Get Low is based on the true story of Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), a recluse around whom dark myths circle in epic proportions. The rumours of cold-blooded murder, and deals with the Devil, are just two of the tales that rattle the townsfolk of Kingston, Tennessee. With the locals too timid to confront Felix to his face, Felix stages his own funeral to find out what his neighbours really think of him,. In director Aaron Schneider's version of the events of June 26, 1938, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) is the fast-talking, financially ambitious funeral home owner who manages the arrangements, while Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) is the one person in town who knows the person behind the legend of Felix Bush.
The film is the debut feature for Schneider, a cinematographer who made the decision to switch to directing in 1997. “I knew I had to make a splash somehow,” he says over the phone from Los Angeles, “because the business tends to pigeon hole you. I made a decision to take my life savings and put it into a short film. I thought that it was the last point in my life that I could afford to do something crazy and start over, living hand-to-mouth. I went to North Carolina and shot an adaptation of William Faulkner's Two Soldiers, not knowing where it would take me, but knowing it was something I had to do.”
Two Soldiers was rejected by 12 film festivals before Palm Springs International Shortfest programmer Ethan Harris enthusiastically received the film. “He was convinced we were a contender for the Oscar,” Schneider says now. Two Soldiers went on to win the 2004 Academy Award for Best Short Subject and cemented Schneider's transition to direction. “That recognition was crucial,” he admits. “From the start it was all about trying to get some attention.”
That same year, producer Dean Zanuck was ready to attach a director to his feature film in-development, Get Low. Serendipity had Zanuck call an agent who had seen Two Soldiers. “Dean was calling up agencies,” explains Schneider. “He called one of the agents that I'd met but hadn't signed with. This never happens but it happened in this case — the agent said I would be perfect. God bless him. Dean thought that was so unusual that he followed up on it and sent me the script. That's exactly how it got to me.”
Robert Duvall was already attached to the script for Get Low when Schneider read it. “That was a big plus,” the director says. “I knew from the start it was all about making a project worthy of the great Robert Duvall. We worked really hard to make sure that we had material that would take full advantage of what everyone knows he's capable of doing. Actors like good material,” he says. “We put a lot of work into the screenplay.”
The script for Get Low went through many drafts, and ultimately Schneider re-wrote Chris Provenzano (Mad Men)'s original screenplay, in collaboration with friend/mentor C. Gaby Mitchell (Blood Diamond).
To achieve Get Low's period setting, Schneider relied heavily on production designer Jeffrey Kirkland (The Right Stuff, Angela's Ashes), dual-Academy Award nominated costumer designer Julie Weiss (12 Monkeys and Frida) and cinematographer David Boyd. “[Get Low] wasn't a big canvas,” says Schneider. “It was about the details inside the more intimate story we were telling: the wallpaper, the lamp on the desk, the textures and the costumes.
“I wanted it to feel like a folktale, like it was a story being told around the dinner table by somebody who was there fifty years ago,” he explains. “I took these esoteric ideas and tried to translate them to actual photographic approaches. I didn't want to look through a period diffusion or gauze. I didn't want it to feel like it happened a long time ago. I wanted to feel like we were in the story but at the same time I wanted it to feel weathered and torn at the edges and yellowed. We biased the film towards warm tones.”
These individual elements make a convincing backdrop for what is first and foremost, an immaculate showcase of the acting talents of Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. “For a 60-year veteran Duvall is very generous and patient,” Schneider says. “He's very serious about his work and he comes in prepared. I thought of Duvall as the author of his character, he's got to be, but I'm the author of how that character moves through the film. When something felt that it didn't fit we'd have a conversation. He was always very welcoming.”
Bill Murray, Schneider says, “liked to keep the set light. He'd play music between takes on a cheap boom box and he'd turn the music up. Bill really enjoys the team player aspect of movies. He'd throw in and help the crew move equipment. He really gets to know everyone and enjoys his time.” Murray and Sissy Spacek worked together on Saturday Night Live very early in their careers and, says the director, “were both excited to work together again. Sissy was always exploring the script with different ideas. Somehow she'd whittle it all down in the moment and create a simple and elegant performance”. Spacek was the first actor Schneider cast after becoming attached to the film. “We met in 2005 and spent three hours going through the script and talking,” he says now. “Little did either of us know it would be another four years until we were on set. She liked to joke that by the time we shot the film, she was finally old enough to play the part!”
Watch 'Get Low'
Friday 9 April, 7:35pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Aaron Schneider
Starring: Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Lucas Black