“I Decided to Remove as Much as I Could from the Plot of the Movie”: David Lowery on The Old Man & the Gun, Robert Redford and Vintage Cop Cars
In The Old Man & the Gun, Robert Redford plays Forrest Tucker, a true-life outlaw who spent most of his 84 years robbing banks or biding time in prison, always on the lookout for the first opportunity to escape. Set in 1981, the film finds Tucker in his early 70s, living in Texas and pulling off a string of heists throughout the South. He and his partners, played here by Danny Glover and Tom Waits, became known to authorities as the “Over-the-Hill Gang,” and their m.o.–efficient robberies, executed politely and with style–became legendary. “That was when I was a really good robber,” Tucker told David Grann, whose 2003 article in The New Yorker is the basis for the script.
The Old Man & the Gun has all the appearances of a classic heist film, but writer-director David Lowery approached the material with “a degree of whimsy.” “I decided to remove as much as I could from the plot of the movie,” Lowery told me, “and leave just the bones of a cops-and-robber drama for people to pick at.” Rather than focusing on Tucker’s adversarial relationship with officer John Hunt (Casey Affleck), Lowery became fascinated, instead, by Redford’s image and by the idea of playing him against another iconic face, Sissy Spacek, who co-stars as his love interest. The result is a delight and a fitting capper to Redford’s career, if this does prove to be his final film.
Lowery and I have corresponded for nearly 15 years, going back to our days as early film bloggers, but this was our first face to face conversation. That history informs the interview, which chases a few tangents and indulges at times our shared cinephilia. We spoke at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2018, the day before the Canadian premiere of The Old Man & the Gun.
Filmmaker: I want to start by asking about a camera move in The Old Man & the Gun. From time to time when Robert Redford is on screen, the camera will just drift away, as if his character’s attention is being pulled in some other direction. What came first? That formal idea? Or Spacek’s line near the end of the movie, when she tells him, “You drifted off to space”?
Lowery: I think the line did. I’m sure the line did because we were finding those drifts on set, sometimes spontaneously. That line is a reference to the line in Two-Lane Blacktop that we quote in the movie. I wasn’t going to do that but we were looking for a movie for them to watch in the theater and I thought, “I’m just going to put Two-Lane Blacktop in there.”
Filmmaker: You found those shots spontaneously? It’s a really interesting move. My note from the screening is just, “What is the camera doing?”
Lowery: There’s one scene where the camera drifts away from Bob and Sissy and onto all of these people at the back of the restaurant. When we were shooting that scene, we’d been in the diner for two days and were getting bored of shooting in that same booth. We had a dolly shot set up that was designed to zero in on Sissy, but I said to the camera operator, “Instead of doing that, let’s just leave them behind.” Everyone else in the diner that night was young kids, it was all teenagers, and I thought, “That’s kind of interesting. Let’s just focus on them.”
Then, in the edit, I wondered if we could get away with playing the entire rest of the scene without ever cutting back to Bob and Sissy. Just leave them behind completely. For a while we did. The dolly shot just kept drifting. There’s something lovely and unexpected about it. Also, it was provocative–not like in Taxi Driver, when Travis Bickle’s on the phone and you’re panning away because you can’t handle it. There’s no real justification for it other than it was nice to look at some activity that was not directly related to this couple’s courtship.
Filmmaker: I might be confusing the diner scenes in my memory, but at one point don’t you also cut to a relatively wide shot from the perspective of the back of the restaurant, where the teenagers are sitting?
Lowery: That diner has booths and a bar. Two of the scenes use that bar space. We’re always playing back and forth between the two perspectives.
The second of the three diner scenes is like their second date, so to speak. It felt like we should do something different there. Again, there’s no reason. There’s no character we’re following back there. Later on, of course, in the third scene that’s where Casey will be sitting–that’s where Bob will notice him–but at that point, we’re just letting Bob and Sissy be one couple amongst many couples. We were always talking to Bob and Sissy about how their relationship should feel like two teenagers going on a first date. Every step of the way, that’s how it should feel. Our assistant director had wisely cast teenagers for that night, so to pan off of this older couple to these younger couples doing exactly the same thing was a nice way to underline what was going on with the characters at that point.
Filmmaker: I started with that question because there seems to always be a tension in your work between, for lack of a better description, your art-house formal interests and the pull of classic narrative and storytelling. I imagine that’s something you’re conscious of when you’re writing. A decade into your career, how would you characterize the pleasures of screenwriting?
