The last time Paul Schrader saw Sofia Coppola she was probably four feet tall.
We recently brought them back together for a conversation about what it's like to be an independent filmmaker today. Other topics covered include: Paul's unexpected career trajectory, stealing from the best, what really happened at the end of Taxi Driver, the challenges of writing without "nighttime additives," Ethan Hawke's forehead wrinkles, and what it took for Paul to finally make First Reformed—the movie he’s been waiting his whole life to make.
Speaker: Hey, it’s A24, and this is the A24 podcast. For this episode, we bring you a conversation between two visionary filmmakers, Paul Schrader and Sofia Coppola. Paul and Sofia have much in common as writer-directors who built careers entirely outside the studio system, each making movies only they could make. We were excited to bring them together to talk about Paul’s new movie First Reformed and what it’s like to be a filmmaker today. A warning: If you haven’t seen First Reformed, you’ll want to skip ahead exactly two minutes, when Sofia asks Paul about the movie’s ending. Here’s Paul Schrader and Sofia Coppola.
Paul Schrader: All right. Now, Sofia. I’m Paul Schrader.
Sofia Coppola: I'm Sofia Coppola.
Paul: Have we met?
Sofia: I feel like I've met you. As a kid, I remember going to your house.
Paul: Yeah, I think the last time I met you, you were about half as tall as you are now.
Sofia: But I remember you coming to–I met you at a lunch in my adult life because I remember asking you about American Gigolo, and you told me that John Travolta was originally supposed to play the part. I love that movie, so I was excited to ask you about that. So yes, but I know you more from growing up, as a peer of my father.
Paul: Well, little younger.
Sofia: Yes [chuckles] and Mishima.
Paul: Yes, Francis and George produced Mishima...up there in San Francisco, and of course, I have all those ties with Tom Luddy. In fact, I was just back up there. There’s a lot of interesting things to talk about. I think the most interesting is, "How does one get a movie seen today?"
Sofia: Yes, I was happy to hear that at A24 they were saying that your new movie is doing so well and people are going to see it. I'm always curious about–I love the theater experience of going to–
Paul: Well, this is what I’ve found. Around 10 or 12 independent films a year rise above the crowd and are noticed by the general public. And this is out of possibly 15,000 or more. I know, how do you get to be one of those talents? A very big question. I’ve started to realize in the current marketplace, which of course changes every year, that first you have to pass through the gatekeepers, which are the festivals. Then, the next stage is running the gauntlet. What I found with First Reformed is, we passed the gatekeepers: Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York. A24 bought us at Toronto. And then there's a whole period of special screenings, screenings for groups. I did a lecture tour at various seminaries, small festivals, overseas festivals.
Sofia: It's like a full-time job.
Paul: Then in March, David Fenkel, who you were just talking to, called me into a meeting in this room. He said they were going to change the release pattern, and they were going to change the dates, change the theaters, and all. We were talking about the campaign. He obviously saw that I looked very concerned, and he said, "No, Paul." He said, "This is good news. This is a good news meeting." My point being, it was almost six months after they bought the film, until they had run it through enough gauntlets.
Sofia: To figure out when they're going to release it.
Paul: Or how much push they're going to put behind it.
Paul: Just because you make a movie, just because someone buys a movie, that doesn't mean anybody's ever going to see it.
Sofia: Going to see it. Yes, I know. I felt last time I made a movie last year, half of the effort and work is the year of just trying to get it out there and get people to see it, so it's always a mystery and a struggle.
Paul: Particularly if you get caught in award season like Greta did, where it's from Labor Day to April.
Sofia: Yeah. I don’t know how anyone, it's a full time–but that's exciting when movies break out. You're right, it's so rare.
Paul: Yeah. There's almost no way you can predict. You can do certain things, but if a movie hits the zeitgeist, it's just luck. We hit the zeitgeist with Taxi Driver all those years ago. What degree of calculation was there? None to my knowledge. It just happened.
Sofia: Yeah, it just happens. It seems like there's a lot more put behind it, and this whole campaigning, that didn't exist.
Paul: No. You were asking me, a minute ago–your friend, she was editing.
Sofia: My friend Tamara Jenkins was editing at, I think, Post Factory, and she said she met you there when you were working on First Reformed, and that you were also editing a movie with my cousin Nicholas Cage.
