How the director of The Old Man & the Gun is walking away from guns
Robert Redford may be top of mind for 2018 awards watchers, but behind the camera of the legend’s latest film, The Old Man & the Gun, is its director and writer, David Lowery.
In the last five years, the Texan has helmed four features — the outlaw romance Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the live-action Disney remake Pete’s Dragon, the supernatural indie A Ghost Story, and Old Man — plus four episodes of TV and a short, and he’s edited four films. Despite having been the toast of film festivals and led Oscar-winning actors down arresting narrative paths, 38-year-old Lowery is not one to rest on his laurels, though he is perfectly poised to be one of Hollywood’s most preeminent directors for the long term.
Lowery previously collaborated with Redford on Pete’s Dragon, and started production on The Old Man & The Gun in the spring of 2017, after A Ghost Story premiered at Sundance. The Old Man is based on real-life career criminal Forrest Tucker (played by Redford), who has an affinity for robbing banks and running from the authorities.
As his new movie bowed in theaters Sept. 28 (expanding in subsequent weeks), Lowery’s been nurturing a few different projects, including another Disney live-action adaptation, Peter Pan. Below, the director talks about the future, and what’s on his mind in the present: guns, Casey Affleck, legacy, trauma, Augustine Frizzell’s Home Alone project, and running down hills with sticks.
This interview — which contains spoilers for Lowery’s films — was conducted over two separate phone calls and has been been condensed for clarity and length.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you describe The Old Man & the Gun and its concept to other people?
DAVID LOWERY: I have no idea what I thought I was doing, but I did realize at a certain point while I was writing that I have no business telling (A) a true story, (B) a story about cops and robbers, and (C) a story about people who have lived a great deal of life. Because I just am incredibly short-sighted on all those things. I tried writing a traditional cops-and-robbers movie, a Michael Mann-style bank robbery heist film. I tried making it more of, like, a couple looking back at 45 years of life. And I just felt like I was not equipped to do any of those. And so ultimately, I just kind of amused myself with the script.
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 hey, there’s nothing that makes people smile more than hearing the words “old man” and “gun.”
It’s like the two worst things; everything that’s wrong in this country can be summed up in the title of this movie. [Laughs] I had a bit of a pause about that at one point. I was like, “This is questionable at best. And probably a bad idea at worst.” But also it’s a great play on a Hemingway book [The Old Man and the Sea], and it’s the title of the original New Yorker article. But definitely I had a moment of pause about that.
Attitudes toward guns have changed a lot. EW, for instance, doesn’t run lead photos of people with guns. Have your feelings about guns or using guns in your films evolved? How do you feel about guns playing a part in this film?
I’ve become more conscious of them in the movies I go see, or the books that I read. It’s something that is on my mind a lot more than it used to be. And not just because of cultural conversations — because guns are getting used more in terrible ways than they ever have been. Not that they were ever any good. I have fired a gun once in my life: A .22 rifle, and I hated it.
When I first sat down on this project, I thought, “Oh, the title’s great” — you think about old gangster movies, and there are a lot of movies that use guns and have fun with them. But as I was working on the script, it became more and more of a weight on my mind that I didn’t like. And I couldn’t escape it.
I tried a draft of the script that had no guns in it. But there is the aspect that this is a true story and this is a guy with a gun. I ultimately made the choice: You see a gun two times in the film, and the first time is to introduce the character and the second time is to… bring some weight back down to him. This is a guy who is all fun and games, but yeah, he did use a firearm to threaten people, and that’s not cool. We’re not making a statement with this, but I did want to make sure that we weren’t just being effusive with our use of firearms, or inconsiderate in how we portray them.
So, it’s a tough thing to reconcile, and obviously I’m still reconciling it myself at the moment.
It does sound like your attitude has kind of changed toward them as a filmmaker.
Not even that. I mean as a moviegoer. As a moviegoer, I used to go see things like The Matrix and just be like, “That’s badass when they pull open their trench coats and they have all those guns.” Or when they’re like firing in slow motion. Those things were really cool to me.
Certainly they are a part of American culture. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, that was a big part, that’s part of the culture of the Western, of Western civilization. But I don’t like that part of our culture. When I wrote the very first version of that movie, it was more of an action movie and had a lot of gun violence in it, and I just did not feel comfortable writing that. The movie became what it became because I did not like writing violence. I was writing all these action scenes that were disposable bad guys getting shot left and right. And I would think to myself, “Well who were those guys? What brought them to this point where they die now?” And how awful that they are getting killed without anyone recognizing who they are. There’s a scene where someone is looking at a gun in an antique store and Keith Carradine [as the character Skerritt] says, “There’s a piece of paper there that has a list of every single person that was ever shot by that gun.” I wish every gun had that. I wish every single death by firearms was somehow, like, accountable, because it’s something that is very troubling.
