Film - Master Gardener

Written & directed by Paul Schrader, find out more about Master Gardener as he shares his thoughts on the film which comes to cinemas on May 19th...

Press Release

Directed by Paul Schrader and based on his original screenplay, Master Gardener follows Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), the meticulous horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens. He is as much devoted to tending the grounds of this beautiful and historic estate, to pandering to his employer, the wealthy dowager Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver).

When Mrs. Haverhill demands that he take on her wayward and troubled great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as a new apprentice, chaos enters Narvel’s spartan existence, unlocking dark secrets from a buried violent past that threaten them all.

Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener is a potent tale of a man tormented by his past as a white supremacist gun-for-hire, which captures the racial tensions of contemporary America.

Although not initially envisaged as a trilogy, Master Gardener marks the culmination of a tryptic of films that began in 2017 with First Reformed. Like The Card Counter (2021) before it, Master Gardener is a bold new take on Schrader’s ‘man in a room’ narratives, where a lonely figure, wrestling with his past and hiding behind his day job, waits for something to change.

The origins of these stories lie in the early years of Schrader’s film career. “The character first evolved with Taxi Driver (1976), which was an outgrowth of the existential hero of European Fiction,” say Schrader, Each chapter of the trilogy concerns men who are facing existential crises - living lonely lives, hiding behind their day jobs - whether as a reverend, a card player or, as in the case of Master Gardener, a horticulturist.

At the heart of Master Gardener is Narvel Roth, played by Joel Edgerton. “I wanted someone that had a bit of Robert Mitchum about them - who you wouldn’t want to get into a fight with at a bar,” says Schrader. “I wanted that 1950s American physique, and Joel’s done that before with Warrior (2011).”

Narvel, like so many of Schrader’s leading men, is a loner. He’s meticulous in his duties, carefully tending the grounds of Gracewood Gardens, a grand house owned by the wealthy dowager, Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). When Haverhill’s much-troubled niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), arrives at Gracewood, Narvel finds himself caught between these two women, as his past, present and future collide with dramatic force. “Whether it’s being a gigolo (American Gigolo, 1980), or a drug dealer (Light Sleeper, 1992), or a gambler (The Card Counter, 2021) or a gardener, it’s about finding a rich metaphor,” says Schrader. “Gardening is a particularly rich metaphor, both positively and negatively.”

Schrader is alluding to a flashback Narvel has when he remembers a white supremacist saying it’s their job to “rip out the weeds”. But it is equally through gardening that Narvel finds redemption. Schrader is alluding to a flashback Narvel has when he remembers a white supremacist saying it’s their job to “rip out the weeds”. But it is equally through gardening that Narvel finds redemption.

For Schrader it all comes back to that man in the room. “It started out with gardening, much like how The Card Counter started out with gambling.” But this was only the start of the creative process, says the director. “I started asking why this gardener is such a recluse? From there I thought about the Witness Protection Programme, and again you ask the question, ‘why is he in the programme?’ This mutated to the idea that he was a gun-for-hire for white supremacists.”

For Schrader, the story must follow a logic: “Asking these questions, meant his isolation became completely understandable. As his handler tells him, you’ll never be free from this shadow, which is echoed when he says that he wears it on his skin every day in the form of tattoos.”

Whilst bearing some similar narrative techniques to previous work, Master Gardener detours from what has come before. “You must create a different social ambience with each film, and then start moving the characters around slightly. It’s all about finding new wine for your skins,” says Schrader.

Whilst the framework of the story is akin to previous ‘man in the room’ narratives, the way Schrader manipulates and puts a spin on ideas is what leads to such rich stories. With Master Gardener, there is the central notion of the triad, whether it is sex, race, and gender, or the character triad of Mrs. Haverhill, Narvel, and Maya. “Here you have a man caught between two women, one old enough to be his mother, the other young enough to be his daughter,” says Schrader. This is the first time since Taxi Driver that Schrader has had two women in one of these stories. “I thought that it would be interesting to see what would happen if Cybill Shepherd’s character, Betsy, had coffee with Jodie Foster’s Iris.”

