Paul Schrader And Ethan Hawke Test Their Faith In 'First Reformed'

Jun 12, 2018
Originally published on June 13, 2018 12:00 pm

Filmmaker Paul Schrader grew up in a religious Christian household but he swore he'd never make a film about faith. Instead, he went on to work on the screenplays for the seminal 1970s films Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

"I was intoxicated by action and empathy, sex and violence," Schrader says of his early work. These themes, he felt, were "not in the transcendental tool kit."

But a few years ago, as his 70th birthday approached, Schrader began to feel the pull of a more spiritual project. And, he says, "Once I made the intellectual decision to go there — to the place where I swore I would never go — then things started to fall in."

First Reformed, which Schrader wrote and directed, centers on a divorced minister who is experiencing a crisis of faith related to the death of his son in the Iraq War. The movie touches on themes of spirituality, environmentalism and despair. Schrader describes it as a meditative film that withholds action in an effort to "give you less — and make you want more."

Ethan Hawke, who stars as Rev. Ernst Toller, says his performance was purposefully understated: "We weren't going to be trying to entertain you," he says of his work in the film. "We were going to be trying to do something else, which would be to invite you into the movie."


Interview Highlights

On how First Reformed compares to Schrader's screenplay for Taxi Driver

Paul Schrader: This film has been compared to Taxi Driver. I think rightly so. Except that [the] Taxi Driver [character Travis Bickle] is essentially an ignorant person and Rev. Toller is an intellectual, and there's 40 years between them. So it's not the same movie. ... I think that Travis ... is experiencing loneliness in a very narcissistic way, whereas Rev. Toller, as an older man, is feeling that in an existential way. And so the expression is different.

On how First Reformed practices "slow cinema"

Schrader: "Slow cinema" essentially refers to those films that are slow, long, and where not much happens. But, beyond that, it doesn't have much definition. "Slow cinema" can be shown in a museum as an artwork; it can be shown as a surveillance video; it can be shown in a meditation environment. But what all slow cinema has in common, whether it is made for the commercial arena, for the theatrical arena, or whether it's made for the museum arena, is these withholding devices. ... And there are various techniques you use to do that, and I use a number of them in this film. And, obviously, when you push them too far you'll get cinema that is not designed for popular audiences anymore. That is just essentially an installation.

Ethan Hawke: We sat down to have coffee to talk about the script [and] one of the first things [Schrader] said to me is: "Do you know what a recessive performances is? A lean-back performance?" And I did know what he was talking about.

On why Hawke wanted to play Rev. Toller

Hawke: [It] felt like he was giving voice to something that was on my mind. There's something about Rev. Toller that, to me, was like a scream, just some kind of a roar. ... I felt it immediately and without any confusion. ... Where are the grownups? Who's leading? Am I supposed to lead? What am I supposed to do? Why am I here? Why was I born? Why do bad things have to happen all the time?

These are very obvious questions that are always being asked, but they are set in a way that gave them meaning and clarity for me anyway. It made me want to play the part.

On why Hawke, at 47, was just the right age for the role

Schrader: He was just coming to a very interesting place in his physical life. By that, I just mean [the] physical quality of his face that I thought "You know? I think he's the right guy right now for this." You can see a number of lessons in his face that he doesn't have to act. Life has put them there.

Hawke: Experience is the best tool to give you confidence. And sadly, the best teacher is failure, you know? Doing things wrong. I remember when I did Dead Poets Society, I thought making a good movie was super easy. You know? It's just a breeze. Of course, life taught me otherwise. ... Life has given me things to cry about over the last 47 years. And I was appreciative of having a role that was complex enough to put some of that energy [into].

On why Schrader goes to church to "be bored"

Schrader: For me, I like to go to church on Sunday mornings to organize my thoughts, organize my week, and be quiet. And you don't walk out of a church because you're bored. You go to church to be bored — to have that time. And you can have it in your room in the lotus position or you can have it in a pew. It's essentially the same sort of thing for me and that's what I enjoy about it.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests are Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the new film "First Reformed," and Ethan Hawke, the film's star. Schrader is best known for writing the screenplays for "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." And as you'll hear, "First Reformed" has echoes of "Taxi Driver," although the setting and the main characters are quite different.

