The Out­law Robert Red­ford

Harry Wind­sor on David Low­ery’s ‘The Old Man and the Gun’

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

Robert Red­ford has been around so long he goes very nearly un­heeded. That changed when he an­nounced, shortly be­fore the Tel­luride pre­miere of The Old Man and the Gun (in cin­e­mas Novem­ber 15), that the film would be his last. Whether that ad­mis­sion was born from Red­ford’s de­sire to read his own obit­u­ar­ies or to drum up public­ity for the film, it seemed clear that a stock­tak­ing was in or­der. This was, af­ter all, the Sun­dance Kid him­self. And he was no doubt canny enough to re­alise that he would never get a more lov­ing send-off than this one, a fact that seems to me in­ex­tri­ca­ble from the film’s prob­lems.

The Old Man and the Gun’s di­rec­tor is David Low­ery, who broke through with Ain’t Them Bod­ies Saints, a love story about a Texan out­law, which grabbed the at­ten­tion of the Sun­dance founder when it pre­miered there in 2013. Red­ford had long wanted to play For­rest Tucker, a peren­nial prison es­capee who robbed banks in Dal­las and ev­ery­where else, and had op­tioned David Grann’s 2003 New Yorker ar­ti­cle on Tucker’s life. Even Wil­liam Gold­man had tried his hand at whit­tling the story, span­ning some six decades, into film form. (The leg­endary screen­writer dis­cusses his in­abil­ity to do so in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? More Ad­ven­tures in the Screen Trade.)

En­ter Low­ery, who had grown up in Dal­las mak­ing movies, still lives there, and for whom Red­ford has al­ways been a lodestar. “My mother told me about

Sun­dance when I was 10 or 11 years old,” he says from a ho­tel room in Zurich, where the film is mak­ing its Euro­pean de­but. “Some­thing about the idea of in­de­pen­dent film in­stantly ap­pealed to me as a stub­bornly in­de­pen­dent 10- or 11-year-old. My fas­ci­na­tion with Bob, my love for him, is in­sep­a­ra­ble from that in­de­pen­dent spirit, which is some­thing he used to de­fine him­self as an ac­tor be­fore he even started Sun­dance.”

That out­law spirit, of course, has al­ways co­ex­isted with his sta­tus as a Hol­ly­wood golden boy. As Low­ery points out, he was a beau­ti­ful man who never tried to ob­scure his beauty with a bad hair­cut or makeup, as con­tem­po­rary lead­ing men do. He fa­mously turned down The Ver­dict be­cause the lead char­ac­ter was an al­co­holic. But he’s at his most ef­fec­tive when his cool is com­pli­cated by some­thing flap­pable. One of Low­ery’s favourite Red­ford per­for­mances is in 1969’s Down­hill Racer, writ­ten by James Sal­ter. Red­ford plays a pe­tu­lant ski star who butts heads with his coach, played by Gene Hack­man. It’s one of Red­ford’s most in­ter­est­ing per­for­mances, and Low­ery was keen, he says, to bring some of that prick­li­ness to For­rest Tucker.

Reader, he failed. Tucker is courtly to a fault, and one sus­pects the star wouldn’t have it any other way. To be fair, the char­ac­ter’s charm is true to Grann’s por­trait of the man. Tucker was a teen when he was first sent to jail, and he died there, af­ter sev­eral es­capes and re-in­car­cer­a­tions, at the age of 83. In be­tween time he mod­elled him­self on the stick-up men mythol­o­gised when he was grow­ing up dur­ing the De­pres­sion, fig­ures like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. Af­ter his most fa­mous es­cape – from San Quentin in 1979, in a boat he slapped to­gether in the lum­ber shop – Tucker went on a bit of a run with two oth­ers, hold­ing up banks across Texas and Ok­la­homa. None of the three men was in the first flush of youth, and they be­came known as the Over-the-Hill Gang.

Low­ery’s film is set largely dur­ing their spree, with Danny Glover and Tom Waits as Red­ford’s ac­com­plices, and Casey Af­fleck as the cop on their tail. The wri­ter­di­rec­tor de­scribes the writ­ing process as the most dif­fi­cult of his ca­reer. “Part of that is be­cause it is a true story, and I felt some sense of def­er­ence to the truth; I wanted to hon­our the events and the peo­ple. But it was big. The first draft was nearly 150 pages, be­cause For­rest Tucker’s life just had so much in­ci­dent. It was too big to be a movie in many ways.”

