Paul Schrader on Afghanistan and Military Theme of ‘Card Counter’

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Paul Schrader says his movie “The Card Counter,” in which Oscar Isaac plays a former Abu Ghraib interrogator who did jail time for his actions, is “not about redoing history” but rather focusing on one soldier’s memory — a cinematic theme he predicts will recur as U.S. soldiers return from Afghanistan.

The Focus Features movie doesn’t pull any punches in depicting difficult scenes of torture and violence against inmates, but the set used is a reimagining that is based on what Isaac’s character, William Tell, remembers of his experience there, rather than the actual building.

“By using this set, we were able to get into a distorted memory of what remains,” said Schrader, speaking at a Thursday press conference at the Venice Film Festival. “I’m sure for these U.S. soldiers who were at the airport in the last 10 days, they are going to have some memories and we’re going to be hearing about them for next 10 to 20 years.”

“Abu Ghraib doesn’t look like that,” said Schrader. “We created a maze that you wander in and out of. Right from the get-go, someone said, ‘It’s not Abu Ghraib,’ and they’re right, it’s not, it’s a set from [the character’s] mind.” The director noted that the production didn’t “have the time or money to do justice” to the real Abu Ghraib.

Schrader was philosophical about the U.S. exodus from Afghanistan, declaring that it was “a long time coming.”

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that our exceptionalism in the world really wasn’t that exceptional,” he shrugged. “But the moment you start saying a film is about these kinds of things, you lose your anchor.”

Schrader, who seemed reluctant to be drawn on the larger political context, diplomatically added that you “can’t get too hung up on making a big statement. Make a small statement, let others make big statement.”

Asked by Variety about his own experience shooting some of the film’s trickier scenes from the reimagined Abu Ghraib, Isaac said he kept photos in his trailer of the real prison, which he would often use as a reference point for “how all of us felt when we saw those pictures, the disgust and shame of seeing that,” he said.

“But in those scenes, I wasn’t supposed to be understanding that shame, I thought I was doing something for my country.”

The actor, who stars in two other projects at Venice, Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” and HBO series “Scenes From a Marriage,” also noted that the torture scenes were “all done in a safe way.” A distressingly long take that shows various acts of torture and intimidation carried out includes a dog barking aggressively just a foot away from a crouching inmate. “That dog was chained to a [post],” explained Isaac.

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