Lowery: Writing is always still surprising to me, but I don’t know if it’s ever pleasurable. I love to go exploring. With this film I wrote more drafts than anything I’ve ever written, and I kept starting over from scratch, which is interesting because this movie is so simple. It’s shorter than A Ghost Story. There’s not much to it. But I kept writing and rewriting and rewriting, and at some point I realized I was trying to figure out my reason for making this movie. Often, that’s what writing is for me: explaining to myself why I’m compelled to make this film. I forget who said this first–Kubrick quoted it–but when you sit down to write a script you should imagine yourself in the audience of a movie theater. One scene ends and then you ask, “What would I want to see next?” I’m always trying to do that.
At the same time, occasionally I want to see nothing happen, or I want to see something perverse happen, or I want to change characters completely. Yes, it’s the tug of narrative but it’s also the tug of expectations, of what most audiences would want to see. So the writing process is often reconciling my own more bombastic or formalist inclinations with the knowledge that there’s an audience for this movie I also have to satisfy. That’s always hard to iron out, but it’s what writing is for me.
Filmmaker: This thought just occurred to me. Am I right in remembering that one of your early short films [The Outlaw Son (2007)] includes a conversation set in a diner?
Lowery: That’s right! I’ve been a fan of diner conversations since Heat, which was the first epic one I saw and which ties into this movie. Buffalo ’66 ends with them at Denny’s. Pulp Fiction, I suppose as well. But Buffalo ’66 was a big influence on that short film.
A Ghost Story has almost no dialogue, but when we filmed the one scene that does have a lot of dialogue, I was so surprised to see Will Oldham perform it verbatim. He did amazing work with it, respecting the text. I’ve never been one to respect my own text as a director. I throw it out and let the actors have fun, but he came in and knew that scene and treated it with such respect that it gave me new confidence as a writer. In turn, I decided with this film that I wanted to start off with a really long dialogue scene. I knew there might not be much dialogue in the rest of the movie, but I thought, “Let’s start off with something that feels almost like a play. Let’s see how long we can keep it going.” Then I set out to shoot it in a way that is faithful to what is written on the page and lean in to the dialogue for once. And, of course, the best place to have a conversation is a diner.
Filmmaker: That scene seems to be a good example of the push-and-pull between those formalist and narrative urges we were talking about. In most films of this genre, Danny Glover’s and Tom Waits’s characters would be much more prominent, but at some point, I assume during the writing, you must have decided, “No, they’re only going to be on screen for a few minutes so we can carve out more time for the diner conversation.”
Lowery: Yeah, it’s so weird, the balance of those two things. The characters Tom and Danny play had even less presence in the screenplay than they do in the movie. When they came to town, I thought, “I can’t not use them.” So then I’m up all night writing lots of dialogue for them, most of which inevitably gets cut out of the movie because there isn’t really a place for it. There’s a reason the parts were small in the script. With this movie in particular, there was a degree of whimsy in the writing, where I was trying to see how much I could cut out, how little I could get away with and there still be a movie. And yet that 12-page scene was always going to be there.
The first draft was about 150 pages and did not feel like my movie. I kept working on it, working on it, then went off to make Pete’s Dragon, and then kept working on it. Pete’s Dragon gave me a chance to work with Redford, so I was able to do another pass on the script specifically for him, now that I knew his strengths and how he liked to work.
We were supposed to make this right after A Ghost Story, but I didn’t know if I was a cops-and-robbers filmmaker. I’d already made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which had cops and robbers, and then Pete’s Dragon had my maximalist, Blues Brothers car chase, so I’d done the things I wanted to do. What kept me going is that I love Redford, I love his spirit, and I wanted to do something that capitalized on that. So I decided to remove as much as I could from the plot of the movie, to take as much incident out of the script as I possibly could, and leave just the bones of a cops-and-robber drama for people to pick at. I wondered if I could get away with almost no cat-and-mouse interaction between the two protagonists and yet hold on Redford’s face for a solid minute. Those are the kinds of ratios I was working out in my head. Hopefully you watch it and enjoy what’s left of the genre conventions, but the long shots of Redford driving or the pan in the diner are what make the movie meaningful to me.
Filmmaker: A few years ago, after an interview, I asked an actress if I could take a photo for the piece. She agreed, looked at the lights around her, adjusted her posture, and stared straight into the lens. When I looked at her through the viewfinder, she’d transformed from the woman I’d just had a nice conversation with into a capital-M movie star. I’d never had that experience before. When you went into production, you had characters on the page, but then at some point you had to frame Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek in closeup. I can imagine how that kind of star power might actually break a director’s intentions.