Paul: Yes. Well, what happened was about six years ago, I had a terrible situation happen. They tried to kill me, or at least that's how it felt to me. They took my film away, and Nick and I and other people disowned it, and they dumped it. And I sort of descended into despair and alcoholism.
Sofia: Terrible, yeah.
Paul: Yeah. I thought, Well this is how my career's going to end, with a fiasco. This will be the enduring taste in my mouth.
Sofia: What was the film?
Paul: It was called Dying of the Light. So then, I was still in touch with Nick, and I said, "Nick, we should work together again and get it right. Get this stain off our clothes." Meaning, primarily, my clothes [laughs].
Sofia: That's a terrible feeling.
Paul: And so then a film came along that I thought he would be good for, Dog Eat Dog. I said to the people, “I think I can get Nick Cage for this, but you have to give me final cut, because I won't go to him without final cut after what happened last time.” They said, "Okay, you can have final cut."
Sofia: I can't believe that you wouldn't always be able to have that–
Paul: I never felt I needed it before. I mean in the '70s and '80s, you were always dealing with movie people, people with like beliefs.
Paul: You would disagree. Sometimes the movie would get better or worse, but it was–
Sofia: They were movie people.
Paul: Yeah. Now, the whole group of people in the film business, who not only don't go to movies, they don't even like them much.
Paul: How you deal with these people? Then also final cut, which has to mean something. I made this gonzo film with Nick and Willem Dafoe, Dog Eat Dog, my sort-of Tarantino film. It was just a completely outrageous film. That brought me back to life. Then I started thinking about, What can I do now that I have this final cut thing? What movie have I always been afraid to make? I said, That spiritual film. Because the economics were never right. It was always a financially irresponsible film to make, and that somebody would try to take it away from you at some point. I said, “But now, we can get the budgets down low enough, so that it’s responsible. I'm not using my final cut to do nothing. Before I used it to be outrageous, now I can use to it to be quiet.” That's how that came about.
I went to the editor I'd used on Dog Eat Dog because while I was editing that, I realized what I was doing wrong with Dying of the Light. I realized I needed to be much more aggressive with the editing, and this editor, Ben Rodriguez, is a student of Hank Corwin’s who did Natural Born Killers, so he’s in that school. He was–
Sofia: And he edited First Reformed?
Paul: Yeah. I said to him–he edited Dog Eat Dog–I said to him, "I'm going to hire you for First Reformed, but I don't need you for First Reformed. It's a very simple job, but we'll get through it in probably seven weeks. Then I want you to re-edit Dying of the Light–
Sofia: Oh, no way.
Paul: –which I don't own legally. We'll just edit it without permission." So we were editing both simultaneously.
Sofia: Oh cool.
Paul: One, this very, very quiet film and one, this completely gonzo film. Of course, I don't own it, so a little walkaround, I put it in my archive at UCLA Film and Harry Ransom in Austin and here at MoMA, so if you call them up, you can see it.
Sofia: We can see the new version.
Paul: Yeah, or you can go to YouTube and just type in “Schrader Rotterdam,” and then you will see an hour and a half lecture I did about the whole process, with around 25 minutes of clips of the old version versus the new version and how I had done that.
Sofia: Will you try to get it re-released?
Paul: I don't own any of it. Also, I offered to do all of this for free, and I was turned down because there's a lot of bad feelings.
Sofia: Oh no, that's terrible.
Paul: So now, I find myself in the opposite position, which was after Dying of the Light, I said, “This is how's it's going to end.” Now, after First Reformed, I'm in the position of saying, "Well, this is how it should end," which is almost as intimidating [laughs].
Paul: You start thinking, Well, if this is my last film–
Sofia: No. Did you really approach it as your last film?
Sofia: Or every project do you have to think–
Paul: Well, not really. I mean, but after a certain age, you see often–Tom Petty’s dead. Did Tom Petty plan to make that his last album?
Sofia: Right. But this is a movie that you've always wanted to make?
Paul: It's a movie I've always–
Sofia: A subject matter that you've always wanted–
Paul: It's a movie I always didn't want to make.
Sofia: Did you grow up with religion?
Paul: Yeah. I'm a product of the Christian Reformed church, so that would be West Side Christian, Grand Rapids Christian High, Calvin. And before I got involved in filmmaking, I wrote a book of theological aesthetics called Transcendental Style in Film, and it was about Ozu and Bresson and Dreyer.
