Paul Schrader Premieres ‘Oh, Canada’ in Cannes and Isn’t Done Yet

Paul Schrader Premieres ‘Oh, Canada’ in Cannes and Isn’t Done Yet

Paul Schrader may have found a trick for cheating death: Just make more movies. Amid some serious health struggles over the past few years, the 77-year-old auteur and screenwriting legend has entered one of his most prolific phases. 

“Every time I’m getting ready to die, I have a new idea,” Schrader says. “Then I think, ‘Oh well, I guess I can’t die yet. I have to write this.’ ”

Over a recent five-year stretch, Schrader wrote and directed what he describes as an accidental trilogy — First Reformed (2017) with Ethan Hawke, The Card Counter (2021) with Oscar Isaac and Master Gardener (2022) with Joel Edgerton — with each film involving a fresh spin on the “man alone in a room” archetype he invented nearly 50 years ago with his script for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Schrader is now back again with a new feature, Oh, Canada, co-starring Richard Gere, Uma Thurman, Michael Imperioli, and Jacob Elordi. The director says he has several additional projects in the works. 

Oh, Canada is the second collaboration between Gere and Schrader, after their 1980 cult classic American Gigolo. It is also Schrader’s second adaptation of a book by the late novelist Russell Banks, following 1997’s Oscar-nominated Affliction starring Nick Nolte. 

Oh, Canada tells the story of a lionized documentary filmmaker (Gere) at the end of his life, who is visited by a pair of his former students (Imperioli, Hill) who want to shoot a final interview chronicling his life and career. But instead of recounting the beats of his public mythology, the director uses the sit-down as an opportunity to confess to his wife (Uma Thurman) and the world at large that he’s lied for decades about crucial aspects of his origin story — especially the real reasons he fled to Canada in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. Much of the film is made up of a moving re-creation of the director’s memories, with rising star Elordi playing the young version of the character. 

The Hollywood Reporter connected with Schrader over Zoom shortly before Oh, Canada’s Cannes premiere on Friday night, May 17.  

How did this film come about? 

I became good friends with Russell Banks after making Affliction, and my wife and I used to go up to see him every summer for 10 days or so at his place in the Keene Valley, near Black Lake, in the Adirondacks. He would have a lot of guests in the summer and it was quite a salon: artists, writers. About a year and a half ago, I had written a different script that I was thinking about making, but then I found out I couldn’t visit Russell that year because he was sick. He had sent me his novel Foregone when it came out and I knew it was about dying, but I had never read it. So, I decided to finally read it and as soon as I did, I knew this was the project I should be doing. 

I recently watched an interview with you online where you said, “adaptation is not you becoming a vehicle for the author of the novel, it’s finding your story within the author’s work and pushing that through.” Where did you find yourself in this film adaptation?

Every adaptation is different. With Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, I thought there were probably five or six different stories I could have written in there, but I had to select one for me. Come Affliction, there was really only one. So it depends. Some books, you really have to jump in and carve out your spot. With Oh, Canada, I didn’t really feel that, because even though the book is longer, the heart of it is really rather short. I was able to get it down to 90 minutes quite naturally and purely. 

Were there any changes that you did make, which you thought were significant?

I said this to Chase, Russell’s widow, after he died [Banks died Jan. 7, 2023]: He put a lot of himself into Foregone, but I’ve always had the feeling that Russell exaggerated his own bad behavior for personal reasons. And she laughed and said that’s very true. Russell wasn’t that much of a bad behaver. And the character in the book isn’t that much of a bad behaver either, in my view. He leaves a couple of families behind, but a lot of men have done that. He didn’t maim or kill anyone. So, I had to add something that ratcheted up the blackness to make it a bit more biblical. So I added a moment when he turns his back on his own son. That’s really bad. Russell and I went back and forth about that — whether the character needed to do something more reprehensible. Chase wrote to me after she saw the film and said she remembered that conversation and that she thought I was right to add that. 

