The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Old Man and the Gun.
How did you find this story?
David Lowery: It was a true story about this guy whose life was too good to be true in terms of a narrative. From the time he was thirteen, all he wanted to do was rob banks. He wanted to be a legendary criminal, like Dillinger, or the versions of Dillinger that he saw in the movies when he was growing up as a little kid. He spent his whole life robbing banks, getting caught, going to jail, breaking out of jail, and then robbing more banks. He never learned his lesson, because for him that was the thing he cared about the most. He just really wanted to get good at that, and at a certain point he did get good at that. That’s sort of the period of the story that we focus on in the film. I just love this idea of a character who was so dead set on doing what he loves that he didn’t really care about getting caught. Getting caught was just part of the experience; it didn’t get in the way of the joy he took in his profession. So, Robert Redford gave me the article with the idea that he would play this character.
“For me, the most important thing of all is story. To me that’s it.”
How does that affect your writing process when you know that you’re writing for Robert Redford?
DL: It does a little bit. It always helps to write for a particular actor. And that’s true whether it’s an actor that you know and have worked with before or an actor you have just seen in films your whole life. You can sort of tailor the script for them in a way. At the same time you don’t want to deprive them of a chance of playing a character and creating a new character. It does allow you to lean into what you either know or imagine their strengths will be and the things you want to see them do. So, it does help to have a cast attached when you start the project. I never for a second imagined this with anyone other than Robert.
Robert Redford: I think the relationship with Sissy and I kind of speaks for itself. It was very easy, because there wasn’t any discussion. Things just kind of fell into place which is a wonderful thing for an actor to have. Then I found out you weren’t talented after all [laughter]. I like to say that this is really his project. I may have found the story or may have sent it his direction. But, this movie is David’s film. He’s the one that conceived of it as a script. He’s the one that wrote the script. He’s the one that directed the film. He edited the film. Now, he’s out promoting it. Basically, I think the core of this project belongs to David which I’m very happy about, because I think he’s a really talented guy that’s got a great career ahead of him. It was a pleasure for me to put it in his hands, because I had faith that it was in good hands. I’m kind of regretful of something that happened recently. We were having an interview, and somehow the word “retirement” came into the picture. I spoke about retirement, and I think that was a mistake, because it drew too much attention to that. I was there to promote the film with a wonderful cast, and I think it put too much attention on the business of me retiring. I think it would have been far better for me to have quietly slip into another category and not talk about it so much. I’m happy to be able to say that now. I want to walk it back.
Robert and Sissy, can you talk about getting to know each other on this project?
Sissy Spacek: We met many, many years ago. He doesn’t remember, because he was a big star and I was a nobody. I was kind of a fan, a drooling fan. Well, maybe not drooling. It was easy working with him. Like he said, we came in prepared, and all I had to do was respond to him. We really had fun.
DL: We had one day of rehearsal where we just went to that diner where we shot all of those scenes. We just sat down and worked our way through those scenes very informally. At a certain point, I said that we needed to stop. It’s going to be great when we film. We didn’t need to rehearse it too heavily. Let’s just quit while we’re ahead and come back tomorrow with the cameras. That was true. It was really everything I hoped for.
SS: David’s a real collaborator. He brought us all in while he was working on the script. He would send different scenes to ask us what he thought about them. He’s very inclusive, and he’s also got a very relaxed and happy set. He’s kind of like Robert Altman in that he works with a lot of the same crew members. The cinematographer, the producers, and a lot of the same actors. I noticed that no actor just works with him once. Knock on wood! They always come back and work with him again. That says a lot about this guy.
Both of you make the performances look effortless. Do you think that is because of experience or the particular tenor of this film?
SS: Gosh, I don’t know the answer to that.
RR: I think it’s experience.
SS: Thanks, Bob.
We see more of Jewel and Forrest than we do of the actual heists. Can you talk a little about that decision?
DL: I kept writing all these bank robbery scenes, and then I cut them out before we shot them. We have one pretty good robbery scene at the beginning of the movie, and after that I thought we didn’t need another. There’s a certain expectation that maybe you’ll see another one or that there would be one last job or something like that. As an audience member I’d be pleasantly surprised to see the movie veer off away from that and move in a different direction. I’m always more interested in those in between moments instead of the big set pieces that other movies might employ to move the story along.
You shot on Super 16, and I’m curious how that affected the performances.
DL: It’s simpler. I’ve done film and digital productions. I love both. Both work for different types of movies. For digital cinema, the cameras have so many different wires running out of them, and there’s so many monitors everywhere. With a film camera, it’s simple. You put the film in, put a matte box on the lens, and hit the green button. The sound of film running through a camera changes the mood on the set in a very specific way. It’s a very quiet sound, but you nonetheless feel that you are capturing something that is very ephemeral. When the cameras are completely silent with digital, it doesn’t feel as special. When you’re breaking down the budget, and you see how much it costs to shoot digital and how much it costs to shoot film, you can’t quantify that feeling. It does change things. For this film, I was dead set on it. When you see Super 16 now, you’re never for a second unaware what the movie was shot on, and that was important for this aesthetic.
RR: When you want to advance technology, there is a cost that’s hidden in that. For me the cost was too many wires when you’re doing a scene. There was no dialogue, but there was so many wires and so many things going on to distract your mind’s attention.
SS: I actually felt some pressure.
DL: On the flip side…
SS: When there’s film, you’re thinking that you’ve got to get it this time. You don’t want to waste the film.
Can you elaborate more about where we are with technology and film?
RR: Well, if I can kick this off. I have very strong feelings about this. I think that technology is very appealing. It’s very seductive. For me, the most important thing of all is story. To me that’s it. There’s nothing more important than a story to be told. What I’ve seen happen over the years is as high tech technology has increased, is that it has increased the ability of filmmakers to do special effects. Sometimes those special effects have token over the film. So, you these effects that are wonderful and exciting to look at. But, where is the story? Technology has advanced without advancing story along with it. For me, it might be a little old fashioned, but I don’t think there’s anything more important than story. It starts there.
SS: Illuminating the human experience is important, but I think you can work with modern technology and still have the human experience come through.
DL: What Bob says is true. Story is paramount. We made Pete’s Dragon together in New Zealand. I wanted to shoot that movie on film, but there are no labs. Also, there’s a giant visual effect as one of the main characters in that film, but it was part of the story. It never became about just showcasing that visual effect. One of my favorite things that David Fincher has said is that he loves putting $100,000 visual effects in the background. That’s what you do if you’re shooting a scene. You don’t think about how much one element cost. It’s really important to just let visual effects be a part of the story.
SS: In the right hands anything can work.
DL: For me what’s important is that embracing technology as a filmmaker is an important thing to do, to understand the modes in which films are being made and exhibited. But, also to never have a door shut on a particular way of making a film. If all of a sudden I was no longer able to shoot a film on Super 16MM, if that option was denied to me it would be a great sadness. It just means that I want that option there. It’s the same thing as seeing a film projected on 35mm or on 70mm versus seeing a DCP. I like having those options available to me as a filmmaker and as a moviegoer.
RR: It was really weird because we didn’t have a dragon on the set of Pete’s Dragon. The dragon was something your imagination produced, because it hadn’t been developed yet. It would be done in post production. What we were looking at, instead of a dragon, was a pole with a tennis ball at the end of it. To me it was a tennis ball at the end of a pole.
DL: When we cut the first version of the movie together we had no dragon in it, but it still worked. That was a testament to everyone’s commitment to that story. Even without the dragon there, you could imagine what was happening. The story worked. We could have released it that way, and it still would have worked.