You’ve no doubt heard about the new “poker movie” that has just premiered, The Card Counter.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull fame (highlighting a long and impressive career résumé), the film stars Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and Willem Dafoe with Martin Scorsese an executive producer.
The film had its world premiere earlier this month at the Venice International Film Festival, with its official release coming last week on Sept. 10. Early reviews have been uniformly excellent, with some already predicting multiple Academy Award nominations when they are announced early next year.
Isaac stars as William Tell, a former military interrogator turned gambler whose story involves him playing card games in various casino scenes — including a lot of poker.
You might have also heard how PokerStars‘ own Joe Stapleton had something to do with those scenes as well, earning a credit as the film’s “Poker Consultant.” With WCOOP finally wrapping up, Stapes shared some details from his experience working on the film and his adventures over recent days surrounding the movie’s premiere.
When we watch from the rail a poker hand play out between a couple of players, we’re only getting part of the story. The same goes for poker scenes in movies — indeed for everything we see up on the screen. So much happens “behind the scenes” to produce what ends up in the finished film, and in the case of The Card Counter, our friend Stapes was there for a lot of it.
It was a friend of Joe’s, actually, Lauren Mann, who served as a producer on the film, and it was through her that Joe got involved. When first reviewing Schrader’s script, she asked Joe if he might look it over to provide some comments on the poker scenes.
“I was thinking I was just doing a favor for a friend,” explains Joe who after reading realized the poker as presented in the script would definitely need to be revised.
“I wrote her like six or seven pages of really scathing notes,” he laughs. “I said ‘please don’t do this, this would never happen’ and ‘this hand is totally incorrect’ and so on. I just assumed she’d take the information on her own and use it to produce.”
That’s not what happened. Joe’s notes were instead forwarded to Schrader himself, who far from being offended was in fact welcoming of the feedback. “We gotta get this guy on set,” said Schrader, and the next thing Joe knew, he had become a full-fledged Poker Consultant.
He points out how even though he knew of Schrader through Taxi Driver, he didn’t appreciate what a revered figure Schrader is in movie-making circles.
“I didn’t realize he was such a legend,” says Joe, who when offering his initial critique hadn’t necessarily taken into account he was reading a script written by one of the most respected screenwriters around.
Imagine playing poker against Yuri Martins or Joao Vieira or Adrian Mateos, then only finding out afterwards you were competing against one of the best in the game. That’s how Joe sounds when talking about Schrader.
“I didn’t know he was such an icon, which I think was actually helpful in this whole process,” he says. “I wasn’t intimidated by him, not that he ever tried to be intimidating. I was pretty good at treating him just like a regular person which I think he respected, and I think that made me better at my job, too.”
In order to be effective in his role, Joe couldn’t be shy about offering further criticisms and corrections as the final script took shape and as filming began. In fact, he ended up getting called on to help in several ways, ways that went well beyond simply ensuring there were only five community cards in a hold’em hand.
“Soon it was like ‘there’s a bunch of other departments that want to talk to you,'” Joe recalls. “‘Set dressing wants to talk to you. Production design wants to talk to you. Props, wardrobe.'” Even when casting the film, they consulted their Poker Consultant to get his thoughts to go along with the opinions of others.
We all know “card counting” is associated with blackjack, not poker, and that’s where it matters in the film as we see the main character apply his knowledge in blackjack games. William Tell plays poker in the film, too, though, and that’s where Joe was the one “counting cards,” so to speak, to make sure the hands played out the way they were supposed to.
“When the filming actually happened, I was there on set to choreograph the poker,” says Joe. “I’m not gonna lie, it was some of the most stressful freaking days of my life.”
“I don’t think many understand how much coverage it takes to shoot poker right,” says Joe, referring to all the many angles and shots needed — and needed to be sequenced perfectly — in order for a poker hand to be coherent and clear.
“I was writing and doing continuity and also setting the decks every time they would do it,” he says. That meant when another take was needed, Joe would have to reel cards back in, reset their order, and make sure they all came out as they did before.
“Every time we shot something I was like, ‘Is this gonna be the take where I had the deck set wrong?’ It was a very stressful few days!”
Of course, it wasn’t just counting the cards and making sure things added up in a mechanical sense. Joe also had to help make sure certain poker-specific scenarios — e.g., Oscar Isaac’s character wanting to bluff a hand on the river — made sense, too, with the action all leading correctly to that eventuality.
“All of the poker hands you see in the movie have a kind of ‘back story’ to them,” says Joe. You don’t always see that entire “back story,” but it is part of how the hands were constructed, and helps contribute significantly to the film’s realism.
While William Tell visits different casinos in the film, all of the poker scenes were in fact shot in Biloxi, Mississippi, and mostly in one casino with set designers and others fashioning things to convey the impression of different locations. As Joe sees it, the transformation of one location into several helps contribute thematically in the way it reinforces the sameness of yet another casino or yet another poker room
“For the main character this is a bit of a purgatory… it’s a bit repetitive,” says Joe. “So having it all be shot in the same casino almost speaks to that point.”
There were other suggestions from Joe regarding how best to keep the story realistic, including some involving the games and events in which the main character participates. Talking to him about the experience, it’s clear just how incredibly complicated it all was.
It’s also clear how all that effort helping keep things “real” was… well, surreal.
Speaking of things being surreal, the premiere of The Card Counter has thrust Joe into still more extraordinary settings and situations, including doing a lot of press for the film.
“I remember when I went and interviewed Kevin Hart a couple of years ago,” says Joe, alluding to the mega-famous comedian’s involvement in some PokerStars events a while back. “I went to a commercial set he was working on, and while he was on lunch break he did another commercial and then talked to me. That’s kind of how I felt the last couple of weeks.”
To illustrate, Joe explains how on Wednesday amid the final broadcast from WCOOP, during a couple of the breaks he squeezed in interviews about The Card Counter. And there are more coming.
That’s in addition to the premieres, the first of which Joe attended at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado a couple of weeks ago where the film was screened as a surprise as a “secret premiere.” Schrader was there, too, to introduce the film, as were others from the production, helping make the experience all the more memorable for Joe.
“I don’t really rave about places that much, but Telluride is awesome,” he says. “It’s like a little Disney village at the top of a mountain… so beautiful, and everyone there is a film lover. Really, really cool.”
From there Joe flew straight to Philadelphia for another screening of the film exclusively arranged for PokerStars PA players. Joe did a Q&A afterwards and PokerStars gave away some swag and tickets to PACOOP which continues through next week.
Thanks to all the players and ambassadors that attended. 🤝
If you weren’t able to attend, do you plan to watch the movie? ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/gj54tjaKfK
— PokerStarsUSA (@PokerStarsUSA) September 13, 2021
“That was very fun as well,” says Joe. “Because it was PokerStars players, they weren’t necessarily that disappointed it wasn’t Oscar or Tiffany or someone else doing the Q&A, but me instead.”
The tour didn’t stop there, as Joe then flew across the country once more for another premiere of sorts he’d arranged in Los Angeles. In this case Joe himself had bought tickets for around 50 poker friends to attend a showing.
“That was a blast,” says Joe. “It was fun to be with these people who saw me go from being the guy who didn’t work in poker at all and was hosting $5 sit-n-go’s to the guy who now has his name in the credits of a Hollywood movie because of his poker knowledge.”
“Deep, deep in the credits, mind you, but in there nonetheless!” he chuckles.
We’re all proud of Joe here at the PokerStars Blog. Just as the makers of The Card Counter counted on him, he can count on us to sit through those credits to see our friend’s name.