Filled with Self-Doubt? Only You Know The Film You Want to Make: David Lowery on 'The Old Man & the Gun'
Robert Redford has been in heist movies before, so for his final role on screen, filmmaker David Lowery created a film that subverts the heist genre while paying homage to the Redford we've grown up watching.
The Old Man and the Gun, which comes out in theaters this weekend, is the mostly true story of Forrest Tucker, a real-life charming bank robber who, at the age of 76, had pulled off more than 80 robberies. Redford plays Tucker, and filmmaker David Lowery pulls from Redford’s career of charming on-screen leading men (sometimes even literally, pulling a clip of young Robert from The Chase for a sequence, edited by Lisa Zeno Churgin.)
David Lowery, who shifts between editor, indie filmmaker, and Disney blockbuster director, realized he wanted to tell a heist story that turned the tables on audience expectations. The result is a deliberately delightful Super 16mm "Cops & Robbers" flick that’s as warm as it is bittersweet—a rumination on the point of life where one direction is a lifetime of memories and the other is the unknown.
Lowry sat down with No Film School to talk about working with the cinematic legacy of Robert Redford, having fun with the camera, and remembering that you know what you are doing, that even when you don't think you know what you're doing, you do.
No Film School: Watching The Old Man and the Gun got me to thinking about how occasionally you see a director cast an actor to intentionally play with audience expectations of that actor, i.e. John Boorman casting Lee Marvin [an actor with a famous career in Westerns of the previous decade] in Point Blank. Having Robert Redford as the leading man in this film seems to play with his entire career of performance on screen. Did you start the project knowing that Redford would be your man here?
David Lowery: This was a project that Robert Redford brought to me. When I first read the New Yorker article, it was with him in mind. I don't know if I would ever have made the movie without him. It was the idea of making this movie with Robert Redford that got me excited for the project. It's an interesting point you bring up. When you have an actor who has been a part of our lives as a movie-going populace for decades, it is practically impossible for us to separate their history from the role that they're playing on screen.
When we go back and watch Robert Redford's very first movie now, you're going to watch it knowing what he did after that. You're always going to carry that with you into his performances, and that's something I love. As a fan of movies and of film history (and of the people who have made film history what it is), I enjoy carrying that weight into the theater.
It's not appropriate for every actor, of course, but for certain icons, it really adds to the movies that they choose to do. When I made Ain't them Bodies Saints and cast Keith Carradine in that, I wanted to lean into who Keith Carradine was, and I really liked that idea of resting a little bit on his legacy as an actor.
Getting the chance to do that with Robert Redford and to really utilize the history that he carries with him was, for me as a fan of cinema, a real joy and a luxury.
NFS: There’s this 1970’s heist movie look and feel to the film. Can you talk about the kind of movie you wanted it to be, and if there were any important references?
Lowery: I went into it thinking that I would make a traditional "Cops & Robbers" movie. I was thinking about Michael Mann movies a lot. I was thinking about Heat. I was thinking about Heat, and over the course of writing the initial draft, I realized that I'm not Michael Mann and I can't do that. Over the many, many drafts that I was consistently writing and throwing away and rewriting, I started to think of the movie in different terms.
The movie became less of a "Cops & Robbers" movie and more of a, for lack of a better word, a bedtime story. It had a fairy tale quality to it which all my movies do. One of my key reference points was The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the Wes Anderson movie.
I thought that if I could just make a live action movie that feels the way that movie feels, I think I'll be onto something pretty good.
NFS: It looked like the film may have been shot on 16mm. Was that an important choice for the style and the magical, fairytale aspect of the story?
Lowery: I think it was less about it being magical and more about it feeling warm and cozy and handmade.
"Now when you shoot on 35mm these days, the shots are so refined that its very easy to forget that you're looking at film on a conscious level."
NFS: I don't know why I went with ‘magical’ there! There are no fairies in the tale. But that feeling of a sense of delight you get as the audience maybe?
Lowery: Maybe fairy tale is not the right word. I'm using the term bedtime story a lot these days because in Toronto one of the people who introduced the movie was like, "All of David's movies feel like bedtime stories." I thought to myself, “You know he's right, that's a great way to think of about this,” and now I'm feeling that. I have to give the credit to Michael Lerman in Toronto for the idea.
I think what I'm looking for is something that does feel warm, handmade, like a blanket or a quilt. One of the ways to do that is to make sure that the film itself has a very intimate texture to it, a handmade texture. A great way to achieve that is to shoot on film, because it's got that warmth to it. It's got that life to it, that organic quality.
