David Lowery, the director of A Ghost Story and Ain't Them Bodies Saints, is an enthusiast of vintage crime cinema. Get him on the subject and he's happy to rattle off countless bank robbery and heist films from the past, and even happier to tell you that his new film, The Old Man & The Gun, is a homage to them.
In the film, Robert Redford stars as Forrest Tucker, a fictionalised version of a real Texas bank robber who continued to commit robberies well into his seventies – and was pursued through his crime spree by canny detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck). The Old Man & The Gun is an old-fashioned escapist crime caper, and according to rumour, Robert Redford's final film before he retires.
During Toronto Film Festival this year, VICE spoke to David Lowery about working with movie legends and sending Redford off in style.
VICE: The original story for The Old Man & The Gun came from David Grann's story in The New Yorker. How did that evolve into what this film became?
David Lowery: The first thing I did when I got the job was to call David Grann. I asked him for all his sources; I wanted to get as much information on the true story as I possibly could. Forrest Tucker had passed away, but John Hunt was still alive. I wrote a draft of the script that was as journalistic as I could make it; I really just stuck to the facts, while also creating this wonderful character for Redford to play. And those two goals were at odds with each other. I realised the best version of this movie would be one that left a lot of those facts behind.
How did you end up having a working relationship with Robert Redford?
I don’t think either of us planned to have this creative partnership! I mean, it's not a long one so far, but it feels like one. We’ve made only two films together. I feel lucky that he trusts me, and that he not only wanted me to make The Old Man & The Gun from the get-go, but came out of Pete's Dragon [the Redford-starring 2016 film that Lowery directed] even more excited to work on it. And to keep that partnership going. I can't speak for him, but I know he likes what I do – he likes the movies I make. I just feel very grateful that this has been a chapter in my life. That I get to, sort of, walk alongside him for a little bit. Because he's the last great movie star. When you’re looking at him, you’re seeing the end of an era. I’m sure he wouldn’t want me to say that, but it’s true.
One of my favourite scenes in the film is when the Detective John Hunt and Forrest meet. What was it like to direct this kind of cat-and-mouse scene of cop and criminal, knowing it's such an archetype of crime movies?
Oh, yeah. Like the DeNiro-Pacino scene in Heat. You know at some point these characters are going to meet and it needs to be electric. For Casey, I just wanted him to be delighted. I told him to be starstruck. I told him, "Just play the scene like you are a guy in the street who just met Robert Redford." That was on take three, and when we did that I was like, "OK perfect, we’re done." My wife took a picture of me onset that day, just sitting on the floor watching it, and I’m just cracking up. I was laughing the whole way through because it was just so fun to watch. That dumbfounded smile that spread across his face. I’m very self-critical, but I can objectively say when I watch that scene, that’s a good movie scene. And that’s all ya get. The movie needed to define the relationship in that one scene.
There's a real underlying sadness in this being Redford’s last movie before retirement. You can’t help thinking of the age of the people onscreen and what they represent. Was that idea of "not going gentle" a point of interest for you?
I wanted this movie to be fun, Redford wanted it to be fun, and I didn't want to get too caught up on that sense of melancholy. But I knew that just, contextually, it was going to have that no matter what, because of who he is and where he is at this stage of his life. The title does a lot of heavy lifting by itself. When we got to the end of the movie, when he walks into the bank, in that shot, initially that was not going to have any music. It was going to have natural sounds, the wind blowing. And it would cut to black. Without any emphasis on any particular mood. But because of who he is, and the fact that he was walking offscreen, it was too sad. So we had to add some music to it, and the police radio, just to liven it up. Because it's Robert Redford walking away, maybe forever, if he sticks to his retirement plans. We never needed to underline any of that, or talk about ageing or death or the passage of time. It just was gonna be there, in his face, in what he does, the way he moves through a scene. There was no way to avoid it. It was just embedded in what the movie is.
You’ve got an incredible cast in this film. How did casting fall into place with Sissy Spacek and Tom Waits and so on?
It was so lucky. I didn’t know any of the other cast other than Bob and Casey, and a few of the supporting actors who I’d worked with before. But I wrote Sissy’s role for Sissy. I sent her the script with her in mind, and thankfully she said yes. I can’t imagine anyone else playing that part now! Then, with Danny [Glover] and Tom [Waits], those parts were tiny in the script; they were just his accomplices. I kept telling everyone that I was going to wait until we casted it and then fill in the dialogue a little bit more. It was just... one of those very rare instances in my career where every person we wanted said yes. And I mean, I coulda just filmed Tom Waits doing monologues for days. It was the best. Getting to just hang out with him and have dinner with him and… I was like, 'Why can't this be the movie?' Just hanging out with Tom Waits? He is a true hero.
Sissy is the same way. She’s exactly what you would imagine Sissy Spacek to be, and more. She is a dream. To meet these people you’ve looked up to all your life and realise that not only do they live up to what you imagined in your head, but exceed that version of themselves, is wonderful. So, I'm glad the movie turned out, and I’m glad people like it. But getting to sit there on set with these legends... that was... it could have stopped there and I would have been happy.
There’s something about Sissy which feels so quintessentially American to me. Maybe it’s just thinking back to films like Badlands, but she seems so well-matched to this material.
In many ways she’s never not played a version of herself. She’s always leaning a little bit into who she is as a person, because she’s such an authentic human being that she can’t escape that.
That makes a good movie star.
That makes a great movie star. And Bob does the same thing. They both live on a ranch! So they both just represent a version of America that I still love and value, and wanted to celebrate on film. I’m so lucky they both wanted to do this movie.
'The Old Man & The Gun' is released in the UK on Friday the 7th of December.