Sofia: How did you learn about Ozu?
Paul: I learned about Ozu from Don Richie. What happened was, I had this theological education, and then I had this love of the movies. And all of a sudden, I started seeing in specific films a bridge between my sacred past and my profane present, but it wasn't a bridge of content. It was a bridge of style, and as soon as I made that revelation, I said, “You can connect these things, stylistically.” Content is kind of immaterial, so I wrote that book about it. That was published in '72, and I've rewritten it, bringing it up to date, and that's coming out in two days.
People tried to connect my films with that book, and I said, “No, no, no, that’s not me.” I like those films. I've written about those films. But I myself, I'm too intoxicated with sex and violence, action and empathy. These are not elements in the transcendental toolkit. You will never catch me on that thin Bresson-ian ice. I'm not going to go out there. I'm going to fall in if I go out there. That's the way it was for decades.
Then three years ago, I was giving Paweł Pawlikowski the National Society of Film Critics Award for Ida. We were talking about spirituality in movies, talking about my book, talking about the new economics of film, and I walked uptown, and I said, "You are going to be 70 next year. It's time now. It's time to write that movie you swore you would never write."
Sofia: To face the scariest.
Paul: And once actually I made the decision to cross that bridge, it became relatively easy. One of the things that had always been holding me back was the feeling that I would walk into a spiritual arena and fail, that to me seems like the worst of both worlds. I'd rather fail in the secular arena [laughs]. Once I said, "Okay, you're 70, you've got final cut. If you're not going to do it now, you're never going to do it."
Sofia: Yeah, you have to. It’s always good to do something scary. I feel like there's a similarity in that character, obviously, to Travis Bickle. Were you thinking about similar spirituality at that time?
Paul: Yeah, I mean, what happened was, in March of 1969, I was a critic for the LA Free Press. I went to the Los Feliz theater...and saw Pickpocket. In that 75-minute movie, two things happened. One is I realized that there was a contact between spirituality and cinema, and it was a contact of style. And out of that came the book.
The other thing I saw was this kid in this room, writing in a journal, going out committing some crimes, writing in some journals some more. I was living at the time with a group of UCLA film students who were making a biker film for Roger Corman called Naked Angels. I was a film student, and not a filmmaking student. And I thought what they were doing was just so déclassé, I was very elitist.
We, the film critic community, will tell you when you make a good film. And I’m sure they thought the same way. Then I saw that film, and I said, "Well, I can make a film like that. Maybe there is a place for me in this trashy business. I could make that film.” And then three years later, I wrote Taxi Driver, which is that film. A guy in a room with his journal, goes out and moving on some kind of personal arc. And so now, 50 years afterward, those two seeds which dropped into the petri dish at that same morning–
Sofia: Yes, there's a connection.
Paul: –finally connected together in this film First Reformed, where you have that style and that character coming around. I've used that character a number of times. When he was young, he was lonely and a taxi driver, and then he was narcissistic and a gigolo. Then he was anxious and a drug dealer, Light Sleeper. Then he was superficial and a society walker. Now, he's finally a minister, and he suffers from despair.
Sofia: So they're all the same, or different sides of yourself–
Paul: It is a progression through life. Every time you come to an interesting position, that character swings around again. I don't know if you have–
Sofia: It meets you in a different incarnation.
Paul: Yeah, I don't know whether you have a similar character you say, “It's time I take a look at her again.”
Sofia: Yeah, I've always wondered–usually, when I'm starting to write, I don't know why I'm drawn to it, and then afterwards, I start to see the connection. When you start, did you say it's time to revisit that character, or he kind of creeps up on you?
Paul: Well, here's how it happened with Light Sleeper, it was interesting. I was 40, a little over, and I wanted to do a midlife movie. And I must’ve thought about this for almost a year. Going through all the clichés and the college professor, guy quits his job, it becomes this adventure–so I could not come up with a decent midlife metaphor. And then I was asleep, and in a dream at about 5 a.m., a character came to me. He was a drug dealer that I used to know, name was John. He came right smack up to my face.
And I woke up in a start. I thought, Wow, that was vivid. Why, I haven't thought about him in a year. What were we talking about? I thought, He was asking me about the movies. And then I realized, This is my guy.
Sofia: Oh, wow.
Paul: I couldn't find him until he found me.
Sofia: That’s great.