In "First Reformed," Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, who's caught in a crisis of faith as he sinks deeper into despair and loneliness. He had been a military chaplain and convinced his son to follow the family's tradition of service and enlist. Six months later, his son died in the Iraq War. Reverend Toller was overwhelmed by guilt. His marriage didn't survive. Toller is now the pastor of a small historic Dutch Reformed Church just outside Albany, N.Y., whose main function is as a tourist attraction for the few visitors passing through. The church is owned by a nearby megachurch which is preparing a big 250th anniversary celebration for the Dutch Reformed Church. But Toller is sick in both body and spirit and not doing what is expected of him for the celebration.

Early in the film, one of the small church's few congregants asks to speak with Reverend Toller. She's pregnant, and her husband, Michael, an environmental radical activist, wants her to have an abortion because he doesn't want to bring a child into this world knowing that by the time the child is grown, the Earth will be irreparably damaged, perhaps even unlivable. She's worried about her husband's depression and asks Reverend Toller to speak with him.

In this scene, Reverend Toller tries to convince Michael that his suffering isn't just about the environment, it's also about his inner despair and depression. Michael is played by Philip Ettinger. The Reverend is played by Ethan Hawke. He speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST REFORMED")

ETHAN HAWKE: (As Reverend Toller) Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can't know what the future will bring. We have to choose, despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.

PHILIP ETTINGER: (As Michael) Are you drinking, man, Reverend?

HAWKE: (As Reverend Toller) It doesn't help.

ETTINGER: (As Michael) I suppose not. Can God forgive us for what we've done to this world?

HAWKE: (As Reverend Toller) I don't know. Who can know the mind of God? But we can choose a righteous life. Belief, forgiveness, grace covers us all. I believe that.

GROSS: Ethan Hawke, Paul Schrader, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on this film. I really love this film. Thank you for making it. So, you know, the dialogue that we heard, I think it's fair to say that the reverend is trying to convince himself as much as he's trying to convince Michael. The movie is so much about living with hope and despair and whether faith can enable you to deal with despair and what happens if despair starts to win. Paul Schrader, what was the kernel of the idea for this film? What came to you first? Was it the idea of dealing with the environmental crisis or the crisis of faith?

PAUL SCHRADER: Ironically, Terry, the kernel was an intellectual decision. I had, as a young man, as a film critic, written about spiritual films but claimed that I would never make one. It wasn't me. It wasn't what I wanted to do. I liked those films, but I didn't want to make one. And then about three years ago, after a conversation, I said it's time now. You're going to be 70 next year. It's time to write a spiritual script. Not only in the time of my life, but also in the life of this planet. And so once I made the intellectual decision to go there to the place where I swore I would never go then things started to fall in, and the various pieces - the lone man in his room, the despair we all feel over the environmental crisis, the need to do something even if it's destructive - those pieces started to fall in.

GROSS: Why were you so opposed to making a spiritual movie in the past, and what made this time in your life the right time?

SCHRADER: Well, you know, as a young man, I was intoxicated by action and empathy and sex and violence, and these are not in the transcendental toolkit. And I didn't want to step away from them. And also, 30 years ago or so the cost of filmmaking was more prohibitive than it is now. So making a film like this today is financially responsible in a way it wasn't 30 years ago.

GROSS: But, I mean, you were a religious young man. You grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church. You proselytized when you were young. But I guess when you when you left the church, you really left it. You went to the other side. (Laughter).

SCHRADER: Well, you have to - you know, the only way you get out of an environment like that is the way a bullet gets out of a gun. And so there's a lot of impetus. You know, I was in Grand Rapids, Mich., the Christian Reformed Church there. And if you don't get out fast and furiously, you get about as far as Kalamazoo and they pull you back.

GROSS: Were their memories you drew on for this movie?

SCHRADER: Put it this way - I didn't have to do much research.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: And I was surprised the number of biblical texts that just came to mind. You know, as a young person, you do bible study and you memorize verse after verse. But then, you know, 40 years later you figure they're all gone. And suddenly you're sitting there, and a verse comes to mind.

GROSS: What were the pastors like who you knew?

SCHRADER: I do remember a couple episodes where I did go to the parsonage, you know, went to counseling. And they were always very considerate and generous. Because, you know, for a lot of Americans, the pastor is the stand in for the therapist. You know? They don't go to a therapist. They don't go to a psychiatrist. So where do you go? Well, you'd go to your pastor and say, look, I'm having these problems. What should I do?

