Schrader was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the son of Joan (née Fisher) and Charles A. Schrader, an executive. Schrader's family attended the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church. His early life was based upon the religion's strict principles and parental education. He did not see a film until, when he was seventeen years old, he was able to sneak away from home. In an interview he stated that The Absent-Minded Professor was the first film he saw. In his own words, he was "very unimpressed" by it, while Wild in the Country, which he saw some time later, had quite some effect on him. Schrader attributes his intellectual rather than emotional approach towards movies and movie-making to his having no adolescent movie memories. Schrader is of Dutch descent.