Just one year after wowing Venice critics with The Card Counter, Paul Schrader returns to the world’s oldest film festival with the latest iteration of his self-styled “man alone in a room” stories, Master Gardener.
Like the signature character studies before it – Taxi Driver (Robert De Niro), American Gigolo (Richard Gere), Light Sleeper (Willem Dafoe), First Reformed (Ethan Hawke) and The Card Counter (Oscar Isaac) — Master Gardner begins, naturally, with a socially disaffected man, alone in a room. This time, Schrader’s anguished protagonist with a mysterious past is played by Joel Edgerton, who stars opposite Sigourney Weaver and Quintessa Swindell.
In a restrained and beguiling performance, Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, the meticulous horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, the sprawling botanical estate of the wealthy dowager, Mrs. Haverhill, chillingly inhabited by Weaver. As we meet him, Narvel is as fastidiously devoted to tending the estate’s beautiful grounds as he is to his eccentric employer. But when Mrs. Haverhill demands that Roth take on her troubled great-niece Maya (Swindell) as a new apprentice, chaos creeps into his spartan existence, revealing hideous secrets from a violent past that could threaten them all.
Schrader will be on hand in Venice for Master Gardener‘s world premiere in an out-of-competition slot, as well as to pick up an honorary Golden Lion for lifetime achievement, a nod to his 50 years of creating indelible cinema — a career that has also included the screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead; Neo-noirs like Hardcore or The Comfort of Strangers; biopics including Patty Hearst and Auto Focus, among much else.
Moments after a press screening prior to Venice, The Hollywood Reporter connected with Schrader via Zoom to discuss his development process for Master Gardener, the controversial nature of some of its content and why the film could be considered the final installment of a trilogy. (Editor’s note: The conversation contains spoilers, almost immediately)
Paul Schrader: Can I start by asking you a question? How about it? I’m asking now as a filmmaker, how about the hot-button issues in this film?
THR: Well, I thought it was artistically daring, for sure, because some of the material is certainly very fraught. At times, it was fascinating, absorbing and thrilling; at other times, it was unnerving or frankly disturbing. I just watched the film moments ago though, and I don’t have a resolved interpretation yet. It’s all still in my head and I’m working through it.
And that’s the way it will be. You know, it’s always tricky when you start doing this dance over hot-button issues, because people do want to be engaged in ways they haven’t been before. But on the other hand, we live in this PC world, and, you know, people will say, “You can’t do that; you can’t say that.” You know, in this film, you’re dealing with a May-December relationship, an interracial relationship and the whole issue of a Proud Boy — and the forgiven Proud Boy. So, there’s a whole group of people who would consider the combination of those things to be deeply transgressive. And I understand that.
So how did you arrive at this character and story?
Well, with my previous film The Card Counter, it began with an anonymous man in the casino. And I wanted to give him a guilt — an unforgivable guilt — and that’s how I got to Abu Ghraib. But it didn’t begin with Abu Ghraib. This film began with an anonymous man working in the gardens. An older man who is in hiding from something and he has certain obligations — not only to the plants, but to the grand madame of the botanical garden. But what is he hiding from? Well, you immediately think, witness protection program. Maybe a mob hitman? But the mob hitman.. I’ve seen that movie before, you know? So I thought, let’s ratchet it up a notch and say he’s a Proud Boy, and not only that, he was the Proud Boy who did the dirty work for the other Proud Boys. And then he totally flipped and became the king of the rats. And now he has no life. Then this girl enters the picture — and it’s politically incorrect how you even describe her. Is she mixed race or is she a black girl? Her racist great-aunt calls her a “half blood.” But she comes on the scene and what does our former Proud Boy make of that? How does that sneak up on him, as a man who had to give up his own daughter for the things he had done. Now, he gets a chance to get his daughter back. But not only that, he gets a chance to sleep with her too. That’s a nasty gumbo.
