Paul Schrader: ‘I thought, you know what would really f*** with people’s heads? Let’s cast Kevin Spacey. The producer said no’

The director is still hell-bent on provocation as his latest film, Master Gardener, portrays an interracial romance between a former Proud Boy and his young charge

Paul Schrader is discussing a lyric in a song by SG Goodman as featured on the soundtrack of his incendiary new film, Master Gardener.

“It’s based on an old Appalachian song,” says the writer and director. “It has a beautiful line saying: I never want to leave this world without saying I love you. When I started out as a screenwriter I never wanted to leave this world without saying ‘f*** you’. But the endings of my films have changed over the years. Now I’m an artist who never wants to leave this world without saying: I love you.”

Schrader’s “f*** you” years were certainly memorable. Raised by strict Calvinist parents, he didn’t see a movie until he was 17. After graduating from film school in Los Angeles he worked as a film critic until he sold his first script, The Yakuza, in 1975 for a record-breaking $300,000.

The next year he wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the first of several key collaborations – including Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead – with that director.


The success of Taxi Driver led to his 1978 directorial debut, Blue Collar, and a filmmaking career characterised by alienated men having epiphanies in bedrooms, notably Richard Gere in American Gigolo, Nick Nolte in Affliction, Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper and Greg Kinnear in Auto-Focus. That’s a lot of career-best performances.

“I was talking with Anthony Perkins years ago and I said to him: Elia Kazan says acting is 75 per cent casting,” says Schrader. “And Tony said: no, he’s wrong, it’s 90 per cent.”

Following on from First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke, and The Card Counter, starring Oscar Isaac, Master Gardener is the third instalment of an unofficial trilogy of redemption, set across various professions.

“Well, you know, that started all the way back with Taxi Driver,” says Schrader. “People thought they knew what that occupation was. But I thought about it, and I saw the dark heart of Dostoevsky; this angry, silent kid locked in a metal box, floating through the sewers of the city. Getting angrier and angrier. And so that you can use that gap between a perception and reality.

“With Light Sleeper, it’s the perception of a drug dealer versus a guy having a midlife crisis or a guy who’s worried that he doesn’t have any skills. Similarly, with Card Counter, you have a sort of notion of a gambler and then you juxtapose the notion of a torturer. That’s what I’m always trying to do.

“With the garden metaphor, on the one hand, it’s very nurturing. On the other hand. It is brutal. It’s control over nature. It’s weeding and deadheading plants so that they bloom quicker. There’s the beauty of the garden and faith in the future and all of that. The garden is the oldest metaphor we have since we were all born in the garden and got thrown out for listening to that damn snake.”

Joel Edgerton, the star and titular horticulturalist from Master Gardener, recalls the director saying that this would probably be his last film. By the time Schrader was in the edit he had passed along a new, sexually explicit screenplay about a trauma nurse in Puerto Rico – his first script featuring a female protagonist – to actor-turned-director Elisabeth Moss on the grounds that: “I’m an old white male. How the hell am I going to direct that?”

He’s about to go into production with Oh, Canada, an adaptation of a 2021 Russell Banks novel about a dying documentary filmmaker and a reunion with American Gigolo star Richard Gere. “It’s my Ivan Ilyich,” he says.

He keeps making the kind of films that seldom get made by shooting fast and digitally. His funding largely comes from equity. “I won’t make you rich, but I can get your money back,” he says. It’s one of the reasons he stays away from what he calls the “big toys” of movie making.

“Certain filmmakers – Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese – have been able to retain control,” he says. “But their stories are much more populist than mine. The only way I can retain control is by keeping the scale small.”

Master Gardener, a wild and furious film that has simultaneously some of the best and worst reviews of Schrader’s career, doesn’t feel small. It’s a Molotov cocktail of a picture and one of this writer’s favourites. The plot is a constellation of causes for cultural cancellation.

Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is a gardener who lives quietly on the colonial estate of his boss and occasional lover, Mrs Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), an older southern belle. She fosters her grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a young woman she characterises as “mixed blood” who has made “bad choices”. The pearl-wearer entrusts her niece to Narvel as an apprentice.

And when Narvel and Maya embark on the unlikeliest of romances, Mrs Haverhill is put out. After all, she’s a white supremacist who took Narvel – a former Proud Boy – in.

It’s a plot that suggests an artist who is still thinking “f*** you”. Even Sigourney’s twinset is out to provoke.

