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.