David Lowery on directing Robert Redford, ‘one of the last great icons of cinema’
The director of the Old Man & the Gun says he would understand if Redford ‘decided to quit after this one. But I hope he doesn’t’
Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek. Photograph: Eric Zachanowich/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
There’s a marvellous meta-textual moment in David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun, when Robert Redford, playing career criminal Forrest Tucker, appears in a montage depicting Tucker’s 18 successful jailbreaks. The sequence that dramatises Tucker’s first escape, aged 15 and his history-making bust out of Alcatraz, includes the moment when Robert Redford’s Bubber Reeves character escapes from prison in Arthur Penn’s 1966 drama, The Chase.
“It sort of catches you off-guard,” smiles Lowery. “But there’s never a moment when you’re directing Bob that you forget that you’re looking at Robert Redford, one of the last great icons of cinema.”
David Lowery, the son of Mark Lowery – a professor of theology at the University of Dallas and the former editor-in-chief of the Catholic Social Science Review – may be an atheist, but there’s a strange spirituality to his work going back to Pioneer, a 2011 short in which Will Oldham recounts a frontier tale, not unlike the one glimpsed in A Ghost Story. Long before that, a pre-adolescent Lowery attempted to remake Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, despite not having been allowed to see that particular film. Interestingly, he cast his younger brother in a sheet with eye-holes cut out. The Old Man & the Gun is too earthy to be metaphysical, but the film does bask in the heavenly bodies of cinema.
Robert Redford has been circling Forrest Tucker since the then 78-year-old bank robber was profiled in the New Yorker by David Grann in 2003. Not long after Lowery’s sophomore feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, won two major awards at Sundance in 2012, the film-maker received a phone call from Bill Holderman, Redford’s producing partner. Since then, the actor and director have worked together on Pete’s Dragon, Lowery’s affecting live-action remake of Disney’s 1977 musical. The prolific film-maker has, additionally, directed A Ghost Story and produced Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour.
There is a reason why The Old Man & the Gun has had a long gestation.
“I think I wrote more drafts than I have of anything else I’ve ever worked on,” says Lowery. “It took me a while to figure out that I needed to write the movie that Forrest Tucker would have wanted to see. The version of himself that he saw in his own head as opposed to the one that really showed all the things he did. It was only then I could make it work around Robert Redford and all of the cinematic baggage that comes with Robert Redford. It’s impossible for us to separate who he is from the character he’s playing. There’s no getting away from that legacy. So this needed to be a character that was a spiritual successor to some of the characters he’d played before. And Bob understood the lineage between the Sundance Kid and The Sting and Forrest Tucker. But there’s a relationship with Bob himself. He’s always been a kind of an outlaw. He’s an environmentalist. He works outside the system.”
A meet-cute diner scene between Redford and Spacek twinkles more than any on screen encounter this yea
With this in mind, Lowery pared back his script, leaving a minimalist cat-and-mouse game between wily, charming Forrest (Redford) and a dogged police detective played by Casey Affleck. Between genre beats, the writer-director lets the star wattage do the talking. Set in 1981 and shot on Super-16 – because, as Lowery notes, you need to use 16mm stock to approximate the aesthetic and grain of 35mm stock during the 1970s and 80s – it feels like an older film. An older cast including Danny Glover, Tom Waits (who tells a hilarious Christmas story from the youth of, well, Tom Waits), and Sissy Spacek, add to the sense of heritage.
It also gestures back to an era when movie stars were just that. A meet-cute diner scene between Redford and Spacek twinkles more than any on screen encounter this year.
“The casting director was clever enough to bring in young couples into the background who are flirting just like they are,” says Lowery. “I wrote that part with Sissy in mind but I hadn’t met her yet. And she comes in and she’s just like the character I’ve written for her. She’s warm. She lives on a ranch in Virginia with horses just like her character does. Her house even looks a bit like the character’s house in the movie. When she came in for a costume fitting, her clothes were like what we had picked out for her. So, by accident, I somehow wrote Sissy Spacek, the actress.”
Lowery was born in Milwaukee in 1980, but mostly grew up in Dallas. The oldest of nine children, he started making films with his siblings before he was a teenager.
“It’s such a cliche,” he says. “But like a lot of people my age, it was Star Wars. I was seven. And that was when I decided I was going to make films.”
He has, of course, a clear path to that particular space opera franchise, having already helmed Pete’s Dragon for the Star Wars parent studio. His next project for the House of Mouse will, however, be the live-action reboot of Peter Pan.
Days before they began shooting, the actor informed Lowery of his planned retirement
“It’s different from Pete’s Dragon,” he says. “That was a little under the radar. It’s not this beloved classic. With Peter Pan, there have been so many versions, you have to justify yourself, you have to try to make something definitive.”
Last acting role
For the moment, it looks as if The Old Man & the Gun will be Robert Redford’s last acting role. Days before they began shooting, the actor informed Lowery of his planned retirement. Last month, Redford seemed to soften on the matter. “I think it was a mistake to say that this was my last film because I think I just could’ve quietly slipped out of acting and into a new category,” Redford said at a post-screening Q&A, noting that the press drew “too much attention” to The Old Man & the Gun being his last film, when he’d rather the focus be “on the rest of the cast and the story”.
“He’s always busy and he has family and I’m not sure he wants to spend anymore time waiting between takes,” says Lowery. “At the same time, I don’t know if he can walk away completely. This is what he does. Even if he doesn’t act again, he is always looking for things to produce. He definitely has scripts he wants to direct. I’d understand if he decided to quit after this one. But I hope he doesn’t. I’d like to keep seeing him on screen. I think everybody would.”
The Old Man & the Gun opens December 7th
The outlaw Robert Redford – five to watch
The Chase (directed by Arthur Penn, 1966). Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) knows that escaped convict Bubber Reeves (Redford) is innocent, but can he protect him from mob justice?
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (directed by George Roy Hill, 1966). What exactly are the titular outlaws, essayed by Paul Newman and Redford, respectively, up to with Katharine Ross in Bolivia? Written by the late William Goldman and far stranger than you remember. Two words: freeze frame.
The Electric Horseman (directed by Sydney Pollack, 1969). A former rodeo champion (Redford) absconds with a $12 million horse with intrepid reporter Jane Fonda in pursuit.
Jeremiah Johnson (directed by Sydney Pollack, 1972). A Mexican war veteran retreats to the mountains, where the tentative peace he forges with his Crow tribe neighbours is soon threatened.
The Sting (directed by George Roy Hill, 1973). During the Great Depression, two professional grifters (Paul Newman and Redford) conspire to con a mob boss (Robert Shaw). Winner of seven Oscars, and, adjusted for inflation, the 20th-highest-grossing film of all time in the US.