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Light Touch

Director Aaron Schneider depends on a understated script and a stand-out cast for Get Low

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2009:02:10 10:02:17

Aaron Schneider (left) directs Robert Duvall, sure as shootin’.

Leave it to a cinematographer to know his movie can say more if its characters don’t say much. For Get Low, Aaron Schneider—veteran cameraman/cinematographer making his feature film debut as director—has the instinct to let his screenplay do most of the heavy lifting, even though that effort is achieved in spartan dialogue that asks the characters to convey decades of bottled emotions non-verbally, in a mere look or change in posture. It could be a risky call, trusting a cast to deliver a script’s text and its subtext—especially when the subtext is so much more serpentine and complex than the lines themselves.

Fortunately, Schneider has Robert Duvall anchoring Get Low, the story of cantankerous old hermit Felix Bush in the late 1930s South. Felix—who has lived alone in a shack, with the company of a mule and a string of dogs, for 40 years, a curious fact that has invited generations of nearby townsfolk to create tall tales about him—decides to throw his funeral while he’s still alive, and invites anybody who might have a story to tell about him, no matter how unflattering. It’s Felix, though, who really wants to tell his story, to reveal the why behind his decision to live the way he has for so long. And despite his reputation as a crazy codger prone to pulling off a few shots at trespassers and handily subduing younger men when they hassle him in town, Felix isn’t sure he’s going to have the personal strength to come correct.

It’s a role that requires Duvall to enter the movie as a complete unknown and slowly and cannily reveal himself, to the people he meets and the audience, even though he says very, very little. When he does, he speaks with the terse economy of a man who has lived outside society: No word is wasted, and he gives away nothing that he doesn’t wantto. Get Low surrounds him with the more than capable supporting players of Bill Murray as a funeral home director who decides to help Felix, Lucas Black as Murray’s assistant, and the incomparable Sissy Spacek, who knew Felix before he became the local freak, before he looked like a gray-bearded mountain man, before she got married and moved away, and before her sister was killed in a fire.

“The screenplay relies very heavily on the audience’s desire to know who this guy is,” Schneider says by phone from Washington, D.C., during a recent publicity tour stop. “And, you know, there’s no antagonist, there’s no villain. In fact, Duvall plays both the protagonist and the antagonist, because it’s a story about a man versus himself—which, of course, we knew would be an advantage, giving Bobby that kind of complex role.”

Schneider came into this project thanks to a surprising recommendation. He adapted and directed a short, 2003’s “Two Soldiers,” that was based on a William Faulkner short story; it won the 2004 Oscar for Best Short Film, Live Action and caught the attention of a few agents—one of whom recalled it when producer Dean Zanuck went looking for a director for Get Low, originally written by Chris Provenzano. The agent recommended Schneider, even though he didn’t represent him.

“It’s almost unheard of in our business, but an agent actually recommended someone he didn’t represent, which I’m very thankful for,” Schneider says. Zanuck checked out “Two Soldiers,” which shares a time period and region with Get Low, and decided to meet with Schneider. “And we just hit it off in the room,” Schneider says. “That began a five-year journey of developing a screenplay and partnering up and trying to get the movie off the ground financially. We both had to learn the ropes of the independent world. [Zanuck] had come from the studio world, and I had come from cinematography, so we were kind of learning together.”

Schneider brought his friend/mentor screenwriter C. Gaby Mitchell for a rewrite. “He’s from Alabama, and he knew these people and he knew these places and he knew this time,” Schneider says. “Most of all, he knew the character and was a huge fan of Duvall, as we all were. And I said, ‘What do you say? We don’t have anything to offer you but love, but would you like to join us?’ And he said he would, because he thought it would be a great project. He and I flew out to see Robert Duvall and talked to him about the screenplay and the rewrite. And a lot of the character of Felix Bush came out of Charlie [Mitchell’s] and my work in combination with talking to Bobby.”

It’s a plum role for Duvall, an actor with the gravitas, subtlety, and wit to turn an old coot into a dynamic screen force. The story is also a choice one for a cinematographer-turned-director, as its 1930s time period offers a wealth of visual possibilities. “The cool thing about that period is there wasn’t all this crazy, ugly light,” Schneider says. “There wasn’t fluorescent, there wasn’t sodium vapor. The only thing there was was a light bulb, a candlestick, and the sun. And that bare palette is a fun thing for a cinematographer to work with.”

It also means that after the sun goes down it gets dark. And in a few scenes, Get Low checks in on Felix when he’s home at night, a single candle or oil lamp illuminating his room, and the utter black and quiet of life alone in the woods. These scenes are short, but they convey the absolute solitude of how Felix has been living all these years.

“The more truthful we could be photographically to the way this man lived, how dark it would have been at night and how lonely it would have been and how minimal the light sources were, the better chance we have photographically showing you that kind of lifestyle,” Schneider says, but he cagily balks at elaborating too much on how these beautiful scenes were achieved. “A friend of mine and another mentor, Owen Roizman, who was the cinematographer on The French Connection and The Exorcist, used to be asked in the ’70s, ‘Did you shoot available light? It’s so gritty. It’s so naturalistic.’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, it was available light. Every light available on the truck.’ [Laughs.] So, you know, it takes a lot of work to make lighting look like there’s no lighting.”�

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