So, it would be interesting to talk to me on my next movie. Will I ever make a movie with guns again? I don’t know. As I increasingly like work in the field, I veer away from stories that have anything to do with people doing terrible things to each other with firearms.
On that note, this movie addresses the mixed nature of “Who’s the hero?” Casey Affleck’s character [detective John Hunt] is deciding if he admires Forrest or wants to catch him. In one sense, the old man gets to do what he loves to the end. And on the other hand, you show who’s in his wake, mostly women who are traumatized, like his daughter, who will never want to talk to him ever again. Did you want to show trauma?
Yeah, 100 percent. It was a weird thing to go into this movie saying, “I want to make the most fun, lighthearted movie possible,” but also like add all these little rough edges. If you catch them, it makes it impossible to truly love this character.
And one of the important ones is that he just straight-up lies to [Sissy Spacek’s character, Jewel] multiple times throughout the movie. And she knows about one or two, but she’s like, “Do you have kids?” and he’s like, “Oh, I hope not.” You later find out he just was lying to her face. Ultimately, he is leaving behind a path of broken hearts and trauma.
And yes, Forrest is an admirable character in some respects, because he went after what he wanted to do. But he also was very inconsiderate in doing it. And that’s something that can’t be ignored. Formally, one of those things I tried to do was every time that a woman in the movie had something to say and would put a guy in his place, we just hold on her and then fade out, because then she would always have the last word, even though ultimately it’s Bob’s story. He goes in the bank at the end. But I still always tried to show the repercussions emotionally on the people’s faces, particularly the women.
You also did that with some characters of color. And basing a lot of this in the Midwest and Texas, how did you think about incorporating racial diversity in your cast?
That’s been important to me. And I’ve been frustrated in the past when things did not work out that way, or based on where we’re shooting, or whatever. One thing I read a while ago that I really took to heart was Geena Davis talking about how to get more women in your movies. And she said if you have a crowd scene, just specify in the script that 50 percent of them are women. And people will read that, and because you wrote it, they’ll take it literally and you wind up with like a crowd scene that’s 50 percent female. And that’s a small step. Now I’m just gonna take that a little bit further and diversify the entire cast as much as I possibly can.
I grew up in Dallas in the ’80s. It’s a very diverse place. There’s nothing in this movie that I think would raise eyebrows in reality. But certainly, if people brought it up — “Oh, that’s a very liberal small town in Texas” — I’m like, “Well, Texas isn’t as conservative in the big cities as you think.” But sure, yeah, I get it. I’m turning a little bit of color-blindness to history for the sake of this movie. I think that’s okay.
You went from Pete’s Dragon to A Ghost Story, and then you went into this. Do you feel like each movie is a palate cleanser for the next?
I started working on it the day I started working on Pete’s Dragon. This movie was supposed to happen right away, but I just felt like I wasn’t in the right head space to make it, like I wasn’t sure if I was the right filmmaker for it anymore. And I also just had this other movie that I really wanted to make, which was A Ghost Story. It really felt like a very personal movie. I think it’s very unique. And then I popped back out of that and went back to make Old Man & the Gun. So in a way, A Ghost Story sort of represents… where I’m headed as a filmmaker.
I think it’s a trilogy — Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon, and Old Man & the Gun. But they all just came out out of order. Structurally, they’re very similar. With Old Man & the Gun, I really wanted to push myself and try new things. I wanted to make a movie where it’s rougher, it’s faster. I was trying to, like, push against my normal, and make something that didn’t necessarily feel like one of my movies.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon, those movies have a through-line, and there’s a lot of similarities between all of them: ’80s cop cars, and plot points, even characters. Obviously, some of the actors are the same, but in Old Man & the Gun we have a bunch of characters from my old movies showing up as the same character. I just want to make this feel like they’re all part of the same universe. And maybe the next movies won’t be in that universe, or maybe they will. But definitely, those ones are all of one piece.
Speaking of which, you’ve worked with Robert Redford twice. But you’ve worked with Casey Affleck on three movies now. What did you want to do new with him?
