Initially, David Lowery’s adaptation of David Grann’s New Yorker article about 78-year-old bank robber Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) were closer to the real-life story of the man who escaped prison 16 times. While Tucker tried to be the charming gentleman robber Redford would portray him as in Lowery’s “The Old Man and the Gun,” in reality his notorious “Over the Hill Gang” was made up of 20-30 hardened criminals involved with drug-running and murder. After getting a chance to spend time with and direct Redford in “Pete’s Dragon,” Lowery dramatically changed his approach.
“After I did ‘Pete’s Dragon,’ I realized there is no way to get away from Robert Redford in some shape or form being Robert Redford, whether he likes it or not,” said Lowery as a guest on IndieWire’s Toolkit Podcast. “He carries with him the accumulated history of everything he has done and you can’t get away from that, there’s no way for you to counteract that at this point.”
Although Redford didn’t tell Lowery “Old Man and the Gun” would be his last acting performance until days before production, Lowery decided that Tucker needed to be the “spiritual successor” of the actor’s great antihero roles of the ’70s. He also wanted to embody the looser storytelling modes of those films.
“Those movies are weird, the structure of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” [has] those iconic moments you can hold on to and they make the movie feel more traditional than they actually are when you sit down to watch them,” said Lowery. “I wanted to see how minimalist I could make it. I really wanted to find as few moments as possible to allow audiences to latch on to the genre beats that they expect and let those beats be really graspable, very palpable, but then fill in the rest of the movie with unexpected colors and detours and to not really follow the preordained path of a cops-and-robbers movie.”
As a viewer, Lowery loves watching cat-and-mouse chase of films like Michael Mann’s “Heat;” like his film, it features a moment where the cop (Casey Affleck) interacts with the crook he’s chasing at a diner. For “Old Man,” Lowery wondered if he could get away without the predictable, melancholy story beat that always ends these stories of mutual respect between two adversaries on opposite sides of the law.
“I’m also not Michael Mann, and I thought maybe my movie can be the one where that doesn’t happen,” said Lowery. “Where we get the satisfaction of the cop loving the criminal as much as we do and letting him go.”
Photo by Eric Zachanowich
How much genre convention he would need to maintain the film’s forward momentum was a constant balancing act. Lowery said he was prepared to rewrite a portion of the film the night after shooting the Affleck-Redford diner scene if it didn’t supply enough narrative juice. Embracing the looseness of the ’70s went beyond tapping Redford’s persona and unconventional story structure. Lowery also pulled back on the filmmaking, shooting significantly less takes and coverage, while not allowing his below-the-line crew to get overly fussy. Rough around the edges and mistakes were to be embraced.
“I can go full David Fincher if you let me and do 100 takes,” he said. “I see the value in that and I have engaged in that before, but on ‘Pete’s Dragon’ one the things Redford taught me was more often than not the first take is great.” The result was a relaxed shoot, even with a condensed 30-day schedule, and Lowery believes the flexibility and spontaneity can be felt while watching the film.
For his next film, however — a new treatment of Disney’s “Peter Pan” — a more precise approach is needed. “I just turned in a draft last week,” said Lowery. “I’ve been turning in drafts for two years, but the studio and I want to make sure this is not only a ‘Peter Pan’ movie worth making, but in many ways the definitive ‘Peter Pan’ movie.”
He knows that, like “Pete’s Dragon,” this is a film that will take time to execute correctly. In the meantime, Lowery has a project he wants to shoot and release in less than a year. It will be bigger than “A Ghost Story” — meaning he can’t ask his friends to work for free again — but a smaller project nonetheless.
“For someone who loves movies and loves making them, and who has a very short attention span, I can sit through a Bela Tarr movie any day, but if you ask me to spend three years on a project, I’m like, ‘Oh, I can’t pay attention for that long, my focus is not strong enough,'” said Lowery. “I just want to keep trying new things.”