“There are definitely hot buttons,” smiles Schrader. “Cameron Bailey, who ran the Toronto film festival – and Toronto shows a lot of films – was really disturbed that the film didn’t take racism seriously enough.

“As a black man who had experienced racism, he had problems that racism wasn’t more directly addressed. So there are major issues. There’s a May-December relationship. That used to be the norm, but we now think that is bad. We have a black-white relationship. And then we have the Dirty Harry trope. Is the thug going to be redeemed by returning to thuggery? That’s a lot of nasty ideas.

When we showed the film to an audience at the botanical gardens in New York, I had to come out and explain this film was not about gardening

“I was worried about the May-December relationship so I thought: let’s make him a Proud Boy. That’ll make the interracial relationship so f***ed up, they’ll forget about the age. And then when we were casting, I thought: you know what would really fuck with people’s heads? Let’s cast Kevin Spacey. Then heads will be spinning.”

He chuckles. “The producer said no.”

The pitting of a landowner against her staff makes Master Gardener the director’s most Marxist-themed work since Blue Collar, a film in which Yaphet Kotto tells Richard Prior and Harvey Keitel: “They pit the lifers against the new boys, the young against the old, the black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.”

“Yes,” he says, gleefully. “But I turned the Mandingo character into a white nationalist. It’s a film about racism that isn’t about racism. It’s a film about inappropriate relationships that isn’t about inappropriate relationships. It’s a film about drug dealing that isn’t about drug dealing. When we showed the film to an audience at the botanical gardens in New York, I had to come out and explain this film was not about gardening because they were all members of gardening clubs. I’ve never been a taxi driver or a card player or a gardener. There’s always room to deflect and get the film out there.”

If social media was up and running in the early days of Schrader’s career, I’m not sure he would have made it this far.

“Ha,” he says. " What’s the saying? If ifs and buts were beer and nuts. What if I grew up in the world of computers and AI? It’s a lot of hypotheticals. Thankfully.”

Just to add to the flammability, Master Gardener features Quintessa Swindell, the charismatic non-binary star of Netflix drama Trinkets and the 2022 superhero film Black Adam. The film also features a revolutionary new way of depicting the trans body on screen.

Hardcore is one of the films that keeps getting mentioned more and more, to my surprise. But I think that might just be out of nostalgia for pre-digital porn

“This is a kind of an extracurricular subject,” says Schrader. “Because when Quintessa tested, she tested as a she and the character is a she. She identifies as non-binary. But the character is not. Quintessa has not yet transitioned. At least not the last time we met. So I’m weary of people trying to read that in.”

One suspects that even the most pearl-clutching detractors will ultimately come around. Schrader is seasoned enough to remember the initial mixed reviews for Cat People, his remake of Jacques Touneur’s film, which was hailed as a masterpiece when restored and reissued last year. In 1982, Leonard Maltin described the film as “sexy, bloody, technically well crafted, but uneven and ultimately unsatisfying”.

It was a legendarily troubled production. Writing in the occasionally speculative post-classical Hollywood chronicle Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind suggests that Schrader had an affair with Nastassja Kinski on the set of Cat People. After Kinski (who’s quoted as saying “I always f*** my directors”) dumped him, Schrader refused to speak to her and allegedly “directed her by proxy from his limousine”. The actor subsequently described the film as “manipulative”.

“That ending descends into zoophilia,” says Schrader. “I remember we screened it when it came out. I was sitting with Jerry Bruckheimer. And David [Bowie] comes up doing this kind of African chant. And John Heard is cinching her to the bed so that he can rape her and she’ll become an animal again. And there are two girls sitting in front of us, horrified, saying: ‘Oh my God’. I turned to Jerry and said: maybe we went a little too far. But things come around. It’s not too far for today. I remember when they changed the ending for Raging Bull. I don’t think you’d have to do that now.”

He notes there is a similar revival of interest in Hardcore, the 1979 drama starring George C Scott as a Calvinist father searching for his daughter after she appears in a pornographic film. Writing in the New Yorker upon release, Pauline Kael suggested that the film didn’t work, as the protagonist “feels no lust, so there’s no enticement – and no contest. The Dutch Reformation Church has won the battle for his soul before the film’s first frame.”

“Hardcore is one of the films that keeps getting mentioned more and more, to my surprise,” says Schrader. “But I think that might just be out of nostalgia for pre-digital porn. When you actually had to go to a shop and buy a magazine or use a peephole. Or go to a red light part of town where the sex-oriented businesses were. Now it’s just a matter of keystrokes on your laptop.”

Master Gardener opens on May 26th