Paul Schrader, filmmaker: “Death is my subject”

Paul Schrader, filmmaker: “Death is my subject”


With his appearance of a stocky and facetious monk, Paul Schrader blended perfectly into the decor of the churches he visited during his stay in Italy in mid-December. Guest of honor at the Laceno d’Oro, a high-profile festival which sees all Italian cinephiles converge on Avellino, near Naples, the screenwriter ( Taxi Driver , 1976; Raging Bull , 1980) and American filmmaker ( American Gigolo , 1980 ; Witch Hunter , 1994; Master Gardener , 2022) showed that he had lost nothing, at 77 and despite fragile health, of his legendary outspokenness. A figure of the New Hollywood, alongside his friends Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg, he continues, no matter what, to breathe a wind of freedom into an industry that is more confined than ever. On the sidelines of the festival, he confided to Le Monde his fears and his projects.

Where is your twenty-fourth feature film, “Oh, Canada”?   ?

The assembly is finished. The only thing missing is the soundtrack, by the rock group Phosphorescent. I am coming out of a trying period, I was hospitalized several times for pneumonia and long-term Covid. I have recovered approximately 70% of my abilities. When I got back to work, I told myself that it was no longer the time to make a film about the mysterious sexuality of a young girl, or something like that. Death is my subject. And it’s better not to hang around! A close friend, the writer Russell Banks, fell ill. So, as I did with Affliction (1997), I decided to adapt one of his novels, Oh, Canada (Actes Sud, 2022). He said: “This is my version of The Death of Ivan Ilyich [by Leo Tolstoy] . Russell died on January 7, a few months before filming began.

Will the film be ready for Cannes?

It will be on the market, yes! Cannes will be short of American films, due to the strike which hit the industry. The casting – Richard Gere, Uma Thurman, Jacob Elordi… – should please Thierry Frémaux. But, often, what should please him scares him. He is a very unpredictable man. If he doesn’t take it, I will go to Venice, which has always supported me. For films like mine, with tight budgets, reception at major festivals is crucial.

Like many of your characters, the protagonist of “Oh, Canada” is haunted by the army. Like your brother Leonard, he refused to enlist…

Yes, he’s a deserter. He fled the United States for Canada, where he became a renowned filmmaker. As he approaches death, he reveals to one of his students that his entire life is a lie. Look what Richard Gere will look like [shows a photo on his cell phone ]. It hasn’t changed that much since American Gigolo (1980) [their previous collaboration] … It’s the first time, since Mishima (1985), that I’ve made a puzzle film. Or an assemblage of scattered memories, heterogeneous formats, fragments. Filming only lasted seventeen days. I kept all the scenes shot. The first cut lasted ninety minutes. The final cut is at ninety-one minutes. This is how I work. To the bone. Do you know how long my bedside movie, Pickpocket, is ? (1959), by Robert Bresson? Seventy-five minutes.

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