I want him to be funny. He’s hilarious in person. He’s really good at playing depressed and being a sad sack, as he is for a lot of his movies. But he’s got a great sense of fun to him. He also is just very similar to Redford in a lot of ways: They both have this sort of irascible, irreverent quality to them. And neither of them like to do what people tell them to do. Nonetheless, they’re wonderful actors to work with.
I wanted the whole movie to be people that I just knew. I just wanted to be surrounded by friends to make this movie, because I wanted to have fun. And that’s the number-one way to make have fun when you’re making a film. I wanted to see him smile and laugh and be a nice guy on camera.
But you’re the one who killed Casey in a car crash in A Ghost Story. And there’s a major car crash in Pete’s Dragon…
Ha, no, you’re right! I’m done with car crashes. I’m done with ’80s-period cop cars. I’m done with guns. Done with male protagonists.… Don’t quote me on any of that.
You’re like, “Never say never.”
You can quote me on all of that, but also include the part where I say, “Never say never.”
In talking about toxicity in Hollywood, because of his sexual harassment lawsuit, Casey is included in conversations about respecting women in the workplace, and giving actors jobs even after there’s been discussion over past impropriety or alleged impropriety. What has been your attitude about working with Casey? Has this period of talking more about #MeToo and Time’s Up had any impact on your working relationship with him?
It does impact my working relationship with him. Like, there’s no way to avoid it. It’s definitely an uncomfortable and unfortunate thing for all sorts of people. And I’m in a position where I get to talk about it, but it hasn’t affected me in a way like people who are actually directly affected. I feel badly for anyone who has been affected by it.
Knowing Casey very well as a human being, it’s very easy for me to look at him and be like, “This is a great guy. I just want to keep making movies with him.” But I also know that there is a public perception that isn’t quite that nuanced. Nor can it be. And I have to take that into account. I don’t think that people should just be blacklisted for something that they’ve done or something people say they’ve done. We work in an industry where people obtain money to go see people in movies — or see movies that are being made by people. And you can’t discount that either. If people largely decide they no longer want to see my movies, that doesn’t give me a right to keep making them, because people are going to have to pay to see them for me to do that. So, it’s a delicate and uncomfortable and necessary conversation.
In an interview with the AP, Casey apologized for his past behavior, saying, “I contributed to that unprofessional environment and I tolerated that kind of behavior from other people and I wish that I hadn’t,” and, “I behaved in a way and allowed others to behave in a way that was really unprofessional. And I’m sorry.” What was your reaction to this statement?
I was very encouraged by the interview he did with the AP. It’s always wonderful to see someone admit that — regardless however he phrased it in the past — I think it’s vital to realize that apologies are necessary. And it’s just as vital to recognize the ways in which one may have hurt people in the past. That’s part of being a human being with the capacity for growth. And Casey is someone who I’ve seen grow over the years, so it was very encouraging that he acknowledged that there are things in his past that need to be spoken about. Obviously he can’t talk about them in great detail [due to nature of the conclusion of the lawsuit]. Just the amount he’s talked about it made me feel much better.
Beyond that, I just love what he’s doing with his company [Sea Change Media], without trumpeting it or creating a lot of fanfare, he’s quietly using whatever currency he has to help other voices be heard and help female filmmakers get their films made. It’s not about him. He’s not putting his name first on these things. He’s really quietly working to help cause a change in the industry in whatever way he can.
What do you think his statement says about other people in his position?
I think he realized is that he’s a public figure. He can’t use his desire to be a normal guy who happens to be an actor in movies as a excuse not to talk about these things. Because people look up to him, they hold him accountable, and expect certain things because he’s a public figure. And I think he’s realized that. I’m glad he’s realized that, and I’m glad he that he’s taking that into account and that discussing things that a year or two ago he might have thought he didn’t need to discuss or that he might have let slide. You can’t. You need to face these things. If he wants to continue to work in the industry that he works in, and to be a public figure, he needs to hold himself accountable. And I think he is. And that’s a beautiful thing.
You mentioned he has intentions of using his production company as a way to effect positive change and create a safe working environment in this industry. How have you thought of your own efforts in light of that? Has that given you any new thoughts on how you want to run things as a male producer and director, especially since you feature so many male protagonists?
