It’s early autumn in Yerevan and Paul Schrader is reminiscing. Four short years since the incredible success of “First Reformed,” the director returned to Venice this year with “The Card Counter,” another of his signature “man in a room” character studies and, yes, another triumph. All that talk of a renaissance has not been lost on him: “Do you know who Pierre Rissient was?” the director growls, in that gravelly way, “He died about a year ago, big French critic, big guy at Cannes. He’s the guy who made Eastwood in France, the reputation that is. We showed “First Reformed” at Telluride, and after the film, Pierre came to me and said, “Paul this is not a comeback. This is a resurrection!” I mean [laughs] I know he means well…”
The setting seems apt. Absent from the cinematic calendar since July 2019 (delayed multiple times due to Covid before being largely canceled last year as the country faced a war with Azerbaijan), the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival opened its doors again this year with Schrader as the guest of honor. Starring Oscar Isaac, “The Card Counter” offers another in that long line of Schrader outcasts, this time a gambler ex-con who is haunted by the acts of torture he committed during the Iraq war, notably in the prisons of Abu Ghraib. We have skimmed these waters before.
Raised in a strict Calvinist community, Schrader’s formative years in cinema have taken on the allure of a fable: never seeing a film until his late teens, then a fateful encounter with the critic Pauline Kael, then writing “Taxi Driver” at 26, a script that he said came out of him “like an animal,” and a film that remains his source code, one he continuously returns to with near monastic rigor. Opening to ecstatic reviews (“extremely favorable,” the director scoffs, “like tripping over each other favorable”), ‘Card Counter’ sees Schrader return, yet again, to those themes of loneliness, sacrifice, and catharsis that have provided the backbone to his work for six decades. “There is a group of films that are like beads on a rosary,” the director explains, his thumb and forefinger counting out a prayer, “some work better than others, some are more tactile than others, but there is a connection there.”
You achieved this incredible success with First Reformed, even going so far as to call it your “masterpiece.” What did that experience mean for you?
The success was enormously gratifying. It’s the same thing I felt after “Taxi Driver,” not the burden of having done something that will endure but the relief that you’ve done it. You have validation that will last, no matter how many failures you have. And then with “First Reformed,” there was a sense of a completion of that validation. There’s a saying in Sam Peckinpah’s film “Ride The High Country” that was a quote from Peckinpah’s father, who was a judge in early California. Joel McCrea says to Randolph Scott, “What do you really want?” and he says, “all I want is to go to my house justified.”
The release of “The Card Counter” feels timely. Do you think the recent events in Afghanistan will cause audiences to look at the film in a different light?
Not much different. I never really thought of it that much as a political film. Then because of Afghanistan, people started taking it as one. I was attracted to Abu Ghraib because I was looking for something that the audience could understand, something that would almost paralyze somebody with guilt, something that is close to unforgivable, where it’s not merely that you’re harming somebody else, you’re putting a stain on your nation, and long after you die and everybody else dies that stain will remain.
I was trying to find something where the audience would say: yeah, I can understand why after seven and a half years in jail he still feels guilty. So that’s why I went to it, not out of any political thing, but I do believe the success of the film is because people need a handle, and that became a handle.
Your work has always been synonymous with these loner characters, yet you seem increasingly drawn to war veterans. In “First Reformed,” now ‘Card Counter,’ even as far back as “Taxi Driver?”
Well, Travis not obviously, Vietnam is never really mentioned. That’s something the audience put into the film. I’ve done a few. Obviously, if you have a character who’s come out of war, like my uncles came out of WWII, I mean that changes you. You never see things quite the same way again, so it’s a good kind of shorthand. All those film noir characters were in the war.
The character calls himself William Tell. Can you unpack that reference?
I mean it began as kind of a pun. A “tell” is a poker term, and I knew he had to have a pseudonym, and so it became this kind of mixture of the pun and the mythological reference to the William Tell of history. No one’s really sure if he existed or not, it’s just a story that’s grown up and has a life of its own. The legend is that a despot took over and Tell was only able to save his son’s life if he shot an arrow through an apple on his head. Then he subsequently helped to overthrow the despot.
Another story of sacrifice and catharsis?
Well, these stories of these loners, young men, sometimes a little older, they end up in a sad way, but there’s usually a kind of grace note, even if it’s an imagined grace note, like the end of “Taxi Driver” or the end of “First Reformed.” You know, is he alive, is he dead? And here the kind of grace note is that he’s at peace because he’s back in jail. And on the surface that seems to be a downer but it’s not being played that way in the film, particularly with the music.
Isaac seems like a classic Schrader lead. How did you approach him with the role?
Well, some time ago, maybe 25 years, I was gonna do a revenge movie in Mexico, and I was looking for a new actor, Hispanic actor, Oscar is Guatemalan, and I tested a bunch of people and I gave him the job. It would have been his first leading role, fresh out of Julliard, but then the company I was gonna make it for fell apart and the film never got made. I always remembered Oscar and we kind of kept in touch, we’d run into each other every now and then. I’d always think he’s a good actor for me. When I made “First Reformed” I was thinking about him but also Ethan, and I thought that character should be just a little bit older so he could credibly have a child in his ‘20s. I really don’t like to use the same actors. I like to find a new model.
It’s the fourth time you’ve worked with Dafoe. What is his particular genius?
Most people use Willem for his oddness, as with Bobby Peru [in David Lynch’s “Wild At Heart”]. I’ve used him for that in “Dog Eat Dog,” but I also think he’s very good when he’s quiet. I used him in “Light Sleeper,” being quiet. As an actor he can do just about anything. Of course, he can’t make himself younger, like that famous line in “Tootsie,” in the Russian tea room, Sydney Pollack is playing the agent, and Dustin Hoffman doesn’t understand why he can’t get this job, and Sydney says, “you know the character is really tall in the script,” and Dustin says, “but I can play tall?” [Laughs]