In the years that Low­ery was work­ing on the script (dur­ing which he made two other films, Dis­ney’s Pete’s Dragon and the meta­phys­i­cal ro­mance A Ghost Story), he set about nar­row­ing its fo­cus, boil­ing it down to a few rep­re­sen­ta­tive scenes. “I tried to find ways to sug­gest the scope of For­rest Tucker’s true life with­out ac­tu­ally show­ing ev­ery sin­gle thing that hap­pened to him.”

The long ges­ta­tion process al­lowed Low­ery to re­alise that he wasn’t Michael Mann, and that he wasn’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in cops and rob­bers. “My strengths are not in telling true sto­ries, and not in be­ing a jour­nal­ist. I had to ask my­self what it was that made me ex­cited about this movie. And what it ul­ti­mately came down to was the fact that I wanted to tell this story with Bob. I took For­rest Tucker out of my mind and wrote a part for Robert Red­ford.”

Low­ery found com­fort in the fact that Tucker was some­one who self-mythol­o­gised. “He saw him­self as an out­law in the old-fash­ioned sense. He saw him­self as a movie ver­sion of an out­law, as Jimmy Cag­ney. And I think he would have been de­lighted to have Robert Red­ford play him in a movie, re­gard­less of how true or ac­cu­rate the rep­re­sen­ta­tion may have been.”

Low­ery’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Tucker nev­er­the­less feels hon­est, even if he is more in­ter­ested in the ac­tor play­ing him.

Tucker be­gan his ca­reer as the sun set on his pro­fes­sion, just as se­cu­rity cam­eras were be­ing placed in banks, while Low­ery de­scribes him­self not so much a man out of time as one “strad­dling two time pe­ri­ods and try­ing to ex­ist in both si­mul­ta­ne­ously”. He shot The Old Man and the Gun on su­per 16, and the film would be a self-con­scious throw­back even with­out the pres­ence of its lead­ing man. “All of my films are look­ing over their shoul­der at some­thing that’s re­ced­ing,” he says. “I’m al­ways try­ing to grab hold of some­thing that’s slip­ping into the ether of the past.”

In that sense, Low­ery is an em­blem­atic film­maker (not to men­tion an em­blem­atic 37-year-old) in an era in which nos­tal­gia is the pre-em­i­nent force in Amer­i­can moviemak­ing. “My movies are in­her­ently nos­tal­gic,

be­cause I’m a nos­tal­gic per­son,” he says. “I love old things. I live in an old house. We have a big old din­ingroom ta­ble that makes the room feel more an­tique than it al­ready is. But at the same time I have ev­ery pos­si­ble Ap­ple prod­uct and I drive an elec­tric car and those things ex­cite me as well. I look to old films for in­spi­ra­tion, but at the same time I’m al­ways look­ing to take those old tech­niques and give them a jolt of elec­tric­ity.”

What’s left is a film in­tent on em­bel­lish­ing the iconog­ra­phy of its star, with a jazzy mo­men­tum that be­gins to feel a lit­tle weight­less.

Tip­ping the hat with­out suc­cumb­ing to pas­tiche must, I sug­gest, be tricky. “It’s dif­fi­cult, and I’m get­ting bet­ter at it. I’ve trans­gressed be­fore into the realm of fetishi­sa­tion. And there are cer­tainly things in The Old Man and the Gun that feel fetishis­tic in terms of the de­gree of af­fec­tion that I’m dis­play­ing to­wards the past.” Like what? “I’m def­i­nitely hav­ing fun with the ’70s-style zoom lens on this movie, push­ing those shots past break­ing point, be­cause I just love watch­ing them. With Ain’t Them Bod­ies Saints, I leaned even harder into it with lens flares, and the sun in the sky be­ing at just the right point, back­light­ing the char­ac­ters in the most ro­man­tic way pos­si­ble.”

But Low­ery is also keen to dash to pieces a visual style he de­scribes as “de­vo­tional to an older style of film­mak­ing”. “It’s some­thing I’m con­stantly work­ing at, be­cause I don’t want to give up my love of the past. There’s no shame in that, and in fact some of the most mod­ernist ten­den­cies in cin­ema were de­vel­oped over a hun­dred years ago. Look at the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, a film­maker who’s just as mod­ern as any work­ing to­day. But I also want to fig­ure out new ways to think, as Dreyer did a hun­dred years ago. How can I ad­vance the lan­guage of the medium in which I’m work­ing?”

