Thursday, August 12, 2010

Robert Duvall talks about (among other things) Get Low

Robert Duvall and I are tucked away in a quiet corner of the spacious lobby of a luxurious Los Angeles hotel, largely hidden from the view of passers-by, and our freewheeling conversation often has an almost conspiratorial tone. We’re supposed to be talking about Get Low – the exceptionally fine comedy-drama opening Friday in Houston – for a cover-story profile I’m preparing for Cowboys & Indians magazine. But, hey, I did say this was a freewheeling conversation, right? And besides: While he would prefer not to name names – well, not for the record, anyway – really, some anecdotes are too juicy, and some episodes are too flat-out bizarre, not to share.

“I guess it’s like they say,” Duvall begins. “You have to be careful what you wish for.”

In this particular case, Duvall had been greatly impressed by the bravura performance of a flamboyant European actor in an Oscar-nominated film, and remarked to many interviewers at the time that he’d appreciate the opportunity to work with this fellow. So, of course, he jumped at the chance to appear opposite the guy in an independent film directed by an idiosyncratic, cult-fave filmmaker.

Early in the production, however, Duvall discovered that the director, for all his visual flair, left a lot to be desired when it came to communicating with actors. (And not just because English was his third or fourth language.) Worse, the actor Duvall had admired on the screen turned out to be an overbearing, camera-hogging prima donna on the set.

“Totally unprofessional,” Duvall says, practically spitting out the words in the manner of someone snapping an obscenity. “He would come into scenes, into the frame, and try to intimidate you – try to push you off your mark. Or lean into the shot, like he wanted to upstage you. Finally, I had enough of this. So the next time he did something like this, bent over this close to me in a shot – I started singing.”

Say what?

“I started singing,” Duvall says, his chuckle slowly escalating into full-throated laughter. “Just bent right back into his direction, got my face up close to his, and then” – try to imagine the sound of Rudy VallĂ©e warbling through a megaphone here -- “What a difference a day makes, twenty-four little hours…”

Not surprisingly, “The guy backed off after that. I think he thought I was nuts.”

Don’t misunderstand: Duvall, still impressively robust at age 79, normally isn’t the temperamental type. He’s not known for diva-style self-indulgence, and his collaborators – co-stars, directors, screenwriters, whatever – often go out of their way to sing his praises and salute his professionalism. “He’s such an amazing actor,” says Get Low co-star Sissy Spacek, “that he simply is the character. He doesn’t act the character, he becomes the character. And so, really, when you’re working with Bobby, you just have to react.”

On the other hand: Duvall isn’t shy about standing his ground while arguing over which way is the right way to play or shoot a scene. During the mid-1980s Texas location filming of Tender Mercies, the movie that enabled him to claim his first Oscar as Best Actor, he and director Bruce Beresford (whose filmed-in-Houston Mao’s Last Dancer opens next week in theaters nationwide) sporadically clashed while seeking common ground. For that, he makes no apologies.

“Sometimes,” Duvall says, “when you have a little turmoil, things can turn out better than if you had total harmony.”

To be specific, he points to what arguably is the most affecting scene in Tender Mercies, when washed-up country music singer Mac Sledge (Duvall) mourns the tragic death of his daughter while tilling the garden of the woman (Tess Harper) who has given him his last best shot at redemption. (“I don’t trust happiness,” he says, barely tamping down his rage and anguish. “Never did, never will.”) After a long and, ahem, animated discussion, Beresford and Duvall agreed: Keep it simple, straight from the heart.

“That was a nice scene,” Duvall recalls. “And I remember saying to [Beresford], ‘Look, I don’t want to do a lot of coverage. I don’t want to loop dialogue afterwards.’ And I’m glad they didn’t use close-ups while I’m working in the garden there. The scene was nice. And the cinematographer had some great ideas: Low angles, wide shot. Simple.”

To hear Duvall tell it, the collaborations were smoother and tempers were cooler during the filming of Get Low, a small-budget, beautifully crafted labor of love that casts a well-nigh irresistible spell while spinning a Depression Era folk tale from the Tennessee backwoods. Duvall compellingly underplays the larger-than-life lead role of Felix Bush, a notorious hermit who rejoins society only to plan his own funeral party, and he’s backed by smartly cast supporting players – including, in addition to Spacek, Bill Murray and Lucas Black -- who clearly savor the twofer of portraying vividly drawn characters opposite a much-respected living legend.

“Robert is a unique cat,” Murray said during the launch of Get Low at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. “There’s only one drum that’s marching in that head, so when you watch him work, he’s just a magnet. It was a lot of fun to watch him carry this relentless confessional story all the way to its conclusion.”

It’s a story loosely based on a real-life incident, written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell as a seriocomic fable of forgiveness and redemption, with Felix gradually revealed as man who’s genuinely curious to hear what others have to say about him at his premature funeral, but absolutely certain that anything anyone has to say can’t be worse than his own testimony about himself.

Duvall intends it as the highest of compliments when he says that the Get Low script reminded him of stage plays and screenplays by the late, great Horton Foote, a longtime friend and collaborator who earned Academy Awards for writing the 1962 film version Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (in which Duvall made his movie debut as the eccentric Boo Radley) and the aforementioned Tender Mercies.

“In fact,” Duvall says, “I’ll tell you a very interesting story. The day when we filmed the funeral service, when they brought the casket onto the set, and I was getting ready to give this speech to the people – my wife got a phone call about Horton Foote’s death at that very moment. Very spooky. It felt like things were moving full circle. Because, you know, my first part in a movie was in To Kill a Mockingbird. So it was almost like Horton was there – spiritually -- witnessing this film, too.”

And speaking of first-timers: Although Aaron Schneider won an Academy Award for Best Dramatic Short -- the William Faulkner-inspired Two Solders – he had never directed a dramatic feature before Get Low. Did Duvall have any qualms about playing such a complex role under the guidance of a relative neophyte? Not really.

“I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors,” he says. “I met George Lucas while I was making [Francis Coppola’s] The Rain People. He was Francis’ production assistant. I mean, here was this guy, about 108 pounds, running around with the Nagra camera, doing his thing. And then we go on to do this feature, THX-1138, and he’s using two cameras, shooting in 16 mm – and it was like he’d been doing it for 25 years. Twenty-five years the right way. And yet it was his first film.

“So after that, I’ve always felt, hey, you meet somebody, you get a sense of somebody -- and if it’s a good project, why not?”

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