When Robert Levon Been was chosen for a bit part in Martin Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ at the age of nine, the future Black Rebel Motorcycle Club co-founder had no way of foreseeing that the movie’s screenwriter, Paul Schrader, would three decades later usher him into the world of film scoring. As it turns out, Levon Been happened to be on location in Morocco for the film’s shoot in 1987 because his late father, Michael Been, was there to play the part of the apostle John and had dragged his reluctant son along with him.
At that point, Been was five albums deep into his more well-known career as frontman of the American new wave act The Call. Fast forward four years, and Schrader—who had written the screenplays for Scorcese classics like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directed several films of his own, including American Gigolo and Cat People—approached Been to write songs in the mold of Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque album for his 1992 film Light Sleeper.
By then a teenager, Robert was on-hand again, though this time he gladly took part, offering his two cents on the process—feedback that Michael invited. As Levon Been told PopMatters on a recent Zoom call from his adoptive home of Vienna, Austria, Schrader eventually caught on to the fact that father and son were operating as something of a package deal. Their partnership was only just getting started: until Been’s untimely passing in 2010, he had served as a mentor, producer, and live-sound engineer for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Apparently, young Robert made a lasting impression because, when Schrader finished cutting his new film, The Card Counter, he reached out to Robert to contribute a song for the final sequence. Over time, Levon Been found himself supplying additional tracks, as well as the movie’s score, along with much of the sound design. All of that work is available, in slightly augmented form, on Levon Been’s new album Original Songs From the Card Counter, which was released on 10 September—the same day the film opened.
The eighth Schrader project to star Willem Dafoe, The Card Counter is being marketed as a revenge thriller. In truth, Schrader has crafted a fresh genre hybrid by taking trademark elements of the psychological thriller, the road movie, the family drama, the morally ambiguous gambler tale, and the returning-veteran trope and rolling them into a story that keeps the audience guessing. (Read the PopMatters review here.)
The official trailers will probably leave you scratching your head in confusion, but that actually works to the film’s advantage. And, though the world of casinos and high-stakes gambling provides much of the film’s physical setting, viewers can expect far more than a modern-day take on genre classics such as The Hustler, The Gambler, and The Cincinnati Kid. In fact, the veteran filmmaker has imbued The Card Counter with such a distinctive psychological profile that “gambling movie” and “thriller” fail to capture what’s at the heart of the film.
The film exudes a surprising measure of tenderness, even as it delves into themes of torture, combat trauma, grief, and, more generally, our universal capacity for both cruelty and redemption. Meanwhile, in the lead role opposite Tiffany Haddish, Oscar Isaac relies mostly on subtlety, timing his performance so that his character’s personality comes gradually into view in a clever—and highly satisfying inversion of the antihero template, eventually ending up as a kind of anti-antihero. When the film opens, Isaac—known for his roles in Inside Llewyn Davis and the most recent Star Wars trilogy—appears constrained by a one-dimensional character type. But as The Card Counter progresses, Isaac peels back the layers to reveal shades of regret, compassion, and vulnerability smoldering under his mechanical exterior.
Levon Been, therefore, was faced with the challenge of conveying a wide range of tones. In a spoiler-filled featurette released the same week as the film, Schrader explained that he “approached the music as a character”. Indeed, Levon Been manages to be both evocative and graceful, his unobtrusive touch voicing the beauty and generosity straining to break free from within the hearts of the film’s walking wounded. Fans familiar with Levon Been from his 20-plus years as one half of BRMC’s creative core will likely find themselves surprised at the contrast between the bassist/multi-instrumentalist’s skeletal approach to the film and the maximalist density he favors in his main gig. With their highly manicured image (leather jackets, all-black wardrobe, etc), it’s always been tempting to question how much Black Rebel Motorcycle Club value style over substance. Original Songs From the Card Counter renders the question moot.
Where Levon Been could have settled for artificial slickness and clichéd twang affectations to go along with the film’s gambling aesthetic, he has instead created a haunting work that, much like the film itself, resists superficial categorization.
A condensed transcript of our conversation follows, edited for readability.
When your career first got off the ground with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, how much did you envision that you’d ever be making music for film?
Film was actually the first mission if there ever actually was a mission back then. The Last Temptation thing was ironic because I was just stuck in Morocco with my dad, pretty much. [Laughs.] At that age, it was the last place in the world I wanted to be. It was my summer vacation and there wasn’t anywhere to go, there weren’t any other kids, and the food was strange. But it was the first time I got a sense that there’s this other tribe, this sort of gypsy-artist world. The people working on that film had a lot of heart. They were giving their gifts in a charitable, artistic way, with this spirit of blindly going into something with a large group of people trying to support another person’s vision. It might be different if it was a blockbuster superhero-type thing, but it was low-budget—similar to The Card Counter, and similar to when my father was working on the Light Sleeper score.
I love the adversarial position that Paul’s had with the industry and his insistence on creating something that isn’t made to be liked. Even with this film, one of the first things I told him [laughs] was: “The first half or so, I really didn’t like this, and I was trying to figure out a way to tell you that I can’t do it. But then it shifted gear and shifted gear, and I was like, ‘Oh, there’s actually something really interesting here.’” Because, by the end of it, it’s different than where it starts off. He explained that the last thing he wanted to do was go for the easy win. I thought it was bold. He wanted to go somewhere genuinely uncharted—way more than with the music my dad did for Light Sleeper. In that case, at least there was a blueprint, which was like “I’ve got these five Bob Dylan songs I can’t get the rights to, so we’ve got to rip them off in a way that we’re cleared for copyright infringement.” [Laughs.] That’s a very simple path comparative to “Let’s just do something freeform, man.”
