Is Robert Redford Done? An Interview with ‘The Old Man & the Gun’ Director David Lowery

The ‘Old Man and the Gun’ director David Lowery shares the secrets about Redford’s final screen appearance.
By  · Published on September 26th, 2018

If The Old Man & the Gun is Robert Redford’s swan song, it is a lovely sendoff. David Lowery and Redford have collaborated to make a movie that shows why Redford has been an icon for over 50 years. It has Redford’s charm and charisma on full display and adds a delightful heist caper to boot.

Redford had been trying to get The Old Man & the Gun made for over a decade. He originally was introduced to the story through an article in The New Yorker, that depicts a group of older men who have continued to rob banks despite their age. One stood out in particular and that was Forrest Tucker. While many of the other men depicted in the piece dabbled in drugs and other contraband, Tucker’s story was the one Redford was most interested in adapting to the screen due to his polite heist encounters.

The Old Man & the Gun shows a fascinating story of a man who just continues to do what he knows despite knowing it isn’t good for him. It has an incredible juxtaposition to Redford’s career in that he has done this for so long, perhaps he should be hanging up his hat as well. I had the opportunity to speak with director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story) about how his collaboration with Redford came to be, how the screenplay morphed over time, and whether he believes this Redford’s last film.

I saw where the story for The Old Man & the Gun came from. How did it reach you?

I got a call from Robert Redford’s producing partner at the time, Bill Holderman and he said that [Redford] was interested in talking to me about adapting this article that he had been wanting to make for years at that point. And you know, this is in spring of 2013 and I just had my first Sundance experience with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. And I was like, Robert Redford wants to talk to me about making a film? Sure, yeah, of course, I’m definitely gonna have to walk into that room and take that meeting. I read the article and you know, reading that with the idea of being a Robert Redford movie in mind, it was very clear to see how it could work as a film. And that was what excited me about it. I wasn’t excited necessarily about making a bank robber movie or a cops and robbers movie. Because the truth is that’s not that exciting to me, it’s not my forte. Making the Robert Redford movie was really exciting to me. The idea of reading this article and seeing the bones of something that could be a truly classic Redford film, in the spirit of the things that he made his name with, was too good an opportunity to pass up.

It’s interesting you said that it came from his producer because I thought maybe if you had seen at first would definitely say Hey, [Redford]. 

He’s been wanting to make it for a long time. The article was from 2003. I think he read it when it first came out and has been wanting to make it ever since.

I’m sure when you were making the script and you looked at the article, you didn’t think this movie was going to be the summation of his career, but in a way, it is because you have a lot of elements from other classic Redford films in it. Did it transform into that over time? 

When I started writing it, I went back and watched a lot of the classic Redford films. I did that not because I wanted to reference them directly, but because I wanted to figure out what made him a movie star. Like what about those movies, in addition to him just being a good actor, made him pop and become a legend in the way that he became a legend. I went back and watched them and they’re weird. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a weird movie. Like everyone remembers these iconic moments, but in between, there’s a lot of weird stuff going on. The new Hollywood aesthetic was riding high at that point and it’s a strange and almost experimental movie.

I went back and looked at a lot of those films and again, I didn’t want to reference them directly. I didn’t want to end The Old Man & the Gun with a freeze frame, but I did want to capture their spirit. I feel like the movie does work as a bookend to his career. It wasn’t meant to be his last movie. I certainly didn’t know that at the time and whether he sticks to that or not. We’ll find out.

Well, since we’re talking about that, do you believe that Redford is ready to hang it up and that this will be his last film? 

In a way I do. Filmmaking takes it out of you no matter how old you are. At his age, I think he’s ready to not spend so much time waiting for the lights to be ready on set, you know what I mean? But at the same time, I don’t know if he can quit, it’s what he does. I know that even if he doesn’t act again, he is always looking for things to produce. He’s got scripts he wants to direct. This certainly isn’t the last we’re going to hear of him, but if he chooses not to work as an actor again, I’d understand. I hope he does because I want to keep seeing him on screen. But I would understand if he decided to hang it up after this one.

Right. You worked with him on Pete’s Dragon and was that like a testing ground for both of you? 

It turned into that. I met with Disney about Pete’s Dragon the same day that I met [Redford] about The Old Man & the Gun. So both projects were marching hand-in-hand over the course of 2013 and 2014. And Pete’s Dragon just got to the starting line first. When that happened, I went to New York at one point to cast Pete’s Dragon and also to meet with [Redford] about the script for The Old Man & the Gun. And while I was there I asked him if he might be interested in acting in Pete’s Dragon. And at first, he said no, it wasn’t his thing. He didn’t want to do a Disney movie. But then, by and large, he decided to do it.

It’s funny you would say that because he did Captain America: Winter Soldier. 

But that’s more of a you know, it is a Disney movie, but it’s… I think the Russo Brothers approached him and said, hey, do you want to do something that feels like a throwback to Three Days of the Condor?

He had never done an outright children’s film before, so that was new ground for him. He’s got grand-kids who love Pete’s Dragon now. I think he realized that he needed to do something for them. He had a great time on it and for me, it was such a luxury to spend a month working with him on that film in a smaller capacity. He’s in a supporting role. He was there for like a month and we got to know each other in a working capacity.

