Lots of filmmakers launch their careers at the Sundance Film Festival, but few are able to parlay that into a working relationship with the Sundance Kid himself. When David Lowery brought his second feature, the Texas-set crime romance Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, to the festival in 2013, he found himself on Robert Redford’s radar. Redford had been preoccupied with a 2003 New Yorker article about a career bank robber who had broken out of prison 18 times and was facing his twilight years, still not ready to give up the game. It’s not hard to see why Redford was drawn to the material, both for its own great story and on a meta level as well. And Lowery, a promising young director with an obvious love of the milieu, was more than obliged to help bring that story to the screen.
But now that The Old Man & the Gun is said to be the Redford’s final acting role, Lowery realizes he has more than just a fun crime romp on his hands — he’s somewhat responsible for the legacy of a legend. The great thing about the film he and Redford created, though, is that it feels light as a Texas summer breeze, with all the melancholy and sweetness that entails. The Old Man & the Gun is a kind of balm in what’s shaping up to be a stellar — but intense — fall movie season, and Redford and Sissy Spacek as Forrest’s late-stage love interest are a delight. I spoke to Lowery after a Vulture Insiders screening of the film about creating a film about a larger-than-life figure — with some larger-than-life figures.
Emily Yoshida: You were telling me earlier about how this project has been really a long time coming. You happen to have a fan in Robert Redford — a very nice fan to have — and this film has been something you two have been talking about for a while.
David Lowery: Yeah. So, in 2013 I had a movie at Sundance [Ain’t Them Bodies Saints] which he saw and liked. And a few weeks after that he or his producing partner called me to see if I’d be interested in sitting down with him to talk about this project. He sent me the New Yorker article that it’s based on, and I was like, “Heck, yeah. I’m gonna go talk to Robert Redford about making a movie. That sounds great.”
So, I went and met with him. I’d seen him at Sundance, but I’d not met him [face-to-face] and so he still has this — you walk into the room and you’re like, “Oh, there’s a legend sitting there in that chair. That’s amazing.” But he has an amazing way of just instantly disarming you and making you feel like you’ve known him for a long time. And so we just talked about the project and sort of what my approach to it might be.
And at that point, I can’t remember what I said, I have no idea of what I was saying five years ago, or how it correlates to [the final product.] I’m sure there are a couple images that I always had in mind, and they’re in there, including, I think, the last shot. But, you know, I know that we talked about it. He liked my approach and so we started working on it.
I think the first draft I wrote was very as close to the true story as I could get. And it was really long. It was like 150 pages and very in-depth and much more … the true story is a little bit more unsavory. Like, the New Yorker article is one thing, it’s really a great article and everyone should read it, it’s really fun. But if you start digging into the actual characters there’s a lot of melancholy in their lives. And I think naturally I skew that direction, and that was in the first draft. Bob’s response was, “This is great, but it needs to be fun. Like, let’s make sure it’s fun.”
And so, over the next few years I made two additional movies in between. I kept endeavoring to just find the fun in this film and to let it be fun, and as a result it’s the first thing I’ve made where that was the goal the whole way. Let’s just have fun with it.
The title card at the beginning — “… And this story is mostly true, too” – must have come late in that process.
No, that one was always there because I always knew … I mean, even the wording of that, like I didn’t want this movie to be resplendent with references to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but I felt like that was one that was okay. So, Butch Cassidy starts with “this story is true … mostly.” And so I was like, Okay, let’s just flip that. So that was always there from the beginning, but the contents of the following scenes were definitely not, initially.
Do you know if Redford had always intended this for it to be his last film, since he first started working on it with you?
Five years ago, it wouldn’t have been, for sure. Like, that was never anything we talked about, but he did want it to be sort of a spiritual successor to some of his earliest films. So I always knew that it would have that bookend quality to it, but it wasn’t until a few months before we started shooting that he suggested that this might be his last film. He did an interview and all of the sudden my phone was just lighting up with people, including some of our producers. “Did you know about this?” And I was like, “No, this is all news to me — and let’s not think about it, or else it’ll just be too daunting.”
And we did forget about it until a couple months ago when he mentioned it again and he seems to be sticking to his guns this time. But he does so much. I think for us as audience members and movie fans, we think about him as an actor. And that’s first and foremost who he is to us, but for him he has so many [roles], with Sundance and all his environmental causes and the films that he’s always producing and his directorial efforts. I think acting is just a slice of that and he is looking forward to filling that time with other things now.
So, the material here is obviously in your wheelhouse. When he came to you with this project, that shared a setting and some of the themes of your previous film, how did you decide what to tackle differently in this world than you had before.
The funny thing is I don’t particularly want to make cops and robbers movies. I’ve just done it twice now. But that’s not my forte. The first time, with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the construct in which I was [working] was much more romantic. And then with this one, I tried to write — for lack of a better way of saying it — I tried to write a Michael Mann movie and realized I’m not Michael Mann. [Laughs.] I am not Michael Mann, cannot do it. So I was really just doing a lot of soul searching, because I wanted to make the movie, but I was like, what makes me want to make this? Why do I want to make it? And then I was like, well, I want to work for Bob and I want to make a movie that honors him. I’ve got the bones of the story, this true story, but how can I make this something that puts him front and center in a very specific way?
