When David Lowery and Robert Redford first agreed to adapt David Grann’s 2003 New Yorker article The Old Man and the Gun — the true story of a septuagenarian bank robber who charmed his victims with a smile before snatching their cash — Lowery had no idea he’d be directing one of history’s most iconic stars in what might be his last starring role. The film ended up being perhaps the most fitting way for Redford to go out in style. An exciting crime caper by turns hilarious and sweet, Lowery deftly weaves together traditional cops-and-robbers tropes with his own sense of naturalistic style. After the TIFF premiere of his new film, Uproxx spoke to Lowery about his favorite heist movies, the importance of knowing one’s strengths, and the emotional significance of a simple shot of a man on a horse.
First thing I want to ask is, how did you get Robert Redford involved in this?
He brought it to me. One of the landmark moments in my nascent career was getting a call from his producing partner at the time, wondering if I would read the article and then be interested in coming in to talk to Bob about adapting it. And, of course, I said yes. When you get that phone call, you just say yes. I had seen him at Sundance and been in the same room with him, but I’d never spoken to him. I still remember walking into that room completely just a ball of nerves, and he has a way of instantly putting you at ease when he speaks to you. We sat down, and we had a conversation about the story and the character and about Texas — because his family’s from Texas. And at the end of that meeting we had a mutual agreement to make this movie. That was five years ago, so it took a little while. It was a real honor to know that he had seen my work, that he’d liked my work enough to want to meet me. That he wanted to want to work with me in that capacity was something I don’t take lightly.
Do you know which of your movies was the one that first got him interested?
It was Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, because it was a few weeks after that had played at Sundance. I think he saw that and thought, “Oh, an unusual tale of a bank robber in Texas!” It’s not the traditional outlaw movie but it still follows the tropes of that genre, and I think that appealed to him.
It’s a very classic story, the dashing anti-hero coming in and doing crime, but you still don’t want him to get caught.
Yeah, it’s the thing that he made his name doing. He’s played those parts before and done them in such a way that when you think of the dashing outlaw, a lot of people probably just think of the Sundance Kid. In a lot of ways, this was a spiritual sequel to some of his earlier work, or a follow-up.
It’s a really fitting alleged last film for him. So much of him is already in the story.
At what point did you know that this was going to be his last film?
He mentioned it in an interview a few months before we started shooting. [Laughs] I just got a lot of emails all of a sudden saying, did you know about this? To which I said, “No, I had no idea!” And at first, I just felt this immense pressure. We were a few months from shooting, we’d been location scouting, but I was still working on the script, and the thing that I had to do was just not think about it. Because otherwise I would have been overwhelmed. I would have tried to craft something that was a final statement, and that would have been a fool’s errand. It would have been folly to try to do that. The movie would not have been as good. I just had to not think about it at all. A few times on set, specifically the scene where he’s on a horse, I just remember thinking, oh, that’s the last time Bob will ever be on a horse in a movie.
I got really teary at that point.
That was an emotional day. Everybody felt it that day. Other than that, we didn’t really think about it. When we were making it, it was just another Robert Redford movie. Now it’s very likely his last movie.
Did you ever talk to him about it? Did he ever say, this is why I want to stop?
A little bit. He’s very open about it, he doesn’t think about it as, like, a defining moment in his life. It’s more, when you’re on set in a movie as an actor you spend a lot of time waiting for the camera to get set up or for the set to get lit, and I think he just doesn’t want to wait anymore. That’s just a part of his life that he doesn’t want to give up and he certainly has other things he does. He’s always involved, whether it’s producing, and he has other movies he wants to direct, and he’s so involved in the environment and so many wonderful causes. I think acting is just a part of who he is now, and, for him, retiring from that small sliver of his life that to us is so gigantic, doesn’t feel as significant to him.
He does a lot when you think about it. He started a freakin’ film festival.
This movie is an homage to a lot of classic heist films, in a way. Did you have any specific inspirations that you thought about while making it?
Over the four years I spent working on the script — during which I made two other movies, so it wasn’t like I was I wasn’t just sitting there constantly working on the script — I did watch a lot of heist movies. I wanted to just remind myself of what the classics were, revisit the rules of the genre, the tropes of the genre, and just get a refresher on those. So, of course, I watched Heat, I watched Thief — nobody does it better than Michael Mann. I went back to some of the earlier classics like Asphalt Jungle, Straight Time, the Dustin Hoffman movie, which is incredible. The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I really just tried to watch as many as I could, but then didn’t really use those as a point of inspiration. I just used those to understand what is expected in a heist film. When you have a cops and robbers drama there are certain beats that I think people expect. I wanted to hit those beats, but I also wanted to veer away from them as much as I could. I wanted to take a roundabout approach to satisfying the audience’s expectations. And I found that a lot of Redford’s earlier movies did that. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a really weird movie — when you get between the iconic images like the freeze frame and the jump off the cliff, the shape of it is very strange and unusual. It doesn’t really function the way you remember it functioning. It’s so interesting, that phenomenon. I remember it being a more traditional movie than it is.
