- “The Old Man & the Gun” director David Lowery looks back on trying to ignore the fact that he was directing Robert Redford’s final acting performance.
- The legendary actor announced five months before shooting started that he was retiring after the movie.
- Lowery tells Business Insider what Redford’s final day on set was like.
David Lowery was taking a jog when he got the news.
It was November 2016, and Lowery’s brief escape from the constant presidential election coverage was suddenly interrupted by his phone vibrating non-stop. He glanced down to find numerous texts from friends sending him stories about Robert Redford, one of the greatest actors who ever lived and the star of Lowery’s next movie, “The Old Man & the Gun” (in theatres on Friday), announcing that it would be his final film. Redford would be retiring from acting.
“The weight on my shoulders was immediately immense,” Lowery told Business Insider while sitting in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan hotel last week, thinking back on that moment, which came five months before production began. “But I realised I can’t think of that or I’ll consciously craft a swan song as opposed to making a great Robert Redford movie.”
It was just the latest wrinkle in a movie Lowery and Redford had been trying to get off the ground for years.
Juggling a Robert Redford movie and rebooting a Disney classic
The two connected following Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in 2013, where Lowery premiered his gothic crime drama, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” Redford was so taken by the 1970s-influenced feel that he contacted Lowery and presented him with a movie he wanted to do – the life of career criminal Forrest Tucker.
Based on a 2003 New Yorker story on Tucker, who since age 15 had spent most of his life getting sent to prisons and eventually escaping from them (by Tucker’s count, 18 times successfully and 12 times not), the movie would look at Tucker (played by Redford) at age 70 as he goes on a string of bank heists after escaping San Quentin State Prison.
“To get a call from Robert Redford asking if you want to develop a movie with him was one of those pinch yourself moments,” Lowery said.
But Redford wasn’t the only person in Hollywood who wanted to work with the writer-director. The same day Lowery met with Redford to talk about the movie he also had a meeting at Disney for another life-changing moment: an offer to direct a reboot of “Pete’s Dragon.”
Suddenly Lowery was juggling writing scripts for two major pillars in Hollywood. It played out that “Pete’s Dragon” got off the ground faster than “The Old Man & the Gun,” so the director had to have the uncomfortable talk with Redford about putting their movie on hold for a couple of years.
“He just wanted to make sure that I still wanted to make the movie,” Lowery said.
The meeting went so well that Lowery came out of it with Redford agreeing to take a small role in “Pete’s Dragon.”
Though the movie wasn’t a huge moneymaker for Disney, it raised Lowery’s profile in the business (he’s now prepping to make a reboot of “Peter Pan” for the studio), and the time on set with Redford led to both being very comfortable with each other going into “The Old Man & the Gun.”
With “Pete’s Dragon” out of the way (Lowery also made the indie “A Ghost Story” shortly after), Lowery could focus on how to make “Old Man & the Gun” into the kind of cops-and-robbers movie that would play best to his strengths.
Lowery admitted that in early drafts of the script he wrote his best imitation of a Michael Mann heist movie like “Heat” or “Thief,” but realised he was just kidding himself. Instead, he turned to his star as his inspiration.
“I’m interested in folklore and myths, and there’s something about actors who have been around for as long as Robert Redford that ties into that,” Lowery said. “He has become part of the folklore of our culture, and he is a legend, and that became the focal point for me.”
Recapping a legendary career with just one take
“The Old Man & the Gun” is a movie that feels like it’s not from this era, and that’s probably why Redford sought out Lowery to make it. Shot on grainy Super 16mm, it matches the movie’s analogue early 1980s feel, down to the big town cars and Casey Affleck’s bushy mustache (he plays the cop after Tucker).
“When everyone saw the first cut it took everyone a moment to get on the same page,” Lowery said about showing the movie to its distributor, Fox Searchlight. “But we showed it to Redford and he said, ‘Don’t change a frame.'”
The heart of the movie is Redford’s performance. With a sly grin and a twinkle in his eye, he plays Tucker as the charming bank robber without a care in the world. And to create a mythology for Tucker, Lowery used the iconic status of his star. While showing flashbacks of Tucker’s past escapes, old photos of Redford are used for Tucker’s mugshots and a brief clip from one of Redford’s old movies, 1966’s “The Chase” (in which Redford plays an escaped convict), is used to portray Redford as young Tucker on one of his escapes.
“At a certain point you know you need to see his face,” Lowery said of getting the footage of a younger Redford. “You want to see it.”
It’s hard to say if Redford is really retiring from acting (at “The Old Man & the Gun” premiere he sort of walked it back when talking to Variety), but if this really is his last movie, his last day on set proved he ended his career in the slick Sundance Kid style that made him a legend.
Redford’s last day wasn’t a complex scene, Lowery recalled, it was just a shot of him talking in a phone booth. But how he performed it was what will stay in the director’s mind.
“We planned on doing a couple of angles of the phone booth shot, so we set up a dolly shot first, but in just one take he nailed the whole thing,” Lowery said. “The whole way through had the perfect tone and I said, ‘It’s perfect, let’s call it a day,’ and we said that was a wrap on Robert Redford and everyone applauded. I know from ‘Pete’s Dragon’ that he always gives a little speech at the end of the movie to make sure everyone feels as appreciated as they deserve to feel, so he did that, and then he got in his car and drove away.”
Redford’s flawless one-take of the scene is in the movie, and though most will not recognise its significance, Lowery wouldn’t have it any other way. Disguised as a minor scene, he accomplished his mission of making just a great Robert Redford movie, not his coda.
However, the brief moment speaks volumes for Lowery,
“You can see him almost laughing in that take, like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders,” he said. “You can tell that after we say cut he can go home. Seeing that shot and then thinking about his career, I can just see the joy on his face.”
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