And so, all through the writing, that was what I was just thinking about. I wasn’t thinking about crime films or the genre aspects or even trying to make a particularly compelling cat-and-mouse chase between a cop and a robber. I really was thinking how can I make this a movie that — I wasn’t getting too theoretical with it, but on meta level it was about who he is as an actor.
There is something reassuring about it. I’m thankful that it’s not a Michael Mann film; there’s a kind of safety in knowing that nobody’s going to die a horrible bloody death in this. Somebody gets shot, but then they just deal with it and stitch him up in the bathroom.
Exactly. They’re joking about it. And you still find a way to get those beats in, especially when he and Casey meet in that hallway of the diner, and we’ve seen that scene so many times in those sorts of cat-and-mouse-game cop stories. But it has an altogether different feeling here, just because by that point you know the kind of film you’re watching.
That was a scene that was important to me, but also to everyone else. Bob wanted that scene, everyone involved with it wanted the scene where they faced off. The coffee shop scene, everyone wanted this movie’s version of that, including me. I was like, There’s gotta be a way to get there. The real John Hunt never caught Forrest Tucker, but also never met him. So, that’s among many fictitious things in this film, that’s one of them.
But I love the idea of them meeting and having that interaction and playing it as if a young fan is meeting his favorite movie star. Let’s get Casey’s character to a point where that’s how he’s going to approach the scene. We can just have him go from being the cop who wants to be Al Pacino in Heat, but ultimately just winds up being someone who’s just completely starstruck.
And we tried to add a couple more layers in there when we were shooting it, but nonetheless I was just so tickled with the idea that he just is happy to let him go. Like, he feels like that’s my version of doing a good job as a human being, not as a cop.
I don’t know if there are any fans of A Ghost Story here tonight. I couldn’t help but notice there’s a subtle “old house” theme that’s kind of building over your last couple films.
It barely creeps into this one, but it’s there a little bit.
What is it about Texas houses?
I grew up in them. I think that’s it. I think I’m just a homebody.
The marking that was under the wallpaper in Sissy Spacek’s character’s house definitely felt like a spiritual thread of some kind.
When we were location scouting, not at the house we shot in, but a different one, [the owners] had just been doing some remodeling and they found the architect’s signature from over 100 years ago on the wall. And they were like, “Look at this! Look what we just found!” And I was like, your house is not perfect, but I’m stealing that for whichever one we do shoot in. And it’s such a beautiful concept, and of course it does definitely tie in. You never think about those things when you’re doing it. You’re there and you’re like, that’s a really cool thing we’ve seen in real life. Let’s put it in the movie. And then all of a sudden you realize that that ties directly into the last thing you made. It never is conscious, but it’s always there.
I also just want to talk about casting a little. The film has such an incredible cast and such a rich bounty of people and faces and voices, especially. And then Elisabeth Moss shows up and you’re like, “Oh, she’s here, too!” Can you just talk a little about the casting, maybe particularly about how you assembled Forrest’s gang?
Definitely. I mean, the high point of my career is talking to Tom Waits on the phone. And then all of a sudden he said yes to the movie and I got to talk to him in person, too. It was great.
I barely had those characters in place in the script. They were not really there. They were names, but then there would be like “the gang goes back to Forrest’s house and he fixes radio while they banter in the background.” And it didn’t have any dialogue because I wanted them to be there to support him. Teddy Green, the character that Danny Glover plays, really was the guy who was on his front porch when he got caught, that was all true. But other than that, they’re not a huge part of the plot. But I wanted him to have a social life. I wanted him to have a gang. I had this idea that this was a routine thing for these guys.
So rather than write really great parts, I thought, Let me see if I can get some really great actors and then write the parts for them. Danny and Tom were the first two people I wanted and they both said yes. It was just me as a fan wanting to see them together, to work with them, and also just enrich the movie with their presence. Because again, they are very small parts and I was really grateful that they were willing to take them. But just by virtue of being on camera, they add so much to, not only those roles, but to the backstory, and the idea that Forrest has been hanging out with these guys for who knows how long. Tom Waits, his one request was to have a monologue and I was happy to oblige.
We have time for just a couple questions from the audience.
Audience member: I found it interesting that Casey Affleck’s character had a black wife. Did the character in real life have a black wife?
No, but I just am a big fan of being colorblind when casting. I think there are certain films you’re gonna make where you have to stick to the facts of where you are, but other times you can just be completely colorblind and it makes the film richer, it makes the casting better. So, in this case I just was like, I’m not gonna pay attention to fact, or the fact that we’re in Texas in the ’80s. People brought that up, “Oh, that’s very progressive for Texas in the ’80s,” and I was like, “Well, I grew up there and I definitely knew people at church were interracial couples and it wasn’t a big deal.” But also maybe that’s because it was 1987 and not 1981, I don’t know.
It was just something I felt was a chance to be subtly more progressive, and also just makes the movie better. You’re just casting really great actors, not concerning yourself with issues like that.
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