Paul Schrader Talks ‘Master Gardener,’ Follow-Up to ‘The Card Counter’

Paul Schrader, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Zurich Film Festival on Friday, is planning to start shooting thriller “Master Gardener” in February, with Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver starring, and the third role to be played by a young woman of color. Zendaya was his first choice, but they couldn’t agree on the fee, he told an audience at the Swiss festival.

“Master Gardener” is about a horticulturist torn between two women, one old enough to be his mother and the other young enough to be his daughter.

“I was thinking about that guy, but then two women showed up. He is having romantic relations with both, but what I liked the most is that now, they can talk to each other. What would happen in ‘Taxi Driver’ if Cybill Shepherd and Jodie Foster went out to get coffee?”

At Zurich, Schrader presented his drama “The Card Counter,” about a lonely gambler and Abu Ghraib veteran setting out to help a young man.

“I gambled one time. I had to quit because I realized that the only thing that really interested me was losing it all or winning it all. I was sitting there, thinking: ‘If I could take my house, my career and my girlfriend, and put it all on red, I would do that,’” he said, describing Oscar Isaac’s protagonist as a “character from European existentialist fiction,” just like his most famed creation, “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle.

“I’d hit a dark spot in my life and I had to write about this kid, this Travis Bickle kid. If I didn’t write about him, I would become him. He is from Dostoevsky, Sarte, Musil. Self-absorbed and not very reliable, a guy in a box, sealed up, cruising through the sewers. Since then, I’ve looked at different professions, thinking about what’s underneath. Same thing with poker players. These are films about solitary men, sitting in a room and waiting. Wearing a mask, which is their occupation.”

Talking about his background (“I was raised Dutch Calvinist, which means you are born into a sea of guilt and then you get guiltier”) and love for Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket,” Schrader was also asked about what he considers as his biggest achievements.

“Still being alive,” he deadpanned, also mentioning scripts for “Taxi Driver,” “Affliction,” “The Comfort of Strangers,” and Ethan Hawke-starrer “First Reformed” – which earned him an Oscar nomination – and 1985 film “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” about the Japanese author.

“It’s a unicorn, this film, and how often do you make a unicorn? Movies about artists fail as you can never get inside of their minds, so I had to excerpt pieces of his novels. If you are going to make a film about a painter, it’s not just the myth of a tortured artist. It’s really about how he used paint,” he said, mentioning he has no interest in talking about his own experiences.

“I have been asked a number of times to write about my life and my answer is always the same: ‘Why would I write a book I wouldn’t read?’”

Schrader said that working in cinema is “just fine,” although theatrical revenue will continue to decline, he claimed.

“I am happy to end my career riding that broken-down horse into the sunset. But I have no illusions about the nature of that horse,” he said, also opening up about his struggles.

“The biggest mistake you can make is casting. If you miscast a movie, there is nothing you can do. You are just fucked. The other one is getting involved with people who don’t respect you. That has gotten worse because there is more and more money coming from people who don’t like or even watch movies. Every director, male or female, is an alpha creature, so part of you says: ‘Give me a chair, a whip, I will go into that cage full of lions.’ Well. Sometimes, the lions win.”

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