With ‘Master Gardner’, writer-director Paul Schrader completes what has been dubbed his ‘Lonely Man’ trilogy – but the man behind ‘American Gigolo’ and ‘The Mosquito Coast’ has returned to the same concerns and themes throughout of his long career. The only thing that has really changed is his approach to cinema.
“The last three movies I made about 20 days each,” Schrader told IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “I’m shooting more film without quotes — even if we don’t shoot on film — I’m shooting more images and getting more images on the chip, like, in 20 days than I did in 40.”
Some of that leanness is attributed to Schrader’s understanding of what is and isn’t necessary, even before arriving on set. His screenplays are now 70-80 pages, whereas in the early 1980s they tended to hover around 115. “When you’re working on a budget and you’re the writer as well as the director, you can start to smell a scene that’s going to be cut” Schrader said. “And if you can spot one coming in the writing stage, the rewrite, even in the prep, just cut it right away and there.”
This approach is evident in “Master Gardner,” starring Joel Edgerton as a horticulturist who works for Sigourney Weaver and hides secrets, who is tasked with taking on his great-granddaughter as an apprentice. It is the last film in what Schrader has called an “accidental trilogy,” completing a cycle begun by “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter,” but in many ways an extension of Schrader’s work since writing “Taxi Drivers”.
“As you get older, the metaphors change, so that lonely angry boy in the cab is now a former Proud Boy or a former torturer, you know?” Schrader said before referencing the number of “hot buttons on the console” in “Master Gardner,” that he joked he’d be lost in the furor if he cast Kevin Spacey as the lead. “I told the producer, ‘You know, if we really don’t want them to think about the May-December (novel) and they don’t think about the white nationalist, let’s go with Kevin Spacey. Then they will be really screwed. Their heads will spin so long they won’t stop.’”
Not that concern for sensitive subjects in his screenplays is anything new; in his original “Rolling Thunder” script, William Devane’s Vietnam vet was much more explicitly racist until he’s toned down. That film’s reputation has increased over the years and may receive renewed attention soon, according to Schrader. “Quentin (Tarantino) — that may have changed — but about a month ago he was making a movie, he had something to do with 70s cinema. And part of that, he’ll be using clips from 70s movies, but he’ll also be remaking movies from the 70s. And he asked me, ‘Can I redo the ending of ‘Rolling Thunder?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, go for it. I’d love to see you remake the ending of “Rolling Thunder”.’ He who knows if he will really do it or not. But it was something that tickled his imagination in a very Tarantino-esque way.”
Whether or not Tarantino has asked to use ‘Rolling Thunder’ in his much-discussed tenth film ‘The Movie Critic’ remains to be seen, but his purported interest only demonstrates the powerful hold Schrader’s singular cinematic vision still has — including, now,’ Master Gardener.”