Paul: I got up right then and there and started making notes, tracked him down that very same day, he and his boss. He ended up being played by Willem Dafoe, his boss by Susan Sarandon. And it was the same taxi driver guy. The guy with the journal. The guy, only now he’s in the backseat of the car with envelopes of drugs, rather than the front seat of the car.
Sofia: That’s so interesting. And now, here he is again in a different stage of his life and dealing with modern, what's happening now.
Paul: Yeah. It takes an amount of living to return. You can't do a Woody Allen with those kinds of characters. You can’t write about them every year [laughs].
Sofia: Yeah, I can't imagine [laughs]. That's interesting. Did you have Ethan Hawke in mind or did you find him after–
Paul: No, I mean normally I–
Sofia: Do you think of actors when you're writing?
Paul: I try not to. Do you?
Sofia: I do, because it helps me to picture actors, certain parts.
Paul: I think it's just the opposite, because if you're sitting there typing, you're writing a speech, now you hear Denzel Washington say it, you say, “Wow, that's a great speech.”
Paul: No, it's not a great speech [laughs].
Sofia: It’s just, they would make it good.
Paul: Denzel is a great actor! And so, I try at all costs not to think of an actor because it–
Sofia: I've been cheating.
Paul: And, about halfway through this–now, there is a certain physiognomy of a suffering man of the cloth. Claude Laydu in Country Priest or Montgomery Clift in I Confess. So you start thinking of actors who fit that bill–Jake Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac, and Ethan. And Ethan was 10 years older than the other two. And he was just starting to get some very interesting wrinkles in his face. Some of those guys, it takes a long time for the boyhood to go away, like Griffin Dunne was like 25 for 30 years [laughs]. Ethan was all of a sudden now becoming much more interesting in that way. I always thought he would be very good as an internalized actor.
Sofia: Yeah, I feel like I’ve never seen him like that.
Paul: Yeah. He has a kind of goofy personality, sort of a post-hippie kind of attitude toward things. The first time I met with him, I said, “This is a lean-back performance. Whenever you detect the viewer getting interested, start leaning away, don't give in. See how far you can get away from them.”
Sofia: Interesting. It felt very, like we were having to lean forward to try to–
Paul: That's what it is with these spiritual kind of things. You can't really push anybody into the mystery. All you can do is earn and guide them, but those steps they take.
Sofia: They have to take.
Paul: Yeah, they have to take. You can't play spiritual music or have a spiritual plot gimmick and people say, "Oh, I found God." No. When you decide to touch the mystery, it’s because you’ve been put in a kind of a tight spot by the artist, and one of the ways you can go is to jump forward. That's what that whole notion of transcendental style was about. How do you stylistically corner a viewer so that–
Sofia: They’re trapped in it.
Paul: –he wants to jump forward, jump into the mystery?
Sofia: Yeah, I felt like it was–you're in an uncomfortable state watching it, but you can't look away. It's an interesting state that's unusual.
Paul: Going back to Taxi Driver, something that I learned–there's two devices. One is narration, which I've always loved, particularly when it has to be written beforehand. And I regard it as intravenous feeding, I’m going to put a tube in your arm, and I will start giving you nourishment. You won’t be able to taste it, and you won’t be able to feel it, but it’s going to fill up your body.
Sofia: When it starts to take effect after–
Paul: Yeah. That’s one thing I’m going to do. The other thing I'm going to do is tell you a story from only one point of view, a monocular story. So you're seeing this one character go about his days, only–
Sofia: Well you stay with him the whole time, you don’t ever see anything without him, right?
Paul: No, whether it’s Travis Bickle or whether it’s this guy. So after about 45 minutes of hearing this guy talk and seeing only what he sees, you are now identifying with him. How can you not? If you are still in that theater, you are identifying. He starts to go off the rails, just a little bit, then a little bit further, then a little bit further until you come to the position where you are still identifying with someone, but you no longer think he’s worthy of your identification.
That’s the crutch, that's the little crevice, you can lay down someone’s skull and enclose him. Who knows what the viewer’s going to do at that point? You can’t predict that, but you know you have put the viewer in a very uncomfortable place, so they are going to react somehow [laughs].
Sofia: Yeah, I feel like you don’t see it coming, or you start to see clues of it, but before you know it, you've gone farther than you expected to. Like, wait, when did that happen? And I'm surprised how violent it is for such a sparse–
Paul: Well there is no violence per se, but obviously anticipation of violence.