GROSS: Did you go to your pastor for advice on things?

SCHRADER: Well, just, you know, when you feel like - you know, whether it is parental or some kind of other thing that's eating you up, you know, you need to tell somebody, and oft times that person is not your parent.

GROSS: So what would you tell your pastor that you wouldn't tell your parents?

SCHRADER: Just the anger you feel. And that was an issue for me as a young man, just wanting to do something - an explosion. A line in "Taxi Driver," all those years ago, where Travis Bickle says, I just want to go out and do something. Which means, you know, this urge is becoming violent. And so that's one thing you could talk about.

GROSS: Is that something you feel you've carried around with you all your life, that anger and the urge to do something?

SCHRADER: Yes. You know, it modifies over the years, but in this film, it comes out again.

GROSS: (Laughter). Yeah.

SCHRADER: And this film has been compared to "Taxi Driver," and I think rightly so. Except that "Taxi Driver" is essentially an ignorant person, and Reverend Toller is an intellectual and there's 40 years between them. So it's not the same movie.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to further the comparison (laughter). At the very beginning of the film, the pastor has started a journal. And he writes in the journal, and Ethan Hawke does the voiceover, saying that he's decided to keep a journal factually without hiding anything for one year. And then after that year, the journal will be destroyed and the experiment will be over. And he says, the journal has some thoughts I confide in God when He's listening. It's a form of prayer without prostration. If only I could pray. So I want to compare that a little bit with one of the "Taxi Driver" journals. So this is from the soundtrack of "Taxi Driver."

And to refresh everyone's memory, or, if you haven't seen the movie, you know, Travis Bickle is a Vietnam war veteran who's come home. He has a job driving a taxi. He drives around the streets of Manhattan, through Times Square and looks out, and what he sees is sleaze. And he finds it all very disturbing. So here's part of Travis Bickle's diary from "Taxi Driver."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAXI DRIVER")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Travis Bickle) May 10 - thank God for the rain, which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks. I'm working long hours now, six days a week, sometimes seven days a week. It's a long hustle, but it keeps me real busy. I can take in three, 350 a week, sometimes even more when I do it off the meter. All the animals come out at night - buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday, a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take them to Harlem.

I don't care, don't make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won't even take spooks - don't make no difference to me. Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the back seat. Some nights I clean out the blood. Twelve hours of work and I still can't sleep. Damn, days go on and on, they don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person like other people. Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere - in bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Taxi Driver" with Robert De Niro, written, of course, by my guest Paul Schrader. His new movie is called "First Reformed." Also with us is Ethan Hawke, the star of the film. So I hear so many echoes in "First Reformed" from that "Taxi Driver" journal. Travis is obsessed with all of the garbage on the street, meaning, like, the people who he sees as garbage, the people who he sees as the animals, the sleaze. Someday a real rain will come along and wash the scum off the streets.

Of course, in your new movie, it's the environmental crisis. It's not - it's like miles and miles and miles of junked tires and empty plastic bottles and trash fires and oil pollution. And God's lonely man, that could be the title for your new movie, God's lonely man. You know, Travis is lonely. That's one of the themes of the movie, and it kind of drives him to the good he tries to do and to the bad that he does. So I was wondering if you were thinking of, you know, the Travis diaries as you were writing the Reverend Toller diaries?

SCHRADER: Not too much. And I did a film in between those two called "Light Sleeper," which is also a diary film. And that's a drug dealer is writing in his diary, the same composition book as the other two. But I think that, you know, Travis being a juvenile, really, is experiencing loneliness in a very narcissistic way, whereas Reverend Toller, as an older man, is feeling that in an existential way. And so the expression is different.

GROSS: My guests are Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the new film "First Reformed," and Ethan Hawke, who stars in the film. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the new film "First Reformed," and Ethan Hawke, who stars in the film as the pastor of a small church in upstate New York who is having a crisis of faith. Ethan Hawke, I want to bring you into the conversation and start by saying your performance is so incredible in this. When you read the script, I mean, I'm sure there's a lot of screenplays you get that you decide not to do. And you probably see screenplays of every level of quality.

What did you love about the screenplay? I would like to think that if I read the screenplay, I would know how good it is and I'm not very good at reading screenplays because I feel like I need to see what's going on, too. But could you tell right away how good this was going to be?