Now when you shoot on 35mm these days, the shots are so refined that its very easy to forget that you're looking at film on a conscious level. On a subconscious level, I do believe that you're always somewhat aware of it, but it's still closer to HD than it used to be, whereas 16mm stock now looks the way 35mm did in the 60s and 70s.
It made sense to shoot on Super 16mm to use as little resolution as possible so that grain really was an omnipresent factor in the aesthetic of the movie itself. It's part of the image that you're never going to get away from. That gives it that really lived-in, beautiful handmade quality that I'm always after in one way or another.
Lowery: As far as the look of the movie, we wanted it to feel nostalgic without being overly sentimental. We didn't try to brush the movie with beautiful light, we didn't want it to feel like an Instagram filter of a period piece. We encouraged ourselves to be sloppier than we would normally be. The light isn't as perfect all the time, etc.
A lot of times we were shooting outside in less than ideal conditions, like when the light's really high up in the sky. When you're making an independent film and you don't have a lot of resources, you can't always choose when or where the sun's going to be in the sky, so let's just embrace that rather than whine about it and wait for magic hour! Let's just embrace that as the aesthetic of the movie.
The third thing we were always trying to do was trying to have fun with the camera. Whether it was just a close-up that was a little closer than it would normally would be, or a dolly shot that had a lot of life to it. There’s an entire montage in the movie made up of whip pans! We were always trying to have fun with the camera and do things that felt true to the story and supported the narrative we were trying to tell, but that were also just making us smile.
A big part of the aesthetic of the movie was just finding things that made us happy.
"...just remember that even if don't think you know what you're doing, you actually do."
NFS: Nowadays, the trend in heist movies is to be high octane with outrageous twists and turns. With this film, there’s a completely different sense of pace. From the very beginning, you get delightful little glimpses into what’s happening. You see Redford's character from behind, a shot of a suitcase, a mustache in the mirror, and then some kids are painting a wall as a getaway car casually rounds the corner. The pacing sets off the reveal of information in a slow, clever way. Can you speak to your philosophy with the pacing and the nature of the heist genre?
Lowery: I always try to think of myself as an audience member. When I’m making this, I’m thinking both of what I wanted out of the genre but also what I was tired of seeing and wanted to see in a new way. That reveal of information or the way in which we show the heist happening was always written with the audience in mind.
I'm thinking about how people have seen so many heists. Even this year alone, there have been a lot of pretty good heist movies and we have a couple more coming out this fall that are going to be great. I wanted to make sure this one stood out and had an unusual approach to the tropes of the genre, so to speak.
In one version of the edit, we didn't have you know about the heist at the beginning. That was something we tried taking out. We were thinking, "How little can we get away with? How few bank robberies can we have, and still have this be a crime film? To what extent can we step around the incidents in the movie, and not really feature them on screen, and yet still have them carry the weight they need to carry?"
As a result, there are very few actual bank robberies in the movie. There are references to them, and there's, of course, a montage of little moments from bank robberies, but there's only one big heist that you see on screen. There's an implication that the movie will go in the direction of “one last score.” You know, the “one last big job” that the guys do. As I was writing, I remember thinking that every movie has that—every movie has that one last score and you know it's not going to go well. Do we really need to see it again?
I just thought to myself, how refreshing would it be to skip past it entirely? You know how it's going to end up, let's just jump all the way past it and see what happens next. In doing that, you end up taking 20 minutes out of the movie that you then have to fill with something else. The stuff that you fill it with when you remove those big, expected stunts is really fun for me to think about and engage with.
NFS: What would your advice be to filmmakers after making The Old Man and the Gun?
Lowery: You know, while we were making the movie, I realized something: Even when you feel like you don't know what it is you're making, no one knows the movie more than you do. Never forget that. When you're making a film, you know, on an intrinsic level, what it is you're doing and that is that needs to be the North Star to which you march. Other people will question it and doubt it, and you might not have the best answers all the time, but at your core, you know what to do at any given moment.
There were several instances on this movie where I was reminded of that. I am a filmmaker that is full of self-doubt and self-criticism and I constantly look to others for support. I get support from everyone else, but at the end of the day, the choices that make the movie what it is, are mine. I have to trust myself to know that I'm going to make the right ones. I had the opportunity several times on this film to remind myself of that. It was a nice reminder to know that it was up to me, and to make a choice, and to see that choice pay off.
My advice to anyone jumping into making movies, or making their 10th movie, is to just remember that even if you don't think you know what you're doing, you actually do. Hold on to that.