Sofia: Yeah, but there’s the one scene in the woods, it's very, it’s shocking, it’s not–
Paul: Yes. There again, when you withhold things from people, and let’s take the case of music. You see a scene, and a kid’s lying in the snow with his head half blown off, and there’s no music. Part of you as a viewer says, "Come on, play some music, tell me how am I supposed to feel."
Sofia: Yeah, I hate when they overdo the score and it tells you how to feel or it leads you too much.
Paul: Yeah. That’s another way to sort of create unease. I want to ask, you said you’re writing now?
Sofia: I am. I'm kind of procrastinating and avoiding writing. But yes, I had something I started a couple of years ago that I'd put away, and now I took it out to try to come back to it. Have you ever done that where you abandoned something and came back to it?
Paul: Actually, I wanted to do a film 20 years ago with Arnold Schwarzenegger. A remake of a Budd Boetticher western. And then he decided to run for governor. I never got the rights, but now, I may get the rights back [laughs].
Sofia: Oh, wow. So it still interests you?
Paul: Well, it's 20 years old, now it needs to be updated. All I know for sure right now, is I’ve got to do something completely different. People have come up to me after this film and said, "When are you going to make another film like that?" I said, "I don’t know if I ever will."
Sofia: After every film, do you go through that period of searching and then–
Paul: I sense that you and I have this in common, which is, part of the fun of making films is seeing if you can do something.
Paul: I've never done this before. I did that little kickstarter movie with Bret Easton Ellis. Part of the fun of it–we did it with Lindsay Lohan and a porn star–part of the fun was, Can we do this Bret, can we actually pull this off?
Sofia: That is half the fun of it.
Paul: Yeah, or, Can I make a Tarantino movie? Or, Can I do this kind of movie?
Sofia: You are setting up a challenge for yourself.
Paul: Yeah. Because so often I go to and movie theater and look up at the screen, I say, How do they stay awake? These people have made this movie 10 times now.
Sofia: Yeah. It’s so great when you see something you haven’t seen a million–I know you decided to face the fear of doing something in this subject matter, but then, did the character just come to you? And it feels so much about the current state of–
Paul: That character I've written about before. The first thing I did was I started re-watching the films of this ilk that I thought that had worked, that were effective, and just checking through the landscape, watching about two dozen films.
Sofia: And the church, and the priest–
Paul: And you start picking up things. A lot of what we do is simply theft or assemblage. The secret of stealing is that you have to steal around.
Sofia: My dad or grandfather always said, “Steal from the best.” That was their slogan.
Paul: Yes, but you can’t keep going back to the same 7-Eleven, they're going to catch you [laughs]. You can go to the best, but it can’t be the same best. You go over to the floral shops to take them, you go at the gas station, then you go over to that little hotdog stand that nobody goes to, and then you put them together, and that’s all any of us ever do.
Sofia: Yeah, that's true. I was talking to my dad about The Conversation, and he said, “I saw Blow-Up, and I wanted to make a Blow-Up.” I had no idea, I was like–
Paul: Yeah, and De Palma saw The Conversation and he wanted to make Blow Out [laughs].
Sofia: Yeah, it’s so funny. I'm curious also about your writing, do you–I notice I can write better at night than during the day. Do you have any rituals?
Paul: I'm a binge writer, I don’t consider myself a real writer. I think a real writer writes every day, but I–
Sofia: That’s what I’ve heard, and I can’t do that either, if that makes you feel better. You just sit down until the idea is done.
Paul: I used to be a night writer, but that was always fueled by nighttime additives. The caffeine, the nicotine, the cocaine, the alcohol. And then I had children. It took almost a year to learn to write during the day.
Sofia: I'm so glad, because I have been struggling with this, and no one ever talks about it.
Paul: Yeah. I used to start writing about 10:30, 11:00, write until 5:00 and boy, it would just buzz along. But gradually, I started doing more drugs and making less pages. So at the beginning, there wasn't many drugs, but there was like 15 pages, and then there was a lot of drugs, and it was like 2 pages [laughs]. Then you read it and you say, “Oh, am I writing? Am I taking drugs to write or am I pretending to write in order to justify doing drugs?” [Laughs]
Sofia: Oh, I never thought about that.
Paul: So then I went on the day shift and that took a while. I'm still on the day shift.
Sofia: How many pages can you do on a good day or average?