HAWKE: The short answer to your question is yes. But screenplays are - it's a funny art. And often one of the things that you find out when you come to set is that one person was imagining a different movie than the other person was imagining because the screenplay itself was so vague and that we all project the movie we most want to see. And Paul's screenplay was extremely specific. It was the opposite of vague. But it also felt like he was giving voice to something that was on my mind, you know?

It's, like, there's something about Reverend Toller that, to me, was like a scream, you know, just some kind of a roar. I don't know what to say, but I felt it immediately and without any confusion.

GROSS: What was that thing that was on your mind that the movie articulated?

HAWKE: A question, a question, I think, that - how to be a grown-up, where are the grown-ups? Who's leading? Am I supposed to lead? What am I supposed to do? Why am I here? Why was I born? Why do bad things have to happen all the time? And, you know, it's, like, these are very obvious questions that are always being asked but they're set in a way that gave them meaning and clarity for me. Anyway, it made me want to play the part.

In fact, you know, you guys are talking about the journals. Paul wanted to really be able to film the journal writing, so he sent all these journals to my house over Christmas time. And we needed to be able to film them at any point in the diary. So I had to do one journal that has one page written and another journal with two pages written and another journal with three pages. So I'm writing it over and over and over and over again so that we can pick up wherever we want on the day of shooting - which, A, first of all, just shows incredible level of preparation. And he's done this before. But also it was a wonderful way to write these lines over and over again and feel - it's a fascinating thing.

You said it in the beginning. Why is he going to write a journal for one year and then destroy it? What is that experiment? Paul never really answers that question - what experiment he's under. But rewriting it over and over again, it's an interesting mental place to be in just as an adult when you give yourself these challenges. What is causing you to do that?

GROSS: Paul Schrader, how did you cast Ethan Hawke in the role? What made you think of him?

SCHRADER: Well, usually as a writer, you try not to think of actors because, one, you're not going to get them. And, two, it makes you lazy as a writer because you start hearing their voice instead of yours. But about halfway through this script, I started thinking about this guy. There's a certain physiology that goes with characters that we associate with the clergy - like Montgomery Clift in "I Confess" and Claude Laydu in "Country Priest" or Belmondo in (speaking French). So I started thinking about American actors who had that kind of look. And so you start thinking Jake Gyllenhaal or Oscar Isaac or Ethan Hawke. And Ethan, you know, had 10 years on the other guys. And he had - he was just coming to a very interesting place in his physical life. By that, I just mean the physical quality of his face - that I thought, you know, I think he's the right guy right now for this.

GROSS: Are you talking about that he's aged to the point where...

SCHRADER: You can see a number of lessons in his face that he doesn't have to act. You know, life has put them there. And so I sent him the script. And he responded within a day. What I saw in Ethan - you know, it's not necessarily his natural personality. In real life, Ethan is kind of outgoing and friendly and sometimes a bit goofy. But I saw - I imagined what would have happened if you turned all that energy inward and so that every time he had an impulse to be casual, you know, you'd take that knife and just turn around and bring it in. And that was essentially my only instruction to him because...

GROSS: Wait. The instruction was to - every time he felt what to take the knife and turn it in?

SCHRADER: Every time he felt the need to be likable and outgoing and casual and friendly - to take that impulse and turn it around and thrust it inside.

HAWKE: And one of the first things that Paul told me - we sat down to have coffee to talk about the script. One of the first things he said to me is, you know, do you know what a recessive performance is - a lean-back performance. And I did know what he was talking about. And he was talking about exactly what he's saying there, which is that we weren't going to be shucking and jiving and singing for our living - that we weren't going to be trying to entertain you. We were going to be trying to do something else, which would be to invite you into the movie. And any time I felt the need to entertain, to not do it - to simply put that energy inside and make the audience chase us.

GROSS: My guests are Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the new film "First Reformed," and Ethan Hawke, who stars in the film. After a break, they'll talk about the religions they were raised in. And Schrader will talk about two things he slept with under his pillow. One was a gun. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the new film "First Reformed," and Ethan Hawke, who stars as a pastor having a crisis of faith. Schrader is best known for writing the screenplays for "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." Hawke has starred in many films, including "Training Day," the "Before Sunrise" trilogy and "Boyhood."