This film is being billed as a revenge thriller—
[Laughs.] That wasn’t what I took away from it when I first worked on it. I think Paul likes to fake people out all the time. I know how much he gets off on tricking people. He’s hyper-intelligent, and the fake-out is one of his big things. It happens a lot in the film. And that was the impression I got with the trailers and the way it’s being described: “Oh yeah, more fake-outs”.
The film builds the audience up as if it’s going in this really dark direction, but then it takes a wholesome turn—almost like a buddy/adventure movie, family drama, and thriller all rolled into one. How challenging was it for you to nail a tone that captures everything this movie is?
Well, thankfully, that never felt like my job. [Laughs.] I got to a place where I was like “I’m just going to send in the best options I can.” There were all these different possible directions I could have gone in, and the challenge was that there were so many different aspects I could have emphasized. But he would always just pick one over the other. I’m still surprised by the things he chose, which weren’t what I would’ve expected, but it was my job to make sure he had choices. I don’t know if I’d use the word “wholesome”, but it was unexpected that there was warmth in the film. With the buddy aspect, sometimes I think he’s almost making fun of that formula, but the first time I watched it, I got a sense that these were all things you had to get past to get to the point, this final [culmination]. So I was just giving him options, and I was surprised that he kept wanting to lean towards the material that had more warmth. He had actually been struggling with how to approach the music for a long time before I came into the picture.
You were initially brought in to contribute just one song. How did your involvement grow from there?
The idea at the time was that there would be this very cold synth score until the very end, where there would then be this eruption of sound and color in song—the last thing you’d ever expect. But after he’d lived with the song for a while, it felt to me like his imagination started working in reverse. Light Sleeper mirrored this film a lot, but neither of us wanted to just copy that. Paul felt that this character was far less connected to his subconscious, to his inner voice. He wanted to show this suffocated self that starts finding words—in a fragmented way, not as conceptualized songs. You don’t get songs in the film until later when the main character starts waking up more. So that became the general outline.
Paul couldn’t think of any film that had done that. It was very unusual for what I would expect Paul to go for, so I was doing my best to keep up with the things he was most excited to explore. Getting to a place where he’s really happy is a rare thing. [Laughs.] The “king of no compliments” is kind of his handle. I learned to really like the word “no”. And whenever he said “I hate that” it would give me the biggest sense of relief, because that meant that I wouldn’t have to worry about 80% of the options. I feel like I scored the film like six or seven times in different ways. [Laughs.] And they’re all interesting. They’re all different, and they all expose how vulnerable a piece of work is to the way it’s presented.
It sounds like hearing the song you came up with—”Mercy of Man”—enlivened the film for him when he imagined that same musical touch running through the whole thing.
[Pauses to think.] Yeah. I mean, the way you just put it sounds simple [laughs], but it was a hundred-plus days of searching for “Where do we go from here?”—but kind of in reverse. As a songwriter, it was the strangest thing to hear “Alright, good work” when I’d only written, say, a verse and a chorus. I personally wanted to know where these songs would go. Other than the one song where the instruction was to finish it out, these other songs were more like vignettes—
They’re not even really songs. They’re more like strips.
Yeah. They work for telling the inner monologue of this character through this kind of light bursting into the room for a moment, but it felt very negligent to not finish them somehow. And that turned into however many more months of writing backward. That became my own project. So the film birthed another entity, which is the record. So for me, it feels like the “story” ends off the canvas, in a way.
There was also the curiosity of “Could this even be done?” Some of the challenge was technical—going back and re-creating the exact same drum sound that I’d had in the room, for example—and some of it was finding the original spirit and headspace I was in so that I could write more words after the fact. I was very lucky to have a lockdown to dive into that rabbit hole. [Laughs.] If I’d been touring and had a lot of other things going on, I wouldn’t have had time to go find the rabbit holes within rabbit holes.
How much did you pay attention to the music in the movies you saw before working on this project?
Well, it was strange being like 14 and watching my father write music to Light Sleeper. I was already kind of obsessed with film—long before I took an interest in music—and so I was really critical [of what my father was doing]. I mean, so much of the process is spent questioning decisions, so he and I would talk. I would sometimes play some things for him to get an idea out, and we’d bounce things off each other. But then [laughs] I’d always have to hide when Paul came over. My dad was self-conscious about me being involved in that way, but Paul got hip to it and was like, “What kind of Oliver Twist bullshit is this? For how little we’re paying you, you’ve got children working on this record?!” [Laughs.]
So the jig was up, and Paul kept me in the corner of his eye. But working on film and music together were my initial love, I guess. That was going to be the road I was going to take, but then rock and roll had other plans for me. I got picked up by that carnival and didn’t really look back. My love of film has never wavered, but I’ve always just been busy with my day job. With BRMC being at a place where we were unable to tour, we’d all started working on different stuff to keep the blood flowing creatively, but this project coming out of the blue has been a very strange thing.
I can’t even wrap my head around it. I didn’t expect to get into film scoring. It wasn’t something I was looking to do. It felt like Paul needed help on a scene, so I just always put one foot in front of the other with the task at hand. I really did think he’d be done with me after that one song. [Laughs.]