I wanted to start with your namesake. You’re named after Saint Paul, right?
I'm actually Paul Joseph, named after my mother’s two favorite bartenders...but Paul was the inventor of Christianity. Christ didn't invent Christianity- Paul did. He came after Jesus was dead and started the whole cult. Before that it was a small jewish thing but Paul had this message that he could sell to the whole world, which is that if you believe in Jesus, when you die, you'll sit next to the master. He went all through the known world setting up churches, wrote all the epistles, some even before the gospels. So what we really call Christianity could also be called Paulism.
Was this something you were aware of growing up?
It was part of my education. I'm a product to the Christian school system- a West Side, Grand Rapids Calvinist. 
So you didn't have access to television or movies.
We got tv a little later than other people. In 1926 it was the height of the jazz age and one of the more decadent periods of Hollywood. My church passed a prohibition against worldly amusements, which included theater, motion pictures, dancing. In fact, it was because churches like ours passed these local prohibitions that Hollywood had to create the Hays Act- The Motion Picture Code- because if it didn't start censoring itself it was going to run into local censorship all over the place. So they started censoring themselves to stop all the churches from creating their own censorship boards. That was still in place when I was a kid. 
Were you interested in movies as a kid?
I didn't know anybody who had seen a movie. I didn't really think I was missing too much. 
How did you get out of Grand Rapids?
If you're in an insular religious community, it takes a lot of energy to leave. It's like the energy that a bullet needs to get out out out of a gunbarrel. You have to do it otherwise you get as far as Kalamazoo and they pull you back. You have to just *BOOM*. In 1968 I got on a plane and flew to Los Angeles and it was an entirely different world. The second night I was there, I was up in Topanga Canyon with a bunch of kids. There was incense and dope and I remember just sitting there saying, “This is so cool. I am not home anymore." But I always felt like an observer. I was in a new place but I wasn’t really there. The metaphor popped up in Taxi Driver. I'm here, but I'm seeing it all through the screen in front of me. Everything is a movie all around me. I'm not actually in it. I'm just watching it. It just looks like I'm in it.
So how did you come to film?
I came to films as an adult, a college student. It was the period of the European cinema-  Antonioni, Godard, Bergman. That's the music that was playing when I walked into the room, the music I fell in love to. You never forget the first time you fall in love.
Was that also when you discovered Transcendental Style?
I was a film critic for the LA Free Press, a counterculture magazine, and went to a screening of Pickpocket 10 years after its release in France. It was a short film, only 75 minutes long, but in that 75 minutes I realized two things and that really determined the course of my life. I saw that there was a bridge between my sacred, theological past and my profane present at UCLA film school. But it was not a bridge of content. It was a bridge of style. That led to the book, Transcendental Style in Film which I finished that a couple of years later. 
What was the second thing you realized?
That I could be a filmmaker. I was planning to be a film critic and didn't think filmmaking was for me. I was living with UCLA film students, all of whom were making a biker film for Roger Corman. That was not for me. It was just declassé. I was an academic. Then I saw this movie where this guy writes in his journal. Then he goes out and steals some stuff. Then he writes in his journal, talks to his neighbor, the police come and visit him. He writes in his journal. I knew I could make a movie like that, so maybe there was a place for me. Three years later I wrote Taxi Driver which is that movie. So, on that morning, in March 1969, watching Pickpocket two seeds fell into the petri dish. One became the book and the other became the films. And it took them about 50 years for them to meet on First Reformed when I finally tied the two insights together, that bridge of style and self expression.
From what I understand about Transcendental Style, it’s not exclusive to cinema.
Cinema is actually one of the most difficult uses for it. Cinema is geared to do the opposite. Cinema is action, empathy, emotion. The traditional arts are much closer to transcendental style:  a rock garden, floral arrangement, composition, the architecture of a church...these are meditative, calming spaces. Certain paintings have it, like Rothko. It's easier to have the contemplative style in other arts. Film is the most resistant because it's identity is based on emotion and empathy. You see a picture and you make a connection to it. You see a person, you empathize with them- and then they move! So what you have with film is action and empathy, neither of which are really in the transcendental toolkit. You have to turn them against themselves if you are going to try to make film with the kind of contemplative value that art or music can have.
How did you learn about art?