Jacob Elordi in ‘Oh, Canada’

Cannes Film Festival

In relation to your past work, the structure of this film probably reminded me most of Mishima:
A Life in Four Chapters
 in the way it’s trying to depict the intellectual life of an artist through an
assemblage of memories and episodic sequences.

Yeah, it’s a mosaic. The others, I’ve called “monocular.” You just see through one eye — they’re not stereo. This one is like 4DX. It’s like you pick up a vase and drop it, and then you start picking up those broken pieces as you lay out the story. The film I learned this from was Performance (1970).  I loved that film and have always borne that structure in mind — that you can just reassemble things. There are two main throughlines in Oh, Canada. One is the last day in the character’s life and the other is the trip he took from Richmond to the Canadian border. We filmed them in different formats, with different types of color and screen ratios. And then there’s a third level, which is the black-and-white memories that are not connected to the trip north. They’re just sort of scattered in like spice. And then there’s a fourth thing — where we hand the story over to the character’s son, Cornell, and those are all filmed in that Bergman Cries and Whispers red-orange. There are four little things going on. I mapped it all out. 

The way you’ve assembled it, the character dies the moment he enters Canada in his memories. Canada as a kind of death?

(Laughs.) Yes, it’s a metaphor for escape, irresponsibility and death. It sort of gets twisted up in his mind. When he goes to Canada, he becomes free from his responsibilities as a father and a man. Just as when he passes over into death, he becomes free from his responsibilities as a living person. This is a highly ironic use of the Canadian national anthem. 

Did you always expect that you would one day make a film about dying? 

I got whacked by COVID. Two years ago, I was in the hospital three times, each time for bronchial pneumonia. And I just could not get better. So I started to think, “Well, maybe this is it.” But then I got about 80 percent better. I’m still having trouble breathing. So I thought, “Well, if you’re going to make a film about dying, you’d better hurry up.” And then Russell got sick and that’s when the laser focus came. Now, I’m feeling better, so I guess I have to think about postmortem productions. 

Watching this film, it struck me as a movie that only an older filmmaker could make with insight — because it’s about the very end of life and looking back. It made me think of Quentin Tarantino’s theory about how filmmakers inevitably decline, which has led him to pledge to retire after he’s finished his next film. What do you make of that theory?

You know, I certainly don’t feel I have declined. And some artists have done their strongest work right at the end — like John Huston with The Dead and his other late films. On the other hand, it is more likely that, like Renoir, Lang or Wilder, you do sort of peter out. But that’s also because the studio system stopped giving those artists the same opportunities. Wilder didn’t get a chance to make the films that he used to make. Nowadays, you can find a way to keep getting things made. You just have to go independent. There are a bunch of us geriatric directors still finding a way to work. The studios don’t necessarily want the new Schrader, Cronenberg or Coppola, but we’re still finding a way to do it.

What was it like coming back together with Richard Gere for this film?

Well, he had really moved on to his causes. Richard is a very devout Buddhist. But he said to me at one point while we were shooting, “I’d forgotten how much fun it can be to act.” He had been offered those kinds of Liam Neeson things. But he’d rather be involved in his social causes than that repetitive streaming stuff. As an actor, Richard had developed over the years a certain number of mannerisms that I was not enamored with. I, in fact, was maybe responsible for some of them from American Gigolo. But they increasingly irritated me. So I was always looking at other actors. But when you write a story, you’re always looking for the buzz — what will make this connect? If I did this with Jonathan Pryce, is there any real buzz there? Not really. Viggo Mortensen? Nah, you’ve seen that movie. De Niro would have been buzz, but De Niro wants money. But Richard? That’s kind of a buzzy idea. The dying gigolo. People could talk about that — a mixture of Affliction and American Gigolo. That’s kind of interesting. I had been sitting with Richard several years ago at an awards ceremony after First Reformed came out, and he leaned over and asked me, “How did you get Ethan Hawke to do so little in this movie?” So when I wrote Oh, Canada, I reached out to him with the script and said to him, “Remember when you asked me that, Richard? Well, let’s find out.” It turned out to be pretty easy to get him to do less. When you work with actors, you have to find the magic phrase. And Richard’s phrase was “take it inside.” Because he has all of these charismatic things he does with his neck and his forehead and his shoulders. So whenever I started to see that, I’d say, “Take it inside, Richard. Take it inside.” The other problem we had with him was trying to make him look old. He’s 74, but it’s easier to make him look 60. We had to do a lot of makeup tests. 

