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David Lowery on His Favorite Robert Redford Roles and the Optimism of ‘The Old Man & the Gun’

Written by Josh Lewis on September 27, 2018 

david-lowery

David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun is a tender swan song for Robert Redford, a nostalgic look back at the outlaw characters played by him in the 60s and 70s through the lens of the real-life Forrest Tucker, a career bank robber that hit hundreds of banks and broke out of dozens of prisons in his lifetime. We sat down with the generous, unassuming Lowery to discuss the joy and melancholy of writing the film and working with Redford, as well as his own personal favorite Redford films, and tricky emotional attachment to Tucker and his story.

The Film Stage: There’s an unspoken melancholy that hangs over The Old Man & the Gun, not dissimilar from your previous feature A Ghost Story, in that there’s a collective acknowledgement of the passage of time—especially inherent here in seeing an aged Robert Redford walk through a convincingly rendered aesthetic we associate with his younger self. I don’t mean to get started off too heavy but is the passage of time something weighing heavily on you?

David Lowery: Always. I mean I think it has my entire life but especially as I get older it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. And also, as an editor you know, I spend a lot of time working as an editor and I love editing, and you just spend so many hours looking at a timeline and just thinking about how time marches by in increments from shot-to-shot.

Right, with the specific timecode and everything.

Yeah, you start to think about the plasticity of it. It just starts to not only weigh on you, but you think about the possibilities of it and so it’s both an existential crisis of mine but also a cinematic fascination, and those two things will meld together and continue to meld together probably everything movie I make.

That first question maybe made Old Man sound a little sadder than it actually is. Ultimately a lot of films that try to pastiche a previous decade can sometimes get lost in the “importance” of period, but I was glad to see this was a lot more breezy, a lot more laid-back than I had anticipated. Was that something you considered a lot in the writing or did it just naturally come out through the character of Tucker as applied by Redford?

It was both. I would say the latter influenced the former because there’s Forrest Tucker in the article who is a self-mythologized outlaw who sees himself in that dapper, breezy fashion. Then you apply Robert Redford to that character and you instantly see the twinkle in the eye and you also see the vestiges of all the classic Redford outlaws in cinema history that certainly are the forebearers for this role. On top of that you have Bob telling me that he just wanted to have fun with this movie. He wanted to make a movie that was fun, that was optimistic and light-hearted, and my natural tendency is to move towards melancholy. To move towards the heavier side of a narrative. So, it was a really fun and terrifying challenge to veer away from that and engage in a more light-hearted approach. To let things be breezy, to let things be delightful. That ended up being my rule on set every day. I just told everyone from the cast on down that I just wanted to be delighted every single day and that if everyone could make me laugh behind the monitor we’d probably have a movie that worked the way it needed to work.

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Obviously, Redford is a huge part of the feeling you get from that. You previously worked with him on Pete’s Dragon, which was a film just chock full of warm performances but his especially lingers. When did you first meet and first decide you want to collaborate? And what drew you to each other to want to do it again?

It began with The Old Man & the Gun because he saw Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at Sundance–I think he was aware of it because we went through the writing labs there–and after that film premiered a few weeks later I got a call from his producing partner at the time wondering if I would be interested in talking to him about this New Yorker article he wanted to  adapt and star in. And when you get a phone call from Robert Redford saying do you want to work on a movie together…

You gotta take it.

You’re just like “sure,” of course. So, I read the article, read it with him in mind, and just thought, well this certainly would be a classic Redford movie if ever there was one. A true spiritual follow-up to some of his greatest hits as it were. I went in and met with him and talked about my approach to the film, what I would try to do with it, and he liked that approach and liked me and asked me if I would write the script. Now, earlier that same day I had been over at the Disney lot pitching Pete’s Dragon. [Laughs.]

One hell of a day.

It was a real heck of a day, and that was five years ago, so that one February morning sort of set me on a path that is now almost complete. So, I started writing both scripts at the same time but Pete’s Dragon reached the finish line first and as a result made it the starting line of production first but there was this character in it that was the older, wiser, dragon-savvy character that… I can’t remember if it was my idea or my producer Jim Whitaker’s idea, but everyone knew I was working with Redford on this other project and we were just thinking, “Okay, who do we get for this part?” You just get a list of actors who are from 50-70 and he wasn’t on that list.

It suddenly occurred to us that if we had Robert Redford in this movie not only would he be great in the part, but he would change what the movie is, change the perception of it and elevate it. It already had an environmental aspect to it and adding his credibility in that area was really exciting to us. So anyway, I went to New York and had a script meeting about Old Man and at the end of that meeting I mentioned that Pete’s Dragon was getting ready to go and that we’re gonna go to New Zealand and it was going to be fun and that maybe he should think about joining us. [Laughs.]

