Written by Dylan Callaghan
Get Low, the new film starring Robert Duvall as a fearsome, foul-tempered hermit who comes in from the cold, is a special movie for many reasons – story, character and performances (Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek are award-worthy in supporting roles). Even the cinematography is lush beyond most indie films (first-time feature director Aaron Schneider has worked principally as a cinematographer, though his short film, Two Soldiers, won an Oscar in ’04). But all those things are subjective. One objective indicator of the film’s magnetism is that two screenwriters who did not work together directly on the script – one wrote scores of drafts to get it produced and the other drafted it to a shooting script – came together quite peaceably to speak to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about a project they both love.
Chris Provenzano developed the script for Get Low for nearly a decade while C. Gaby Mitchell was called in by Schneider to take a fresh pass before shooting. Based loosely on a real-life Southern hermit, the film centers on Felix Bush (Duvall) who exits 40 years of cranky hibernation to hold his own mock funeral and tell everyone who’s ever supposed what a monster he is, what actually drove him to his self-imposed woodland exile. Happy to help stage the event and take Bush’s squirreled away wads of cash is a lovably slimy, desperately broke local funeral director (Murray). Conscience, heart, and the folly of community gossip are all themes in this story, which culminates in Bush’s valediction to the thousands that gather for his living memorial.
Provenzano and Mitchell spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about their mutual fondness for Get Low, how they handled its laconic, mysterious protagonist, and why, for a screenwriter trying to find the right tone for a monologue, a private audience with Robert Duvall is almost like cheating.
Even though this film is a character-driven drama, given the laconic nature of the Felix Bush, it’s kind of a perfect lesson on how the screenwriter is often better off using less words.
Chris Provenzano: The first thing that comes to mind is that he’s a hermit. I think the notion was always that he would not say much. A person cut off from society could act one of two ways: he could either be really chatty, or he could be very reticent or, like you said, laconic.
Photo: © 2010 Sony Pictures Classics
Robert Duvall and Bill Murray in Get Low.
Knowing that this was going to be an older character, and that there was a huge mystery around who he was and why he did what he did, for me, it seemed like he would not say more than needed to be said, and he certainly wouldn’t reveal anything about himself until forces were so great that he had no choice. It was always the idea that, in the quintessential, iconic American sense, this is not a guy who talks a lot – the way that Clint Eastwood wouldn’t. There’s just power to the words.
Obviously being laconic is apropos of this type of character, but often that principle, in a larger sense, is true of scripts. They tend to gain power when you learn to get out of their way and not overwrite.
C. Gaby Mitchell: That was one of the first things that attracted me to the material. I felt like Chris had done a great job of being very spare and creating a lot of space for characters and things to happen. I thought he did a really great job with that. Picking up from that place was great for me because that’s how I like to write, too. We have a real commonality there.
Having the guts to say less?
C. Gaby Mitchell: Yup.
This is a somewhat unusual situation, speaking to you both now together, but are you each pleased with the result?
Chris Provenzano: Yes, I’m truly thrilled. I liken it this way: it’s sort of like seeing a house redecorated a little bit, in the sense that the guts, the foundation, the concrete is all there, and it’s beautifully rendered and slightly rearranged with a different eye, but you walk through the door, and you recognize everything. It’s wonderful to see it come together the way it did.
There’s a kind of fable quality here, too. What for each of you, is the thematic essence of the script?
Chris Provenzano: It’s about connection and allowing yourself to be human; not letting your faults destroy you, just make you human. By saying, “I’m not perfect…” with that comes all the sort of capital letter themes of the movie like forgiveness and love.
I’m probably getting kind esoteric, but in some ways, it’s about the title in the sense that it’s about humbling yourself and not trying to take on things that are so great and punishing yourself for not being able to handle them. It’s about getting to that point where you can say I’m smaller than these huge things, and I’m okay with that.
And Charlie, what would you add to that?
C. Gaby Mitchell: The core of this for me, especially in terms of the main character Bush, is a question really. Most of the things that intrigue me are questions, you know? The question for me is, “Can I forgive myself?” I think that question runs really deep through Bush and maybe through us all. We can forgive others a lot quicker than we can forgive ourselves for things. It’s critical that we be able to do that.