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on working with a tight budget. I’m sure you’re always hustling to raise funds, but you seem to thrive as an artist by working as an independent filmmaker, as you mentioned earlier. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s someone like your old friend Martin Scorsese, who gets all the money in the world and builds whole cities to make his movies. 

Marty is one of the handful that gets those budgets and retains final cut. I do what I have to do
to keep the final cut. We keep things tight. It’s not easy, but that’s what I have to do. 

What do you think would happen if you and Scorsese were to switch places with your budgetary situations? That would be kind of a dream experiment for film buffs. 

Oh, I don’t know. But I don’t necessarily think those big budgets have always been good for Marty. I mean, I remember when he was doing After Hours [1985] and he was just complaining about the low budget. But I thought that was a pretty good film. Did he really need more money? Then we came to do Bringing Out the Dead where he had all the money — and I would say he maybe had too much money. So, I don’t mind the low budget, as long as I can get the actors on board. So what I’ve been doing these last few years, when I get in touch with the actors, I say, “I’ve written a script for you and I think you’d be very good in it. And I have just three conditions for you: One is that you read it quickly; two is that you give me an answer within two weeks; and three is that you understand my financial parameters.” When I called up De Niro for this one, Bobby said, “The first two, yes; that third one, no.” And that’s fair enough. He’s got wives and dependents. People to pay. He just couldn’t work it. But Richard on the other hand, he’s done very well for himself and he saved a lot of his money. In fact, he even offered to put his salary back into the movie. He came to me and said, “I know this is a tight budget, if you want my salary back it’s yours for the taking.” I said no, but I would occasionally tell that to the producers whenever we were arguing over money. I would say, “You know, I can always get Richard’s money, if that’s what it comes to.” And then they would come back and say, “Oh no, no, don’t take Richard’s money, we can work this out.” (Laughs.)

So, you’re back at Cannes. Your first trip was with Taxi Driver, of course. What are some of your memories of the festival from over the years? 

Yeah, I’ve been five times. But when Thierry [Frémaux] replaced Gilles [Jacob as artistic director], I never got invited to the main show after that. I was invited to Directors’ Fortnight and so on. So I ended up going to Berlin and Venice instead. I went to Venice seven times. But with this film, we were in the Cannes window.
I wasn’t at all sure about Thierry, because he had kind of jerked me around on another film, leading me to believe he was going to take it and then not taking it. And as I said to a friend, it makes all the sense in the world for Cannes to select this film — and that’s the problem: They’re French and it makes too much sense. (Chuckles.)

Well, Thierry took it in the end. 

Yes, he did. I’m grateful. I also have a second gig at Cannes this year. I’m giving an intro for [Robert Bresson’s] Four Nights of a Dreamer, which is screening in the Cannes Classics section. That will be a pleasure. 

It’s pretty exciting that you, Coppola and George Lucas
are all going to be at the festival this year. Three of the great lions of 1970s American cinema.
Will you get together? 

I actually just exchanged emails with George. He’s getting his honor at the very end of the festival, so I told him hopefully Coppola and I are invited to stick around for the awards ceremony so we can all get together. You know, right around Thursday or Friday the big ears in the jury room start perking up, and if things are looking good for your film, the festival reaches out to you and says, “You know, don’t go too far. Why don’t you go stay at the Hotel du Cap for a couple nights, it’s very nice there.” So, we shall see. 

Richard Gere and Uma Thurman in ‘Oh, Canada’

©Oh-Canada-LLC

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