The legendary filmmaker and writer reflects on his curious horticultural drama, Master Gardener, and reveals which of his films he thinks is the funniest.
In Master Gardener, Paul Schrader continues his late-career cycle of “man in a room” films, about men who carry the sins of a nation, and work towards an increasingly unlikely, even miraculous redemption. First Reformed’s Toller (Ethan Hawke; priest complicit in ecological desecration) and Card Counter’s Tell (Oscar Isaac; professional gambler complicit in Abu Ghraib torture), meet Master Gardener’s Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), an expert horticulturalist whose torso, concealed under anonymous workwear, is covered with neo-Nazi tattoos, traces of his former life, under a different name, as a murderous member of a neo-Nazi militia.
Roth has turned state’s evidence, disavowed his old ways, and turned over a new leaf as the head gardener at Gracewood, a plantation turned botanical garden run with an iron fist by Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). But Narvel’s monkish existence is upended by the arrival at Gracewood of Maya (Quintessa Swindell), Haverhill’s troubled biracial grand-niece. Narvel and Maya form an unlikely bond, which seems to offer up an even more unlikely hope: that Narvel’s sins, a nation’s sins, can be redeemed, and a new kind of life can flourish in Gracewood’s soil.
To leaven the serious topics, let me first ask about the jellyfish wallpaper [at Gracewood manor]. I know, from reading your interviews around First Reformed, that you like to have basically bare rooms, with one element of decor that draws the eye…
I was in an aquarium in Vancouver, looking at the jellyfish, and I thought, “That’s really cool, that would look great as wallpaper.” We made it. The thinking was to get away from the stereotype of the Southern plantation.
I was curious in part because in First Reformed there’s that eyeball lamp in Amanda Seyfried’s living room, which suggests T.J. Eckleburg in Great Gatsby, the eye of God looking down. I was having more trouble with the symbolism, if any, of the jellyfish.
No real symbolism! Just a sense of oddness. There’s an element of the film that’s a fable. Art can do various things – art can say, “This is the way it is.” And it can also say, “What if it was this way?” So this particular film doesn’t really say that white boys can become tolerant lovers of biracial people. But it does say, “What if? What if it was possible to change?”
How hands on are you, in general, with the respective crafts departments?
That’s the director’s job. Whether the actor has his cuff buttoned or unbuttoned, whether there’s a speck of dirt on his hand or not, that’s your responsibility. At the end of a motion picture, a director can sit in the editing room and look at ten thousand decisions that were made instantaneously, and say, “Well, that’s who I am.”
One more bit of production design I enjoyed in Gracewood is the wonderful reclining nude in the dining room, so that while Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton are having their very mannered conversation (and everything is washing over them), there’s also this—
Well, it was the young Sigourney[‘s character]. That was the idea – the odd thing in this really spare room is, she has a portrait that she did when she was a teenager, of her nude.
How funny are your movies to you, generally?
I think they are… More on the witty clever side than the drop-your-pants funny side. I have done a couple films where everybody knew this was funny. Like Auto Focus. You know, when those two guys are jerking off to their own porn? That was funny. It wasn’t rom-com kind of funny, but it was funny.
I’m curious as well about how you are as a director of performers. Egerton, as Narvel, like a lot of your characters who keep diaries, delivers a very neutral voiceover that seems to me to seep into the rest of the scenes. How do you like the other actors to match or play off that? How do you get what you want out of them?
One thing I tend to say to actors: “You like to imagine yourself as a tree, driven by the wind, standing upright.” I said, “I want you to change that image in your head. You are now the coastline. Solid rock. And the ocean is crashing against you. And it comes and it goes, and you don’t move. That ocean is sometimes called day players, it’s sometimes called plot points, it’s sometimes called witty lines. But they will go, and you will stay.”
Richard Gere said to me at an awards ceremony for Ethan [Hawke], “How did you get him to do so little?” And then when I showed Card Counter to Joel, Joel replied, “Oscar [Isaac]’s really good when he doesn’t do much!” And so then it was Joel’s turn. And now it’ll be Richard’s turn again.
Is this related to the idea of the film as a fable?