Lowery: I was lucky to have had the chance to make Pete’s Dragon with Bob and get used to that. There’s never a moment when you don’t think, “Oh, there’s the last icon of cinema in front of me.” He often sits on set and reads the paper, and every day it’s, “Well, there’s Robert Redford reading.” When you put them on set in costume and frame them up, you instantly put it in the context of the history of that image. You free associate to other films with similar images. You bring so much baggage to every composition.
I soon realized that I could get away with less–not just in terms of the script, but as the director, I didn’t need to tell them what to do. In Bob’s case, he knows what he does well and he’s been doing it for 50 or 60 years. The best thing I learned from him is just to pay attention. On Pete’s Dragon, I asked him to try something different on take two and he said, “Oh, I did that on take one. You just didn’t notice.” That night I looked at the dailies, and he was right.
Filmmaker: There’s a car chase scene late in the film, and when Redford’s character is finally stopped, he gets out and you cut to a tight shot as he raises his hand in the shape of a gun. He’s wearing a blue shirt and brown suede jacket and has a slight grin on his face. Did you design that scene with the idea of adding one more iconic shot to his highlight reel?
Lowery: 100%. That sequence was originally a bigger part of the film and gradually became superfluous, but I felt we still needed it because it’s all about digging into that iconography and adding to it. At that point in the movie, for the John Hunt character, we needed that iconography to justify what he was doing–the fact that five minutes later he will make this relatively significant turn on a dime. The iconography gives us leeway to do that to the narrative. But the image was 100% designed to be part of his legacy.
Filmmaker: That must be fun.
Lowery: It’s great. And he knew it. He gets out there on this windswept highway in the middle of nowhere with all of these cop cars and he knows exactly what’s going on. He took a look around and said, “Yep, I know how to do this.” That was day one of production. Everyone says to not do something hard on the first day, but because that scene was an island unto itself, and also because car chases are tons of fun to shoot, we decided to kick things off in grand style and get that scene out of the way and have fun with it. Then we could go make the rest of the movie.
Filmmaker: Casey Affleck, on the other hand, often acts at a whisper-quiet energy level. I imagine the danger with him is that he can steal control of the pacing of a film. How do you prepare for or accommodate for that?
Lowery: There absolutely is that danger, and he’s very aware of it. I brought him on this movie because I wanted that quality in this character–that hang-dog, dragging his feet, woe-is-me quality that he can do so well. If you were to watch the dailies, you’d watch us work through a lot of different interpretations, many of them wildly incorrect. But then we would gradually dial into just the right amount of lethargy, the right amount of that ineffable Casey Affleck quality!
Several people on our crew worked with Joaquin Phoenix on You Were Never Really Here and they said it’s very similar. They’re actors who, in the process of trying to get into character, throw a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Once I understood on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints that that’s what Casey likes to do–be alive in the moment and try things out and throw things at you–then I learned to give him time to do that. At a certain point, we always find the right rhythm. Also, now that we know each other, I’m able to say, “Listen, can you please just stick to the script for this take because we’re running out of time.”
Filmmaker: Does that mean the first few days of production are a bit of an adventure while you search for the right balance? Or is it a constant process throughout the shoot?
Lowery: The whole process. It’s all character based. He goes through the script and talks about the character in great depth. And with this character, there’s not much there, there’s not much in the script to dig into. But we’ll go through it as if it’s War and Peace and talk about it, and then he’ll use all of that.
Often, we’ll do a couple takes where he will externalize everything that is going on with the character. We have a scene with him in the car with the kids, and in the first couple takes he just laid the entire weight of his life on those kids’ shoulders. It was amazing to watch–the most inappropriate thing for a father to do to his children! He explained to them how his life is going horribly wrong. It’s raining and dramatic and his kids are so confused by it all. But there’s a poop joke in the scene. That’s kind of the point of that scene, the poop joke. Gradually all of that extraneous stuff falls away and the spirit of it remains. He does the scene exactly as I need it, often with some extra spin, and he makes it better in the process.
Filmmaker: I imagine you’ve been asked questions along this line before, but is there something nostalgic in your basic makeup?
