the old man and the gun director interview

Writer-director David Lowery may have sent Robert Redford out with the bang the actor deserves with The Old Man & the Gun. No small feat on Lowery’s part. The filmmaker behind A Ghost Story and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints tells a playful but melancholic crime tale with the sweeping sense of adventure you want from watching Redford rob banks with his iconic charm.

Redford disappears into the role of happy-go-lucky criminal Forrest Tucker, but whether the character is making a getaway from the fuzz or enjoying a night at the movies with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), his power as both an actor and star is palpable in every scene. The Old Man & The Gun is a larger-than-life story made grander and all the more majestic by the mere presence of its lead.

Lowery recently told us about wanting Redford’s star power in all its glory, using a clip from a classic movie of the actor’s, having Tom Waits tell a Christmas story in the film, and more.

Note: This interview does contain spoilers.

When you were writing the script for The Old Man & The Gun, you were already thinking of it as a tribute to Robert Redford, right?

It was always there, and that was the one thing that I knew was gonna be there because we put it, when you turn a camera on and point it at Robert Redford, you instantly get the entirety of who he is as a movie star without having to do anything. That’s just there front and center. So, it was always on my mind, and yet the thing that I focused on the most was how to craft a story around that. Which turned out trickier than I thought it was going to be.

How so?

I tried to write the true crime version of this movie and the journalistic version of what really happened, and Robert Redford never felt like he fit into that. My idea of who Robert Redford was as an actor never really fit into the true story of Forrest Tucker. So what I realized over many, many drafts, I probably realized it right around the time I was working on A Ghost Story after Pete’s Dragon, was that I needed to write the movie that Forrest Tucker would have wanted to see. I needed to write the version of Forrest Tucker that he saw in his own head as opposed to the one that really showed all the things he did. There was a thin line between two, but it was a very important line and that line allowed me to write a movie that was the version that Robert Redford could excel playing.

You also did a marathon of Robert Redford’s movies while writing The Old Man & The Gun. What qualities of his stood out to you that you wanted to embrace? 

His playful voice really came through, that was something that I remember being really struck by and wanting to lean into because he is so playful. Even when he is doing interviews, doing press, or just hanging out, he has a very playful sense of humor, and I felt like that was something that had disappeared from screens for a while. It had been a while since he’d engaged with that side of himself on screen, so I really wanted to give him a chance to bring that back. A scene that I think about a lot is in Downhill Racer when he is trying to get the young lady to get out of his car, she’s talking, he leans over and honks the horn. And that was an improvisation that he did.

Now on a character level, that’s really mean and misogynistic and it’s a horrible thing that he did, but just the fact that he did that, you can’t help but laugh at it and smile. It’s one of those things that I think about a lot when I think of him, I think it’s very indicative of his playful personality and I wanted to find away to use that, to utilize it and to put it front and center in this film.

It’s great you got a clip of him from The Chase. I hadn’t seen that movie until recently, but it’s fantastic. 

Isn’t it great?

It is. When Marlon Brando is beaten to a pulp at the end and just keeps going, that’s such a thrill to watch. 

So great.

How did Robert Redford react when you suggested the idea? 

He very casually said sure, he said that sounds like a good idea, a fun idea. I don’t know how much he really thought about it at the time, but I know that when he saw it, it caught him off guard. I think it catches a lot of people off guard, because you’re not expecting that in that moment, and it almost functions on a meta level at that point it becomes, for a split second, it really becomes about our understanding of icon, of this legend of cinema history rather than this character. And yet the character is always there too, so I think it was something that he did not anticipate having the impact that it ultimately does in the movie. He likes it, but it definitely caught him by surprise.

robert redford not retiring

What made you decide to use a clip from Two-Lane Blacktop? Did you see any similarities between Forrest Tucker and Warren Oates’ character?

Yeah, because it’s about characters who are so single-mindedly focused on one thing that they let, you know, they let something inevitable get away. Warren Oates in that film, I think, is a little bit more in touch with everything, with the world than the other characters, but that monologue is one of the most heartbreaking monologues, it’s still a mystery to me.

I didn’t intend for that movie to be in the movie. We paid homage to Blacktop already when we shot the chase scene with the ’55 chevy, but when I was trying to figure out what movie they’d be watching at the movie theater, so I just decided one day to try that clip from Two-Lane Blacktop and the resonance it had was just perfect. Even though what Warren Oates is describing in that scene, what he’s yearning for, is exactly the opposite of what Robert Redford wants. Robert Redford wants to go back on the road with Dennis Wilson and drive back across country the way he came, whereas Warren Oates wants to settle down with Sissy Spacek and find a quiet life before he gets, you know, before he loses control.

In that dialect, you find some key to what the character is going through, and they’re both yearning in those moments for something else. You know, watching Robert Redford watch Two-Lane Blacktop in that movie, really does something to me that I can’t quantify.

Did you write with Sissy Spacek or any of her past work in mind as well? What kind of presence is she on a set?

She is the bee’s knees. I had an idea of what she might be like based on the movies I’d seen her in, and that is exactly who she is. She is just the warmest, most positive, most fun-loving best friend you could ever hope for. I like calling her my best friend, because she makes you feel like she’s your best friend when you’re around her. Even if you only met her five minutes ago, she will instantly be your best friend, and we send pics, we text each other pictures of our pets all the time.

