Joe Stapleton went to Los Angeles with the same dreams as many before him. He wanted to write. He wanted to create. He’s done a bit of stand-up.
And like many others before him, his chance to do so came through a personal connection and a lucky draw. In this case, it was with movie producer Lauren Mann, who was considering a nascent project called “The Card Counter.” Mann knew her friend of 10 years as a “poker guy,” a commentator and content-creator for PokerStars who had wiled away the pandemic playing online poker with his late friend Norm Macdonald almost every day for six months. So Mann forwarded him the script via email.
“And without her asking, I did a whole bunch of notes on the script, thinking that, ‘Hey, maybe this will get you some cachet with legendary screenwriter, Paul Schrader,’ which I didn’t really understand the gravity of at the time,” Stapleton said in an interview with PlayUSA. “But I thought, ‘Hey, keep these notes in your back pocket. If you make this movie, you’ll be able to show up on set and be like a rock star and be like, ‘Actually, this is the way.’ … And they were harsh notes.”
It was a manifest of please don’t do this, this is a cliché, this would never happen meant for Stapleton’s friend.
“Rather than do what I thought she was going to do, she pressed the old forward button, sent all of these notes to the legendary screenwriter, Paul Schrader, whose response was not to be defensive or to be upset, but was to say, ‘We got to have this guy on board’,” Stapleton recalls. “So that was a very fun and lucky turn of events.”
Stapleton was signed on as a creative consultant.
The Card Counter is a redemption tale set against casinos, card rooms and Abu Ghraib
Now in theaters, “The Card Counter,” written and directed by Paul Schrader, surrounds ex-military interrogator William Tillich – played flawlessly by Oscar Isaac – who learned how to count cards during his eight years in prison and found an after-Leavenworth career in poker and, more recreationally, blackjack. Why was the protagonist imprisoned? For his part in the Abu Ghraib atrocities that form the other half of a film.
But poker, said Schrader, whose screenplays include “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” is an apt metaphor. Because William Tillich, or more accurately, William Tell, he said, is a character waiting for something to happen, and “poker is just a game of waiting. waiting and waiting.” Particularly the way Tell plays, in a nomadic existence subsisting on low-stakes games.
“The Card Counter” isn’t so much a movie about poker as a backdrop, a well-conceived and honest template for this haunting movie to play against.
Granted, being juxtaposed against the horror of Abu Ghraib is certain to present casinos in a more favorable light. But from the dimly lit and empty sportsbook bars, to the rigid chairs crushed around poker tables in gaudily carpeted ballrooms and camera focuses so sharp that the grains of a card table stand out, “The Card Counter” does well in embodying the tug and loneliness of the life Tell has chosen. Or, perhaps, the life he has fallen into as he’s attempted to move past the other prevailing theme of the film, unchecked power, consequences and regret.
It’s not exactly a love letter to casinos, but most come across well, particularly The Scarlet Pearl in d’Iberville, Miss., that gleams in glass and white marble.
Critical review has so far outpaced audience favor.
Talking The Card Counter with creative consultant Joe Stapleton
PlayUSA: What were some of the forbidden clichés on your list that they avoided?
Joe Stapleton: One thing that’s on my list is still on my list is the movie is called The Card Counter. I said, ‘Look, this is something that’s really going to bug poker players, that you’re calling a poker movie, The Card Counter.’ And now I’ve had to take the defensive side when people give me a complaint. I’m like, ‘Hey, a movie can be about two things. He also plays blackjack in the movie and to be perfectly honest, that’s a cool-sounding name.’ And if people don’t know that you don’t count cards in poker, it sounds really cool. So, that was one thing. Another thing was just sort of, Paul wrote this poker movie based on just some outdated vernacular that people on the scene don’t really use anymore.
There’s a line in the movie where Oscar at meets La Linda for the first time, and he’s like, ‘I played with you four times and you drilled the gutshot straight against me in Tunica, or something. That line was originally, ‘You drew to an inside straight against me in Tunica.’ And that’s just not really something that is currently in the poker vernacular. It might be for like a guy in his fifties or sixties. But if you want to make this guy sound like a real poker player, let’s change it to being to ‘gutshot straight.’ And that was a conversation I had both with Paul with Oscar.
I was really lucky that I got a whole afternoon with Oscar to go over the script and to say, ‘Hey, I’ve given all these changes to Paul already. It’s his movie, it’s your movie. However, if these don’t changes don’t make it to you, I at least want you to know that I flagged these things as setting off my sort of spidey sense or Spady sense if we want to use a poker term that kind make me a little bit uneasy. And Oscar was also incredibly receptive to those notes.
PlayUSA: Were you on set the whole time?
JS: I was reachable by texts for a couple of things, because Paul, when he’s thinking about stuff, just wants an answer right away. So even if they weren’t shooting, but I was only on set for days that contained poker scenes. There’s a couple of lines of dialogue that happened when I wasn’t around that. I kind of wish I had been around for, again, I think the movie stands on its own without any of the poker stuff. And so where the things are that kind of like make me tingle a little bit, do not affect the quality of the movie at all. But had I been there, I’d have been like, ‘Hey, do you think we could just like tweak this one line?’… But as far as what I saw, what made it to the screen, I was proud of the movie and my contribution to it.
PlayUSA: You have the bug for this now?
JS: Yeah. I mean, it really was fun. I moved here to, to be a bit of a content creator myself. I do fancy myself a bit of a writer. So just even getting to make a couple of suggestions to this script was really cool for me. And if poker in the mainstream becomes a thing again, I would hopefully have designs on not just consulting, but maybe being consulted on story, maybe being consulted on more creative aspects, especially if, let’s say, that the story involved poker more, to be a writer or a producer on something. The producer of this film, who got me interested, who got me involved, our pie-in-the-sky fantasizing about The Card Counter TV series, either with Oscar’s character or possibly Tiffany [Haddish]’s character is just kind of a fun thing to think about and would be a way, I think, that we could take this story, which really as poker just as a backdrop and bring it more to the forefront and have poker featured even more, if we decided. But regardless of whether, you know, again, that’s just us goofing around, like, wouldn’t it be fun to do a card, you know, a Card Counter TV show.
I think that there’s room in the space right now for a Queen’s Gambit-style poker TV series, something to once again remind people that poker is out there and it’s still pretty cool and it’s still pretty fun. And the great thing about poker is that if you want to put in the effort and be a winning poker player, it’s possible. But if you don’t and you just want to be a bad poker player, it’s still fun.