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, of course, the flowers. It made me realise that beauty actually occupies a very particular and prominent place in your work. How do you think that relates to your "lonely men" characters?

Paul Schrader:  First of all, the garden was not as lovely as it should be for several reasons, including Covid. We were going to shoot in Melbourne, 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 gardening metaphor is an interesting one to me because, like some of these other occupational metaphors, it can be seen in two different ways. The first example was Taxi Driver, where you have a taxi driver, people didn't know who that character was, he seemed like a friendly guy… I looked at him and I saw the black heart of Dostoyevsky. 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 gardening metaphor is generally thought of as a life-enhancing metaphor: growth, nourishment, coming into bloom, and so forth. But there's also a lot of violence in the metaphor — the pruning, the rearranging of nature… 

I did a film called Mishima years ago, and the writer Yukio Mishima thought that beauty was, in and of itself, physically dangerous. In that film, the young Mishima burns down a gold temple because he is so scared of its beauty.

Q:  Master Gardener completes a trilogy of films of a kind, with First Reformed and Card Counter. All three films address very current political issues, but your main characters are always at a remove from that problem, or have given up trying to engage with it. 

Paul Schrader:  Well, it's a little different in each film, but (in First Reformed) you have a reverend who is going through an existential crisis; he feels that God has stopped talking to him. And then this young kid comes into his life who he can help, but the kid kills himself. 

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

Q:  In each film, you have this character who is compelled into action by a younger person entering their lives. Your protagonists also always keep a diary; it's a sort of narrativising. 

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, is very ambiguous. How did you work with him?

Paul Schrader: I have said, to a number of actors over the years, the same little speech which is: I know you imagine yourself as a lone pine, out on a windy, rainy field, and that you have to struggle to stay upright.

You put all your effort into that. I say, 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. They're hitting you hard. But you don't have to struggle — all you have to do is stand there, and they will go away. You don't have to fight it. They will go away, and you'll still be there.

Sometimes they'll be called day players, sometimes they'll be called plot points or comic relief. Just stand there. You will be there. Trust me enough 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 played by Sigourney Weaver, who has much less of a handle on her emotions in the film. What was it like to work with her? What 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 Quintessa Swindell and Sigourney to understand the two ends of that other spectrum - the woman old enough to be Narvel's mother, and the other woman young enough to be his daughter. And both of these women are involved with an incel - you know, Taxi Driver was the original incel in movies.

One of the things people get wrong about incels is that they believe they are unable to have female companionship. No — they make the world so it's that way. Often, when you see a picture of one, he is a reasonably attractive person, I'm sure somebody would want to go out with them. But he doesn't feel he's an attractive person. And therefore he creates a worldview that reinforces his own lack of self-esteem. And so these men have for different reasons been cut off from the world of female companionship.

At one point, the card counter says "you know, I used to be something of a ladies' man," but then the narrative changed, and now he's a card player so he can't be a ladies' man. Same thing with Narvel in Master Gardener; he has to keep a very low profile, so he can't go out to clubs and whatnot. Part of his life at the plantation is to take care of Sigourney, but then this young person comes in and changes things.

I was asked a question the other day by a female member of the audience, which was, "Why do women have to play the redemptive figures for these men?" And I just answered, because they are! 

Master Gardener is in cinemas from 26 May — Book Now