The Sundown Kid: Robert Redford returns to robbing banks in David Lowery's 'The Old Man & the Gun'
The Sundance Kid is hardly a kid anymore. Then again, once a Sundance Kid, always a Sundance Kid. Exhibit A: The Old Man & the Gun is the Sundance Kid at sundown—an octogenarian Robert Redford still sticking up banks. And this was his idea, too!
Seeing it as a great film to ride out on, Redford pounced on the screen rights to David Grann’s same-named article way back in 2003 when it was first published in The New Yorker. Fifteen years later, this story is finally seeing the light of cinema—courtesy of writer-director David Lowery, who may have just invented The New Bank-Robber Movie—arguably, the quietest, politest and most humane ever made.
“I did a lot of different drafts when I was working on the script,” Lowery recalls. “It was based on a true story and this article, so I tried a more journalistic approach about all the true events. That really wasn’t my strong suit—it wasn’t what I was good at—so what I eventually did was just take out as much as I possibly could. I wanted to see how little plot, incident and dialogue I could get away with—with the hope being that the genre elements and the trappings of a heist film would kick in.”
There is considerable evidence he succeeded. Whenever police break into a chase, which is often, the screeching brakes and screaming sirens seem muted, the crashes and collisions minimal, and whole action sequences come at you a bit befogged and removed, as if delivered in long shot, pre-numbed by redundancy and familiarity.
“We have these little signposts giving audiences an idea of where the movie is going and what type it is. Otherwise, it’s a bare minimalist approach to cops and robbers.”
More scholar than casual observer of the genre, Lowery places director Michael Mann’s key capers at the top of his list: Heat first, Thief next, “then there’s Bob le Flambeur, the Jean-Pierre Melville film from the ’50s, and Altman’s Thieves Like Us.”
Was he tempted to steal from the best? “I was, a little bit,” he readily allows. “I watched Heat. I watched Thief. I watched The Friends of Eddie Coyle. But, in doing so, I realized that’s not the kind of filmmaker I am. I can’t make a movie the way Michael Mann does. I’ve got my own strengths, and it was important for me to stick to that instead of mimicking what other filmmakers have done so well in the genre.”
As it was, his plate was already sufficiently full, telling the (relatively) true story of Forrest Tucker—not the grizzled character actor who stole scenes from John Wayne, but the career criminal who, during his 83 years, stole $4 million and escaped from 17 prisons (including the really big Big Houses like San Quentin and Alcatraz).
He began his life of crime in the year of Redford’s birth, 1936, as a 15-year-old car thief, and it continued until 2000 when, bored by the retirement life, he broke into a four-bank robbing spree, earning him a 13-year stay in a Fort Worth prison. He died there in the fourth year of that sentence. None of his three wives ever knew of his escapades and incarcerations until they were gently informed of this by the police.
Lowery’s movie begins with the line “This story, also, is mostly true,” for a variety of reasons, he insists: “It’s partially to let people know it isn’t entirely true—there’s a lot of truth in it, but we took liberties—and also, it’s a nod to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, an imitation of its first line: ‘Not that it matters, but what follows is true.’ I wanted to subtly tip my hat towards that movie at the beginning of this one.”
William Goldman, who dashed off a couple of Oscar-winning screenplays for Redford in the ’70s (All the President’s Men as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), was the first person that the actor contacted to do the screen adaptation of this.
“In his second book, Adventures in the Screen Trade,” Lowery points out, “Goldman talked about not quite being able to crack this story, but he did take a shot at it… I know Bob got attached early and was just waiting for the right time to make it. He actually brought the story to me. It was always going to be a Robert Redford movie.”
The prospect of a wizened Clyde Barrow carrying on accordingly could conceivably have played—after all, Warren Beatty was Redford’s main rival for the Sundance Kid role—but this was never a consideration for Lowery. “If I hadn’t used Bob, I wouldn’t have made the movie. It wasn’t because I wanted to tell this story per se or because I was fascinated with the real Forrest Tucker. I just wanted to give Redford a chance to play this part. It was a real honor that he asked me to do it, so, for me, this was a shot at making a great Robert Redford movie. That’s where my interest with the story began, and that’s what I ultimately set out to do and, hopefully, achieved.”