I came to the world of visual expression very late. In my background, If you wanted him to say something, you said it with words or music, not with imagery. I grew up in churches that looked like courtrooms. They were very spare. There were no statutes. The crucifix didn't have a body on it. We had rejected all of that Roman Catholic imagery. and never thought too much about visual ideas.  When I came to Los Angeles I had to learn that images are ideas just as much as words. Charles Eames was really the first person that helped me to understand that objects and images are ideas. It's not a word, it's not an iphone. It's what it is.
Did you ever consider making film as art in the vein of Warhol or Maya Deren?

I was interested in all of the avant garde. The ones I sparked to at that time were Michael Snow, Bruce Conner, Bruce Bailey, Stan Brakhage. I remember turning Marty on to Kenneth Anger. But that was all outside of commercial cinema, and I was in commercial cinema. I was reviewing commercial movies. My interest in movies as visuals was always a kind of tangential. I never could see myself doing anything like that. I still can't. 
How did you connect with other filmmakers?
Those connections occur simply because you're all in the same place. When you're starting out, the most powerful tool is networking. That's why the best film schools are in New York and LA. The most networks are there and the money is there. And if you can network next to the money, that's how you get a career. So you're all just sort of trying to vector off each other. “How can I use Marty, how can Marty use me…” Career and ambition-wise George and Steven were much more commercial than me,  but that didn’t mean we couldn’t use each other.Then after you start having some success and you each form your own little world and those connections are lost. I don't see it so much as soul brothers as just a pack of animals and trying to use each other to survive. If you fall behind the pack too bad for you. Nobody's doing anything out of charity.
How do you recognize an idea you wish to follow?
It has to be somewhat unique. Something that not only has a kind of original sparkle but also an identity that you can exploit. Then you refine that through oral storytelling, repetition, and so forth. You test your idea out.
Is it the same for scripts?
I'm from the spec generation, where you're not being paid to write. Before my time all the writing was done by the studios so if you were writing something, you were paid. Then the film school generation came up and they started writing on spec. When you're writing for Warner Brothers, you're being hired to write a script like another script. When you're writing for yourself, you're saying “they've got rooms full of people writing like other people, but they don't have anybody writing like me. So what can I do that they can only get from me?” 
What about your collaborations with your brother?
He's three and a half years older. He began as my older brother and then he became a younger brother. You can see the shift from the one who is seeking guidance to the one who is instructing. That was part of our dynamic and why we fell apart. He went to University of Iowa for writing. He wrote a novel but nothing ever came of it. I was able to  segue him into screenwriting with The Yakuza, Mishima, and Blue Collar.
I was reading an interview with you and encountered the phrase
rainbow teaching. I never heard that expression before.
It’s a ratio... If I give a thousand people a dollar or I get one person a thousand dollars, which is better? You can make an argument they're sort of the same, the same creative transaction has occurred but one in a very wide watered down form and one in a very narrow concentrated form. When you're making a certain type of film and you're thinking of a larger audience, you'll never get it. You'll just get a lesser version of the film, but you'll you'll never get that larger audience. 
I was wondering how you balance having a background as a critic with being a director. It seems rare in the US for someone to start off as a critic and then become a filmmaker.  The closest thing we had was Bogdonovich, who really wasn't a critic as much as an interviewer. He didn't write hard criticism. A critic is like a medical examiner. They want to get the body on the table. They want to open it up and figure out how and why it lived. The artist is like the pregnant woman who just wants to make sure that this thing is alive when it comes out. You can't confuse those two tasks. You have to allow room for mystery. So when you started making movies…
I had to stop reviewing. You can't review and make films at the same time because you need the goodwill of all those people. No matter what you say about someone in a review, it's never going to be to their liking. If I'm reviewing somebody and say something about Denzel Washington and then have a script I want to give to Denzel it's not gonna work.
Filmmaking requires a different intuition.
At some point you have to say, “I don't know why he does this, but I know he does it.” If you know too much, it's not very interesting. 
What is your spiritual life like today?
I still go to church every Sunday morning. I go just to be quiet. I don't really pay much attention. I just like setting aside an hour every Sunday morning to collect your thoughts. You don't leave church because you're bored. You go to church to be bored. 
What about art? Do you believe that an artist is doing God’s work?
There's this quote from Gerardus Vanderlou at the beginning of Transcendental Style. He was a philosopher who tried to line up the arts, and the spiritual journey long before motion pictures were invented. "Art and religion are parallel lines that intersect only at infinity and meet in god." They're different paths with the same goal. To dematerialized the world.