Ethan Hawke, you are playing a pastor in "First Reformed." Did you know many pastors when you were growing up? Were you a churchgoer?

HAWKE: I was baptized and confirmed an Episcopal. And I had a great - Reverend Jean Smith was my reverend who confirmed me. And she was a great thinker and a great teacher about a life of faith. And I realize only now how many people don't have that. She was a very supple thinker.

GROSS: She was a she?

HAWKE: She was a she. And it gives the Episcopalians credit. I went to Trinity Church in Princeton, N.J. And my mother taught Sunday school. And so it was a big part of my life, you know, as a young person. We would do missionary work every summer. And she challenged...

GROSS: What kind of missionary work did you do?

HAWKE: You know, we'd go down to the hollers in Kentucky, and people sign up. You know, we'd build, you know, latrines and paint fences and build roofs and - all through Kentucky and West Virginia in the back hollers there. That was fun. And then one summer, we went to Haiti and worked with Mother Teresa's order there in the house of the dying.

GROSS: So this was missionary work to help people - not to proselytize, or was there proselytizing, too?

HAWKE: It was just - you know, we just offered free labor.

SCHRADER: You know, it's proselytizing by example.

HAWKE: Yeah. There you go. That's all. Exactly.

GROSS: But, Paul Schrader, you proselytized by proselytizing...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...When you were young, right? I mean, you went door to door, didn't you?

SCHRADER: Yeah, I went through a phase where - you know, my father was a frustrated minister. He had to drop out because of the depression. So I was raised to fill that slot. And so it came quite naturally to go out, you know, with tracks in your hand and go door to door give people tracks. Ask them, you know, even though you're a kid, and...

GROSS: Ask them what?

SCHRADER: Have you met Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior? You know, that's a good place to start. And, you know, it's amazing how many people will actually talk to a kid who wouldn't talk to an adult. And my mother - it's a wonderful story because, back then, a lot of people would go door to door. And so right next to the front door, she had put up a whole list of refutation texts for all of the various denominations. So if the Catholics came by or if the Christian Scientists came by, she would have a refutation text for them. And so she would invite them in and give them coffee, and then start giving them the refutation text. And then they had to find a way out.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: And I remember watching this, so that was kind of the environment.

GROSS: What's a refutation text?

SCHRADER: A refutation text, you know, says why you're wrong. You know, the Bible is nothing but refutation texts, as we've learned. You know, you can use almost any text to counteract any other text.

GROSS: So did hearing your mother refute all these other religious people coming to the door help you question your own religion instead of deepening it?

SCHRADER: No, no. What made me question was just myself. I mean, you know, when you're about 16, you have to make public confession in order to take communion. And you have a class - your catechism class - graduates, and you make a public profession. And I didn't feel like doing it. I was just - I had anxiety about it. I said, I don't necessarily believe all these things that I've been told. And so I went to the minister. I said, you know, I just - I'm not comfortable with it. And he said that's fine. That's fine. So the rest of the class went up, and I didn't. But then every Friday at about 7 o'clock, an elder from the church would come into our home and discuss with me my questions of faith. Well, I'm 16 years old. I just got a driver's license. It's Friday night. How long can this go on?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: About three weeks of that, and I said, I'm ready to make confession.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So how old were you when you officially cut ties?

SCHRADER: Well, I went to Calvin College. So, you know, you're still in the church system until you graduate. And then I went off to UCLA postgraduate, and that was the end of what - I thought that was the end of that period of my life. But, you know, you can run far and you can run fast, but you can't really run away from your upbringing.

GROSS: Do either of you still go to church?

SCHRADER: Oh, I was there yesterday. So I guess the answer is yes.

GROSS: And we're recording this on Monday, so yesterday would've been Sunday. And what kind of church do you go to now?

SCHRADER: I'm Presbyterian at the moment. I started out as a Calvinist - a Christian reformed. And then went over to the Episcopalians for a while, and now I ended up with the Presbyterians.

GROSS: What led you to the Presbyterians?

SCHRADER: Just because this particular church - we moved, and they had a very good music program. But see, for me, I like to go to church on Sunday mornings to organize my thoughts, organize my week and be quiet. And you don't walk out of church 'cause you're bored. You go to church to be bored - to have that time. And you could have it in your room in the lotus position, or you can have it in a pew. It's essentially the same sort of thing for me, and that's what I enjoy about it.

