Get Low is one of the best movies of the year. It’s an entertaining and vivid story about one man’s last chance for redemption. The film is inspired by an eccentric recluse in Tennessee who came out of hiding in the 1930s and threw his own funeral while he was alive to witness it. The film became an eight-year labor of love for first-time feature-length director Aaron Schneider, who assembled an incredible cast including Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, and—in the most towering performance of the year so far—the legendary Robert Duvall.
I recently spoke with director Schneider and screenwriter/Santa Barbara resident C. Gaby Mitchell about their treasure of a film.
There’s a deliberate pace to the film that creates a strong sense of place while also remaining whimsical. Was it hard to find that tone?
Aaron Schneider: It wasn’t until I started putting it together that I realized how hard it was going to be. I was looking for truthful performances in truthful locations, and when we developed the script, we were looking for a beautiful, old fabled folktale kind of whimsy. And that’s all in the writing. It was all instinctual. But all of the choices were made to be truthful to the material. So I credit the writing and all these wonderful artists, these actors and crew that helped me translate it.
The shot of Duvall’s character, Felix, riding through the town on a mule is priceless.
AS: We almost didn’t get that shot. We were running out of light, and, because of the budget, we couldn’t afford many takes. We did a location scouting a full three or four years before we got the funds together for the film. We knew the biggest challenge in the budget would be this little line in the script, “Felix Bush goes through town on his mule through Main Street.” We also knew that quick little sequence would be the toughest location to find and the most expensive thing to do, and would define our little hamlet. It’s easy to find a barn, a church, and a house for the period, those are everywhere, but to find a stretch of Main Street that is shootable, without telephone poles or McDonald’s, is a challenge.
We went all over the Southeast, through the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Our last stop was Georgia, in a little town called Crawfordsville, and it was a blast from the past. It had been untouched, down to the door hardware and brick façades. And because the downturn economy had hit the town, there were empty rooms in the storefronts. Not only was the street great, but we could build a set in the shop fronts, to connect the period from the outside to the inside.
You brought in Charlie [C. Gaby Mitchell] to rewrite the script?
AS: Chris Provenzano had adapted the folk tale of Felix into a screenplay. I did an uncredited version of the screenplay, but was always getting advice from Charlie about these characters and about the South in particular. After a while, I asked him to take a stab at it. He did a complete overhaul. He made it a character-driven movie, not a plot-driven movie.
It feels as if Felix is the protagonist and the antagonist of the movie.
C. Gaby Mitchell: [Laughing.] You’re one of the first people to point that out.
The pace parallels the journey of the character. Was that your goal?
CGM: I let the characters be. After a while, they started to speak by themselves. They, the characters, dictated the pace and how it unfolded.
I observed that all the characters—not just Felix—are drawn to each other by their own loneliness.
CGM: I had a long conversation with Sissy Spacek about this. She is the type of actress who questions everything, even down to the clothes her character is wearing. She brought up the loneliness of her character, and yes, they all have suffered some type of loss and that’s what brings them together. I think that’s also why the audience is attracted to the characters. We’ve all had regrets in our lives.
One of the most beautiful lines in the movie is when Duvall says, “I always thought I would see the world, but I hardly went nowhere on account of what I did …”
CGM: It was really difficult for me to write that scene. I kept getting up and walking away from it. It’s the character of Felix speaking from the heart. The day we shot that scene, I was on the set watching Bobby from the monitor. Once he started doing that speech, everything on the set disappeared for me, and it was just the character of Felix in front of me. That had never happened to me before. I will never be able to forget it.
Get Low is now playing in Santa Barbara theaters.