Q&A With Paul Schrader

Elena Lazic sits down with Master Gardener's Paul Schrader

Elena Lazic

25 May 23

We sat down with Paul Schrader, the great American iconoclast behind the likes of American Gigolo, First Reformed, Taxi Driver (with Martin Scorsese), and his most recent film Master Gardener, starring Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver.

Q:  Something that really struck me about Master Gardener was the flowers which are gorgeous. It made me realise that beauty actually occupies a very particular and prominent place in your work in your films. How do you think that relates to your lonely men characters, there's always an element of beauty somewhere?

Paul Schrader:  Well, first the garden was not as lovely as it should be for several reasons, like Covid. We were going to shoot in Melbourne and then Melbourne shut down and we had to shoot in March in Louisiana rather than April.

But the film was only metaphorically about the garden. The argument about the metaphor is an interesting one to me. Like some of these other occupational metaphors, it can be seen in two different ways. And the first one was Taxi Driver where you have a taxi driver, people don't know who that character was, friendly guy… you get a metaphor, where you're using it in a way that is not the common perception,

I create a little bit of a schism. (In Master Gardener) the world of water is generally thought of as a life-enhancing metaphor. Growth, nourishment, coming into bloom, and so forth. But also there's a lot of violence in the metaphor - the pruning, the rearranging of nature…

Q:  Master Gardener completes a trilogy of films of a kind, with First Reformed and Card Counter. Why do you always pick these guys that have given up or don't know how to approach the central problem? Who feel kind of outside. 

Paul Schrader:  Well, it's a little different in each film, but (in First Reformed) you have a reverend who is in an existential crisis, y'know god has stopped talking to him. And then this young kid comes into his life who he can't help as the kid kills himself. And this is really where he's been going anyway.

Now he can pick up the mantle of that kid, and wrap it around him, and give his death greater meaning - that it would be for the good of the earth not just for his own selfish feelings.

Q:  And it's interesting, you were talking about how in each film, you have this character who is sort of compelled into action by a younger person entering their lives. As well as that you had the protagonist keep a diary. They have this routine of writing their thoughts and everything.

Paul Schrader:  Obviously I picked it up from Bresson, from Pickpocket. And I love it as a narrative device because on the one hand, you're giving the listener nourishment, information, but he can't taste it, it's all so bland.

And so much of it is red herrings and deflection like here's how you cut up cards, or what the garden is going to be like. And it's not about that at all… It's not just a diary of the character's thoughts, it's also the diary of the screenwriter's thoughts.

Q:  The main character of Narvel Roth played by Joel Edgerton. He's very ambiguous. I was wondering how you worked with Joel Edgerton on playing the character in that way.

Paul Schrader:  Well, I have said to a number of actors over the years, the same little piece which is - I know you imagine yourself as a Lone Pine, out on a wind-driven rainy field, and that you have to struggle to stay upright. And put all your effort into that. I want you to change that image of yourself.

Now, I want you to think of yourself as the rocky coast, and the waves are coming to hit you, hitting you hard, but you don't have to struggle. All you have to do is stand there. And they will go away. And you'll still be there.

Sometimes they'll be called day players. They will be called plot points or comic relief. Just stand there. You will be there. It's probably enough to just try not to fight against the wave.

Q:  We do actually feel that sense of a man just holding on to his sanity in the film. And then on the other hand, you have the character by Sigourney Weaver, who has much less of a handle on her emotions in the film. What was it like to work for her? How did you tell her to play that character?

Paul Schrader: She told me as much as I told her because she is much closer to that character than I was. These older male characters I know what they're thinking. But I had to collaborate with the other end of that - the woman old enough to be his mother and the other woman young enough to be his daughter. And in all these cages, there is an Incel - you know the first Taxi Driver was the original Incel in movies.

One of the things people mistake about Incels is why they are unable to have female companionship. They make the world so it's that way. You know, often when you see a picture of them and he is a reasonably attractive person, you know, I'm sure somebody will want to go out there.

But he doesn't feel he's an attractive person. And therefore he can create a worldview that reinforces his own lack of self-esteem. And so these men have different reasons to have been cut off from the world of female companionship.

Master Gardener is in cinemas from 26 May — Book Now