Now, as seen in the film "First Reformed," church services have now sort of split into two camps. One is the old, traditional, devotional service which is based on silence and bible study. And the other is the arena, which is an entertainment-based performance with a lot of communal interaction. And, you know, I won't say one is better than the other 'cause there's good Christians in both. But, for me, I prefer the devotional.

GROSS: And, Ethan Hawke, what about you? What kind of church do you go to now...

HAWKE: I don't really go...

GROSS: ...If that's not too personal? If it is, you don't - certainly don't need to answer it.

HAWKE: It doesn't feel too personal.

GROSS: OK.

HAWKE: For years - when I was first in the city, I started going to a Quaker church because I was really moved by the silence, as Paul spoke about. I really enjoyed that. And it's even funny listening to you talk about, you know, when you're 16 and having to make your public statement. I remember that in my - Reverend Gene Smith (ph) - I had the similar problems with saying things I didn't believe in. I don't know exactly what she said, but she kind of gave me a framework of understanding a lot of the language of the Bible and a lot of the language of faith as a poem - as a spiritual poem, as a devotional poem - and that I could come up with alternate meanings to make sense of my own faith. And it's kind of something I've been doing my whole life.

And I really - Saint John the Divine here in New York is a beautiful Episcopal church. I like to go there, but I don't go consistently anymore. And I - as my kids grow up, I realize I didn't give them that. And I have some sadness about - particularly listening to Paul speak about organizing the week and - having institutionalized boredom is a great value.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the new film "First Reformed" that stars my other guest, Ethan Hawke. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "SUPERA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the new film "First Reformed," which stars my other guest, Ethan Hawke. And of course Paul Schrader's career started by writing films like "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" and writing and directing "Blue Collar."

Paul Schrader, when you left the church, was there a gap in your life that you had to fill - because part of your sense of purpose, your belief system - a lot of that had been focused around the church - some of your family...

SCHRADER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Life as well. And...

SCHRADER: Certainly.

GROSS: There had to be a gap when you...

SCHRADER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Abandoned that.

SCHRADER: There was - yeah, there was a gap, but it was filled by movies. We - and when I was in Michigan, there was a little soft-core theater near the campus - kind of Russ Meyer films. And they weren't doing very much business. And so the owner had this inspired idea to have an Ingmar Bergman festival. And so for three weeks, he played Bergman's films. The students at the seminary and the college started going over there. It was a revelation. We had been taught that our world in the church and the secular world of the movies never met; there was no juncture. And now you're looking at "Through A Glass Darkly," and you're seeing somebody struggle with exactly the same conversation that you're having in class.

You know, and that's where my interest in movies began. I came to movies as an adult, and I came to the European cinema of the '60s, which in many ways was the greatest period in film history. So I don't have any real memories of movies as a child. All I have is these foundational memories of, you know, Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Godard. That's what informed me, and that's what became my new religion.

GROSS: Well, I mean, it's interesting. You weren't allowed to see movies when you were young. You didn't have a TV until you got a little older because the Dutch Reformed Church at that time made worldly entertainments taboo.

SCHRADER: Well, you have to understand the context a little. The synodical decree against worldly amusements was established in 1926, which was the height of the jazz era and one of the more freewheeling moments in the history of Hollywood. And it was because churches such as mine started forbidding theater attendance that Hollywood had to very quickly start enacting its own self-censorship so that more churches wouldn't do just that.

GROSS: Oh, that's interesting. I never thought of your church as playing a role in that. So, you know - and another thing that I think maybe filled that gap that was left when you abandoned religion - if I understand correctly, you became, like, an antiwar activist in the late-'60s. And I should mention here that, you know, both Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" is a veteran, and in the new movie "First Reformed," Ethan Hawke's character, the minister - his family had a tradition of being in the military. He talked his son into going into the military, and then his son was killed in Iraq after six months. So were you afraid - were you at risk of being drafted? Did you not want to be drafted?

SCHRADER: I was asthmatic and - even though our family was very patriotic. But I had to go to Detroit for the physical. My mother took me to the - a post office where the bus was. And my father didn't come, and I was surprised by that. And she took me. And just before I got on the bus, she gave me a brown paper bag. And she said, now, I want you to put this under your pillow tonight when you sleep 'cause the next morning was the physical. I got in the bus. I opened the bag, and it was a ragweed. And I did put it under my pillow. And by the time I had the physical, I was having a full-fledged asthma attack.