Paul: Well, I tend to write very fast. The way I do that is I outline and tell the story.
Sofia: So you know where you're going, you write out the whole story? Do you know what the ending–do you know where–
Paul: I can tell you what will happen on page 55 and a half before I start to write, because it’s all in my outline.
Sofia: Oh, okay, I never do an outline.
Paul: And I use the outline to make an oral presentation. I tell the story. Every time I tell the story, I redo the outline. I tell the story, redo the outline. Then at some point, you start putting in projected page counts, so now you have a feeling of what page you are on when this part of the story kicks in. You do that enough, and if can tell somebody a story for 45 minutes and they listen, you’ve got a movie.
What happens if you tell a story enough, one of two things happens. One is you tire of it, and it dies on you, and that’s a good day. That you've saved yourself from writing something that was going to die anyway.
Sofia: Oh [laughs].
Paul: Or the other thing sometimes can happen, which it says, "I'm sick of being told. Don’t tell me one more time, write me. It’s time now." Then the writing comes quite quickly. Occasionally, I have stumbled into this process where I had two-thirds of the story, but not the last third, and I thought it would come.
Sofia: Yeah. And didn’t?
Paul: Didn’t come.
Sofia: I always feel like I’m rushing to get to the end of that, but–that’s interesting. Would you say this is a happy ending?
Sofia: That's too simple of–you can’t really say–
Paul: Well, what do you think?
Sofia: Well I don't want to give away anything. No, I wasn't sure. No, I think it's mixed, that's what I think, that's more interesting than–yeah, you don't want to have one or the other, of course, it's mixed emotions.
Paul: I don’t know. I don't know what the ending is. It's done so that you–
Sofia: Is he going to be okay?
Paul: It can be read in either one of two ways. Well, one is that a miracle has occurred, and his life has been spared. The other is equally, in my sense, optimistic, which is he drinks the Drano and he's on all fours, and he's throwing up his stomach.
Sofia: Oh and he's imagining?
Paul: And God comes over to him, who has not talked to him for the whole movie, and says, “Reverend Toller, you want to know what heaven looks like? Here it is, this is exactly what it looks like. It looks like one long kiss.” And that's the last thing he sees.
Sofia: Oh, interesting. Yeah I took it as–I wasn't sure whether it was real or not, so I wondered if you–then you decided.
Paul: Yeah, we were tweaking it in the editing, when people would see it, trying to make it like half and half, so whenever I showed it, I'd say, "Is he alive or dead?" We were trying to get about the same amount of hands to go up for both.
Sofia: Oh right, but do you–maybe we shouldn't say it on the podcast, but do you have an idea which side it’s more on or are you both ways?
Paul: No, whenever more people thought it was one way, I shifted the editing so it's the other way, so that I didn't know.
Sofia: Right, right, right, okay.
Paul: Because a number of people have attributed the ending of Taxi Driver as a fantasy. I don't have a problem with that ending, but it's not what I intended. So this time, I actually intended–
Sofia: You played it with that. Oh, that's interesting. Now, are you traveling around with the film?
Paul: Yeah, on tour, I think just coming down to the end of it, and I've decided just to take this victory lap. Now, the victory lap is coming down to an end and, time to get back to work [laughs].
Sofia: Yeah, you have to face a blank page. I know it's nice when people are interested in your work, but do you find it annoying to have to explain what you were trying to do instead of just having people watch it?
Paul: Well, if you've hidden enough nuggets in there–
Sofia: You have something to talk about [laughs].
Paul: Yeah, you can sort of say, “By the way, did you notice…?” Open up that door. There are things in the film that very few people notice, but when you call their attention to it, actually they're more interested.
Sofia: Yeah. And were you thinking about making something to respond to the state of things now or did that just kind of seep in when you were working on it?
Paul: Yeah, it's kind of hard not to.
Sofia: Right [laughs].
Paul: For thousands of years, human beings have been having a hypothetical discussion: "Why are we here and what will become of us?" And now, for the first time, that discussion is seeming not-so-hypothetical. The possibility that the species as now constituted will not see the end of this century. That's a lot of gravitas [laughs].