As a result, I was able to then go home after [Pete’s Dragon] was done, throw the script for The Old Man & the Gun away and completely rewrite it for him. At that p,oint I knew what his strengths were as an actor, how best to capitalize upon them. And I just knew what he would like more, I knew, understood his tastes more. Because he was a producer on The Old Man & the Gun, I always kept in my mind that I need to make sure [Redford]’s happy with this. I need to make sure I’m happy as a filmmaker. But beyond that, [Redford] needs to be. This needs to be something he can get behind and feel passionate about.

Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford hadn’t worked together before. Did they instantly hit it off? 

They never worked together and they’d only met once. [Spacek] remembers that, but Redford does not. It was a long, long time ago. They both did movies with Michael Ritchie: Redford did Downhill Racer and The Candidate and Spacek did Prime Cut and they’re all kind of like right around the same time. They met at some point back then. They were fans of each other for the next however many decades and now I was able to bring them together in a room. I had a feeling they would have good chemistry, had a feeling that they were kindred spirits, but I wasn’t sure. The first day where we all met, we met at the diner where they have their first big scene. We just met there and worked through that scene together. As soon as they sat down opposite each other, I was like okay, this is going to work.

This is fantastic and they really were like teenagers. They were flirting with each other and [Spacek] kept blushing, laughing, and giggling. It was just so delightful to see. [Robert] just kept trying to charm her and it’s not hard for him to do that. He can charm anybody and the rapport between the two of them was so natural and easy. One of the things I had to do as a director was to tell them, don’t smile as much, you’re having too much fun. We’re going to get there, let’s work towards that.

Is the footage that you use in the final montage of Forrest Tucker from any of Redford’s older films? 

One of them is. There’s a clip in there from The Chase, which is an Arthur Penn movie, one of his very first movies and it’s an amazing film. It is based on a play by Horton Foote. Arthur Penn made it right before Bonnie and Clyde. [It came out in 1966 and stars] Jane Fonda, Redford and Marlon Brando and it’s this amazing movie about racial unrest in this small town in Texas. It involves an escape convict and [Redford] spends most of that movie just like breaking out of prison. And so I watched it as I was just catching up on Redford movies that I hadn’t seen. When I saw that I was like, you know, we’ve got this escape montage in the script. It would be absolutely amazing, if we could use a piece of this footage that we could actually see his face. See where he began and contrast that to where he is now. it works seamlessly and it really adds, the three seconds it’s on screen, just adds such a beautiful context to not just that sequence, but for the whole movie.

Like a summary of his career. 

Exactly. Yeah. I mean all those escapes almost feel like it’s like you’re listing the movies he’s made.

You said earlier you didn’t want to like take the freeze frame shot. Was there anything specific in the movie where you were giving direct nods to old Redford movies? 

[Affleck] does the little nose tap from The Sting and he did it on set. I felt so terrible because he waited until the last take, he did it, and he was so excited about it. He’s like, “did you see what I did?” And I had missed it. I was looking at the other camera that was on [Redford] and completely missed it. It wasn’t until I got to the dailies that I saw it. That was all his idea and I think he’d been waiting for the right moment to do that. [He] did it in that scene and it works perfectly, but that was the only, only really overt one.

You had to do a lot of research into Forrest Tucker’s life. Do you know if he ever found out that he had children because the movie never addresses him finding out. 

He did. I did a fair amount of research and my initial draft of the script was much more journalistic. I stuck to the facts and tried to tell the whole story, but it’s not a particularly happy story. The Over The Hill gang, which was much bigger, it was a lot of guys involved with drugs and murder. Forrest Tucker was like sort of the happy outlier in this group of criminals and it just didn’t feel like the right movie. It wasn’t the right movie for Redford. You could have made that movie with some other actor who is more gritty and down on his luck. But Redford is just… whether he’s robbing a bank, running for office, or whatever he’s doing in a movie, he’s always a movie star. He’s got that ineffable quality to him.

I needed to capitalize on that with this film. I need to lean into that. I moved away from the truth to a certain extent and I felt that was fine because, Forrest Tucker is a fairly legendary character and I’m sure that he would have appreciated being written larger than life in a film. It captures the spirit of his story as it was told in the article.

I just don’t think I’m a good journalist. I don’t think I can stick to the truth very well and I’m making a movie. I can stick to the integrity of something and I can capture the spirit of something. But I don’t know if I could make something that was entirely fact based, just because I would feel too attached to the truth and I would feel like I’m not doing it justice. So it’s safer for me to make it a little bit of a fairy tale.

That’s funny because you watch the picture and everybody says about Redford’s character that he was such a gentleman. It didn’t matter that they were being robbed or the worst day of their lives. That’s the overall persona of the film too. An enjoyable, light film that also happens to be a heist picture. 

I mean, that happened. There were drafts where people died and it just never felt right.

It was important to me though to acknowledge that he’s not the greatest guy in the world. You know he lies to Sissy Spacek. He says that he doesn’t have kids and of course, he has kids. He’s not a great guy. He goes up to people and shows them a gun and threatens them. That’s how he makes a living. In spite of the fact that he’s a very enjoyable character that we take great pleasure in as a movie going audience, there’s some rough edges to him that are important to acknowledge as well. The acknowledges them and then it doesn’t linger on them. They are there because it is important to remember he isn’t just a gentleman.

[This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.]

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