GROSS: Wow. That's really interesting. So your mother strongly did not want you to be drafted and go to Vietnam.

SCHRADER: Yes, but she couldn't say those words.

GROSS: Because...

SCHRADER: Because, you know, that conservative environment.

GROSS: Right. Were you grateful to her for doing that?

SCHRADER: Yes, I was.

GROSS: And at what point did you realize it was ragweed?

SCHRADER: I knew ragweed very, very well 'cause I had this - all summer long, you had to go out and cut it down because, you know, it made you have breathing problems and everything.

GROSS: So in other words, like, when you put it under your pillow, did you already know?

SCHRADER: Of course.

GROSS: Yeah.

SCHRADER: I knew I would be having an attack - and just this question of how bad the attack was.

GROSS: Did you thank her for that? Did you ever talk to her about that and acknowledge...

SCHRADER: No.

GROSS: ...What she'd done?

SCHRADER: Never mentioned.

GROSS: And so your father might not have ever known.

SCHRADER: No. Well, I don't - unless she told him.

GROSS: Wow. And Ethan Hawke, I just want to get back to the idea of church for a moment. When you were preparing for your role as the pastor, did you visit a lot of churches? Did you read Thomas Merton, who your character reads?

HAWKE: Well, one of the things I loved about the script immediately - when you asked me about it, I didn't say this, but it described the books on Reverend Toller's desk, and a handful of them were all books my mother had given me. Thomas Merton and his - was a real hero to my mother, and she gave me all his books at different points in my life. And I've been to the Abbey of Gethsemani. I've done three different retreats there over my life. The monks there are very beautiful men, and I like the way they think and talk and speak.

And I find there's something patently phony about the life of an actor. When you start young enough, it's unnerving and unsettling. You get an inordinate amount of attention for not enough work, and it's confusing. Success is sometimes the worst thing for personal growth. And if success happens too young, that can be a real problem. And so faith, seeing yourself in context of a larger environment, you know, of the stars and the planets and the galaxies and the history of time and things like that can really help.

And I found the writing of Thomas Merton extremely helpful. And, you know, obviously through his love of Christ, everything was rooted. But he was not - he didn't see that as a door that closed him off from other people. And through my experiences of my own teachers, I found Reverend Toller easy to relate to.

GROSS: So here's another religion question. There's a scene in which the head of the mega-church, which owns the small historic church in which Ethan Hawke's character is the reverend - the head of the mega-church calls him in at one point and says, you know, you're always, like, suffering, you're always in despair and even Jesus wasn't always in the Garden of Gethsemane. Paul Schrader, can you explain that line for us, like, for people who don't know the Bible or Jesus' life well enough what the significance of the Garden of Gethsemane is?

SCHRADER: Well, the Garden of Gethsemane is where he prayed to God on his knees, please let this cup pass from me, the cup of his own death, the cup of his martyrdom and literally, you know, sweat tears of blood. Well, that's the darkest moment in the darkest night. And that's the moment Toller finds himself, you know, pleading with God, you know, take this cup away from me.

GROSS: Did anyone ever say anything similar to you, that you were dwelling too much in despair and loneliness and that's not what Jesus wanted?

SCHRADER: Well, somebody I remember, Chet Flippo's wife said to me right out of the blue, she said, you know, there is a sunny side of the street.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHRADER: And I wasn't quite so aware I was avoiding it.

GROSS: Do you still avoid it?

SCHRADER: I try not to.

GROSS: My guests are Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the new film "First Reformed," and Ethan Hawke, who stars in the film. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the new film "First Reformed," and Ethan Hawke, who stars in the film as the pastor of a small church in upstate New York who is having a crisis of faith. Without giving away much, there is a scene early in the film where there's a suicide. I won't say whose. But the reverend, Ethan Hawke's character, wonders, what is the last thought someone has before they pull the trigger? Are they thinking, my head's going to explode?

What will that be like? Or, you know, what's the other thing he's thinking, or will I see Jesus?

SCHRADER: You know, God have mercy on me.