Like Ain’t Them Bod­ies Saints, The Old Man and the Gun is com­fort­able with el­lipses, and is less in­ter­ested in the kind of genre sta­ples – shootouts, car chases – that for an­other film­maker might be the whole point. Whip-pan mon­tages are fol­lowed by long, talky scenes in which Red­ford meets-cute with Sissy Spacek. The heist el­e­ments dis­ap­pear half­way through, along with Glover and Waits. What’s left is a film in­tent on em­bel­lish­ing the iconog­ra­phy of its star, with a jazzy mo­men­tum that be­gins to feel a lit­tle weight­less, like a karaoke ver­sion of the kind of Hol­ly­wood movie to which the film makes con­stant ref­er­ence. At one point Red­ford and Spacek watch Two-Lane Black­top, the 1971 clas­sic that Low­ery else­where pays homage to with a car chase that puts Red­ford be­hind the wheel of a ’55 Chevy.

Per­haps the most ef­fec­tive mo­ment of meta­tex­tual movie-love comes in a rapid-fire mon­tage that cy­cles through all of Tucker’s prison es­capes. It in­cludes a clip of a young Red­ford, on the lam in the woods, in Arthur Penn’s 1966 film The Chase, and it’s one of the most oddly strik­ing mo­ments in the film. “That scene was never emo­tional un­til we put that clip in there,” says Low­ery. “Sud­denly it had a heft that I had not an­tic­i­pated … It re­ally breaks you out of the movie, but in a valu­able way, I think. It forces you to think about who Robert Red­ford is, who he was, and all the breadth of his­tory that ex­ists be­tween those two in­car­na­tions of the same man.”

What the ac­tor rep­re­sents to Low­ery is, the di­rec­tor ad­mits, some­thing to which he still doesn’t have an an­swer. That un­cer­tainty hov­ers over the film, find­ing an out­let mostly in more quo­ta­tion marks. One scene, di­vorced from what comes be­fore and af­ter it, sees Red­ford on a horse, a pha­lanx of cop cars vis­i­ble in the dis­tance. Low­ery ad­mits the se­quence’s aim was sim­ply to get Bob on a horse. “Even though it makes no sense log­i­cally, it makes per­fect sense cin­e­mat­i­cally. It gives him that mo­ment where he is both For­rest Tucker the char­ac­ter and Robert Red­ford the ac­tor, ex­ist­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously as one in a mo­ment that is both part of this movie but part of ev­ery movie he’s ever made.”

Un­for­tu­nately there’s not much to the char­ac­ter be­yond those iconic pos­tures. He’s al­most child­like, an idea un­der­scored when the cam­era pans from Red­ford and Spacek in a booth to ado­les­cents sitting at the diner counter, on dates of their own. “I def­i­nitely thought of the char­ac­ter as a teenager,” says Low­ery. “He went to prison when he was 13, and it made sense to me that he stopped pro­gress­ing as a hu­man be­ing at that point. He never reached adult­hood.”

Grann’s New Yorker ar­ti­cle af­forded Tucker the chance to give voice to his rue­ful­ness, and to ac­knowl­edge the peo­ple – wives and chil­dren – he’d hurt along the way. But when Spacek goes to visit Red­ford in jail, his apol­ogy feels patently hol­low, and the char­ac­ter just seems like a charm­ing blank. Low­ery ad­mits to be­ing moved by Tucker’s re­morse, but also un­con­vinced. “It never felt like that was the char­ac­ter whose story we were telling. And I won­der if For­rest Tucker ac­tu­ally felt that. I be­lieve he could have said it, but it felt to me he was say­ing what peo­ple wanted to hear. And that was a de­gree of depth to which this movie was not quite go­ing to get.”

Red­ford’s re­mit to Low­ery, as his pro­ducer-star, was to make it fun, and that ex­tends to the fi­nale, in which Tucker shakes off do­mes­tic bliss to waltz into an­other bank, to the back­ing of Daniel Hart’s twin­kle-eyed pi­anolounge score. The cue gives the se­quence a spin very dif­fer­ent to the melan­cholic one the film­maker en­vis­aged on set. “The idea was to have him walk­ing into the bank with the wind blow­ing and just the sounds of the city. It was go­ing to be a re­ally jar­ring and pro­found con­clu­sion. But watch­ing it for the first time, it felt empty. It just kind of sat there. And I re­alised we needed to end with a smile, in spite of the fact that the epi­logue of the film is largely crit­i­cal of For­rest. Even if that smile is too com­plex for its own good.”

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