Paul Schrader Confronts Mortality With Richard Gere and Jacob Elordi in ‘Oh Canada’

The specter of death was all around Paul Schrader as he wrote and filmed “Oh Canada,” starring Richard Gere and Jacob Elordi. The new film, being sold by Arclight Films at the European Film Market, centers around the last days of documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife and is based on the Russell Banks’ novel “Foregone.” Schrader was a longtime pal of Banks since Schrader directed the adaptation of Banks’ acclaimed “Affliction” in 1989. Banks died in January 2023 as Schrader was working on the “Canada” screenplay. “We corresponded up to almost the end,” says Schrader. “My health was bad too.” He contracted COVID-19 and endured subsequent respiratory issues that led to hospitalization.

“We were all dealing with mortality issues as Leonard does in the film. You get to the point where you wonder how many bullets you have left in the gun,” the veteran filmmaker says.

Schrader and Banks’ Fife is an enigmatic American who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War. He built a career working in nonfiction film while his entire life was built around a creation myth that is largely bullshit. “Fife is dying and realizing that his whole life has been built on lies and he is trying to confront himself before he dies,” Schrader says.
Schrader recently completed a trilogy of films focused on men battling themselves that have featured a series of understated yet explosive performances by actors of a certain age. (Ethan Hawke in 2017’s “First Reformed,” Oscar Isaac in 2021’s “The Card Counter” and Joel Edgerton in 2022 “Master Gardener”). In all three films, Schrader strips down their performances, excising any movie star tics to create middle-aged men on the verge of either a nervous breakdown or a breakthrough.

While Schrader insists “Oh Canada” is not part four in a series —“Everybody likes a trilogy, but after that people tune out,” he jokes — but he did need an old hand who could turn in a quiet but intense performance. He nabbed longtime friend Richard Gere to play Fife, the two reuniting after more than 40 years since Gere’s career-making Schrader collaboration on “American Gigolo.” As he has done before, Schrader stripped Gere’s performance down to the studs, resulting in Gere’s most powerful performance in recent memory.

Schrader is both an auteur but also realistic about filmmaking in the modern world. “You make a film like this you need great performances, but you also need some top-spin to grab interest,” says Schrader. “Richard and I working together gives the film top-spin.”
“Oh Canada” reveals itself in a series of flashbacks to Fife’s twenties. Schrader knew that to make the film believable, he needed an actor with an equally quiet but charismatic persona. “The historic model was ‘Gigolo’ and finding someone with that kind of electricity,” says Schrader. He found him in Australian Elordi.

“I can’t say we planned it exactly, but Jacob plays the younger Fife with great skill and he also happened to explode while we were making the film,” says Schrader. It’s true, during and immediately after the fall of 2023 filming of “Oh Canada,” Elordi popped as Elvis in “Priscilla” and his star turn in “Saltburn” became a hit. A few weeks after Schrader finished shooting, he looked up and there was Elordi hosting “Saturday Night Live.”

“We could not have got a better actor to play the younger Richard,” says Schrader.

While “Oh Canada” might not have a happy ending, Schrader’s own trajectory does at the moment. His health has improved markedly since last winter when he was finishing up the screenplay. “I’ve now made my film about confronting death,” Schrader told me. “I’m now ready to move on to other things.”