To see someone that’s wrestled with that question in a big way for 40 years really intrigued me.
Is he heroic in his self-imposed punishment, or is he just unable to grapple with it? Is he meant to be seen as heroic and noble for isolating himself all those years?
Chris Provenzano: I don’t know, Charlie may disagree with me, but I always thought of him as a person in denial, a person in pain to the point that he would essentially ignore something. To me the character’s heroism comes when fear finally trumps his pain and he says, “If I don’t act now, it’s going to be too late.” The fact that he rises to that is where he steps into the heroic mode.
C. Gaby Mitchell: He’s a very complex man, and I don’t think you can put him on either side of that – is he a hero or not, you know?
Right, like the Reverend says, he’s both…
C. Gaby Mitchell: Right. He’s grappling. In one way, he’s isolated himself and put himself away from society. He says very eloquently, I don’t have a wife, children…
I’ve never held a baby…
C. Gaby Mitchell: Right. So he has deprived himself and punished himself in big ways, but did he do the hardest thing? No.
The hardest thing being telling people?
C. Gaby Mitchell: Right. Confessing. He couldn’t do that. Right up to the end he’s not sure he’s going to be able to do that. He’s grappling and that’s what I love about him.
Another interesting facet of this script is how the whole story rests dramatically on this one moment when Bush finally tells his tale, that monologue at the end of the film. You both wrote different versions, but for each of you, how hard was that – getting the right tone, not overwriting or underwriting?
Chris Provenzano: I’d say it was definitely a well worked over part of the script. We didn’t always know – at one point there was a flashback in one of the versions. But I think more often than not we knew this was not a film that was going to end with a gigantic set piece.
We always knew what the content of the speech would be, because we always knew what the “crime” was. It was a matter of knowing how you portray that. How do you get inside the head of a person who went through these things and doesn’t want to tell you all the gory details, but also wants to tell them?
I recall working on it very hard, ultimately knowing it was going to make or break the movie.
It’s rare you get a movie that is that reliant on a speech at the end.
C. Gaby Mitchell: I think I had a very similar experience as Chris because you know how important it is, not only for the story, but for the fulfillment of this character. It’s everything. I struggled with it as well. It was after a trip to Mr. Duvall’s farm, we were sitting out on the screen porch of his house, and we were talking, and he was asking really hard questions about this confession…
Like what? Can you give me an example?
C. Gaby Mitchell: He was questioning what had he really done wrong. Mr. Duvall’s like that. He’s like a laser when it comes to character stuff, and he really makes you focus… I didn’t have all the answers. When I got home, I started looking at that speech in a different way too.
For me, my part of the writing of that, I was in tears all the way through. I had to get up from my desk two or three times and walk away. It just all flowed out in about an hour.
This was after the Duvall visit?
C. Gaby Mitchell: Right.
And it flowed out in about an hour, and it was the right speech?
C. Gaby Mitchell: My part of it, building on what Chris had written. It was deeply collaborative. Even though we weren’t sharing time in a room together, it was a very collaborative thing.
So Duvall’s questions kind of helped you to the next level? Did you have his voice in your head as you were writing?
C. Gaby Mitchell: I’ll tell you something, when we were sitting on the porch flipping through the screenplay, he makes noises – he makes lots of noises. You don’t know what those things mean, but there they are. Then he got to a page, I can’t remember what it was, and he read a passage, but he didn’t read it as Bobby Duvall, he read it as Bush and the hairs just stood up on my arms, and I realized I wasn’t breathing. That voice that he read that passage in was in my head from that point on.
So you cheated.
C. Gaby Mitchell: [Laughs]
Who gets that? That’s amazing. It is a beautiful speech, but it’s hard when you see it, to separate Duvall from the speech.
C. Gaby Mitchell: Absolutely.
Chris Provenzano: I think the greatest testament to the writing is that it doesn’t feel written. It feels like it’s flowing out of his soul. Speaking of collaborating, or the strangeness or whatever, for me, from my end, there’s nothing that could make me prouder, no matter what my contribution was, than to see something that feels so molecular, so real. That’s the genius of all of it.