Sofia: But was that in your mind when you were starting out with this character or he kind of–
Paul: Well I knew that he–
Sofia: Would have to be about–
Paul: Yeah. Because you have–“the sickness unto death,” is what Kierkegaard called it, which is despair. He's in religious despair, but that despair is somewhat selfish, and it is forbidden by the church, suicide. Saint Augustine said, "Suicide is sin." However, he said, "Unless you're Samson." And then it's resurrection, because you're a martyr. You can see this guy, and he's very, very tempted by despair to go into suicide. Then he catches this virus whereby he sees himself becoming a martyr, and now that's really sick too, but it's very interesting [laughs].
Sofia: Yeah, I didn't think about how many ways you can approach that. From here, do you know what this will lead you to next or do you take time to–
Paul: I'm toying around with three things. One is a complete style piece and another is a contemporary western. Another is the scariest one, which is about my brother.
Sofia: Don’t you always have to do the scariest one?
Paul: [Laughs] I don't know. I wrote a film about my father, I wrote a film about my mother, and I think they're the two of the weakest films I did, because there was not enough metaphorical distance between me and the subject. Where, if I can make them a taxi driver or a gigolo, I got enough distance.
Sofia: So they were directly their stories? Which films?
Paul: Yes. Hardcore was about my dad, and Light of Day was about my mom.
Sofia: Oh. But it was too directly–
Paul: Well, yeah because they were characters. Now, the idea I'm writing about my brother is about a brother, and I keep thinking maybe, am I too close, am I too close?
Sofia: Oh that's interesting.
Paul: I came to this idea because my brother died about 10 years ago, and now his widow is dying. She was a hoarder, so we had to clean out her house. She kept everything, and I went through like 150 boxes, and I found what I was looking for, because I never save stuff. I've thrown my life out the window like a greasy wrapper, but my brother saved stuff. And from 1966 to 1970, I wrote him every other week, and I wrote him everything.
Paul: Every movie I saw, coming to UCLA, going to film school, meeting Pauline Kael, all of it. He had all those letters, and now Film Comment is going to print them one a day for a while.
Sofia: Oh wow, that's so great.
Paul: But I was just thrown back into that. Then I start coming up with an idea, but I stopped after 40 pages because I was just getting too close to it. It wasn't good enough, I could feel it thinning out. So what I'm going to do now is back up and start at the beginning again. Maybe they’re not brothers, I'm not sure, or maybe there is–
Sofia: But how do you take something like that without it being so direct?
Paul: Well yeah, how you keep it from being–maybe I need to put an external event in there, rather than just family, family, family. Maybe there has to be an outside danger or a mysterious death of some sort.
Sofia: That's a good warning for me to keep in mind because everyone's always drawn to writing about their family. To make sure not to follow the trap of something too close.
Paul: Yeah. Although I did like that film they did here at A24. Did you see the film Krisha?
Sofia: Oh, yes!
Paul: Now, that's all an actual family.
Sofia: That was incredible, yeah.
Paul: I was just thinking about–
Sofia: And the main character, was she the aunt of the filmmaker?
Paul: Yes, they were all family, with a handful of exceptions. That was an actual family, they were–
Sofia: Wow. Yeah, that was really fascinating to watch.
Paul: Yeah, I found it a movie that I just couldn't imagine being able to do.
Paul: I'm just looking at your filmography. Because you're from a different generation, all this stuff gets mixed in, you know, the music–I'm pretty much straight from the screenwriting generation and then to the directing generation. I haven't veered from that, but I see all the temptation, because you did an opera.
Sofia: Oh yeah, I did, but just because I was asked to, and I felt like I couldn't say no because it was terrifying. But it was in a live theater, which I've never done.
Paul: I was asked to, and I was terrified, and I didn't do it [laughs].
Sofia: I didn't want to, but I'm glad I did, because I felt like it was scary and I learned something but–
Paul: Are you a musician?
Sofia: No, I’ve always liked music, and there are a lot of musicians in my family. My father's father and uncle are conductors and composers. My dad's uncle knew “La Traviata” very well and explained it to me. I just did it to do something scary and challenge myself. But I wonder, you have such a strong visual style, obviously you're a director, but from a writer–I just think of the way–
Paul: Well, it took me a while. The first two films, I just illustrated. It wasn't until the third film.
Sofia: Where was the American Gigolo in that?
Paul: That was the third one.
Sofia: It has such a great style.
Paul: Yeah and that was because of this guy, Scarfiotti, Nando, who I brought over from Bertolucci. He had done Conformist and Last Tango.
