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Faces of the Festival: Aaron Schneider

Director Aaron Schneider chats about his feature-length film debut with an all-star cast, Get Low. Does it get any better than Spacek, Murray and Duvall?


Note: This piece originally ran as part of the coverage of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

 


 

Get Low's Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is a legend in his hometown; a cranky recluse with a deep secret he's shouldered most of his adult life, Bush is a character of Faulknerian proportions. He has a huge beard, wild hair, a mule, and a shotgun at the ready. When he decides his time to "get low" is coming soon, he wants to have himself a funeral party while he's still alive so all the townsfolk can come and tell him to his face what they've heard over the years. As the funeral party planning gets underway with help from funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and Frank's assistant Buddy (Lucas Black), Bush's plans take a more confessional turn, especially when his old flame Mattie (Sissy Spacek) comes back to town. What will happen at his funeral party is anyone's guess—including old Felix himself.

 

We interviewed Oscar-winning director Aaron Schneider (Best Short Film, Live Action: Two Soldiers) about his first feature-length film and its all-star cast.

 



Tribeca: Your short film Two Soldiers was based on a William Faulkner short story, and Get Low has the same Southern Gothic feel. Is there anything in particular that attracts you to that era or style?

 

Aaron Schneider: Some of it is just a coincidence because, in fact, Two Soldiers is what Dean Zanuck saw that made him think of me as the director for [Get Low], so some of the fact that both are similar is that he wanted some of what he saw in Two Soldiers, but in terms of picking a project and what I like about things, yes. First and foremost, I pick a story for some sort of emotional importance… The themes, the ideas, that's the stuff that makes you get out of bed and be excited. Or when you're in the editing room, you can start feeling some of those things bubbling, and it makes you excited and gives you the juice you need.

 

But I grew up in Peoria, Illinois, and my dad's from a small town in Illinois called Farmer City, and I guess have a kind of, I kind of have a love for small town community… It just feels like just a rich kind of environment to tell stories about interesting people, so yeah, I think small towns are cool. I loved the movie Cinema Paradiso... I also liked Lars and the Real Girl, you know, when they all had to pretend that his doll was real and the community came together to support him and his journey. There's just something sweet about the idea of a community being part of a story.

 

Tribeca: It has such an amazing cast. Was that at all intimidating?

 

AS:
It was, but they put me at ease pretty quick, because when everybody is on the same page and sees the same movie and you start to see that everybody's excited, it just starts to feel like a team, like a bunch of people having fun doing the same thing, which takes a little of the superstar edge off of it. Because when people are looking around and respecting what each other's trying to do and there's no egos, it's just a bunch of cool people—Bill Murray and Robert Duvall!—it was always cool, but it was never intimidating because I could tell immediately they all wanted to be a part of the movie, and they just wanted to throw in.

 

Tribeca: Was there a more personal attachment to the story other than the small town aspect of it?

 

AS:
Yeah, as a director I'm always looking for the simplest way into the movie emotionally—what's the simplest emotional attachment to the story or the character that you can find? What's your line of empathy with the journey they're on? And for me it was the way that a profound loss early in life, that something early in your life—some tragedy or some dramatic event—would change the way you live the rest of your life. These things happen to us when we're young that affect our lives in profound ways, and sometimes without even realizing it, our lives take a turn in a direction and we end up places we never thought we'd be because of who we are and what happened to us.

 

Felix Bush, [it] was a tragedy for him, and ended up in isolation and loneliness, and I don't know, isn't there sort of an isolation and loneliness in all of us, in some way, because of something? Everybody had something happen that they look back on that changed their life that they struggle with. Certainly nothing as tragic as Felix Bush, but it's universal; there's always something. So that was it for me. Specifically, I lost a friend very early on in life, and I carry that with me to this day, and as I grew older, I suddenly started realizing how profoundly it affected me…. And that's kind of the point he's coming to, where he's gotta reconcile that event before it's too late. So in that sense, there's a little lesson in the story about how to live your life, about how to deal with the kinds of things that change your life and maybe a little bit of a warning, too.

 

 

Tribeca: What was the craziest or lightning strikes type of moment that you had behind the scenes while filming? Any stand-out moments?

 

AS:
We spent three days shooting the funeral party, and we designed it so the first day would be about the crowd and the sort of logistics of the crowd, and we had limited time with the extras. We invited people to come out, and we knew that they would shrink, so we designed it to be big, and then a little bit smaller, and then finally on the third day, we wouldn't need as many extras and the camera would focus in on [the main characters]. So we saved Robert Duvall's speech for the third day, and of course he performed the scene on days one and two, but he knew that the real money was going to come day three, and so did we, and we also knew that the movie rests entirely on the power of the speech and what it means emotionally—it's not a plot climax. The villain does not get killed in a dramatic explosion. It's a guy reconciling a memory.

 

And the morning of that third day, I was in the make-up trailer with Bobby [Duvall] and Sissy [Spacek], and it was all on their shoulders, and we talked about it… for about 45 minutes, and I went out and set up three cameras. And we shot Bobby first, and it was, you know, take one, with three cameras. It just blew us away. I went up and I said, "That's it." And he said, "Yeah, that's it." And so I turned the camera around and we brought Sissy in, and Bobby did his performance off-screen for her, and she showed up and gave me that performance in one take and I said, "Yup, that's it." And so, take one in both directions on these amazing actors, and that was the movie. That was it. That's really the movie. And everybody could feel it; everybody knew that we had something special. So I'd say that's probably the coolest moment for me, was getting the emotional climax of the movie in the can, and just the power of these two actors being able to, you know, bring it.

 

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker alive or dead, who would it be?

 

AS:
Ooh. Good question. Filmmaker or actor or anybody in the industry?

 

Tribeca: Anyone. Any film person.

 

AS:
Gordon Willis… Gordon Willis was the cinematographer on The Godfather. I started as a cinematographer, and he feels to me like… the last of a dying breed of filmmakers… He redefined American cinematography and filmmaking, and The Godfather has always been such a visual touchstone for me. It would probably be a tie between Francis [Ford] Coppola and Gordon Willis… He's a craftsman, he's an innovator, and he's not just a cinematographer. He's a filmmaker.

 

 

Tribeca: I can only imagine sitting around the table with the stars of Get Low.

 

AS:
Yeah, that's always a trip. It's like a wacky Thanksgiving dinner every time we get together with family. Jokester Bill Murray and little Southern Belle Sissy and old Bobby Duvall, Bobby D.

 

Tribeca: What piece of art of media—anything from film to TV to music to books—are you recommending most right now?

 

AS:
I tell you, probably what I get the most excited about sharing lately—it's not really the right answer to your question, but it's the closest I can come, is that I'm nuts about visual effects and CGI. I bought the industry program that you can make a Pixar movie with—you can make Davy Jones' tentacles, you can create any visual effect you see in a film with this program. It's called Maya.

 

And there's this website where you can watch training tutorials on various—like how to texture an object or how to model a Ferrari car in CG, and I'm kind of nutty about it. [laughs] I've got a few friends that geek out on it with me, and so I've been experimenting and learning all about that, and I've been sharing that with a lot of people, because not a lot of people know what the nuts and bolts behind visual affects are, from a computer point of view and software… It's kind of geeky.

 

Tribeca: What makes your film a must-see?

 

AS:
Robert Duvall and Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. It's a good, old-fashioned movie… It's not like we're reinventing the wheel. This isn't Being John Malkovich; it's not bending your perception of what a movie should be. It's doing just the opposite. It's trying to be what movies used to be.

 



Get Low opens in New York and LA on Friday, July 30. Find tickets.

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