Director David Lowery has been making movies — in his head — since he was 7
Writer-director David Lowery knew early on that he wanted to make movies, and when he sat down to talk about his newest one, “The Old Man & the Gun,” at the Toronto International Film Festival, he was a little surprised to find out that a recent profile mentioned that the decision was made while he was in high school. “No, by the time I was in high school, that was ALL I was going to do,” he said. “I had already decided by the time I was 7, when I saw ‘Star Wars’.” He laughed, added that he realized it was “the most cliched answer you could imagine,” then went on to say that his mom got him a book on how that film was made, he read it and made the decision, and “now it’s been a one-track mind for almost 30 years.” Another decision, one that wasn’t made consciously at first, was to keep exercising different filmmaking muscles, resulting in him writing and directing films as diverse as the outlaw on the run drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” the Disney family adventure “Pete’s Dragon,” the haunting “A Ghost Story,” and now “The Old Man & the Gun,” the true tale of Forrest Tucker, an elderly gentleman bank robber, played by Robert Redford. Lowery, 37, spoke about how he’s been working his way through his career in Toronto.
Q: Anybody can make a movie on their phone these days. You made your first short, “Lullaby,” on film, when you were 19. How did you pull that off?
A: I graduated from high school, then took some of the money I was supposed to use for college to buy a camera and a Mac and a tripod. I had written the script and we just got some people together and made it. That was in 1999. I submitted it to Sundance and we were hoping to get it in there, but then we showed it at a local film festival, watched it with an audience, and I realized, “I’m not ready yet.” But it was a valuable learning experience. It’s one of those movies that took the place of film school.
Q: Has there been an actual plan to do something really different every time?
A: No, there’s been no strategy to it. After I made “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” I was thinking about a couple other movies, but when Disney hired me to write the “Pete’s Dragon” screenplay, I was excited because I had wanted to make a children’s film. I thought it was just a writing job, but when they asked me if I wanted to direct it, I said yes. I knew everyone would think, what a bizarre follow-up to “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” But I knew that once people saw both films, the through lines would be there. Same with “A Ghost Story.” On an emotional level, “Pete’s Dragon” and “A Ghost Story” are siblings. You’re dealing with this sort of fantastical creature who is the avatar for the audience’s emotions. You have a dragon in one and you have a ghost in the other.
Q: The story goes that soon after “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” played at Sundance, you were hired for two other films in quick succession.
A: Yeah, I met with Disney about “Pete’s Dragon” on a Monday morning, and that same Monday, at noon, met with Robert Redford for “The Old Man & the Gun.” From that point forward, both films were kind of lock-stepped together. “Pete’s Dragon” just happened first, but that’s how Robert Redford ended up being in “Pete’s Dragon.”
Q: You adapted “The Old Man & the Gun” from a New Yorker article by David Grann. What was your first step in that process?
A: I called David and I said give me all your sources. (laughs) But he wrote that article more than 10 years ago, and didn’t have them anymore. So, I did a little digging. Forrest had passed away and (his love interest) Jewel had passed away. But I found and got in touch with John Hunt, the detective who had been on his case (played by Casey Affleck). Though the movie is mostly true, there’s also a lot of creative liberties. But all of the facts come from David Grann’s article and from John Hunt.
Q: You got Tom Waits to play one of Forrest’s bank robber associates, and he tells a great story in the middle of the movie. Was that your writing or Waits winging it?
A: I wrote one line. The last line of the story. Tom’s part is small, and when I was talking to him about the movie, it was even smaller. I wanted to develop his and Danny Glover’s parts with them. Tom thought it would be a lot of fun to have a monolog with Danny’s and Bob’s characters listening. I said sure, and asked him if he had anything in mind in terms of the contents of it. He said, “Well, there was this one time when I was a kid ...” and he just went into that story. When he got to the end, I said can we just use that and he said sure.
“The Old Man & the Gun” opens wide on Oct. 5.