Sofia: Of course. Yeah, the sets, everything, the look of it so–
Paul: I just put myself really at his feet.
Sofia: How did you think to combine that?
Paul: I needed a master, a mentor, and I had seen Conformist, and I heard that he and Bertolucci were having a little bit of falling out over Novecento. So I went over there and invited him to come to the US. We did those two films together and became very, very good friends, and he gave me eyes. Two people right around that same period, Charles Eames and Scarfiotti, because I was raised–
Sofia: You knew Charles Eames?
Paul: Yeah. I was raised in a church environment, where if you had something to say, you use words or songs, you don't use images. The churches are just four white walls and–
Sofia: And that's frivolous or something.
Paul: I always thought ideas were words. It took me a while to learn that images are also ideas. As a critic, I was doing an article on Charles, and I started hanging out at 301 Washington. Then, my wife at the time got a job there and she became one of his designers. That was the first time this whole notion of images as ideas, I just hadn’t even thought of that.
Sofia: Wow, so interesting that that's where you were introduced to that idea because you're–
Paul: This is an idea, this is not a white coffee cup, this is an idea. Then I did those films with Nando and–
Sofia: It was his idea to get Armani–
Paul: I was making a film about Los Angeles so I wanted to de-Los Angelize Los Angeles, so I got–I went to the Axis powers, I went to Germany and Italy. Got some music from Germany, and the look from Italy.
Sofia: How did you think to get Giorgio Moroder? It's such a good combination, that with the design.
Paul: I'm not quite sure how that happened, I'm not quite sure. I was very interested in that–I was interested in him, and I was interested in Jean-Michel Jarre and–what's the other one? Trans-Europe Express–
Paul: Craftwork, yes. So that was all in the air.
Sofia: Oh right, at that time. That's cool. Was the story an original story–
Sofia: –or was it based on something? I know I shouldn’t go on and on about American Gigolo, but I just love that movie so much. Lauren Hutton, she had acted before?
Paul: Yes, she had done one thing before.
Sofia: Did you just know her from around or–
Paul: Actually, in Sue Mengers’ one woman show that Bette Midler did on Broadway, she tells the story.
Sofia: Did you work with Sue Mengers?
Paul: That, as Sue.
Sofia: I met Sue Mengers but I never saw the show, but did–
Paul: She tells the story about how she has a dinner party at her house, and sits me next to Lauren Hutton.
Sofia: That's how it happened?
Paul: Yeah [laughs].
Sofia: Aw, I love knowing that story. Thank you.
Paul: You have a title for your thing yet? Or is that that last?
Sofia: No, I do, but I don't know if I'll ever get my script together.
Paul: Yeah, I know.
Sofia: That feeling [laughs].
Paul: [Laughs] You live here?
Sofia: I do, I live in the west village.
Sofia: Morton, near Hudson.
Paul: Oh, I was just there.
Sofia: Near like–
Paul: I was at 10 Hudson this morning.
Sofia: Oh really? Where are you?
Paul: I have a place in Chelsea, but mostly I'm up in Putnam Valley, I have a lake house. Do you have a country house?
Sofia: No, we still go visit my family in Napa. I know it's not that close but–
Paul: Yeah [laughs]. The first time I was at Skywalker, this was way back then. There were a handful of buildings there. George had this big book, I don't know if you ever saw it, it's a book of drawings. And it was a history of Lucas Valley, the very first people who came to Lucas Valley, the first shacks that were built, the first permanent building that was built, and just going through all the years, the history of Lucas Valley. And I said, "Wow that's really great." I was talking to Luddy afterward, and I said, "Did he ever show you the book?" And Tom said, "He made up the book, none of it is true."
Paul: There was never anybody in Lucas Valley.
Sofia: He invented the whole thing?
Paul: He bought Lucas Valley and then invented a history for it [laughs].
Sofia: Oh my God, I never heard that story, that’s so funny.
Paul: Well, thank you, Sofia. That was great, and good luck.
Sofia: Thank you.
Paul: Yes, thank you.
Sofia: I appreciate all the writing insights and excited for your new film.
Paul: I think the world is ready for another Sofia Coppola film.
Sofia: Aw, thank you. I'll try to get to it.
Speaker: Thanks so much for listening. Look out for Episode 05 next month. The A24 Podcast is produced by us, A24. Special thanks to Doug and Aaron at Robot Repair, who composed our theme.