You’ve spoken before about how you use an “occupational mask” for the protagonists of your “man alone in a room” stories to explore different unique problems — be it a cab driver in Taxi Driver, a reverend in First Reformed or the professional gambler in The Card Counter. What does the metaphorical occupation of the gardener allow you to investigate in this film?
It works both ways. Obviously, it’s one of the oldest metaphors in literature and religion — the primal metaphor of Christianity. You know, the snake is invited into the garden and Adam and Eve are thrown out. But, it’s a two-faced metaphor. Because on one hand, the old right winger, the old racist, can say, we are the gardeners — we root out the weeds and keep our nation pure. On the other hand, the reverse can be true. The gardeners can be those who say, we are the caretakers of life who encourage and celebrate life in all its beauty and diversity. And so you have opposing views able to use the same metaphor, and that was interesting to me.
As I was watching this film, I felt that it might be operating more on the level of an allegory than some of your other recent work. Is that on the right track?
It certainly is. I remember saying to someone after one of our screenings, “You know what this film is starting to feel like to me? It’s starting to feel like Flannery O’Connor.” You know, most of that stuff in Flannery O’Conner probably didn’t or couldn’t actually happen, but it’s still valuable. And I guess that’s what you mean by allegory. There never was anyone like Hazel Motes — but he’s still a valuable character. And even if such a relationship between Marvel Roth and Maya could never occur in today’s reality, it’s still allegorically interesting to imagine, “well, what if it could?”
It sort of felt to me like an allegorical interrogation of America’s foundational sin — its horrific, genocidal racism — through the past and into the present. That’s a bit grandiose and I don’t have it all mapped out in my head. But there were lines of correspondence that I could tease through as I was watching that were taking me in directions both interesting and painful.
That’s why I decided to go totally upbeat at the end, with that song that I helped create. Just to give these people their freedom and their love. In First Reformed, he may be dead; in The Card Counter, he may be in jail. But now, here they are: free in the garden, in love, free from all the constraints of society to live as “man and wife,” as the Bible would say.
In your past three films, including this one, you’ve been grappling with a sequence of America’s big sins. In First Reformed, it was the coming climate catastrophe and humanity’s despoliation of the natural world. In The Card Counter, we have Abu Grab and the atrocities in the Middle East. And now, in Master Gardener, the racist white supremacist. It doesn’t sound like you conceived the films as a trilogy, but how do you see their interconnection?
Well, it sort of evolved. When I was working on this one, a friend of mine referred to it as the final film in a trilogy. And I said, no, it’s not a trilogy. And then I thought about it some more and I thought, well, yeah, I guess it is. If they’re gonna call it a trilogy, you know, they’re probably right. Because there are certain elements that evolve and repeat, and a certain structural pattern that evolves and repeats. So, I’ve accepted that I’ve made a trilogy, even if I didn’t set out to.
So, Narvel Roth, the gardener, is shown to have done things that are truly unforgivable — hate crimes; racist assassinations. And yet, he’s allowed to go on and seek some form of redemption, and even love and happiness. In the same sort of way that America has, I guess, if you follow the allegorical line. But what to make of this?
Well, you know, as Sigourney as Mrs. Haverhill says to him, “That’s obscene.” And he says, “No, it’s not, I’ve seen obscene. And if you want to pull the trigger, there’s a justice to that.” But if she doesn’t want to pull the trigger, there is a justice to love too. And I never want to leave this world without saying, I love you. And that’s an interesting question. Is this whole scenario unforgivable in reality, but forgivable in allegory?
Hmm, interesting… And what’s truer to reality? Life does just go on, often. As obscene as that may be. Well, I’ll keep thinking about that one…
(Laughs) Well, that’s my job here — to give you shit to ruminate over.
You’ve said before that once you have your character’s “mask” of a metaphorical occupation and the fundamental problem that you’re investigating, you seek to create a corresponding visual style. I think that was probably more explicit in First Reformed than in The Card Counter. But was it the case with Master Gardener in any way?
