The last time prolific filmmaker and legendary screenwriter Paul Schrader was stepping off a vaporetto in Venice, the city had just served as the scene of his late-career critical resurrection. Schrader’s 21st film as a director, the searing existential thriller First Reformed, premiered at the 2017 edition of the Venice Film Festival to near unanimous acclaim, with critics hailing it a masterful culmination of the obsessions coursing through his nearly five-decades in the movies.
The film, which starred Ethan Hawke as a reverend losing his grip on a life of quiet anguish, also won the writer of Taxi Drive, Raging Bull and American Gigolo his first Oscar nomination for best screenplay.
But anyone who thought Schrader, now 75, might pack off with the acclaim and call First Reformed his swan song, probably hadn’t been paying attention to the sheer relentlessness on evidence throughout his long, erratic, but always compelling career.
Brought up in Michigan in a strict Calvinist family, Schrader famously didn’t see a movie until he was nearly 18 years old, but later became one of Pauline Kael’s young critical proteges, writing the film studies classic Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer at the age of just 24. By 26, he was dissolute and living out of his car, writing the screenplay for what would become Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. With that script Schrader was catapulted into Hollywood’s executive suites, with his next screenplay, for Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974), selling for $300,000, a record sum at the time.
But with Taxi Driver Schrader had happened upon the self-pioneered genre that would end up defining much of his filmography — what he calls “man in a room” stories, or intimate character studies of socially disaffected men. The template is behind many of his career highlights, such as cult favorite Light Sleeper (1992) or American Gigolo (1980), which introduced the world to a young Richard Gere; but it’s also followed him into more outré areas of the film business, such as his much maligned, Kickstarter-funded thriller The Canyons (2013), co-starring Lindsay Lohan and the now-disgraced former porn star James Deen. Schrader’s preoccupation with souls tilted towards extremes, also recurs throughout his considerable work as a cinematic biographer, in projects like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), arguably the most original film ever financed by a major studio; Patty Hearst (1988); and Auto Focus (2002), about the lurid secret life and eventual murder of 1960s TV star Bob Crane.
Schrader returns to the competition program in Venice this year with the latest man in a room iteration, The Card Counter. The film stars Oscar Isaac as William Tell, a disgraced former military “interrogator” (think Abu Ghraib) living out his days as an anonymous card shark on the low-stakes casino circuit. A chance meeting with a deceased comrade’s son (played by Tye Sheridan) offers Tell a fork in the road: join the kid in a revenge plot against a mutual former enemy (a menacing Willem Dafoe), or finally do some good by trying to help the young man turn his life around. First, however, the duo hits the highway. With backing from a gambling financier (Tiffany Haddish), they become a trio that trolls from casino to casino in the unlikely hopes of winning big at the World Series of Poker — this being a Schrader movie, though, a moral reckoning is lying in wait at the end of the road.
Shot mostly in Mississippi, The Card Counter was forced to shut down production early in the pandemic in March 2020, a decision Schrader didn’t exactly welcome (“Production halted five days before wrap by my pussified producers because an L.A. day player had the coronavirus,” Schrader posted on Facebook at the time. “Myself, I would have shot through hellfire rain to complete the film. I’m old and asthmatic, what better way to die than on the job?”). The director and his team eventually were able to safely finish the film during a tight shoot in July 2020. In the meantime, Focus Features acquired North American rights and for a limited release on Sept. 10. Schrader’s longtime collaborator and friend Martin Scorsese is an executive producer.
Ahead of The Card Counter‘s Venice premiere on Sept. 2, The Hollywood Reporter connected with Schrader at his home in New York to discuss his perennial interest in all flavors of disaffected loners and how the pandemic ultimately helped him make a better movie.
Can you start by sharing some of the inspirations for the premise of this film?
Well, as you probably know, I’ve done a number of male character studies across my career, starting with my first script, Taxi Driver. My process has remained relatively constant in that area, which is I’m always looking for a problem in life — and as you age and have experiences, the problems evolve and change. So the problem at the time of Taxi Driver was the crushing sense of loneliness that young men feel. Once you have a problem, you’re now looking for a metaphor which expresses that problem without being didactic. For me back then, it was the taxi cab, just the image of this yellow car floating through the city and this young man trapped inside. Once I had a problem and a metaphor, then I started thinking about, “But what can happen?” When I teach screenwriting, I teach this method, which essentially becomes a form of group therapy. And I’ve come back to this character in different iterations. The best description I’ve had for describing him is: A man alone in a room, wearing a [metaphorical] mask, waiting for something to happen — and the mask is his occupation. So he’s just killing time as a taxi driver, or as a drug dealer (Light Sleeper) or as a gigolo (American Gigolo) or even a reverend (First Reformed) — alone, waiting for something to happen. And the film begins to turn when this something happens. I’ve toyed with the possibility of doing this for the female but somehow it always ends up male. In my previous film, First Reformed, the man alone runs into a kid who needs help. But ultimately that kid is too far gone, and the character’s progression continues after the kid has left the picture. In The Card Counter, it’s a very similar situation, but the kid is a much more active presence.
