LOS ANGELES – Throughout his life, Paul Schrader has had a complicated relationship with Christianity.
He grew up in a strict Calvinist home, went to a Christian college, left the faith and then eventually returned, albeit to a different denomination. And although he is widely branded with his religious roots, the screenwriter and director who rose to fame after writing “Taxi Driver” hardly fits the mold of a cliche believer.
His stories often exploit the logical but worst possible outcomes of his characters’ spiraling depravity or despair. But Schrader’s faith always informs even his most profane films.
“You can’t really outrun your original programming,” the 76-year-old said during a recent interview with The Associated Press.
His latest movie, “Master Gardener,” which hits theaters Friday, is the final installment of the director’s “Man in a Room Trilogy,” something he freely concedes was more about marketing than an intentional connection between the three films.
"Master Gardener” tells the story of a horticulturist with a dark past (Joel Edgerton), who finds healing through a young woman as she wrestles with her own demons.
And while the first in the trilogy, Schrader's Oscar-nominated “First Reformed,” was the most explicitly religious, all three movies — “The Card Counter” is the second in the series — probe themes such as atonement and redemption, a departure from the depravity that characterized many of his earlier films.
“I think part of that is just getting older. As you grow older, you’re looking for age-appropriate metaphors,” he explained.
He added that he also wanted to explore questions about penance and repentance in light of the current societal fractures about how forgiveness for past wrongdoing can be achieved — a la “ cancel culture.” And although his movies have historically been replete with social commentary, he finds himself increasingly less optimistic about the kind of change that art can bring about.
“When I was younger, I had, as a child of the sixties, much greater hopes that the system could be bent to our collective will. I don’t know many people who believe that anymore,” he said.
Schrader has battled a host of health issues over the past few years and he moved into a senior-living facility in February to be with his wife, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease eight years ago.
“That train only goes one way,” he responded soberly when asked about her condition.
But none of it has stopped the prolific writer from working. He is currently in pre-production for what he says will be his final film, set to star Richard Gere, who was also in Schrader's 1980 directorial breakout, “American Gigolo.” He also wrote another script, which he sold to Elisabeth Moss to direct.
And in keeping with his fascination with stories of faith, he had also planned a Netflix series about the origins of Christianity with his friend and frequent collaborator, Martin Scorsese, who himself had once considered the priesthood.
But Schrader revealed that even after headlines emerged in anticipation of the project and being told that they were on the “5-yard line” with Netflix, the streaming service eventually passed.
“A lot of those companies are really pulling back. And particularly a very expensive series like that, where you have to build the sets for a whole season,” he said.
The series was to be called “Apocrypha,” named after the collection of literature that falls outside of the biblical canon. It would explore the origins of Christianity beginning with Pentecost, a celebration that, according to tradition, commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the earliest followers of Jesus after his resurrection.
The scrubbed series would have been a fitting and full-circle one for the duo, who sparked controversy after Schrader wrote the screenplay for Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
Starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus and based on the book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, it prompted allegations of blasphemy from the Catholic Church, and drew some 25,000 protesters around Los Angeles when it premiered.
More than 30 years later, the film, which depicts a very human Jesus, is still controversial within many religious circles, something Scorsese has lamented and believes is based more on hearsay and assumptions than on the film itself.
Both Schrader and Scorsese share a deep reverence for their faith that is held in tandem, and sometimes in tension, with a willingness to transgress what may be established as orthodox beliefs within the Christian tradition.
But that tension frequently reflected in their work has often provided a space for candid spiritual reflection that believers may not always feel sanctioned to do in explicitly religious settings.
And despite them being cast at pariahs in some parts of conservative Christianity thanks to the enduring controversy of “Last Temptation,” Schrader maintains the pair have always worn their respective traditions on their sleeves, both as filmmakers and as adherents.
“Marty has his crucifix. I have a cross,” he said in reference to Scorsese’s Catholic upbringing and his Protestant one. “It’s not like we tried to ignore it. We were exploiting it.”