I wrote for her before I knew her. I was hoping that she would say yes, and thankfully she did. But I didn’t go back and watch a lot of her movies. You know, I’d seen I feel like the vast majority of them, but I didn’t really go back and watch them because she never played a character really like this before. I just wanted to try to capture her voice rather than pay homage to any particular character in her past, in her repertoire.

And it turns out, what I wrote was basically just her. Like, she lives on a ranch in Virginia with horses and her house doesn’t look that unlike the character’s house in the movie. In trying to write a part for her, I just wrote a part literally for Sissy Spacek, the person, rather than the actress. She came in for a costume fitting and I think she had most of the clothes that we were gonna have her try on, so it was a part fit her perfectly. It was more her than any of her roles that really spoke to me.

[Spoiler Warning]

The idea at the end that living with Jewel (Sissy Spacek) wasn’t enough living for Forrest Tucker, it’s very sad. From what you’ve read or heard, how have audiences interpreted Tucker’s choice at the end?

I definitely found that people interpret it as a melancholy ending and they pick up on those vibes for sure. I personally found it very sad and there’s tragedy in that final shot. You know, the movie was fun and there’s a jauntiness to it, and that’s really a bummer. I was really torn in constructing that sequence with whether or not to include music in that final scene because it just really did feel, it felt inevitable, but it also was somewhat disappointing and we tried it without score and it just felt flat somehow, and I can’t quite say why.

It didn’t have the melancholic weight that I was hoping it to have, that I was hoping that it would have, nor did it really offer up any statement whatsoever. Ultimately, we tried out different pieces of music and went back to the Forrest Tucker theme as it were and I was really happy that it not only felt like the right ending for the movie finally, but that people still picked up on how melancholy this epilogue to the film really was. It didn’t overpower the upbeat music and the final line of text on the screen, didn’t negate the poor life choice that Forrest Tucker is making in that moment.

[Spoilers Over] 

Watching Tom Waits tell a Christmas story is so enjoyable. Showing that monologue in one shot, did that idea just immediately feel right to you? 

It was a suggestion on Tom’s part that perhaps the character could have a monologue. And when Tom Waits suggests that this character could use a monologue, you give him a monologue. When he brought the idea to the table, I asked him if he had any stories in mind that he’d like to tell and he told me that story. Which as far as I know, is completely 100% true.

I was going to say, it sounded like a story you’d hear in a Tom Waits’ song. 

Oh, completely. Completely. So I wrote that into the script. I added one line of dialogue to it of my own, but other than that, it was all him. We shot it from a couple different angles, and in the edit, it was instantly clear that it just needed that one. You just get that one angle and you just, I mean, I can’t imagine anything better than pausing a movie for three minutes to listen to Tom Waits tell a tale about a Christmas tree. It was one of the scenes that had no narrative purpose, and yet I can’t imagine the movie without it. It would not be as good of a movie if it didn’t have it in there.

robert redford retiring

How was shooting on Super 16? 

It is easier than digital. I mean, Super 16 is a tried and true format and it is easier than millimeter because you have just more time to shoot, the matches even last longer, and it’s easier than digital because the cameras are simpler. It’s just a very simple machine and you don’t need so many wires running out of it, you don’t have a video village and you don’t have the VIP system. It allows you to be more streamline and to have a smaller footprint.

There’s something about the je ne sais quoi of shooting on film that changes the attitude on set. Part of it is that you can hear the film going through the camera and you know that at a certain point that it’s gonna run out, and that, I think on a subconscious level, probably inspires everyone to just do a little bit more, to be a little bit more on point and to make sure they’re doing their best because you only got a certain number of shots with this thing as opposed to digital where you can just shoot all day.

It also just makes the production itself feel more old-fashioned, it makes it feel smaller, a little scrappier and that was a fun vibe to have. To just really see it, I wanted this to feel like we were making an independent film in the 80’s and I wanted the technology to reflect that, I wanted the look of the film to reflect that and it was a really nice little bit of time traveling we did as a unit to sort of, embody that ethos, that idea of how a movie might have been made in a different decade.

The shot of Robert Redford on the horse with a line of cop cars speeding in the distance, that’s such a magnificent image. How did that shot first come to mind? What do you remember from filming that day? 

It was something that came to me in the writing phase. We had a car chase at a certain point, and the car chase is based on something that really happened to Forrest Tucker and there’s the beat with the woman he hijacks who has a little boy in the backseat, that’s all true. But, at a certain point, it didn’t feel like it was enough. I felt like we needed to take this pursuit further. We needed to leave reality behind and enter the symbolic realm and to once again let Robert Redford status as a legend take precedence in the sequence.

Of course, Robert Redford, his iconic status was made on the back of a horse in some of his early films, so it made sense to get him back up on one and the image of him sitting up there, hat on his head, blanket on his shoulders, watching the cop cars stream in was conceived to be iconic. We wanted to end that sequence with an iconic image.

You know, we shot that sunrise and it was one of those rare moments on set where you just feel like you’re watching a little bit of history happen in front of you. It was a really magical, majestic moment. It was raining all the way up until it wasn’t, suddenly the sun broke through the clouds and there’s Rob Redford on a horse and a fleet of police cars coming through, and even if we hadn’t been filming, it’d be one of those moments that you just never forget.

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The Old Man & The Gun is now in theaters.

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