Paul Schrader On How He and Hollywood Have Changed

Credit: Angela Weiss / AFP/Getty Images
Paul Schrader is not afraid to stir things up. 

Writer and director Paul Schrader is finally making the movies he's always wanted. It took decades, but with the onset of digital filmmaking and his new relationships with financiers and younger actors who embraced his older work, Schrader is living his best life.

Sure, he's being tossed from poker games and constantly under fire for his Facebook posts, but Schrader understands that he's going to ruffle feathers. He's embracing it now. His last film, First Reformed, got him his first Academy Award nomination. Instead of slowing down, he's leaned into this newfound success, dedicated to making more movies. 

'The Card Counter'Credit: Focus Features

Schrader's next film, The Card Counter, is about poker, PTSD, and obsession. He sat down with GQ to talk about it, his legacy, and how he sees Hollywood has changed along with him. We combed through the massive interview and pulled out some of our favorite quotes. 

Let's start with a big one.

When asked if he thought Marvel movies were cinema (based on his friend Martin Scorsese's innocent claims they are not), Schrader said, "No, they are cinema. So is that cat video on YouTube, it’s cinema. It is kind of surprising that what we used to regard as adolescent entertainment, comic books for teenagers, has become the dominant genre economically. Each generation is informed, and informed by literature, or informed by theater, or informed by live television, or informed by film school. Now we have a generation that's been informed by video games and manga. It’s not that the filmmakers have changed, it's that the audiences have changed." 

Schrader is right—people are changing, and so are their demands. The definition of cinema is changing daily. That kind of flux is incapable of being contained, especially when audiences are holding studios to their demands.

Schrader further points out, "And when the audiences don't want serious movies, it's very, very hard to make one. When they do, when they ask you, 'What should I think about women's lib, gay rights, racial situations, economic inequality?' and the audience is interested in hearing about these issues, well then you can make those movies. And we have. Particularly in the fifties, and sixties, and seventies, we're making them one or two a week about social issues. And they were financially successful because audiences wanted them. Then something changed in the culture, the center dropped out. Those movies are still being made, but they're not in the center of the conversation anymore."

The shift in the culture is definitely changing the way Hollywood works. Schrader has been navigating these waters for almost 50 years. Only right now, he's able to make the movies he's always wanted. But even that can be an uphill climb. 

Schrader thinks about how his career has gone back to the way it was, finally landing him somewhere he's been looking for all these years.

"I really didn't have the power to make some of these films years ago. The only one I really made was Light Sleeper, and that was very difficult to finance. But now I can finance these films. And so I think I'll finish out my career in this kind of genre. It's the sort of film that I started with, with Taxi Driver. And I'm very familiar with it. To me it seems relatively easy, but I know a number of people who have tried."

As Schrader looks backward and forward, he starts to analyze which characters resemble him then and even now. Which ones conform to the way he writes and all give him answers to how he's changing as a person as Hollywood changes as well. 

'The Card Counter' behind the scenes. Credit: Focus Features

"What I have in common is with the taxi driver, because I wrote that as self-therapy. What I didn't realize was that I was kind of creating something that was, in a way, new. I had this image of young male loneliness and I had this image of a taxi cab. Great metaphor, great metaphor."

But it's not all about the past. Schrader has to also reconcile where he is now, within his own pursuit. When it comes back to The Card Counter, he dials the conversation back into the kind of character he put in that movie. 

"I realized that this is a man who is hiding from life, because of something he's done. And what can be so great? He can't just be a murderer, he has to have done something that shamed the nation, something that cannot be forgiven. And then I thought about Abu Ghraib. I started putting those two pieces together, and the problem started to define itself—that we live in a culture where no one isn't really responsible for anything. 'I didn't lie, I misspoke.' 'I didn't break the law, I made a mistake.' 'I didn't touch that woman, I just had bad judgment.' I come from a culture where it's just the opposite, where you're responsible for everything. I sort of imagined myself as someone who did something that can't be forgiven. He went to jail, but he still hasn't been punished enough. And what did he do? How does he keep punishing himself?"

Schrader has been very busy making this movie. When he shot First Reformed he thought it might be his last, now it feels like he's just getting started again. With such an interesting and diverse career, we'll continue to follow which world he travels next, and what he posts on Facebook. 

The Card Counter is in theaters on Sept. 10. Let us know if you check it out.      

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