Schrader is also aware that what was once deemed acceptable on screen has changed dramatically. With this in mind he wanted to tell his story in a way that was both authentic and reflected contemporary society. “We no longer accept the idea that a 55- year-old man and a 25-year-old woman is a perfectly normal arrangement,” says Schrader.

In the film, Swindell’s Maya is in her mid-20s, and Narvel is in his late 40s, whilst Mrs. Haverhill is older than them both. Schrader wanted these age gaps to lean into the unease of the film. “I wanted the age gaps of the characters to add to the unease of the situation,” says Schrader. Rather than avoid these complex moral issues the director wanted to explore these rich themes in the narrative. “Age, race, and gender made for a good narrative triad, where all the corners of the triangle meet in different ways as they explore the subject matter.” Master Gardener is a film where age, gender and race collide with explosive results.

It was pivotal that the right actor was found to play Maya, something that was no easy task. “The challenge of casting Maya was that you needed someone who was young enough to still be discovering who they are, but old enough that it wasn’t insensitive to contemporary attitudes,” says Schrader. Quintessa Swindell fitted the bill. “Quintessa had been doing some fascinating work, especially in HBO’s In Treatment. When I watched that I could see the full range of Quintessa’s ability – it was like having a 6-hour screen test.”

With Master Gardener, Schrader is reunited with many key crew members he has worked with before on First Reformed, and The Card Counter. First there is Alexander Dynan, who returns as Schrader’s cinematographer. “Alex is meticulous in a way that I am not. He goes through the script creating his own storyboards, graphs, and designs,” says Schrader. “On other projects I have worked with cinematographers that don’t cover you as comprehensively as someone like Alex. If I make a mistake, Alex will be there to spot it.”

Also reuniting with Schrader are Benjamin Rodriguez, Jr. as his editor, who has worked with Schrader since Dog Eat Dog (2016), and Production Designer Ashley Fenton who worked on The Card Counter. “Working with people that you have a relationship with makes pre-production so much easier,” says Schrader. “You need people that make preproduction simple and efficient.”

The last member of the crew to reunite with Schrader is composer Devonté Hynes. For the film’s closing credits, Hynes collaborated with Schrader who had discovered the perfect song to close the film. “One night, I was browsing through iTunes, and I came across this song by S.G. Goodman called ‘Space and Time’ and I just thought it was beautiful.” The production secured the rights to the song, but felt that Goodman, who was an Appalachian singer from West Kentucky, wasn’t quite the right fit for the themes of the film. Instead, Hynes contacted American singer, songwriter, rapper and producer, Mereba, who sang the beautiful version of the song that is heard at the end of the film. Such considerations were important on Master Gardener which, like so many films made in the past 3 years, has been heavily impacted by the global Covid-19 pandemic. 

Initially, the film was set to shoot in Australia, but this was impossible because of the lockdown, and so the production moved to Louisiana. Whilst there were challenges to be overcome, including having to shoot at a time of year prior to the big blooming season, there were many advantages. The great house in the film, Gracewood, is an amalgam of two former plantation houses, Greenwood, and Rosedown, both of which have been transformed into botanical gardens.

This final chapter in the trilogy echoes the message of redemption through love. Across the course of the three films, Schrader has evolved the ‘man in the room character’ offering new, intriguing perspectives on his tales. All three men find redemption, but often at a price. The intentionally ambiguous ending of First Reformed left audiences questioning whether Toller is alive or dead by the film’s end. In The Card Counter, William Tell finds redemption, but his brutal acts lead him to be incarcerated. With Master Gardener, Schrader offers a different, perhaps more hopeful perspective, reinforcing the idea that the only hope these existential antiheroes have, is to be found in love.

Images & info - Magnolia Pictures

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