It took a little while but eventually he said yes and the thing I remember the most about working with him there–aside from just getting to know him and what it was like directing a legend–was watching him have fun. If you watch the movies he’s acted in over the past, you know, let’s say ten years, he hasn’t had that much fun. He’s doing very serious, heavy roles and when he was hanging out with these kids telling stories or when he drove a truck through a wall—like we put him in the cab of an 18-wheeler and literally had him drive through a wall–the camera’s on his face and the shot’s in the movie, you just see this glee in his eye. That really was instructive to me when I went back to The Old Man & the Gun after we finished Pete’s Dragon. So, I just rewrote the entire script from scratch having worked with him. I was now able to write it specifically for him and specifically for that look of glee that I saw that day when he drove that truck through the wall.

That’s awesome. You certainly feel that coming through the movie, that experience you had with him. Obviously when you’re making this film you’re going through older Robert Redford movies for inspiration. Was there a more underrated Redford performance that stood out to you? Something you saw and knew you wanted to bring out of him as well?

Do you think Downhill Racer is underrated?

Sure. I think that a lot of people would overlook it over something like All the President’s Men or Butch Cassidy.

Well, that one’s maybe my favorite. That and Jeremiah Johnson.

Oh, Jeremiah Johnson is excellent.

Downhill Racer was a big point of reference for me with Old Man because it’s a really mean movie. [Laughs.] He’s a terrible person in that movie. You still like him but he’s like a misogynistic asshole through and through, but the shape of it is so strange, so single-minded, so simple and so rough around the edges. I know he loved that movie. He basically distributed that movie himself and I wanted to kind of capture that anarchic spirit that he had in that film. So that’s one of them and then The Chase, the Arthur Penn movie that we sample in Old Man is an amazing film with Redford, Marlon Brando, and Jane Fonda, and almost no one has seen it. It’s terrific and something Casey [Affleck] actually recommended to me when we made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s also written by Horton Foote who is amazing, so if I could shine a light on an underseen Redford performance it’d be that one.

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Speaking of Casey, a smaller angle you take with the film was the day-to-day, blue-collar lives of regular people in Tucker’s orbit. I’m thinking in particular some of the people that he hurts in a rippling sense while robbing banks. You spoke about that melancholy and that definitely comes to the fore in those scenes but it’s also more than that for Affleck’s Detective Hunt who is ultimately kind of inspired by Tucker—a sort of domestic passion that rings true. Could you speak to fleshing out the lives that are in the peripherals of Tucker?

That’s definitely part of the original article. He never quite acknowledged how bad he hurt people, but he did admit finally that he could’ve been a better person, a better father. He abandoned his family, his children and the character that Elisabeth Moss plays isn’t based specifically on his real daughter, but I think the sentiment there–if you read the article–is that his children have very mixed feelings about him because on the one hand, yes, he did what he loved and that’s admirable. Anyone can say, objectively speaking, someone dedicating themselves to something they truly love is admirable but when it hurts so many people it gets a lot more complex. It’s harder to appreciate the qualities that that person might have. So, I didn’t want to overwhelm the film with the more scabrous side of Forrest Tucker but I wanted to acknowledge it. I wanted to make sure that the people that he hurt had a voice, and when he walks out of a bank with a twinkle in his eye leaving a teller in tears that we end on the teller. We let her have that final moment, linger on her just a little bit longer just to acknowledge that…

There’s a cost to it.

He is doing something destructive, yeah. Something I do not approve of even if I approve of the spirit in which he does it. At the same time… in spite of my disapproval… It’s very inspiring to me. [Laughs.] And for the John Hunt character I really had trouble figuring out what he should do in the movie. He’s a real character, the real John Hunt is in the movie, in fact. He never caught Forrest Tucker, he loved him and admired him, but he never caught him, so I had to find a way to make that narratively compelling. I could’ve fudged the facts and had him actually catch Tucker or play more of a part in his arrest but I kind of loved the unexpected turn that he just never succeeds. He’s a detective who does not succeed at his job and I was like, “How do I make that a success in its own right?” And then I just looked at myself and thought I really like Forrest Tucker, I kinda don’t want him to get caught, so maybe I can get John Hunt to that same place. John Hunt is basically me writing the film. In writing the film I fell in love with this character, fell in love with his legend, fell in love with his passion for what he does and did not want to see him get caught for it. And as erroneous as that may be–as incorrect on a cultural/sociological level as that might be–I truly wanted him to get away with it. And so, the angle I took with John Hunt was to let him arrive at that same place that I was at, where he felt the right thing was to let Forrest Tucker walk out that door.

There’s almost a lingering feeling of: I wish he could continue to do it so that I could continue to chase him.

Exactly. That’s something that the real John Hunt told me. He said there was always a melancholy when the chase was over. The really good bank robbers made the really good cops even better at what they did. They had to step up to the challenge. It was like a symbiotic relationship and one he told was full of mutual respect and that’s impressive to me. I feel like that’s something that doesn’t exist now. I don’t know but it feels like a very old-fashioned and honest sentiment for a cops-and-robbers drama, that mutual respect, and I wanted that to exist here.

The Old Man & the Gun opens on Friday, September 28.


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