Just as he was about to start shooting The Old Man and the Gun, director David Lowery discovered that it was to be the final film for his star, Robert Redford. He tells Alistair Harkness how he dealt with the pressure
When Robert Redford confirmed in August that his new film, The Old Man and the Gun, would be his last acting role, it felt like the end of an era. With Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson having long since retired, Dustin Hoffman becoming pickier and Warren Beatty so fussy as to have effectively ruled himself out of ever making another movie again, Redford felt like the last male hold-out of that original band of New Hollywood superstars whose rise coincided with the collapse of the studio system in the late 1960s. The recent passing of William Goldman, screenwriter of Redford’s breakthrough movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, might have made the timing even more poignant, but the good news here is that Redford, like the Sundance Kid himself, is going out in a blaze of glory.
Based on the irresistible true story of Forrest Tucker, a small time bank-robber who went on a cross-country crime spree at the tender age of 76, The Old Man and the Gun is infused with an outlaw spirit that has coursed through the entirety of Redford’s iconoclastic career. Not that Redford thinks of it in those terms. In fact, he recently expressed regret about the retirement announcement, fearing it might overshadow everyone else’s work on the film. Writer/director David Lowery, hot off the critical success of last year’s A Ghost Story, doesn’t seem unduly worried either way. “Bob’s a good subject to talk about,” he grins.
Of course Lowery has had plenty of time to get used to the weight of expectation conferred upon the film, although even he only found out just as he was about to start shooting. “It certainly added a tremendous amount of pressure. We were getting ready to put the film into motion and suddenly it had a significance it didn’t have five minutes earlier.”
Having already worked with Redford on his 2016 remake of Disney film Pete’s Dragon (Redford played the wizened surrogate grandfather), Lowery had to put all thoughts of The Old Man and the Gun’s swansong status out of his head. “I didn’t want to turn it into a love letter to Robert Redford to such a degree that he wasn’t able to watch the movie and enjoy it,” he says.
Nevertheless, he did want it to “lean into his legacy”, hence why he set about trying to capture the spirit of his early work, even including a brief clip from Redford’s 1966 jailbreak movie The Chase. The end result is both nostalgic yet totally in the moment and were this any other veteran actor, one might be tempted to put money on him being in the running for a best actor Oscar next year. But Redford — who won best director for Ordinary People in 1980, but has never been nominated for any of his lead performances — has a complicated relationship with the industry.
When I expressed surprise to All is Lost director JC Chandor a few years ago that Redford wasn’t nominated for that film, he reminded me that he’s never really played the system in that way, effectively exiling himself from Hollywood as soon as he could. “He started an entire festival and education programme in order to show there were other ways to make movies besides the studio system,” Chandor said, referring to the Sundance Film Festival, “so he’s not exactly an insider.”
Still, it’s one of the more curious aspects of Redford’s career that while he’s supported the independent film scene through Sundance, until he made All is Lost, he’d never done an indie film.
“It is surprising,” says Lowery, himself a Sundance kid, having premiered breakthrough feature Ain’t The Bodies Saints there in 2013. “I didn’t realise that I’m the first person to come through the writing labs to have worked with him as a director. All is Lost was the first time he’d worked with a director who’d made a film that had come directly out of Sundance. There are so many talented filmmakers who are legendary at this point in their own right who emerged from his incubator, so to speak. I don’t know why he never partook in that before. I remember around the time of All Is Lost he said no-one had ever asked him. It could have been as simple as that. It strikes me as insane that no-one had ever asked him.”
Though frustrating for fans who might have preferred him to stretch himself, he doesn’t really need to worry about his legacy as an actor. That was pretty much secured with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, its famous final freeze-frame shot becoming symbolic of the way he would forever be fixed in the consciousness of any self-respecting fan of American cinema.
Anyone needing further proof can take their pick from The Candidate, Jeremiah Johnson, The Sting, Three Days of the Conor, All the President’s Men or The Natural – though plenty also have admiration for his more straightforward matinee idol roles, including Lowery, who’s not too cool to admit that, as a teenager, The Horse Whisperer was his quintessential Redford movie, largely because it was the first Redford film he saw that he both directed and starred in.
“I got to know him as a director before I learned who he was as an actor,” he elaborates (A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show were the first Redford films he saw). “It was a more round-about approach to discovering his work, but I grew to love it all the same.”
Indeed, there are all kinds of ways in. Joe and Anthony Russo, the filmmaking siblings behind Avengers: Infinity War, came through Sundance the generation before Lowery, catching the tail-end of the credit card funded indie-film boom of the 1990s when their self-financed debut, Pieces, was selected to play the 1997 festival.
Almost 20 years later they paid tribute to Redford by casting him as the villain in Captain America: Civil War, their own riff on the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s for which Redford became a bit of a poster boy after Three Days of the Condor.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier was essentially Three Days of the Condor,” confirmed Joe Russo when I interviewed him earlier this year. “It has a very similar structure. We talk a lot about our influences on each film we make, mostly to encourage young people to go watch them.”
That’s also something Lowery has loved about working with Redford. “It was so funny doing Pete’s Dragon and having him around all these kids,” he says. “There’s an entire generation of young movie-goers now for whom he is just the bad guy from Captain America. They’ve got a lot exciting discoveries ahead of them.” ■
The Old Man and the Gun is in cinemas from 7 December