Paul Schrader is set to return to Venice Film Festival tomorrow with The Card Counter, four years after his Ethan Hawke-starring First Reformed debuted at the Italian festival to acclaim.
The director’s new movie stars Oscar Isaac as a wandering poker player, William Tell, who has a dark past working in military ‘black sites’. When he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man who is similarly lost, he decides to play on behalf of a gambling syndicate run by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) in a bid to win enough money to help his new companion. Willem Dafoe also makes an appearance as a retired military general.
A little more than 12 months ago, Deadline sat down with Schrader and his leading man to talk about the film, which at the time was battling Covid delays. During that chat, the director told us he was playing in a twice-weekly poker tournament on Zoom called Club Quarantine that featured Hollywood stars including Paul Dano. Turns out it didn’t end so well, as you’ll read below. We also chat about cancel culture, why he has a problem with the Oscars in its current guise, and why he doesn’t want to go work for the big streamers.
The Card Counter first screens in Venice on September 2; Schrader, Haddish and Isaac are due to attend, as is Ethan Hawke, who has been shooting Moon Knight alongside Isaac in Budapest. Focus Features will release the movie stateside on September 10. HanWay Films previously sold the movie out worldwide.
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Deadline also revealed Paul Schrader’s new movie today, Master Gardener, which will star Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver.
DEADLINE: We had a chat about The Card Counter last year during the virtual Cannes and you told me you were part of a Zoom poker game called Club Quarantine with Paul Dano among others – have you lost all your money?
PAUL SCHRADER: No, I got thrown out of that club, then I joined another one and I got thrown out of that one too. It all has to do with political correctness. I’ve never met these people, they’re just images on the screen. I said something that someone took offence to…
DEADLINE: It wasn’t that you were winning everyone else’s money?
SCHRADER: No, no. It was just impolite talk. But historically poker was all about men getting together to interact, but those days are gone I guess.
DEADLINE: You have to be more careful what you say now, particularly on the internet, even in a seemingly private setting.
SCHRADER: I’m off Facebook until the film comes out. Focus said that anybody can construe something you’ve said, it can become clickbait. That’s what all interviews would become about, and The Card Counter would be forgotten.
DEADLINE: Are the days behind us when there was apparently no such thing as bad publicity?
SCHRADER: It’s still somewhat true. Publicity is publicity. But more and more careers have ended, not because of criminal charges but because of personal charges, whether it be Kevin Spacey, Scott Rudin or Johnny Depp. They have gotten caught up in cancel culture. Cancel culture is so infectious, it’s like the Delta virus. If your friend says, ‘they’re saying these terrible things about me that aren’t true’, you’re afraid to come to their defence, because you might catch that virus too.
DEADLINE: Do you not worry about being cancelled?
SCHRADER: No, I think I’ve been fairly honest and upfront, kept my hands to myself. Being a writer in the arts, words are our tools, in a number of scripts I use the ‘N-word’…
DEADLINE: Would you still write that word into one of your scripts?
SCHRADER: I would never say never. Blue Collar was full of it, but that was when Richard Pryor’s act was that way. He later decided not to use the word anymore because he felt it was counterproductive. When you see these things, you have to think about them in context.
DEADLINE: You said recently that Taxi Driver ‘hit the bullseye of the zeitgeist at the time’. Were you trying to capture some form of zeitgeist in The Card Counter as well?
SCHRADER: You never set out to capture the zeitgeist as it is. It’s something that happens or doesn’t happen. It never works that way. What I was trying to capture from this moment is this lack of responsibility people seem to have. ‘I didn’t lie, I misspoke’, ‘I didn’t touch her inappropriately, I made a mistake’. Nobody is really responsible for anything.
I came from a background where we were born into this world feeling guilty, you were responsible for things you didn’t even do. William Tell has been punished by the government, he’s done his time in jail, everyone tells him he can start his life again. But he doesn’t feel so. He hasn’t been punished enough. He’s still saturated with guilt. I think he is a character that is very anti this moment. Few people take real responsibility for what they do. Apart from that, it’s pretty timeless.
DEADLINE: Punishment, redemption, catharsis… you seem to be particularly interested in religion at this stage in your career.
