Paul Schrader makes movies about men who find both comfort and pain in the repetition of their daily routines, from Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to Ethan Hawke's Reverend Ernst Toller in First Reformed. The same is true of Joel Edgerton's Narvel Roth, the devoted horticulturist at the center of Schrader's newest film, Master Gardener.
The drama is the final installment in Schrader's "Man in a Room" Trilogy, and much like its predecessors, 2018's First Reformed and 2021's The Card Counter, Master Gardener revolves around a man with a tortured past who wonders if he can be forgiven for the mistakes he's made. Narvel makes sense as the latest addition to Schrader's coterie of similarly disciplined but restless anti-heroes: A former white supremacist living in Witness Protection who is strictly dedicated to his profession.
Just because Schrader, who received a Best Original Screenplay nomination for First Reformed, has an affinity for writing men with strict routines doesn't mean the filmmaker is as set in his ways. When asked how his creative process has evolved over the last 50 years, Schrader says, "It's gotten freer. It's gotten better."
"Having done this for decades, I've figured out what I don't need," he explains. "So much money is wasted in Hollywood because directors are indecisive about what they need, and that's usually because they’ve gotten burnt in the past. At one point or another, they've thought, 'Oh, we don’t need this scene,' and then it turns out that they did need that scene."
"The tendency many have when they're directing now seems to be, 'Let's fill up our plate,'" Schrader says. "'So what if 25 percent of the food goes in the waste can?'"
It's clear in both the films that he makes and the movies that he loves that Schrader has no interest in waste. Below, he shares with A.frame the five films that have most influenced him as a writer and director.
Written and Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Through a Glass Darkly made me realize that films could be serious art. At the time, I was a student at Calvin College, which was also a seminary, and movies were not allowed by the church. But it was the '60s then and things were changing, you know? There was a cinema in town that had all sorts of Russ Meyer-esque softcore programming and the owner wasn't doing very well, so he thought, "Well, I'm gonna program a month of Ingmar Bergman films for all the college students," and it caught fire.
All these students who had been studying theology and Calvinism had been told that the movies were the devil's workplace and nothing good was really going to come out of them, but then they started going to the movies and thinking, "Wait a second. There's this guy in Sweden who's talking about the very same things we're talking about. How can movies be bad? How can they not be part of the spiritual experience if they're engaging in these conversations in pretty much the same way?"
So, that film was a revelation for me. Before it, I'd only seen a few movies, and I had been pretty disappointed in them because I didn't watch them as a kid. I'd watch teen fare like Wild in the Country and be left a little unimpressed. But then I saw Through a Glass Darkly and it was the first film that I felt like I really saw as an adult — even though I was only 18 at the time.
Written and Directed by: Robert Bresson
When I saw Pickpocket, I saw what my artistic mission could be. From the spareness and the asceticism, to the decision to not give the audience as much as they want but more than they need to get to where you want them to go. It really all has to do with the film's manipulation of time and the way that it deals with Gilles Deleuze's theories about film as action versus film as time. Ultimately, it's about waiting and what things can happen when you wait.
When I saw it for the first time, what I saw was this: In a normally edited film, when a person walks out of a room, you cut out of the room just before the door latches. That's usually considered a good cut. But Bresson would let the door close and then take two beats before cutting to something else. What's happening in those moments? Nothing. Time is happening. Time is all that's happening. He's talking to you by working with time. Now, what would happen if he waited five beats? Ten beats? What if his name happened to be Béla Tarr and he waited even longer? Using time to alter expectations and certain anticipations, that's what I saw in Bresson.
Written and Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
The Conformist liberated me visually. The film really broke the mold of production design, primarily due to the work by Ferdinando Scarfiotti. As a filmmaker, Bertolucci combined the time manipulation of Antonioni with the vivid editorial juxtapositions of Godard, and he really used production design to combine all of those things together. The Conformist was the first film I know of that treated locations like they were sets. The insane asylum, for instance, is a cemetery. Throughout the film, rooms are used for their spatial value rather than their practical realism.
When I then worked with Scarfiotti on American Gigolo, I remember on our first day together we were location scouting and he said, "Ignore everything you see inside. Just stand on the porch here and look that way." He had seen something in the location, and that really made me start thinking more visually.
Directed by: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg | Written by: Donald Cammell
Performance really freed me editorially. The film has such an odd history. It was dumped by [then Warner Bros. president] Ted Ashley, and in the true spirit of the times, what happened was that Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell — which is a very interesting pair — were able to make the film doing pretty much anything they pleased. Donald Cammell was a follower of black magic. Nic Roeg, meanwhile, was buttoned down but a real visual artist. He once said to me, "People like to think Donald is a freak and I'm the technician, and we let them think that."
With Performance, everybody thought they'd gotten a Mick Jagger film, but then he only showed up in the second half. Ted Ashley was furious about that, so the film had to be recut. At the same time, Nic had to go off to Australia to do Walkabout, so Donald hired another editor, Frank Mazzola, to work on the film. What they did was, like a vase, they dropped Performance until it shattered, and then they started picking up the pieces. They said, "Where are the Mick Jagger pieces? Where are the music pieces? Where are the violent pieces?" and they reassembled it into a kind of mosaic. Jack Nitzsche's music just reinforced that approach all the more, so it's a great film to see before you start shooting something — not only because it will liberate you visually, but also liberate you editorially as well.
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah | Written by: Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah
The Wild Bunch is just such an exuberant death of a genre. I actually wrote an article about the film years ago, where I noted that the attitude of The Wild Bunch is basically, "I know this is fascist. I know this is evil. I know this is wrong… But, God, forgive me, I just love it."
Reporting by Alex Welch