Lowery: There definitely is. I’m nostalgic to a fault. I hang on to things way too long, both objects and sentiments. My affection for the past is something I recognize as dangerous: It’s a trap, and yet the movies I make are inherently nostalgic. They’re all period pieces. I’m not sure how much longer I can get away with it, to be honest.
The Old Man & the Gun is nostalgic in a very specific way, and in making it, I felt like I couldn’t keep doing this gauzy, sun-dappled nostalgia anymore. If I’m going to do nostalgia, then I at least needed to make it ugly! So with this one I said, “Let’s do non-pretty nostalgia. Let’s make it feel old and like it was made in a different era and evoke the kinds of films we want to evoke, but let’s not drench it in honey.” Because I’ve certainly done that on the others. I’m trying to get in the way of my own affection for the past.
Filmmaker: The upside is you get to do fun things like long reverse zooms and whip-pan montages.
Lowery: It’s so fun. It just makes you happy on set to try something you’ve seen a million times in other films and discover why it works. “Oh, that’s why I’ve always enjoyed this: because it works so well on a technical level.” It’s great, but you’re also definitely looking over your shoulder while you do it, and there’s a danger to that.
Filmmaker: So how do you combat those tendencies in your writing?
Lowery: I’m figuring it out. I’ve had glimpses, especially when I was working on Upstream Color. I knew I was working with someone who is pushing the medium. I don’t ask, “What would Shane Carruth do in this situation?” But I do look at projects with an eye toward doing things that have never been done before.
Filmmaker: A Ghost Story is certainly a step in that direction.
Lowery: It was. It’s weird to have The Old Man & the Gun coming out now because it’s of a piece with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon–my vintage cop car trilogy. A Ghost Story ended up being made between them, so it feels like I’m backtracking a bit, but I plan to get back to what I was doing with A Ghost Story. If you know my taste in cinema, then you can see the templates it’s based upon, but it was definitely me pushing forward on my own terms. Hopefully the next movie I make will do that. But I can also see us talking again in a couple years, and I will have made something that’s a throwback to yet another era.
Filmmaker: As a viewer, one of the pleasures of a period piece is that it’s an escape from the everydayness of our lives. Like, it’s hard to for me to imagine you having much interest in a character who spends all day working in a cubicle or looking at his phone. Watching The Old Man & the Gun, I thought of David Fincher’s Zodiac, in that both crime sprees would be solved immediately if they were committed today because of the speed of communications, and both films seem to be partly about that change. I wonder if what we’re calling your nostalgia is partly a heightened sensitivity to something we’ve lost, whether that’s human connection or a spirit of adventure or just the sensation of touching newspapers and paperclips and photographs rather than scrolling through a digital interface?
Lowery: It’s funny, none of those things you mentioned are actually lost, although they feel as if they are because we’ve been so monopolized by the overwhelming convenience of modernity. I don’t want to completely fetishize these more sensory aspects of day-to-day life; I certainly do more than my fair share of scrolling. But I do like shifting an emphasis back towards things that are tactile, that have a physical texture to them.
I get very excited by sensory detail! And it certainly helps with storytelling. A Ghost Story is ostensibly a modern film but certainly doesn’t feel like it. And Pete’s Dragon and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints wouldn’t have worked on a narrative level with modern technology, just like Zodiac wouldn’t. I actually watched Zodiac a lot in the early days of writing The Old Man & The Gun. I watch it a lot, in general, because it’s an endlessly watchable masterpiece, but as I was writing I really paid attention to the way information moved in that film. There’s a reference to fax machines in The Old Man & The Gun and I definitely was thinking about the telefax joke in Zodiac when I wrote that.
Filmmaker: This is a bit of a tangent, but I revisited A Ghost Story a day or two before seeing the recent IMAX rerelease of 2001, and the coincidence was uncanny. I can’t think of many other films that have so much fun playing with shot/reverse-shots. I’m thinking of the final sequence in the white room, when middle-aged Dave is in the bathroom and Kubrick cuts on what seems to be an eyeline match to old Dave sitting at the table. You use the ghosts in a similar way. I remember smiling at the audacity of it when I saw A Ghost Story for the first time.
Lowery: All of those shot/reverse-shots were in the script! In fact, there were more of them. That was always our way of moving through time. But it wasn’t until afterwards that I saw 2001 again and thought, “Oh, that must be where that came from.” It’s a brilliant idea. There’s a new book about the making of 2001 [Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson], and Kubrick was making that up on the set. It’s amazing to read that book and find out how much of 2001 was discovered by Kubrick and his team. They went into production without a finished script and were figuring it out as they went along. Of course, they also had massive amounts of money from MGM to do it, but it’s wonderful evidence of how much luck plays in a movie working. So many ideas came to them on the day and now they’re an indelible part of cinema history.