Yeah, in this one, in an interesting way, the card counter, played by Oscar Isaac, and the kid, Tye Sheridan, are both kind of bluffing each other at different points…
Well, yes, they’re negotiating with each other. The kid wants a partner, who’s a hard ass. Oscar’s character wants a reason to do something other than count numbers — and they see in each other a way to get what they’re looking for. Oscar thinks maybe he can turn this kid around and do some good, and get out of this room. The kid thinks, “If I can get this guy’s help, maybe I can pull off this off and get some revenge.” So at one point in the film, Oscar looks at Tye and says, “I asked you to ride with me. You rode with me. What do you think we’re doing?” Riding around in a car going from casino to casino. “Have you figured out exactly what we’re doing?”
So what appealed to you about using the metaphoric mask of gambling, or card playing, for your man in a room character this time around?
It’s a kind of non-life. You’ve been in a casino. You’ve seen people sitting there at the slot machines. Today, you don’t even have to pull the arm anymore. You can just sit there and watch the digital graphics roll by. It’s a deadening. It’s a kind of purgatory. So I thought to myself, “What kind of man doesn’t want to live but doesn’t have the courage to die? How would he fill his time?” So in this case, poker came to me first. That’s a great occupational metaphor for not being alive. People think it’s so cool, and that casinos are exciting and kind of glamorous. Well, I tell you, when was the last time you were in a casino and you saw people laughing?
So then I thought, “What kind of problem would this work for?” He has to have done something that brought him here, but it can’t be something clichéd. It has to be something truly shameful. Even a serial killer won’t work. It has to be something that he feels he has not been properly punished for, even though he has spent seven or eight years in jail. The government said to him, “You’re done; we punished you.” But he says, “No, you haven’t really. I still need more punishment.” That makes for a very interesting kind of character, particularly in our current society where everything is excused. “I didn’t do a bad thing, I just made a mistake.” “I misspoke.” “I didn’t really mean it.” Everybody has an excuse. But I came up in a Calvinist background where there are no excuses. You’re born soaked with sin and that’s that. You can’t say, “God misspoke.”
So you found a moral absolute in Abu Ghraib?
Yeah, I think so.
I found myself wondering whether you have any personal relationship with card playing. Your script obviously espouses a pretty intimate knowledge of the world of gambling, and the way the camera moves sometimes, it seems to glide almost lovingly over those casino floors.
Yeah, I gambled when I was younger, but then I started going way up in the stakes and I had to pull out. That was back when I was in California. I spent a lot of time in LA card rooms — in Gardena.
But the truth is, I do my research. I’ve never driven a taxi cab. I’ve never thought of myself as a gigolo. I’ve never been a minister or a professional card player. I’ve never even really been a society fly on the wall. The next guy I’m writing is a horticulturalist. So now, in order to write that script, I had to study horticulture. Believe me, it was a lot easier to study poker than horticulture.
You’ve said before that once you have your character’s mask and the fundamental problem that you’re investigating, you seek to create a corresponding style, sometimes even a strict set of formal rules for you and your DP to create within…
Yes, if you look at American Gigolo, it’s a film about a superficial man — a man who defines himself by whether there’s a wrinkle in his shirt or not. So you need a style which glides and caresses superficiality. Whereas, First Reformed, for a character like Reverend Toller, you need a style that crimps him in — a static camera; square academy aspect ratio.
And how about with The Card Counter? Were you as strict with this one?
Less so. I showed Scorsese an early cut of the film and we were discussing it and he keeps bringing up various shots, and my intentions here and there. And eventually, I had to be like, “I was just trying to make the schedule, Marty.” [Laughs]
The big challenge was the casinos, because they’re just so ugly. This is a guy who lives in a very ugly visual world. Prison was ugly, the military was ugly, the casinos are ugly. The only thing that isn’t ugly are these motel rooms he stays in, and that’s because he wraps everything inside them in white fabric. So that’s how I started to depict the style — somebody who locks himself in. So in the motel rooms, it’s all locked down, and the color is very drawn down.
