Paul Schrader didn’t plan on being a director. He was a film critic at the “underground” paper the Los Angeles Free Press who, in the early 1970s, fell in with a crowd of young filmmaking upstarts including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas. Schrader, dreaming of breaking into the business, started writing screenplays. The first to grab attention — a lot of it — was “Taxi Driver.”

Scripts that followed included “Obsession,” “Raging Bull,” and “The Mosquito Coast.” But in the middle of writing, Schrader got the chance to direct. He wore both creative hats for, among others, “Blue Collar,” “American Gigolo,” and “Affliction.” Now, with a list of films that were often featuring emotional and physical brutality under his belt, Schrader has written and directed the comparatively cerebral “First Reformed,” which stars Ethan Hawke as a priest grappling with personal beliefs in a world of despair.

Schrader, 71, recently visited Boston to talk about the film and his career.

Q. This is a very different sort of film for you. How did it come to be?

A. I love spiritual films. Early in my career I had to hustle to get all my films made, and I never felt I could hustle a spiritual film like this. Also, I just didn’t feel that I had the knack for it, that I was too intoxicated by action and empathy and sex and violence to make an austere movie. But about three years ago, I got to talking with Pawel Pawlikowski, who made the film “Ida,” and afterward I thought, maybe it’s time to do a spiritual film. Once I made that decision the writing came quite quickly.

Q. Was it any easier or harder to get made than previous films?

A. I’ve always put my own things together, whether it was for studios or independents. In 1978, I put together “Blue Collar” for Universal in the same way I put together (the independent) “First Reformed.” For “Blue Collar” I got Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto and Richard Pryor, then I went to Norman Lear, who brought it to Universal. On this one I got Ethan first, then I got (production companies) Killer Films and Arclight Films. It had to be a very low budget film and be shot in 20 days. Then you run the gauntlet. You go through the gatekeepers: The festivals. I showed this at Toronto, Venice, Telluride, Dublin, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Miami. As the months roll on, the distributor hears word of mouth and starts to get a sense of whether this will be the one they can push. A24 bought the film last year at Toronto, but didn’t make the decision to push it till five months later.

Q. Is it true that you pictured Ethan Hawke in the part while you were writing it?

A. Ethan had that look: The “Diary of a Country Priest” look, the Montgomery Clift “I Confess” look, meaning the tortured priest look. At our first meeting I said to him, “Ethan, this is a lean back performance. Every time you feel the other character leaning towards you, lean back. It’s a very recessive performance.” One of the things about making rules like that is that you get to break them, and then you go back to making them again. So, when we did the scene toward the end, where he starts to cry, afterward he came to me and said, “I know we agreed never to do that, but I just felt today that that was the time. I’ll go back and do it straight if you want.” But I said, “No, I think your instinct was absolutely right.”

Q. You use a lot of narration in this film, and you’ve done it before, in “Mishima” and most notably with Robert De Niro narrating Travis Bickle’s diary in “Taxi Driver.” Where did that idea come from?

A. It’s from Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket.” When I was a film critic living in Los Angeles, I didn’t think I could ever be a filmmaker. Then I went to review “Pickpocket” and there was a guy in it who writes a journal, then he goes out and commits some crimes, then comes back and writes some more, and there’s voice-over narration of it. Two years later I wrote “Taxi Driver.”

Q. I have a De Niro rumor question. Is it true that he was actually wearing some of your clothing in “Taxi Driver?”

A. I had written my cowboy boots into the movie. At one point, someone said to me, “Bob wants to wear boots just like you wear.” I said, “What size is he?” Turns out we were the same size, so he was wearing my boots.

Q. That was a very dark movie. Isn’t it time that you made a dark political thriller?

A. We’re living in a dark political thriller!

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.