Robert Duvall and Aaron Schneider face an audience filled with questions after a San Francisco International Film Festival screening of 'Get Low.'

Schneider and Zanuck on the Highs of 'Get Low'

Jessica Sapick August 6, 2010

Who but Robert Duvall (The Apostle, Lonesome Dove, Tender Mercies) could play a recluse who decides to throw himself a funeral in the style of a backwoods roast? First-time indie film directors rarely get to work with such a titan of cinema. But Get Low, eight years in the making, is no typical indie production. Duvall is joined by icons Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek in a story that allows eccentricity to shine while exploring some of the basics of the human condition. Duvall accepted the Peter J. Owens award at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (see video embedded below). spoke with director Aaron Schneider and co-producer Dean Zanuck on their visit to San Francisco last spring.

SF360: Aaron, you've said you felt a deep personal connection with the story.  What most attracted you to the project?  What did you learn from working on it?

Aaron Schneider: Well what attracted me the most about the project was the screenplay, the story, and of course the idea of working with Robert Duvall, who, when Dean contacted me, had expressed interest in the project.  I thought between Robert Duvall, this kind of material, and Dean it would be something worth me putting my all into.  Because I knew it was going to be a tough haul; it was during that rough time when it was getting harder and harder to get independent films made.  So you need a real strong attachment to survive.  I’d say what I learned from the project would be pretty hard to pin down; you learn so many things about your own craft, other people’s craft, what people need in order to do their best work.

SF360: Did you identify at all with the character?

Schneider: Yea.  I think I've said before that I was really moved by the idea of a man who experienced tremendous loss early in his life.  Something that really changed his life in a way that he never expected.  The person that he became was kind of completely different than we thought he’d be.  Bobby Duvall likes to say this guy could have been a professor, he could have done anything.  So when you first meet him, he feels like this cliché old coot, and then as you peel the layers back, you see that there’s more.  I was moved by that.  Somebody, at a critical point in their life, made a decision to reconcile that past and try to do something with it and try to make peace with it and that whatever time he had left, it was going to be peaceful.  That was really moving to me.

Dean Zanuck: It’s just one of those things where you read a piece of material and it moves you and it touches you because it worked.  Along the way, Robert Duvall gets interested and his interest in it becomes important for you to deliver for him, and then meeting a young filmmaker who’s passionate about it.  You start feeling responsible for these people to deliver on your promises.  Talking with Duvall, I got the sense that I was just this young kid with this crazy, idealistic notion that was going to get this movie made.  I was just looking for people who were going to believe in me and had a deep passion to get it made.  Meeting Aaron was very important as part of that process, because now I had someone really by my side in the trenches.  We basically just opened up the playbook as far as we knew it.  He had made a short film, independently, and I was primarily versed in studio filmmaking and it was an entirely different landscape.  We knew we had a challenging subject matter, which didn’t really fit the current palate of studio filmmaking.

Schneider: And it didn’t really fit the mold of independent filmmaking either.

Zanuck: So we had a first-time director, period piece, American centerpiece, older cast: we knew that was going to be a challenge, but it didn’t matter.  We knew that the script and with Bobby Duvall at the center that if we did get it made, at worst it would fail, but it could potentially be great.  Through a lot of attempts through various channels, his old prom date, my old buddy.  We were in Poland, in Germany.

SF360: Who’s your old prom date?

Schneider: My prom date found out that I was trying to help Dean raise money for a movie.  She said I know someone who’d like to help you find some money.  And I was really grateful but at the same time, I was like, really, why not, right?  Can’t hurt.  This woman called up Dean, and they did this little squid deal and she went off then we forgot about her.  And then she knocked on our door and said, 'I think I have a buddy.' And that led us to our first investor.  Then down the road, one of Dean’s friends connected us to the real major chunk of it.

Zanuck: The hard work ultimately allowed those moments of serendipity to fall in place. There was a period of time when we were in an unusual courtship with Bill Murray and then those two things collided, eight years in for me and five years in for Aaron. We’re very proud of the creation.  And we both have said that if it had happened any earlier in the process, it wouldn’t be the film it is today.  Definitely not the sort of business model to continue, eight years, but definitely very rewarding for both of us.

Schneider: It just sort of cracks doesn’t it.  It’s no progress and then it happens somehow.

SF360: With a funny man like Bill Murray around, you must have had some comedy happening behind the scenes.  Do you have any stories to share?

Zanuck: He likes to keep the set and the crew entertained.  He keeps a boombox around the set.  He’s having a great time but at the same time, he’s very professional.  When he sees something that might not be done the way it should, he’ll make it clear and I think he really cared about this film, what it meant. And we’re seeing that.

Schneider: He’s been really involved.  Nobody can believe how many festivals he’s come to with us.

Zanuck: He even went to one in Poland with us.

Schneider: I think he’s proud of his work, as he should be, and we’re kind of a gypsy family.  So it’s been fun having him around.  He’s always making things a little bit more fun.

SF360: Who from the cast is most likely to throw themselves a living funeral?

Schneider: I think they’ve been asked this question and Sissy said, I don’t want anything to do with this question.  We have critics already, why would I want to throw my own funeral party?  Hear what everyone has to say.  I’ve lived my whole career with critics.  I don’t know, probably Bill.

Zanuck: Probably Bill.

SF360: Aaron, this being your first time directing a feature and having the opportunity to work with iconoclasts like Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek, what was your approach?  Do you have any advice for first-time directors?

Schneider: Have a great script and have great actors and 90 percent of your work is done.  It’s kind of won and lost with the screenplay and the cast.  And then, of course, don’t give up.