Q&A with Paul Schrader and Tiffany Haddish

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Card Counter.

Can you talk about finding this character, before you brought him to the page?

Paul Schrader: These kinds of stories — I’ve done about a half-dozen of them, stretching all the way back to Taxi Driver — usually come about when there’s a metaphor. Often, in my case, it’s an occupational metaphor. And then there is a personal or societal problem that starts to line up with that metaphor. And it’s not a predictable alignment. As I was saying before, when Taxi Driver came out, people thought of him as some kind of garrulous best friend at a movie, whereas I saw him in the tradition of European existential fiction… as the black heart of existentialism! So when you take the taxi driver and put him in that situation, you get interesting results. In this case, I was thinking about professional card players, looking at them on television… and thinking to myself, “wow, that’s a peculiar occupation.” Because these guys play ten to twelve hours a day. And for the most part, they’re just running numbers: odds, probabilities. And, you know, what’s attractive about that occupation? I saw it as a kind of metaphor for a half-life. These people who sit in front of slot machines. It’s a kind of purgatory between life and non-life. And I thought that was an interesting occupational metaphor. Then I started trying to align it with a problem, and I had been thinking about how much personal responsibility we’ve lost in the modern world. You know… “I didn’t lie; I ‘misspoke.’ ” Or, “I didn’t touch her inappropriately… I ‘made a bad choice.’ ” There’s always an excuse now. Whereas in the tradition I was raised in — Dutch Calvinism — you were born in a sea of guilt, and you only got guiltier. And you were totally responsible, not only for yourself but you were responsible for everybody else, too. So I said to myself, “what if a character from my background got put in that situation, where he feels that he hasn’t paid his debt… even though the government says he has? And what does he do, at that point, to wait? Because he has to wait— wait for something to happen. So he’s waiting— by playing cards. And then the next step was, thinking about, well, what could he have done that is so unforgivable (to himself)? Could he be a serial killer? Torturer of animals? Or…? And then my mind went to Abu Ghraib. And I thought, “now that is pretty close to unforgivable.” Because it’s not so much something you did, as it is a stain on your nation. Because it will outlive you, and it will outlive all the other people involved. So then I had a kind of societal problem, and a very nice metaphor… and you start bringing them together, and at a certain point, sparks either fly or they don’t.

wherever there are people, she’s going to be watching

What did the location do for you, in terms of preparing this character?

Tiffany Haddish: I think this character could have been in any casino, anywhere. I feel like casinos are sad kinds of places where people go to find luck… but they’re not the luckiest kinds of places. I think she’s, you know— she watches people. She’s a people-watcher, and she’s looking for opportunity. So wherever there are people, she’s going to be watching. And she’s dealing in the world of poker, and gambling, so of course she’s going to be in a casino. But I feel like she could do what she does anywhere. She could have been a pimp, for instance.

The military scenes are remarkable. How did you incorporate those into the film?

PS: I didn’t have the budget or the time to do full justice to Abu Ghraib. I didn’t have the Zero Dark Thirty kind of money. So I had to come up with something that was much more impressionistic. And the 6.5mm lens has a kind of VR feel to it: the only thing that lens doesn’t see is the camera operator. It sees the ceiling, it sees the floor, it sees the walls to the side. And the real Abu Ghraib doesn’t look like that. It’s just a warehouse. But we made it look like a maze. And you’re wandering through it, as the audience member. I didn’t want viewers to say, “well, that’s a kind of tacky version of Abu Ghraib.” I wanted them to realize that what they’re seeing is not Abu Ghraib at all; it’s the Abu Ghraib that lives inside his mind. So that was the thinking behind that. And also because that lens is so wide… if an actor is in a closeup, the lens is literally two inches away from the lens. If he’s talking to someone else, the other person he’s talking to is off-camera. So that meant we had to do the character interactions in one take, which is good for me, because you just rehearse and rehearse and do it one take and you don’t waste the rest of the day doing coverage.

How did the comedic elements of the character overlap with the dramatic elements?

TH: I guess I just had to… I guess turn the “stage Tiffany” off, and the “real Tiffany” on. In any conversation you do things to ease it along: You crack a little joke here and there to have that camaraderie, for people to feel comfortable. But it’s not necessarily as big as I normally would like to do! Like, when I do what I do. And so that’s where the difference was. Actually… can I tell you something? Ok, so… comedy is way harder to do. Being funny? You’re tickling people’s souls and you’re getting them to come along. And this was… it was easy-hard. Easy because, well, you just need to be still and be present. Hard because I get bored easily! And I’m used to, like, using my hands and using my body… but for this character, I didn’t have to do that. And that’s what Paul helped me realize: just be there.