Yeah, that’s part of it, but it also goes back to the Bressonian idea of the actor as a [blank] slate. It goes back to the notion of iconography — the difference between an early Christian icon and a Renaissance tortured saint.
I wish I had had time to rewatch Blue Collar before this interview. [In Schrader’s 1978 directorial debut, autoworkers Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto rob their corrupt union, but their alliance is tested by mutual suspicion.] I’m curious how you view it now, its take on racial animus, its relation to ideas about hatred, capitalism, and to the discourses of the 1970s.
I think it was either Carnegie or J.P. Morgan, one of the two, who said, “I could pay half my workers to kill the other half.” [The possibly apocryphal quote “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half” is most often attributed to a third robber baron, Jay Gould.] I think that’s true.
That reminds me of Master Gardener. There’s a contemporary school of thought that, let’s say, “culturally conservative” working-class white men and young women of color are actually united by common class interests, and have more in common than not; if they could just put aside their history and differences, they could fight the real enemy.
That’s the fable, isn’t it? But it doesn’t work. It doesn’t really work. When you get down to the basics, the moment Donald Trump says Obama wasn’t born in America, you see the divide. People know Obama was born in America, but they want to believe Donald Trump because they don’t like Black people.
This leads into something we touched on earlier. I’m curious how you’re feeling about memory these days. Because to make this fable, the film has some interesting ideas about forgetting and forgiving. Narvel has to erase himself, change his name, to redeem himself—
On the other hand, he doesn’t take those tattoos off, because he has to remind himself that that’s who he really is. He keeps the tattoos covered, no one sees them, but he sees them every day. He says in the narration, “I wear my past on my skin every day.” That was the thinking behind that — beside the fact that removing tattoos is never entirely successful and is also painful and expensive — that he made the decision that he will not let anyone see them, but he will see them himself.
Do you have any tattoos?
No. Not a one. First of all, it was a sin, in my background, to desecrate the body. And then, when I came to Hollywood, the slogan was, “tattoos, you lose,” because people who had tattoos didn’t get cast, because it was too much work to cover them up! Now, of course, the whole ethics have totally changed. I’ve worked with Nic Cage a couple times and you have to spend a half hour every morning covering his tattoos.
To speak to the metaphors of gardening, I’ve always had a theory that some rich people like breeding roses because it’s a way that you can still do eugenics, and breed for traits—
Well, gardening is the oldest metaphor there is. We were born in the garden and then a snake showed up and we were thrown out. It’s the most primal metaphor of humankind. What I was drawn to, as an occupational metaphor, was the fact that it can be seen in two different ways. At the beginning [of my career], I was able to get some mileage out of what you perceive of as a taxi driver, and what I thought was actually there. It’s the same thing we have here with the gardener: you perceive him as a caring steward of horticultural life… but as his former boss said, “we’re gardeners; we pull out the weeds,” meaning we pull out the Black people.
So when Narvel is explaining Linnaeus and taxonomy, I definitely had the thought, “Oh, this a guy who has thought a lot about biology and breeding before now.” But that’s not what he emphasizes; despite the fact that he’s narrating the film, and analyzing as he goes, not all the metaphors in the movie are on the level that Narvel perceives and explicates himself.
That’s a little game I play, and I’ve been playing it for quite a few years. You use narration to lull people. Oscar Isaac tells you how to count cards, he tells you what games to play, he tells you the secrets of poker—none of this matters one whit, he’s just dulling you to the narration, so that, in the same voice, he can also slip in something that needs to be said. And the same thing you have here, is, Narvel talks about the history of gardens, when they all come to bloom and all that. That’s all just… gibberish. But he’s telling you that so that he can all of a sudden then slip in the notion that I wear my past on my skin every day. If he didn’t cover it with all that camouflage of seemingly irrelevant narration, it would be naked and offensive.
And the ending quote, which comes from a book by Penelope Lively, is just about… gardens! It’s not anything ponderous about race relations or anything, it’s just what we use gardens for. They can mimic nature, or they can redefine nature.
Master Gardener is released in UK cinemas on May 27.
Published 23 May 2023