But then, of course, you always start to want to play around a little bit once you have your rulebook. You have to do a few odd shots every now and then to remind the viewer of what you’re up to. I remember when we were shooting First Reformed, I said to the DP, “Hey, do we have any rail in the truck?” And he said, “Yeah, we have rail.” And I said, “Let’s lay some rail for this shot.” He was all confused: “We don’t move the camera on this film.” “No, I’m thinking maybe the audience needs to be reminded that we’re not moving the camera.” And how else do you do that but move the camera a little?
The Abu Ghraib flashback scenes have a very striking visual effect. It almost looks the way virtual reality footage looks when you’re not wearing the headset, or a first-person shooter video game. You seemed to be signaling that what we’re seeing is a very immersive, intense experience, but that we have some peculiar distance from it.
Yeah, it’s certainly not realistic. We’ve all seen what those barracks looked like, and they didn’t look like that. We are presenting the tortured dream memory version. That really took me off the hook financially because it had to be one take and it didn’t have to be realistic. I could’ve spent my whole budget trying for one minute of Abu Grab realism a la Kathryn Bigelow.
But the lens we used is so wide that the only person the lens doesn’t see is the camera operator. By doing it that way, we were able to do both those shots in a day. It was strange for the actors because to get a close-up with it, the lens has to be probably two and a half, three inches away from their face. I was joking with Willem [Dafoe] about it, and he said, “I don’t think I ever did a shot before where I couldn’t see anything except the lens.”
You mentioned the challenge of shooting such banally ugly settings. One thing that definitely isn’t ugly is Oscar Isaac. He’s so compelling to look at in this movie. With those clothes and that hair, I felt like I could watch him do almost nothing for a very long time. How did you work together to shape the character?
Well, I had two physical role models in mind for him. I said it should be somewhere between Ramon Novarro, the great “Latin lover” of the silent period, and Marcello Mastroianni. I love it when you can play somebody cool and reserved, and the actor gets on the program. I remember I was with Richard Gere at some awards thing for First Reformed, and Richard said to me about Ethan Hawke’s performance, “How did you get him to do so little?” Because it’s always a temptation for an actor to try to earn their keep and to lean into a performance.
So with Oscar’s performance, everything again was ratcheted way down. Also, there’s a cadence to the writing that it took Oscar a little while to figure out. Nothing is directly responded to. I ask you a question, you give me an answer about something else. I ask you another question, you give me another answer. I comment on an answer, you answer my first question. Everything sort of bounces around. I’m sure some people will look at the film and say, “It’s been totally shaped in the editing.” But no, that was how it was written, where you don’t directly respond to something, or maybe you sort of do, but you finally give the real answer in another scene. Once an actor understands that I’m not going to be responsive to my immediate situation, then it starts to dictate how he acts physically as well.
And what does this more elliptical approach achieve?
You’re trying to force the viewer to do part of the job. One of the worst aspects of movies is that we ask so little of the viewer. We show them beautiful people and fast cars and explosions and we grab them by the lapels and shake them and we play music so they know exactly how to feel all the time.
And you don’t have to do a thing when you go to a movie. They do everything for you. I don’t find that a very rewarding experience when the creative team doesn’t trust you to work your way through a problem or through a contradiction.
One thing I do with stories is create audience involvement in a character simply through not showing any other points of view. These stories are all monocular, one eyeball. Through that very seductive narration, which is like intravenous feeding, the audience is getting nourishment but they can’t taste it yet. Eventually, you start to create a bond with this person. Then that person starts to deviate little by little and it’s like a crack appearing in your skull. You’re trying to say, “Wait a second. I’m interested in this character but he’s becoming a character I don’t think worthy of my interest or my empathy or identification.” The moment you place a viewer in that situation, something interesting is going to happen. I can’t tell you what it is because it happens differently for different people. But they’re going to have to figure out for themselves how much they actually care about this character because I’ve already got the hook in them so deep. There’s only 20 minutes left, they’re not going to leave. But they’re surely not as comfortable with the character as they were when it began.
I stumbled on this — but didn’t realize until years later — when I first wrote Taxi Driver. I was modeling out of the tradition of existential fiction, [Dostoevsky ‘s] Notes From the Underground, [Camus’] L’Étranger, Nausea by Sartre. These are all first person models. Movies are based, for the most part, dramatically, on what they used to call the cutback, which was essentially a way of saying, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.” We have our team here, then we cut over to the bad guys. You cut over to his house, then you cut over to her house, and so on.
The kind of stories that I do, I feel, only work if you never let the audience off the hook. You don’t give them the opportunity to imagine another world other than the one the character is in. That’s really the core secret of existential fiction — that it doesn’t create a narrative tableau. It’s such a thin narrative bridge. When I wrote Taxi Driver, I wasn’t thinking in such grandiose terms, I was just thinking of, “This is like one of those Dostoyevskyian books.” But now I realize that was an innovation for movies, because movies had always acted on this idea that you could only create drama and tension by juxtaposing characters and events.