SCHRADER: I’m a product of the Christian school system. My whole youth was church related. Once you’ve been raised in such a bubble, it will always follow you. You can run fast and hard but you won’t outrun your past.
DEADLINE: Do you consider yourself to be a patriot?
SCHRADER: It’s become kind of a dirty word. It’s being used for the opposite effect – people who are against democracy. It has become difficult to fly a flag because it’s so politicized. Bruce Springsteen had his mega hit Born In The USA and he quit singing it because it was being chanted as a nativist anthem. Now he’s started to sing it again but he sings it like a dirge.
DEADLINE: I was interested by the Mr USA character in the film, what were you getting at with that?
SCHRADER: One of the blessings of genre is that we all have iron-clad expectations. I could introduce this red herring, Mr USA, and even intelligent viewers will fall for it. They’ll think that’s going to be the climax, they have no idea.
DEADLINE: You’re unflinching in your portrayal of these black sites, and the horrors that go on there. We all know that stuff really happened, but do you think people have chosen to ignore those horrors?
SCHRADER: No. We all know the photographs, they’ve been dramatized in films more substantial than mine, like Zero Dark Thirty. I did it as a memory, a dream. The real Abu Ghraib is just a rectangular barracks. I made it a maze, it doesn’t look like the real thing at all. Anyone who sees the photos knows it’s another place, that weird lens. I was trying to escape the predictability of torture scenes, they get old real quick.
DEADLINE: You only had 20 days to shoot The Card Counter. People loved First Reformed, and it was an awards hit, do you find it frustrating you don’t get more of a budget off the back of that?
SCHRADER: I’m 75 now. I don’t know how many more films I have left. I’ve managed to get final cut. I’d much rather have that freedom than the luxury of the additional money, and to have to answer [to someone].
[Martin] Scorsese spends a lot of money. He can get it. Someone like me has to be a very good boy to get that freedom financially.
DEADLINE: Marty went to Netflix to get not only the money but also some of that freedom as well…
SCHRADER: Yes and now he’s at Apple [for Killers Of The Flower Moon]. Marty is a contradiction that way. On the one hand, he wants the uniqueness to create a Martin Scorsese film, and on the other hand he wants the big toys. I mean extras, days, all that stuff.
DEADLINE: De-aging technologies…
SCHRADER: Yep. He’s been shooting all summer long, won’t be finished for another month, he moves very slowly. He moves slowly because he can move slowly.
DEADLINE: So you don’t fancy going to do the big Apple, Netflix series?
SCHRADER: I don’t think I’d have the freedom. When I began it wasn’t such a problem because everybody you worked for loved movies. You’d have disagreements about final cut, you’d go back and forth and changes would get made, sometimes the film would be better, sometimes it wouldn’t. It was always in the spirit of people who liked movies and wanted to do the best film.
Then studios became part of conglomerates, and films became seen as items on balance sheets. That was bad enough, then the next step was, instead of films being financed by studios, now hedge funds are investing in movies. I’m told if you make a movie with ‘X’ budget, five actions scenes, we’ll get 17% back on our investment. That’s a different mindset. I started to realize that these people were becoming more of the norm, that’s when I realized you cannot rely on their good intentions.
DEADLINE: I bet that a lot of people didn’t think First Reformed would be a success, on paper.
SCHRADER: Yeah but it was 20 days, $3.5M. If it didn’t make money it wasn’t going to lose much. The Card Counter was also 20 days, probably another half million. When I began, my movies were usually about 45 days. It’s not because you’re working faster, it’s because everything is faster. You don’t shoot anything that’s not in the film, there’s nothing on the cutting room floor. You have to be really brutal with yourself. You don’t cover things as much, not like I used to.
DEADLINE: You got your first Oscar nomination for First Reformed, but you wrote on Facebook recently that the Oscars are “broken”. What’s the solution?
SCHRADER: That seems to be the prevailing view in general, I wasn’t pulling open the kimono, everybody knows that it [the Oscars] doesn’t work. How can it be repaired? Let’s see what it’s like this year. The very fact that most quality material no longer qualifies is something they have to come to terms with. When you’re talking about The Crown not being up for an Oscar, you’re talking about one of the better made and executed shows [or films] of the year, how are they going to get around this? They’ve got to come up with something.
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