Filmmaker Alexander Dynan met director Paul Schrader working on “First Reformed” and an earlier film, “Dog Eat Dog.”
Dynan developed a shorthand with Schrader and colorist Tim Merick who helped him illuminate and color Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” which is now in theaters.
Taken with an urgent and immersive style, the film follows William (Oscar Issac), a lonely, tortured man who served Abu Ghraib. It exists in a kind of purgatory, so that the homely and monotonous backdrop reflects its conflicted soul. Investing between the dull suburban landscape of current visions and the mind-boggling ones of prison, Dynan turned to the inspirations of Schrader’s host, Robert Bresson, in Caravaggio’s VR videos to help convey Schrader’s vision.
This is your third collaboration with Paul, can you share a little about your shorthand and how it works?
In “First Reformed,” we really established a visual language. We wondered if Robert Bresson had digital cinematography tools, what could he do because the film was influenced by him and by “Diary of a Country Priest.”
We came to this stationary cinematography, very focused, we used a very modern lens to create a world that seemed very immersive to us. It was something the audience could lean on, you could look at Ethan or Amanda and all these different characters and see them focused.
With “The Card Counter,” I did some testing on Alexa LF and I liked the idea of using a medium format camera because we have this character who has done some horrible things. He has a painful and traumatic past. It goes from casino to casino in a lonely way and yet the casinos are full of so much life. We wanted this contrast of being able to do this portrait, but at the same time see the neon and the slot machines.
How did you want to frame the characters, especially when William and Cirk interacted?
We barely moved the camera with “First Reformed,” and when Paul and I were looking for casino after casino, we realized that today’s casinos are owned by big corporations. They have beige walls and that crazy carpet. Paul turned to me and said, “They’re all the same. It feels like a monotonous world. That really worked for Will’s character going through the motions while playing cards and he’s alone. We thought about the idea to float around the casino with him.
Prison sequences are shot in a distinctive, disorienting style: how did they come about?
With the flashbacks, I wanted this to feel like a virtual reality experience. I thought it was an interesting challenge, how do you make these scenes feel out of place for the rest of the film? And they are terrible scenes, especially with torture. I looked around the internet and saw these virtual reality videos where people had shot them with VR and GoPros lenses. They were shot 360 way and posted on the net, and the video player couldn’t, so you get those crazy lines. I thought of James Wong Howe, the Chinese American filmmaker who built weird sets. So I ended up using a VR lens and started experimenting on it to get that point of view effect. I ended up working with Ben Schwartz, who is a virtual reality expert because this lens sees everything at this 220 degree angle and was difficult to operate.
What was the color palette you wanted to use for this?
I went through the casinos looking very beige, and there were those wild carpets that made me think of Caravaggio. I also looked at many other Italian Renaissance painters and started thinking about the quality of the oil on board and how it feels. You see it in the poker scenes, where the face that lit up and everything is this murky darkness.
I worked closely with colorist Tim Masick with whom I worked before and we have a very close working relationship. We looked at textures, shades and photos I had taken on the site. We started to take out that brown and that became the guide light as we lit up.