And Downhill Racer is another one of [Redford’s] that I just love. I love the simplicity of it and the ragged, anarchic, almost sociopathic qualities of it. It’s very, very selfish. Something about that New Hollywood approach that he was at the forefront of at that period in his career was very informative to me, and I tried to keep that in mind a lot. While I knew we were making a cops and robbers movie, and it had to hit certain beats that were expected in that genre, I really tried to make it unwieldy yet unexpectedly simple, so I could mess around in the margins of the story rather than just following the beats as one might expect me to.
I guess it’s a little complicated, watching movies to get inspiration but then not wanting to just do that same thing again.
It’s also just recognizing my own strengths. I am not interested in bank robbers or cops. [Laughs] I love seeing those movies, but as a storyteller, that is not my forte. Michael Mann can make those movies, and I will never be in his league, and I will go watch them happily and thrill to the mastery he puts on display when he makes a crime film. But that’s not what I’m good at. And I had to realize that. As I was working on the script, I wrote a few drafts that were attempting to be more traditional, and they just never felt right. At a certain point I realized, that’s not the type of filmmaker I am, that’s not the type of films that I make, and I need to find a way to color outside the lines in order to make it personal.
Since this isn’t a genre you normally work in, what was the part of the story that drew you in?
There’s an aspect of film history to the movie that is exciting to me. Just the sheer presence of Redford — a close-up of him has so much going on in it because of what we bring to it, and that, as a filmmaker, is a really exciting thing to try to harness and realize. I really like that metacontextual quality that you get with a movie star of his caliber, someone who is as legendary as he is. I always tried to let that be my north star. When I was writing the script, I would always remind myself, the story is going to be what it is, but at the heart of it is gonna be this icon. For Redford, he’s playing a character. He’s in it because he loves the story and wants to play this part. He’s not thinking about it in that way, nor should he. But I just knew that there’s no way to escape that, and I was really excited to dig into it. And the other thing was, the thing that excites me about this character, is that he’s someone who just loves what he’s doing and doesn’t quit. I really respond to that. That’s something that I see in myself, and I felt that there’s certainly a kinship there. If you were just to substitute bank robbing for filmmaking it would be very autobiographical.
There’s a lot of meta stuff in there especially towards the end when you use footage from The Chase. When did you decide to put that in?
Well, the montage was always in the script from the first draft. That’s something that I really wanted to be a defining moment of the movie. Especially at the end, I wanted to open up the movie and get a deeper understanding of the character in that moment. And obviously a lot of the stuff he’s doing in those scenes, Redford can’t do. He can’t jump off of a moving truck at his age. We wanted to encompass his entire life, so we were gonna have a lot of stand-ins and stunt doubles. But I wanted to see his face in that sequence. I just wanted it to be him. And I thought about how Steven Soderbergh used footage from an old Terence Stamp movie in The Limey, and how that added such a weightiness to a very simple story. It added a heft that it wouldn’t otherwise have had. Because suddenly you get a glimpse of this character’s entire life. So, I thought, okay, what movies has Redford made that we could use in this sequence? And The Chase instantly sprung to mind, because he spends the entire movie on the run.
It’s literally a chase.
Yes, that’s exactly what it is. I asked him if he would be okay with that, and he liked the idea, and we licensed the clip and cut it in. We’d shot all the other ones ourselves, and edited them together, but it wasn’t until we put that one in that it became a really emotional sequence. Prior to that it was fun and exciting and just a nice little jolt of energy at that point in the movie, but once you add that shot of him from the sixties in there, all of a sudden it attains this emotional quality, that, for me, even just watching it I still find somewhat overwhelming.
One small detail that really stuck out to me was the signature on the wall of Sissy Spacek’s house. Was that actually there?
This is a great question, so I gotta answer. We were location scouting, we were looking at all these little farmhouses, and we went to one where they were repapering the walls and discovered the signature of the architect. And I loved that so much, that even though we didn’t shoot that house, when we found the right house I wrote that into the script. It was just so amazing to see that, to look at a signature of someone who was proud of their work a hundred years ago and to see that it was still there. It reminded me of the fact that building a house is a work of art in its own right, and it’s something that people can be proud of. And that ties into the movie, being proud of one’s work. I’m glad you caught that.
‘The Old Man and the Gun’ opens on September 28.