Paul Schrader Accused of Lifting Idea for ‘The Card Counter’ From Aspiring Screenwriter

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A man who met writer-director Paul Schrader at a campus event at their Michigan alma mater has filed a lawsuit alleging that Schrader later stole his ideas and used them in the film “The Card Counter.”

Mark Vanden Berge alleges in the suit that he met Schrader after a screening of “First Reformed” at Calvin University, a Christian college in Grand Rapids, in February 2018. He says he told Schrader about a treatment he was working on for a film called “Blown Odds,” about a gambler’s search for redemption, and asked Schrader for help developing it into a marketable screenplay.

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According to the suit, Schrader told him to email him the treatment. Vanden Berge sent it to him, according to the suit, but never heard back from Schrader directly, though he says he was told that Schrader had received it.

“The Card Counter,” Schrader’s subsequent film, was announced in late 2019. It, too, involves a gambler seeking redemption. Vanden Berge alleges that there are several other similarities between his treatment and Schrader’s film.

In an interview with Crain’s Detroit, Schrader said he had no memory of meeting Vanden Berge. Schrader’s attorney, Philip Kessler, also told the publication that the allegation is false.

“There’s no merit to the allegations that Paul Schrader engaged in plagiarism, nor would he ever do so — nor would he ever need to do so,” Kessler told the publication. “This is one of the most talented directors in the United States.”

The suit argues that both projects involve themes of passive anger, violence and retribution. In each project, the protagonist is a poker player who encounters another man who is bent on revenge.

“Each friend of the protagonist is catalyzed into a dark denouement through encounters with the protagonist’s moral agency versus forces of his own anarchy,” the suit alleges.

When “The Card Counter” was released last year, critics noted its continuity with themes that Schrader has been exploring since he wrote “Taxi Driver” 45 years ago.

“The solitary man in a room is Schrader’s most indelible authorial signature, a defining image and idea in one,” wrote Manohla Dargis in her New York Times review, citing recurrences in “Taxi Driver,” “Light Sleeper,” and “First Reformed.”

Washington Post reviewer Ann Hornaday wrote that the main character in “The Card Counter” “shares obvious DNA with ‘Taxi Driver’s’ Travis Bickle and Ethan Hawke’s tortured Rev. Toller in ‘First Reformed.'”

“What is clear is Schrader’s devotion to his own tropes, which will strike his critics as repetitive and his admirers as suitably ritualistic,” wrote Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times.

There are also significant differences between the film and Vanden Berge’s treatment, which is attached to his lawsuit. Schrader’s protagonist is wrestling with demons from his military service at Abu Ghraib, a subject that does not appear in the treatment. Vanden Berge’s hero is a former taxi driver who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.

The suit does not accuse Schrader of infringing on Vanden Berge’s copyright. In an interview, Vanden Berge’s lawyer, Perrin Rynders, said he did not register for a copyright.

Instead, the suit accuses Schrader of breach of confidence and breach of an implied contract.

“I think there’s an amazing similarity and it’s the essence of the treatment that has been violated,” Rynders said.

The suit was filed in federal court in the Western District of Michigan on Aug 23.

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