Cinematographer Alexander Dynan got to know director Paul Schrader working on “First Reformed” and an earlier film, “Dog Eat Dog.”
Dynan developed a shorthand with Schrader and with colorist Tim Merick that helped him light and color Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” which is in cinemas now.
Told in an urgent, immersive style, the film follows William (Oscar Issac), a lonely and tortured man who once served at Abu Ghraib. He exists in a kind of purgatory, so the drab and monotonous backdrop of casinos mirrors his conflicted soul. Flipping between the drab suburban landscape of the present and hallucinatory visions of the prison, Dynan turned to inspirations from Schrader’s lodestar, Robert Bresson, to VR videos to Caravaggio to help deliver Schrader’s vision.
This is your third collaboration with Paul, can you share a little about your shorthand and how that works?
On “First Reformed,” we really established a visual language. We asked ourselves, if Robert Bresson had digital cinematography tools, what he might be doing because the film was influenced by him and “Diary of a Country Priest.”
We came up with this cinematography that was stationary, very deep focused, we use a very modern lens to create a world that we felt like was very immersive. It was something that the audience could lean into, you could look at Ethan or Amanda and all these different characters and see them in focus.
With “The 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 horrible things. He has a painful and traumatic past. He goes from casino to casino in a lonely way, and yet, casinos are full of so much life. We wanted this contrast of being able to do this portraiture, but at the same time, see the neon and slot machines.
How did you want to frame the characters, especially when William and Cirk were interacting?
We barely moved the camera with “First Reformed,” and as Paul and I were scouting casino after casino, we came to realize that casinos these days are owned by large 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.’ That really worked for Will’s character who is going through the motions as he plays cards and is lonely. We thought about the idea of floating around the casino with him.
The prison sequences are shot in a distinctive, disorienting style — how did those come about?
With the flashbacks, he wanted that to feel like a virtual reality experience. I thought that was an interesting challenge, how do you make these scenes feel outside of the rest of the film? And they’re terrible scenes, especially with the torture. I looked around the internet and saw these VR videos where people had shot them with VR lenses and GoPros. They were shot in a 360 manner and they were posted online, and the video player couldn’t handle that, so you get these crazy lines. I thought of James Wong Howe, the Chinese American cinematographer who built strange sets. So, I ended up using a VR lens and started experimenting with it to get that point of view effect. I ended up working with Ben Schwartz, who’s a VR expert because that lens sees everything at this 220-degree angle and it was hard to operate.
What was the color palette you wanted to use for this?
I was going through the casinos seeing a lot of beige, and there were these wild carpets which made me think of Caravaggio. I also looked at a lot of other Italian Renaissance painters and started to think about the quality of oil on board and how that feels. You see it in the poker scenes, where the face it lit and everything is this murky darkness.
I worked closely with the colorist Tim Masick who I’ve worked with before, and we have a very tight working relationship. We looked at textures, tones and the photos that I’d taken on location. We started to pull this brown out and that became the guiding light as we were lighting.