Much of the movie takes place in and around 1981, with Tucker at the end of his lawless trail, tentatively opting to settle down with Wife No. 3, beautifully played by Sissy Spacek in her first big-screen appearance in six years. “I didn’t know if Sissy would do it or not, but I specifically wrote the part for her, crossed my fingers she’d like it, and, thankfully, she did. I can’t think of anybody else who’d be better for it.”
Spacek and Redford are “together again, for the first time” (i.e., both picked up their Oscars in 1981—she for playing Coal Miner’s Daughter, he for directing Ordinary People). The two other Oscar winners in the film also won their awards in different categories: Keith Carradine, 1975’s Best Songwriter (for “I’m Easy” from Nashville), appears fleetingly as a police captain (“Originally, his part was much bigger, but, as these things sometimes happen, we had to trim it down quite a bit—but all those scenes will be on the DVD”), and Casey Affleck, 2016’s Best Actor (for Manchester by the Sea), is much more prominently in play as Tucker’s Javert, John Hunt, a detective in pursuit who becomes captivated with the criminal’s commitment to his craft.
The real John Hunt, who contributes a cameo to the film (a fellow prison inmate who asks Tucker to lunch), was interviewed by Lowery a lot as he wrote the script. “Most of the facts of the case I learned from him—including the fact he never caught him.”
One visual joke to look for: Affleck affects a Sundance Kid mustache for this relentless lawman, while Redford sports an on-and-off bogus one for his heists.
“There are a few nods that Casey made to some of Bob’s greatest performances. I won’t say what they are, but, if you pay attention, you can catch them. The mustache was not intentional, but he certainly looked a lot like the Sundance Kid, and I felt it was the right thing for a cop in the ’70s to have in Texas. Then, as a side note, it was just a real joy to put a mustache back on Redford. We haven’t seen him with facial hair for many, many decades. To give him a mustache in those bank-robbery scenes really felt like we were seeing the Sundance Kid down in front of us one more time.”
So how do you direct an Oscar-winning director? Lowery overcame that obstacle two years ago when he and Redford first crossed paths filming Pete’s Dragon.
“I didn’t realize it till later, but the first day directing him I was so terrified I referred to him as ‘Mr. Redford’—like, ‘Er, Mr. Redford, would you please perform this scene a little faster?’ Finally, he said, ‘Mr. Redford was my father. Please call me Bob.’ From that point on, it was very down-to-earth, and I could work with him just as a director working with a great actor. He’s really good at coming in and doing the job that is at hand with the cast that is at hand. He could’ve directed the movie, but, when he shows up to act, he’s there to act. He’s happy to trust his collaborator, the director.”
And the younger the director, the better for Redford. Lowery is 37. J.C. Chandor was 40 when he put the actor through the intricate loops of what essentially was a one-man film, All Is Lost, and that reaped Redford a heap of international Best Actor nominations. “I think Bob is definitely excited about working with new talent,” Lowery says.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Lowery is a graduate of the Redford-founded Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab. He broke into the big time there by developing 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the first of the three Casey Affleck flicks he has helmed.
“I didn’t meet Bob while I was doing that, but I did meet him a few weeks later at the Sundance Festival. There’s a nice sense of circuitousness about him choosing—and trusting—me to do this film, because I’m a product of what he has given to the film industry, which is this incredible stage space for artists to develop their voices.”
Fox Searchlight has given Old Man an awards-season launch date of Oct. 5—a vote of confidence that Lowery finds both “super-optimistic and terrifying. I don’t like to think about it. My goal has always been just to make a good, solid film, and if they feel like they can do something with it in that regard, that’s great. But I had to wipe that from my mind at all times, or else I’d be stressed out.”
Still, it’s not science fiction to speculate that thisOld Man could earn Redford his long-overdue acting Oscar. It’s his 78th screen performance, and while he was filming it he put out the word it would be his last—then he recanted. The latest? On August 6, Entertainment Weekly quoted him as saying, “Never say never,” but yes…
Lowery has his doubts: “Bob goes back and forth. Much like the character in the film, he’s never going to be able to stop. He might try, but he’s never going to be done.”