“Over time of working, I’ve boiled it down to three steps. The most important thing is story. And then: Who are the characters that embody that story? And then: Where is the emotion? It has to have all three of those steps.”
Robert Redford explained to EW last month what it takes for him to say yes. Yes to a script, yes to a director, yes to an original idea. Yes to the one last job which, for the Oscar winner in terms of his acting career, is David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun, out in theaters Sept. 28 and stopping off at the Toronto International Film Festival prior at the start of next month.
Redford, who just celebrated his 82nd birthday this past weekend, says this appetite for storytelling goes back to childhood. “God, can we ever forget that since we were children just to hear those words, ‘Once upon a time…?’, you knew that you’re about to be told a story. How important that was, how exciting that was when you were little. And you carry that forward in your life.”
If The Old Man & the Gun started with those four sacred words, it’d go something like: Once upon a time, an old man named Forrest Tucker (Redford) was thriving in his career of robbing banks and escaping from prison. However, a couple of factors threaten to throw off Tucker’s and his frequent collaborators’ (Tom Waits and Danny Glover) current criminal jag. First, a detective (Casey Affleck) hot on Tucker’s tail has taken his manhunt public — a pursuit that tickles the septuagenarian to no end. Second, Tucker’s falling for the grounded, radiant Jewel (Sissy Spacek), an affair that competes with his greatest love of all: knocking off banks and running from the authorities. Story. Characters embodying the story. And emotion.
The tale of the real-life Forrest Tucker came to the attention of Redford shortly after an article about the late stickup man appeared in the New Yorker in 2003. “I thought, Now, wait a minute, this is like fantasy and it’s real. This is a very, very upbeat story when we’re surrounded by negative, dark stories,” he said. “I became obsessed with wanting to get it to film.”
Jump to about a decade later and David Lowery had what he calls “a very fortuitous day” in the spring of 2013. It was a couple of months after the Texas-bred helmer’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints bowed at the Redford-founded Sundance Film Festival. In the morning on that day, Lowery pitched Pete’s Dragon to Disney (a project “which happened,” as Lowery described it EW, in 2016). “And then I drove straight from the Disney lot to meet Robert Redford for the first time and talk about this movie. Which also happened.”
What additionally happened is that Redford led both of those films, as he grew to trust his director. “I became very impressed with his style, his way of thinking, his independence and his slightly eccentric way of seeing the world,” the veteran actor and director says of Lowery, who also wrote The Old Man & the Gun screenplay after Redford had bounced the idea his way.
Lowery internally struggled with the concept for a long time before arriving at a unique blend of drama, comedy, and romance on top of a good old-fashioned cops and robbers movie. “I tried writing a Michael Mann-style bank robbery heist film. I tried making it more of a 45 years-ish look back at a life. I could show you a bunch of different takes on this. And so ultimately I just kind of amused myself with the script,” Lowery, 37, said. “As a result, I’m not quite sure what it is we made. But the one thing I knew going through was, like, I wanted to just make a movie that would make people smile. I just wanted to make the movie lighthearted and to be amusing and fun. And if it does that, if there’s anything more than that, that’s icing on the cake.”
Redford, who said he is retiring from acting after this film, spoke similarly of the film’s vibe. “Why not go out with something that’s very upbeat and positive?” as he put it, noting that playing Forrest Tucker “appealed to my own sensibility, which has a slightly outlaw side to it…. if I look back at my own life, I was always struggling against bounds that tie you down.”
Lowery, leaning into Redford’s trademark charms, said that the best scenes to shoot were when his actor “was having fun with the material. That really allowed him to just take it, make it his own and to get that sparkle in his eye that we all know and love from all of his many classics….I just had to make sure the cameras were turned on and pointed in the direction,” he said. “I really just wanted to make a movie that was a classic Robert Redford movie and that was a movie that honored him, even if I wasn’t explicitly leaning onto his legacy.”
As an example, there’s a moment in the movie where Redford is driving a car away from the scene of the crime. “He rolls down the window and the camera just holds on his face for like a good 30 seconds. And to me that was what this movie was all about: Just getting those moments just to spend time with him, setting the plot aside, setting aside everything else, just letting him be on screen and luxuriating in that.”