Paul Schrader on Making and Watching Movies in the Age of Netflix

Yeah. And they’re making money on some of them. They just made money on this revenge film. But the comfort aspect of the series is that you don’t even need to scroll through anything. You’ve watched two episodes of something—“Pretty Young Things,” “Pretty Little Things,” whatever—and you like it and say, “I’ll watch the next one.” So you don’t even have to decide. You don’t have to watch a trailer. There’s so many out there that you can sample them like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. And if you like the first episodes, you’re on easy street for a couple of weeks.

What’s the difference for you in the art? You wrote on Facebook that the transition from the feature to streaming is “stripping story telling of its ability to compose concise stories which land like a punch in the face.” What for you is the difference artistically between feature filmmaking and series?

Well, a feature film . . . hopefully, if you’re an artist, each time out you have a problem, a subject matter, and you need to create a style that really works. With episodic, you create a template, and then directors just follow that template. So if you’re doing “The Crown,” you’re doing a lot of soft focus, backlighting. They all look the same. And that’s a kind of a comfort, too, because every time you watch “The Crown,” you know exactly how it’s going to look. The challenge of independent film is creating something that feels new, and that is going less and less in favor. And I think you can just look at film criticism to see that, because I remember when people would read film criticism and say, “What’s new? What do I need to see? What’s this film that Oliver Stone did about Vietnam? I think we should see that.” That seems to be less and less part of the conversation.

Interestingly, I think they’re two separate issues. For instance, what you were saying about the difference between the series and the feature, if I’m understanding correctly, it’s essentially the difference between a director’s medium and a writer’s medium.

Yes. And not only a writer’s medium, a writers’-room medium. You know the difference.

How would you describe the difference?

I mean, I’m a writer, but if I work for episodic I’m in a writers’ room. There’s five or six other people in there. Because with a few exceptions, usually these things are written by a writers’ room. And so you’re always compromising and coming up with ideas. And so the idea of a strong, singular voice, the idea of, say, Woody Allen . . . you can’t watch a Woody Allen film without realizing you’re watching a Woody Allen film, even the stinkers. But a lot of the shows, they have that committee imprint. And that also changes what you expect from a movie. So a film like “Nomadland,” which is a unique film, unique style, unique voice, how does that find its way into the cinemas anymore?

Would it be very different if you were watching “Nomadland” at home? In other words, is there a significant difference between “Nomadland” produced for a theatrical release and “Nomadland” produced for Netflix?

Yeah. Well, I watched it at home, and it was a big difference. I had no commitment to it. There was no decision. “Let’s go to the Burns and see ’Nomadland.’ ” It’s like going to church in a way. You don’t walk out of church because you’re bored. You went there to be bored. You went there to have that experience. And if you go to the Burns to see “Nomadland” you’re going to stick it out unless you really hate it. When you’re watching it at home, it’s not that same kind of commitment, and therefore you think differently of the film. I think “Nomadland” is a bit of fake poverty. I would feel that if I saw it in the theatre, too. But I know I would have a more focussed view of it. And it is so easy to just let something go at home.

But how is that different from the age of VHS or DVDs? Did you feel that there was a cinema apocalypse on the way when people started renting video cassettes rather than going to movie theatres?

No, no. I think that, to me, back in the day, was an adjunct. It was secondary. It was still . . . I would go to the movie theatres, and if there was something . . . and, of course, it didn’t show up on VHS for six months anyway. So if you wanted to see a film-noir classic or something you could get it at Blockbuster, but if you wanted to see a real movie you had to go to a movie theatre. And that’s another thing that’s collapsed.

So do you think that because filmmakers are likely not to have the same resources, the same amount of money, the same budget level to make feature films that they would have, say, twenty years ago, is there a certain freedom that comes with this?

Well, there’s a lot of freedom. The film that I took forty-two days to make when I started I now make in twenty. “First Reformed” was twenty. My new film, “The Card Counter,” is twenty. And the quality is the same. You just move much, much faster. Everything is cheaper. Everything is faster. So the upside is that movies that could not afford to be made are now being made. Anybody can make a movie. Anybody who has a phone can make a movie. The downside is, although anybody can make a movie, nobody can make a living. Because in the sixties, if you got to make a movie, you made a living. You got a salary. Today, you can make a movie without getting a salary, and you can make a five-million-dollar movie for fifty thousand and lose fifty thousand. And so, so many of these young filmmakers are . . . they’re making films they weren’t allowed to make before, but they’re not making a living, and they’re not getting the kind of distribution . . . I mean, you see it all the time, films that are just being thrown out the car window hoping somebody finds them and watches them.

Which gives films critics a role again, one hopes.

Yeah, if they can find somebody to pay them.

Have you ever entertained the possibility of working for a streaming service directly, whether a feature film or a series?

Yeah. Well, Scorsese and I are planning something, and it is . . . it would be a three-year series about the origins of Christianity.

Fiction? Drama?

No, no, no. It’s based on the Apostles and on the Apocrypha. It’s called “The Apostles and Apocrypha.” Because people sort of know the New Testament, but nobody knows the Apocrypha. And back in the first century, there was no New Testament, there’s just these stories. And some were true, and some weren’t, and some were forgeries.

But these will be dramatized like “The Last Temptation”?

Yeah.

This gives me something to look forward to. I will be subscribing.

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