Photos by Maggie Shannon for A24

Paul Schrader has won over 2,100 games of Words With Friends. 

Rumor has it, Paul showed up to the 2017 Gotham Awards, drank a few glasses of wine, played some rounds of WWF at the table, and left early. 

In the weeks leading up to this year's Gothams — both he and Ethan Hawke would go on to win trophies for First Reformed we challenged the brain behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull to his favorite word game. At some point along our 0-3 losing streak, we called Paul to ask him about his economical wordplay strategy and time-honored approach to screenwriting.

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I should start by acknowledging that you are beating us rather dramatically at Words With Friends.

Ha ha ha.

You’ve logged something like 2,200 games. Do you remember when you started playing?

Probably about four or five years ago. Larry Karaszewski turned me onto it. You're always waiting five or ten minutes for a meeting. Larry said, you know, "What do you do with those minutes? You should play Words With Friends, because that's what I do."

So you just play in those dead periods? I’ve seen you play in the car on the way to events, too.

Yes, just whenever there are those dead times.

Have you played any interesting people?

I only play people I know. I play Robbie Doyle the Irish soccer player. What's the name of the guy who wrote The 25th Hour? I play him. Spike Lee adapted that novel.

David Benioff?

Yeah, I play him.

He’s one of the Game of Thrones creators.

Sure.

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You have such an economical approach to words. You pack the biggest punch in the smallest package.

In Words With Friends, you have all the time you want and you can make all the mistakes you want. You can sit there and try out ten or twelve words that might not even be words, you're just guessing. There are plenty of online aids to tell you how many words can be made from the letters you have, so if you're playing someone and you suspect that they're using online aids, then you have to be extremely defensive, and make sure that you don't open up anything that they can pounce on. So often you'll choose a word with fewer points, but that simply keeps the board constipated.

That's good, I've got some strategy moving forward now.

The idea of playing you in Words With Friends was interesting because you do have this openness to digital culture, especially in contrast to a lot of filmmakers. Like the video that you did for Venice a couple years ago with all the Go Pros—

Well, it's not the job of the artist to change the tools, it's his job to use the tools at his disposal. And so we don't remake the hammer, somebody else remakes it and we use it.

How does that relate to your writing process? You don't seem like the, "I'm gonna disappear into a cabin in the woods for a couple months and come up with a script," kind of writer. 

Most of them are not written. I try not to start writing until I know that it's gonna work. Although, you're not always successful. I did write a script a couple months ago and I abandoned it. After I completed it, I just said, "It's not what it should be, and I don't know what it should be yet." I may go back to it.

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I remember you showing us the notes and outline that you made for First Reformed. It's just notes written down on a piece of yellow legal pad paper, but the movie is all there. Before you put anything to paper, you had the movie together.

It's all part of the oral tradition. You tell the story, and it evolves, and sometimes I do page counts, whereby I will estimate where I am in the journey, because a film is a fixed time frame. And so a scene that's good on page 45 may not be good on page 55. You need to know where you are in the journey. Still, I will estimate how many pages a given scene is, so that in my outline, even before I start writing, I could tell you what's gonna happen on page 65. If I'm writing and I'm missing my page count, if I'm completely off, too much more or too much less, then I have to decide if the outline is wrong or if the writing is wrong. And if the outline is wrong, you have to go back and re-outline it.

Is that something that you came to or is that how you had approached writing from the beginning?

I've been doing that from the very beginning. And since I write primarily on spec, it's the guidepost, the mile markers that I use, because I'm not getting editorial feedback.

How did you fit all of the pieces together with First Reformed?

Well, as you know, First Reformed came about because of an intellectual decision, to make a film of this nature, which I had always refused to do. So once I made that intellectual choice, then it was just a matter of reviewing the dozen or so films of that type that I really cherished, and start picking pieces here and there and trying to put it together because none of us actually do anything original. All we're ever doing is reassembling bits of stuff from our experience and the work of others.

In the case of First Reformed, you're talking about the main character from Diary of a Country Priest, the setting from Winter Light, the ending from Ordet, the levitation scene from Sacrifice, but what really makes it contemporary and original is that these elements are all bound together with the barbed wire of Taxi Driver. And that's the part I wasn't aware of when I started outlining. I didn't realize how much of Taxi Driver was creeping into this script.

And the song from Night of the Hunter as well.

Paul:  Yeah, and the barbed wire comes from Flannery O'Connor, from Wise Blood.

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I re-watched Mishima recently and in the various interviews that you've given about First Reformed
, I haven't heard you talk that much the relationship between the two films although they seems to have thematic similarities.

Yeah, well here's what's interesting. They were screening it recently, and I watched the opening, and the narration comes from Mishima's own writing, primarily from Sun and Steel. And right at the beginning, he's talking about the change of course of his life and then his feeling that words were no longer sufficient. He's talking about moving into the world of action. And he said, "Words are no longer sufficient; I have found a new form of expression."

Now I watched that, and I said, "Oh, my God. I used that in First Reformed, where Toller says, 'I have found a new form of prayer.'" And I remember when I was writing the script and I came up with that line, I thought, "Oh, that's a cool line, I really like that." I didn't realize that I had used it thirty five years before.

You can almost see a version of Reverend Toller as a man of action, and an ending sort of like Mishima, right?

Yes, yes, I mean that's sort of all in there. Even though Mishima was very much a historical figure and all the events in the film are true, he is also my creation. It's not like...it's really more Paul Schrader's Mishima than Mishima's Mishima.

Right. 

The other occasion for this interview, aside from our game of Words With Friends, is that we’ve obviously been reunited with you for awards season. The love for First Reformed is stronger than ever. I'm just curious about your reaction to this response, especially because, as a reviewer yourself, you’ve always had an eye for film criticism.

Yeah, well, obviously there's a real sense of completion. This is what I set out to do fifty years ago, and I've done it. And so whether the critics like it or not is not terribly material, because you know it's good, you know you've done your task. You know you can enter your house justified. So it's very, very satisfying that other people respond, but it's not absolutely material, because it would be just as good if they didn't like it.