he take on her troubled biracial great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as an apprentice, Roth’s spartan existence turns chaotic.

Schrader made Roth, a man with a past, a gardener because he felt that the profession is a “rich metaphor” for both good and evil. “On one hand, a white supremacist can say ‘We’re the gardeners, we pull out the weeds.’ On the other hand a humanist can say, ‘We’re gardeners, we help things grow.’ And both are using the gardening metaphor — one is evil and one is good,” Schrader said.

“I said at the time to someone, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if you could have a scene where Cybill Shepherd and Jodie Foster went out for coffee together?,’ says Schrader, who wrote “Taxi Driver” featuring those two actors. “Afterwards I’m thinking, well, maybe I can have that scene now, where he is involved with a woman old enough to be his mother and another woman young enough to be his daughter. And, the stress points that puts on the triangle are quite fascinating.

“And then, if that’s not controversial enough, just turn up the heat a little bit and throw in the issue of race.”

“Master Gardener” is the third in an informal trilogy, which began with “First Reformed,” starring Ethan Hawke, and “The Card Counter,” with Oscar Isaac.

The films revolve around a solitary character, described by Schrader as “lonely man” or “man in a room,” an archetype he has been exploring since Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in “Taxi Driver.” Schrader says that these characters, who have dissociated themselves from life and feeling and are just waiting for something else to happen, came fully formed as an outgrowth of the European existential hero from the works of Dostoyevsky, Camus and Sartre.

“I first fell in love with cinema through Ingmar Bergman, so that was the kind of hero I gravitated toward,” says Schrader. “The original thing about ‘Taxi Driver’ wasn’t that the hero was original — it was that his presence in American movies was original. He walked out on the street fully formed, because he had been fully formed in the years past in fiction.”

Apart from Willem Dafoe, who he has worked with several times, Schrader rarely repeats his leads. “When it comes to these main characters there’s a mystery in them because they don’t do much and I like to explore that mystery,” says Schrader. The filmmaker says that with Hawke and Isaac, he already knew what they could bring to the “Master Gardener” lead role. “I know how it would have turned out, but with Joel, I didn’t quite know and that was part of the exploration,” says Schrader.

As for casting Weaver, Schrader says that there are probably only half a dozen actors in the age group who “are still working and still strong.” Glenn Close, an old friend, was first on the list but she was busy and Weaver was next on the list.

Casting Maya was a bit trickier. “It’s a very difficult role because she has to be young enough to be not fully formed but old enough to be tough. And you don’t want it to be so young that it looks like cradle snatching,” says Schrader. “However, you want it to be young so that it is not quite proper — this is a kind of Lolita situation. This girl is young enough to be his daughter and he had to let his own daughter go — so that’s a little creepy right there. You want to keep the romance, you don’t want to lose a little bit of creepiness too.”

He went through decades of struggle trying to do works of great independence.

When studios took away some of his works to be recut, Schrader finally got final cut, he realized that he could actually write a script that he’d been afraid to write his whole life, he says, which turned out to be First Reformed.

His films have been finding an appreciative audience at Venice since.

“They respond to me better because they see me in a more of a European tradition of the filmmaker. However, the issues I deal with — racial identity in America and inequality in America, anger in America — they have all those things themselves, believe me, they’re as bad as the next country,” says Schrader. “But, they don’t have the same immediate perception as Americans do. And so, Americans may have a more puritanical view toward age gap between men and women, or they may have a more hypocritical view of race relations. But both sides are pretty guilty. For sure. They just have different takes.”

Next up for Schrader is a script about a woman. “When you begin, everyone says to you write what you know. And I thought, well, I’ve written what I know. Why don’t I write what I don’t know? What’s the thing you don’t know most — women. So I guess I’ll write about women.”

Schrader says that he will work again once he’s over the health problems that he began experiencing during the “Master Gardener” production. Meanwhile, he finds his trilogy “gratifying” with the same type of model and structure “but variations and deepening on the themes of to what degree can one participate in one’s own redemption,” he says.“

Master Gardener premieres out of competition at the Venice Film Fest on September 3.