Interesting that you would only unpack and understand the mechanics of it so much later, after developing the innovation simply by intuition. I suppose that’s how such things usually work though.
Yeah, I remember when I realized what I had been doing — it was two or three decades later. It’s basically removing all of the excuses that keep you from immersion in the character. It’s like the opposite of giving Travis Bickle a dog. If you gave Travis Bickle a dog, it’s like giving Rocky a goldfish. You’re fried.
It’s known that you went through a lot of COVID-19 related production challenges in the making of this film.
There’s a scene in there where there’s 500 extras at a poker tournament and we got a cam remote sweeping across the playing floor. Now COVID had started to appear [outside China by then]. They had already shut down Macau, which is the largest casino city in the world. I remember saying to the AD, “Somebody in this room has it. I just know it.” And someone did. Two days later, they went back to Los Angeles, had a test, and then we had to shut down. But we only had a week left to go, so I just kept waiting for an open window when we could go back and shoot. When everything started opening up again, then I really had to pressure Oscar and Tiffany, who had other commitments. I said, “If we don’t go for it, this could be a movie that never finishes. Now we have a window. I think we have to use it.” So we went back and were able to do it.
How do you think the whole experience affected the finished film?
Well, what’s truly interesting for people who make films is what that break allowed me to do. Normally, you make a film, cut it, and show it to people, and you respond to them in the editing room. Sometimes, if you have a lot of money, you can rewrite and reshoot some things. But that’s getting rarer and rarer because it’s so expensive.
But in this case, I shot three quarters of the movie and I had just a half dozen substantial scenes to do. So I started showing the movie around. I’d ask people, “What have I missed?” I put in placeholders — stills of the actors with audio of them reading their lines, with text underneath saying, “Scene to be shot” — so the viewer could sense what the whole film was. Then I could go to Scorsese and other people and say, “Marty, what have I missed?” I get to do these six substantial scenes, I can rewrite them all. I can rewrite them from the top to the finish. Am I missing something? Of course, I was. You always do. So that was the upside of that shutdown.
Aside from the journey and struggles of finishing your film, what were the unique circumstances of the pandemic like for you as a creative person?
Well, I’ve always been a film buff, a veracious consumer, so nothing really changed there. I’ve also always been a self-motivated writer, and the fact that you can’t go out just means you have to work only at home. The most dangerous thing about the pandemic for me was that it broke up my schedule. I would wake up at two in the morning and I’d say, “I have an idea for that scene. I can go downstairs and write it because I don’t have to get up tomorrow. I don’t have to get dressed tomorrow. So I’ll just go write until five or six and go back to bed.” Well, let’s put it this way, a couple months ago, I went into detox because when your schedule is thrown that out of whack, some notion of when you drink and when you don’t also gets thrown out of whack. I didn’t realize it was starting to have that effect on me, a person who previously had a thin slot for drinking. But then you realize, “It doesn’t matter anymore because there is no time — it’s all just the same thing.”
Yeah, just the endless drift of it all, right?
Yes, that, to me, was the most problematic part of the COVID era: It destructured everyone’s life. That’s why alcoholism and use of alcohol just exploded over the last year. People’s lives were unstructured, so if you’re inclined to drink, you could drink anytime you wanted.
So you’ve been attending film festivals for decades — Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, all the big ones. In general, are you optimistic about the future of film festivals, amid the COVID disruptions, the transition to streaming etc.?
Yes, I think we need the gatekeepers more than ever, particularly now with a surfeit of product. It’s just impossible. I’ve noticed all the various websites, from The New Yorker to IndieWire, are starting to publish articles like, “Films to Keep Your Eye Out for This Fall.” And that’s because, as you add in TV or whatever else is coming out over streaming, there’s probably 200 or 300 possibilities every season. People are only going to be interested in about 10 or 15 and they’re only going to actually watch about five or six. So how do you get your head above the crowd? Well, festivals still do that because they have an automatic filtering system. It’s a way for your film to not disappear. If you get accepted in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York, even if you eventually only go out over VOD, you’re going to be in much better shape. Like with First Reformed, if we had only done regular VOD, when people saw the little picture on their screens, they would have just thought, “Oh, there’s another Ethan Hawke movie.” But after the festivals and the buzz, instead, some of them said, “Oh, that’s the Ethan Hawke movie people are talking about on the podcasts. It’s supposed to be good. Maybe we should see it.” And that’s really all you can ask for right now.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.