Q&A with Ethan Hawke and Paul Schrader

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of First Reformed.

What was the genesis of this film?
Paul Schrader: The process began about three years ago when I was giving an award for Pawel Pawlikowski, for his film Ida at the New York Society of Film Critics. I liked Ida a lot. Ida is also a square format, a locked off movie. And we’re talking about spiritual cinema and also about the lower cost of filmmaking whereby certain films that were financially irresponsible in the past might not be so irresponsible today. And I was walking back uptown and I said, “You know, you’re going to be 70 next year. It’s time. It’s time to write that movie that you have been swearing for decades you would never write.” That’s how that process started.

How was it shooting for such a short period of time?
PS: Well when you’re involved in this kind of film, you are involved with various withholding devices. You’re holding back things that the viewer has expected in timing or in music, pacing, and also in performance. The first time I met with Ethan, I said to him, “You know this is a laid back performance,” and he knew exactly what I meant.

Ethan Hawke: There’s a certain kind of performance that’s involved in entertaining you, where you go meet the audience, and there’s another one where you retreat and you ask them to follow you. And everything that Paul did, the writing, the filmmaking, everything was oriented towards a different way of entertaining. It was a wonderful experience. It’s really exciting to be acting for someone who has studied film. People love to talk about how many days you shot a movie as if it has anything to do with it at all. Sometimes you can spend years preparing for a movie and you might shoot it in a few days, but it doesn’t mean you haven’t spent years working on it. I’ve been on movies that have shot 100 Days, and they haven’t put any thought into it, and they’re just a big mess. I wish they shot for 20 days!

“The secret of theft, which is also called ‘creativity,’ is you have to steal a bit from a lot of different places.”

Throughout the film, there are references to other movies, but it feels as if those references are owned by you both. Why does this film feel as if it has transcended its influences?
PS: The secret of theft, which is also called “creativity,” is you have to steal a bit from a lot of different places. You can’t go to the same 7/11 every time because they’ll catch you. So you go to the photo shop, and you go to the gas station, and you go to that little hot dog stand that nobody goes to and by the end you’ve stolen enough stuff from enough places that people think its yours.

EH: Another way of saying that is… Getting an education. One of the things that frustrates me is I’ll be on a film set and I’ll say, “Well, you know this scene is kind of reminiscent of Five Easy Pieces.” And perfectly legitimate film directors will not know what that is. It’s really frustrating to me. The quality of the writing dissipates, and the quality of the performance dissipates when people aren’t educating themselves. A good rock and roller knows the history of music. You steal from this, and you take a little pieces of this chord progression, and in the process of doing that, you come out. Your own voice appears.

When you were reading and writing the script did you have an idea that it would be so prescient?
PS: Obviously the situation with our physical world has not been good for some time, and that I don’t think is going to change. But let me take issue with you there because we’re going now in kind of a weird spot in independent movies. It’s so easy to make films. Maybe 15,000 or 20,000 films get made a year in this country alone. And of those 15,000, ten of them rise above the crowd and get noticed. How do you get to be one of those ten films? And I’ve sort of learned over the last six months that first you go through the gatekeepers, which are the festivals. Then you go through all kinds of special programs, and we showed it to South by Southwest in March. Now it’s been shown at maybe twenty-five festivals around the world. And I went to a meeting at A24 and that’s when they decided to give it the theatrical push. They waited six months just to see if it would endure and run the gauntlet. Will people still be interested in it after two more weeks– two more months? And so it is this exhausting process to prove that you are worthy of the investment of a theatrical feature. A company like A24 probably puts a push on maybe four films a year.

Could you talk about the opening of the film and why openings are so important?
PS: You teach the audience how to watch yourself and that’s why I like credits in the front of the movie because you get two or three minutes. They don’t hold you responsible for the credits. And you can use those two or three minutes to teach them about your film. Whether it be zany credits or melancholic credits. The idea behind the film was it was going to be all locked off. And then I got to this location and said, “OK. That shot just cries out as you walk up the hill.” And so instead stealing the first shot from Winter Light, I stole the first shot from Silent Light, the Reygadas film where he had that long, long incremental push forward at daybreak. But everything else was locked down. No pan, no tilt, no overs. When doing so it kind of creates an uncomfortable feeling.