Photographer Alexander Dinan knew about director Paul Schrader’s work “First Reform” and one of his earlier films “Dog It Dog”.
Dianan created a shorthand with Schrader and the colorful Tim Merrick that helped him light and color Schrader’s “The Card Counter”, which is now a movie.
In an urgent, immersive style, the film follows William (Oscar Isaac), a lonely and tortured man who once worked in Abu Ghraib. He exists in a kind of purity, so the horrible and monotonous background of the casino reflects his conflicting spirit. Floating between the current and confusing view of the prison, Dianan became an inspiration to the Caravaggio from a VR video from Robert Bresson, a resident of Schrader, to help convey Schrader’s vision.
This is your third collaboration with Paul, can you share something about your shorthand and how it works?
In the “First Reformation” we have really established a visual language. We asked ourselves, if Robert Breson had the tools of digital cinematography, what could he do because the film was influenced by him and was “a diary of a native priest”.
We came up with this cinematography that was static, very deeply focused, we created a world using a modern lens that seemed to us to be very immersive. It was something that the audience could lean on, you could look at Ethan or Amanda and all these different characters with their attention.
With “Card Counter”, I did a few tests on the Alexa LF and I liked the idea of using a medium format camera because we have this character who has done some awesome work. He has a painful and traumatic past. He goes from casino to casino alone, and yet, casinos are full of so much life. We wanted the contrast to be able to do this portrait, but at the same time, look at the neon and slot machines.
How did you want to frame the characters, especially when William and Sark were interacting?
We just started to move the camera with “First Reformed” and when Paul and I searched the casino after the casino, we realized that nowadays casinos are owned by big corporations. They have beige walls and this crazy carpet Paul turned to me and said, ‘These are all the same. It feels like a monotonous world. ‘It really worked for the character of Will who is going at speed when he plays cards and alone. We thought about the idea of floating around the casino with him.
Prison sequences are depicted in a distinct, confusing style – how did they happen?
With flashbacks, he wanted it to be an experience of virtual reality. I thought it was an interesting challenge, how would you feel about these scenes outside of the rest of the film? And those are horrible scenes, especially with torture. I surfed the internet and saw these VR videos where people shot with their VR lenses and gopros. They were shot in 360 ways and they were posted online, and the video player couldn’t handle it, so you get these crazy lines. I thought of the anxious American photographer James Wang Howe who created the strange set. So, I ended up using a VR lens and started experimenting with it to get the effect of that aspect. I ended up working with Ben Schwartz, who is a VR expert, because this lens sees everything at this 220 degree angle and it was hard to handle.
What color palette did you want to use for this?
I saw lots of beige going through the casino, and it was these wild carpets that made me think of Caravaggio. I looked at many more Italian Renaissance painters and began to think about the quality of the oil on the board and how it feels. You can see it in the poker scene, where the face is burning and everything is pitch dark.
I’ve worked closely with Color Team Monthly with whom I’ve worked before, and we have a very strong working relationship. We looked at the textures, tones and photos that I took at the location. We started to pull this brown and it became the guiding light when we turned on the light.