Filmmaker: You once told an interviewer that you were genuinely surprised by the positive response to A Ghost Story and that it made you realize you weren’t as out of touch with other people’s emotional lives as you thought. Given that, I wonder what it is about a film set that is so appealing to you. You’re putting a lot of effort into a career that requires you to be surrounded by throngs of people who look to you for answers.
Lowery: I ask myself this all the time! Why am I fighting so hard to be in this space that … being on set is miserable. There are some directors who love it and thrive in it. I’m not one of them. There’s something about the aftermath of making a movie, though, when you’re in the edit and you’re putting these images together that is so satisfying and compelling. That’s where moviemaking happens for me–once you’ve gathered all of the raw material.
I’m an introvert. I don’t have trouble empathizing, but I have trouble connecting with people on an emotional level, and I’m learning this more and more as I get older. That’s something where, as a human being, I see room to improve. I made A Ghost Story for myself. Every choice was made to make me happy. If I were to go see it in the cinema without any idea of what it was, it would please me. That was the goal. I figured there were five or six people, most of whom I knew, who would probably like it, and maybe there would be some affinity for it in the art-house scene. Maybe. But the fact that it connected so widely really made me look at myself more objectively and accept that maybe I understand more than I thought I did about other people, maybe I’m able to communicate in this form in a way I’d taken for granted.
Even before the Telluride premiere of The Old Man & the Gun, I thought, “No one’s going to like this thing. There’s nothing to it. It’s just a whiff.” But people were moved by it and I have to remember that I’m using a very effective tool to communicate. If I do my job well, which I always endeavor to do, people will care about these movies, and I need to take that affection seriously and respect it.
Filmmaker: I guess one way you’ve mitigated the miserableness of the job is by building your career alongside your producing partners, James Johnston and Toby Halbrooks. You’ve directed a big Disney film, but The Old Man & the Gun is, I believe, the biggest Sailor Bear production. It feels like a significant next step.
Lowery: I’ve been working with James since I was 19 and with Toby since a few years after that, so on the one hand, this film just feels like the latest in a long line of awesome collaborations with my best friends. But you’re right, this is also the biggest film we’ve made together, and I think it was an important stepping stone.
With the exception of A Ghost Story, every film we’ve made prior has had other producers on it, who helped us learn the ropes and understand just what it was we were doing. And certainly there were other producers on this film, too, but it was James and Toby who were physically on the ground every day, getting shit done, alongside our line producer Patrick Newall. And when we got to the end of it, I think we all collectively realized that we’d taken a big step forward. We knew what we were doing in a way that we didn’t just a few years ago, and I feel like we could make any film at this point, on any scale. That doesn’t mean that we won’t collaborate with others in the future–far from it, we love collaborating–but we won’t be afraid to lead the charge in the future. We’ve got a pretty good idea how to put a movie together at this point, and more than that, we know how we like to do it.
Filmmaker: One last thing. You told me last week to be on the lookout for an obscure visual reference in The Old Man & the Gun.
Lowery: Oh, right!
Filmmaker: I have two theories. One is the reflection of the light off of the gold bars, which reminded me of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly.
Lowery: I did think of that film, but that’s not the reference I was talking about.
Filmmaker: Okay, the other is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There’s that shot of Sissy Spacek in the car and then the focus pulls …
Lowery: … to Bob in the gas station. No, but that’s closer. It’s Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties. There was an Akerman retrospective in L.A., which was amazing–seeing all of her films on the big screen. They brought in a print from France and hadn’t checked it the night before, so it turned out it wasn’t subtitled. Most of the audience left, but I love watching movies without subtitles.
When we were talking about the aesthetic of The Old Man & the Gun, the vibe of it, and the fact that it’s set in 1981, obviously a lot of ’70s stuff seeped in. But there was something about Golden Eighties. I thought that was the look we should go for, so I showed everyone the trailer, which is a true delight and is on YouTube. The whole film takes place in this weird sub-level shopping mall. There’s a scene in The Old Man & the Gun where Bob and Sissy are at a jewelry store in a mall, and that mall looked almost exactly like the one in Golden Eighties. It’s even below ground. I thought, “This was meant to be!”