"First Reformed" - How to Make a Spiritual Film

Updated on December 30, 2019
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Adam is a writer/producer currently living in Marin County, CA.

The Time Was Right

In 1972, then film critic Paul Schrader (now mostly known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese on films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ), wrote a book called Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer in which he discussed how those directors made the spiritual films he loved. When he began writing and directing films of his own, too intoxicated by “the engines of action and empathy and sex and violence,” he thought he would never make a spiritual film of his own.


Then, in 2015, while having dinner with Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski, and discussing Pawlikowski’s recent film Ida, about a young woman on the verge of taking vows as a Catholic nun, Schrader realized that the time had come for him to write the film he thought he would never write. The result was 2018’s First Reformed, which earned Schrader an Academy Award nomination for Writing (Original Screenplay). (He also directed.)

First Reformed is captivating drama about a country clergyman (played brilliantly by Ethan Hawke) caught in a monumental crisis of faith.

The Story

“Reverend Ernst Toller is a solitary, middle-aged parish pastor at a struggling church. When a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks the reverend to counsel her husband, Toller is plunged into his own tormented past—and equally despairing future—until he finds redemption in an act of grandiose violence.”

Trailer:

THE 'TRANSCENDENTAL-STYLE'

According to Schrader, this technique is utilized by a filmmaker to pull viewers into a story, making them active participants. This is accomplished by withholding certain cinematic conventions to evoke a spiritual affect.

Below are some of the specific tools he used and how/why they work. Each is designed to give the viewer less and make them do some work.

Long Opening Shot

For nearly the first 60 seconds of the film, we slowly approach the First Reformed Church, Reverend Toller's home and charge, followed by a series of still frames showing aspects of the church's exterior.

(All quotes are from Schrader.)

opening shot
opening shot

“Here, I’m slowing everything down in a measured, calculated, off-setting use of time… I’m setting you up to watch a slow film.”

Long Scenes

Just before the 10-minute mark of the film, a scene begins in which Reverend Toller counsels a young man (Philip Ettinger) in his home.

The scene, which is basically just a quiet conversation (see clip above), will last over twelve minutes (in the original master it clocked in at between 14 and 15 minutes but was cut in post-production). It's a risky thing to do, but it's done with a clear purpose.

“When you make a choice like this, to have a very long, static scene at the beginning of a film, it really does define it. If it works, you have gotten the viewer to be where you want them to be at this time. It it doesn’t, you’ve pretty much cursed yourself.”

Delayed Cuts

This adds a sense of seriousness to the film and forces the viewer to wait, perhaps slightly uncomfortably, for the next scene to begin.

“Normally, films ‘cut on action’ - you cut when somebody enters a room or leaves a room. When you’re doing films that are withholding, you start using ‘delayed cuts’ - you wait till a person leaves and you ‘take a beat’, then you cut.”

“You cannot have fast contemplation... Good things happen when you slow down.”

4:3 Aspect Ratio

Also known as "1.3:1". The most common ratios for modern films are 1.85:1 and 2.39:1. This is another way for the director to subvert a viewer's expectation.

“The square format, first of all, it sends the message that it’s different than another movie. It also drives the vertical lines, so you get more of the human body in the frame; it’s a different composition.”

4:3 Aspect Ratio
4:3 Aspect Ratio

This format allows for a device called ‘Square-Punching’ (also known as ‘Center-Punching’)—putting the characters and objects smack in the crosshairs of the center of the frame.

By shooting in this way, Schrader says he was forced to forego another thing audiences are used to seeing—‘over the shoulder’ shots. Importantly, he doesn’t expect anyone to notice that they’re missing, only that “something is different.”

Planometric Composition

This forces the viewer to decide for themselves what is important in the shot.

“Things are seen, essentially, on the same plane.”

Sparse Sets

Schrader's policy: "If it moves, get rid of it."

“I find when you strip away objects, you can have one interesting thing in a room… there’s one little odd thing that makes your eye rotate around a static composition.”

Muted Color Palette

Originally, Schrader planned to shoot First Reformed in black-and-white - until a financier pointed out a clause in his contract requiring him to deliver a color film! So, he instructed production designer Grace Yun to use muted colors and tones. Again, giving the audience less than they’re used to.

example of muted colors
example of muted colors

Stationary Camera/Less Cuts

Schrader established some rules, or parameters, for the shooting of First Reformed, such as “No Tilt. No Pan. Locked-Off Camera,” adding to the sense of slow pace and contemporaneous concern Reverend Toller is feeling.

“When you make these rules for yourself, it really forces you into some odd and interesting compositions… Creativity, for the most part, is defined by restrictions.”

~~~~

“Hold shots longer than the audience expects… When you don’t editorialize, the viewer has to start making choices. It makes the viewer more of an agent.”

example of an interesting composition forced by a stationary camera.
example of an interesting composition forced by a stationary camera.

Occasionally, guided by little more than instinct, the director can decide to ignore his or her own restrictions. One might ask, why would he do this? Why establish a rule just to eventually break it?

“One of the nice things about making rules, is that you get to be the first one to break them… After a while, viewers forget there is a rule. So, once in a while, you break it, then go back to it. This keeps [the filmmaker] in control of the interchange.”

Absence of Music/Heightened Sound Effects

Films often use music to elicit emotions in the audience and to signify the importance of certain visuals or dialogue. Schrader, for the most part, does without it.

“Music is the easiest, most powerful, simplest way to manipulate an audience. We are used to being manipulated in this way. It tells you directly how to feel… It reinforces the passivity of the viewer.”

'Lean-Back' Performances

Early on, Schrader directed his actors (especially Ethan Hawke) to give what he called ‘lean-back’ performances - another example of his intention to give the viewer less than they’re used to and, therefore, expecting.

"If done well, this gets the viewer to lean into you.”

Ethan Hawke "Leaning Back"

Ambiguous Ending (Spoiler Alert!)

Is Reverend Toller alive or dead? Does Mary come in the nick of time to save him, or is his vision of her the last ecstatic fantasy of a dying man, writhing on the floor as his guts are disintegrating? Each audience member must answer this on their own.

If you're have trouble deciding, take heart. The man who wrote it says:

“I don’t have the answer. Both answers are correct.”

In the end, Schrader sums it all up this way:

“Movies is such a passive art. Everything you’re doing with these withholding techniques is to make the viewer active…

When you lean away, and slow things down, the viewer has a choice of one of two things: One, he can lean into you, which is what you want. Two, he can get up and walk out of the theater because he’s bored. The trick is how to lean away from the viewer without boring them.”

In First Reformed, Paul Schrader executed this trick like the master magician he is.

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