Well, there is a coldness; there’s a withheld-ness — in the performance, in the production design. There’s not much furniture around, and what’s with those jellyfish on the wallpaper? So there’s a kind of distance, which is intentional. And that little room he lives in, which makes no sense. So, yes, you’re using those stylistic elements to make the viewer feel that there is a gap between what you want to feel and what you do feel. And that’s a calculated gap that you create stylistically — sometimes by use of the camera, more often by not using the camera, by not giving certain things. It creates a sense of unease, that makes you feel, “this could be a story I know very well, but somehow I’m looking at it and I don’t think I know it very well at all.”
What kind of notes did you give Joel Edgerton for this role?
When I first talked to him on the phone, I had showed him Card Counter and he said, “Oscar was really good in that. I didn’t know you could do so much by doing nothing.” But that’s kind of my method. It was the same discussion I’ve had with other actors, from Willem Dafoe to Oscar to whomever. I told Joel, you are on the edge of the cliff. But you are not the tree that’s being whipped around by the winds in the rain, you are the rock. The waves will come and they’re gonna hit you. Hard. They’re gonna hit you every single day. They’re gonna be called day players; and they’re gonna be called plot problems; and they’re gonna be called time problems. They’re gonna hit you over and over again. Don’t pay them any attention. They will go away. Just be there. That’s your job. You’ll win the day by being there. And so, that’s the same instruction, I would give Joel. A lot of that has to do with faith. You have enough faith in the material and the ensemble and the story that you can relax and do nothing and assume that what you want to be done will be done anyway.
So, circling back to the “hot-button” issues, as you put it… No one would doubt your ability, as a screenwriter, to get inside the head of a socially isolated white male protagonist, and to do so with a unique degree of psychological strangeness and complexity. And I understand that your mode of storytelling is intentionally monocular, and that you hew closely to the perspective of these unreliable, damaged protagonists in a deliberate way, to create a kind of existential unease for the viewer. You basically invented this existentialist mode of screenwriting, way back with Taxi Driver. But one avenue of criticism that this film clearly invites is the question of whether the character of Maya, a young black woman, is afforded a fair amount of psychological realism of her own. And if not, what are the causes and implications of that?
You’re 100% right. Not only will this come up, it already has come up. And I have struggled with how to deal with it when it comes up. We reshot a critical scene in the film. There is a scene where Maya and Narvell are in the empty cafeteria of the botanical garden, and that scene was shot afterward, because I just didn’t feel that her character had been given her chance to just lay it all out there. I knew that I couldn’t make it entirely acceptable, because it isn’t entirely acceptable. But I knew I needed to give her a bigger shot. I needed to have this mixture of generational prejudice and forgiveness, and just to let it roll across her face. But there are people — and I can’t tell you who they are right now, because it will become a headline for you — but there are people who said, “You can’t go there. You just can’t. No black girl could do that. You’ve just crossed a line that creative artists are not allowed to cross.” And if you’re a black person, or a female person saying that, it’s very hard for the white male person, whatever his intentions, to say, “Well, you’re wrong.” In that case, you just have a discrepancy about what art should do, or what it can do. I may be saying, it can do this; some people will say, no, it can’t. But then, how else, or why, do we do this stuff, if you don’t explore that very issue?
Well, you’re going to get a lot of practice addressing that.
It keeps you in shape. I’ve been in the gym for 50 years, going all the way back to the umbrage that people took with Taxi Driver. How dare you justify the assassin? But Travis Bickle is still out there as a viable avatar of our culture. He didn’t go away just because people didn’t like it. One of the reasons I wrote that character, which most people today are too young to remember, is that there was a woman named Sarah J. Moore, who tried to kill Gerald Ford, and failed. And she ended up on the cover of Newsweek. And I remember thinking to myself, you can be a schlubby nobody, but if you try to assassinate Gerald Ford, you can get on the cover of Newsweek? Isn’t that a new definition of what it means to be an American hero? Well, we know where that led us.