GROSS: God have mercy on me, yeah. And, Paul Schrader, I remember you saying that when you were a young man, you had a gun. And I think you had said that there was a time when you'd considered suicide. Had you asked yourself that question, what is the last thought somebody has before they pull the trigger?

SCHRADER: Yes, yes. Now, by a young man, I mean a young adult. You know, I was already in Los Angeles. It was during this period of the whole "Taxi Driver" and so forth. And once I made some money, the very first thing I did with it is I went into psychoanalysis five days a week because I was so frightened of myself and of that gun that, you know, was like a monster under the bed. And so, yes, you do think of these things.

GROSS: Was the gun there in case you decided to take your life?

SCHRADER: Well, at one point, I couldn't sleep. And at one point, I realized I could fall asleep easier if there was a gun under my pillow. It's not terribly logical but you could see why I felt the need first to write that script to get that thing outside of me and then second to go into psychoanalysis so I could tell somebody about this every day of the week.

GROSS: At what point did you get rid of the gun? Or did you?

SCHRADER: Well, there was an incident where a psychiatrist came to my house - an incident involving a jacuzzi and an experience with Russian roulette. My friends called the psychiatrist, who came at midnight to my house. And he was going to put me in. And I talked him out of that. But he did take my gun. And then about 30, 25 years later - this was in Los Angeles. I was back in LA. And his name was Joe Natterson. I wonder if Dr. Natterson is still alive? And I looked him up in the book - and sure enough. I called. And I said, you know, I'm in town. Can I come by? And we set up an appointment. And I came to his office. And I said, do you remember that night, like, 25 years ago? He said, oh, yeah, I remember it very well. I said, whatever happened to that gun? He said, I have it right here in the drawer.

GROSS: No. Really?

SCHRADER: Yeah. He says, I've kept it here in the drawer all these years just to remind me of what I do.

GROSS: Wow. Well, you owe your life to him, huh?

SCHRADER: No. No, I don't think so. But, you know, it's hard to parse anything that cleanly.

GROSS: Well, OK. Having had a gun under your pillow, having played Russian roulette and seriously considered using that gun, turning it on yourself, when you put a gun in a movie - as you've done, for example, in "Taxi Driver" - does the gun have a special power for you because, I mean, there's so many guns in movies. It's almost hard to make a movie without a gun. And, Ethan Hawke, you said something great in an interview. You said it's hard to be a successful actor and not use a gun in a film. So, like, what does a gun mean to you when you put it in a film, Paul Schrader?

SCHRADER: Well, usually it means something superficial and something commercial. You're just - you know, you're hitting a button, you know. You're hitting a button in people, and they respond. It's the same thing as showing naked breasts. You know, you're triggering a response. So that's not really the proper use of these elements if you want to do something artistic. And I am guilty as everyone in my industry is of exploiting these buttons for not entirely pure artistic reasons.

GROSS: So one more thing - there's a line in the reverend's diary that goes something like summer called for their loneliness - their knowledge of the emptiness that can only be filled by the knowledge of our savior. Paul Schrader, you wrote that. And I'm wondering - you know, we've established that you experienced a lot of loneliness as a young man. Was that sense of loneliness changed when you had a family - when you married and had children?

SCHRADER: It was changed when I had a calling. And, you know, they always refer to the clergy as a calling. But my calling was cinema. And I found a place there. I remember, when I was in college, I had gotten arrested. I was involved in a number of petty crimes and acting-out incidents. And my brother took me aside. And he said, you know, I know how you feel, but you're not alone. There's a whole bunch of us, and we all work at the college newspaper. Why don't you come over? And that was the first time I realized that you could be in a crowd and still be lonely and be all right.

GROSS: Well, Paul Schrader, Ethan Hawke, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you so much for your new movie "First Reformed."

SCHRADER: Thank you, Terry.

HAWKE: Thank you.

GROSS: Paul Schrader wrote and directed the new film "First Reformed." Ethan Hawke stars in the film. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the tradition of black athletes taking a stand. Our guest will be journalist Howard Bryant, whose new book "The Heritage" traces black athletes political and social advocacy back to Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and others and examines the forms it's taken today in our divided country. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU WASHED IN THE BLOOD?")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Are you washed in the blood, in the soul-cleansing blood of the lamb?

GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU WASHED IN THE BLOOD?")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Stay by the savior's side. Are you washed in the blood of the lamb? Do you rest each moment in the crucified? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.