Reading Ava DuVernay’s Instagram when she was making A Wrinkle in Time really made me think, “My sets have a homogenous quality to them, and that’s not a good thing.” And that’s something I need to change, that I’ve been working towards. I definitely have made a lot of movies with male protagonists, with a lot of guys who are great guys. But that’s just too easy. I want to give other people opportunities. I want help diversify the type of stories I’m telling. One of the ways of doing that is bringing new voices into the mix. The movies bear the influences who work on them. I owe it not just to myself, but the people that I’m working with that those voices are varied, and the harmonies you get from that are invaluable.
I was just thinking about your wife’s [Augustine Frizzell] film Never Goin’ Back, and congrats to her on that. That film is led by two women. Does Augustine have an influence on how you approach your decisions?
Well, recently, yes. I was working a script not too long ago. I showed her the first 50 pages and she was like, “It’s not good.” And so I had to throw them away, I was like, “Yup I think you’re right.” It’s so wonderful being married to another filmmaker, it’s the best thing in the world, but it definitely also keeps me on my toes.
I think everyone tries to be as open-minded and as considerate, and everyone in this industry tries to make films that accomplish the full breadth of human experience. And most people can’t do that. And so having her to bounce my films off of, and vice versa for her, is really fantastic. It really is making both of us better filmmakers.
I saw the announcement that she just got picked up to direct a Home Alone re-imagining with Ryan Reynolds. So you’re making a Peter Pan movie and she’s doing something with Ryan Reynolds. Are you going to be doing anything with that?
I read the script and I laughed a lot. It’s a great script. And as a dyed-in-the-wool Home Alone fan. We watch the first two every year; we don’t watch the third and fourth one. Even though Scarlett Johansson’s great in the third one, those two don’t count. [Laughs]
It’s not canon.
Yeah, exactly. If it doesn’t have the McCallisters in it, it does not count. But as a Home Alone fan who does consider those movies to be formative experiences for me growing up, this was a wonderful script to read. And I’m excited for it. So she’s doing that and I’m doing Peter Pan. It’s a bizarre luxury, and as soon I get off the call with you, I’m going right back to working on this Peter Pan script. This gun-free Peter Pan script.
No guns in Neverland, huh?
The pirates have muskets, and I’m trying to work those out. Because it’s just like, no, I’m directing it with swords, it’ll be so much better. And everyone will live longer.
What’s the status update in general on Peter Pan? Is there anything you can share or allude to in terms of casting and tone?
I’ve turned in a fourth draft, and I’m addressing some notes now. And I hope that this time next year that we’re on our way to making that movie. But of course that’s all up to Disney. But the number-one priority is getting the script right. And I’ve been working on it for two years at this point, but I’ve also made two other movies in the meantime. I’m not quite the slacker that I sound like when they say, “He’s working on the script for two years.”
There’s a lot of expectations for a Peter Pan movie because people love it. And there’s also the fact there’s a lot of Peter Pan movies, and so I just want to make sure that if we make this one — I know Disney feels the same way — if we’re going to make this one, let’s make it right. It has to be personal to me. It also has to be the kind of movie that people who love the original Peter Pan movie are going to love. And that’s why I’m still agonizing over every little detail on it.
The Peter Pan story is so well established, and yet it causes so much agony…
I know, I was like, “This’ll be the easiest thing in the world. I know this story like the back of my hand.” Then you sit down and write it. Part of the problem is that it is so familiar. The 2003 Universal film is not perfect, but it’s a great movie, and I love that movie. And I can’t do that movie again.
You’re just like constantly, saying, “Okay, culturally what works now?” Something as simple as taking the guns out of the pirates’ hands changes like a lot of beats from the classic Disney movie. I mean, Captain Hook has a lot of funny scenes with his pistol. The original Peter Pan movie’s obviously horribly racist, and so that will have to go out the window. Anyway, I can go on all day about it, but my point is is that when I finish it, it will be good.
Is there a certain scene you’re really hoping to work into Peter Pan?
When I was a little kid, we were in Mexico and there’s a field that my brothers and I would go up on. We’d just seen Last of the Mohicans, we were around 9 years old. And we would just get sticks and get to the top of the hill and run down the hill shouting, hooting and hollering all the way down. And I just want to capture that. For me, there’s something about that that ties into Peter Pan so perfectly. There’s a point in the script where a bunch of kids — there’s plenty of kids in the movie — they’re all running down the hill shouting, with sticks in their hands. And whether that image makes it to the final cut or not, that is the spirit I’m trying to imbue the film with, that excitement and freedom you have when you’ve got a hill in front of you and you’re 9 years old and you can just run down it.