In his first film as David Lowery’s cinematographer, The Old Man & the Gun’s Joe Anderson got the opportunity to work with a legend—to celebrate a career’s worth of magnetic turns from the iconic Robert Redford, with images to mirror his signature charm.
Based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, and following up on the Sundance alum’s collaboration with Redford on Pete’s Dragon, the light and comedic crime drama casts Redford as Forrest Tucker, an infamously charming career criminal who pulled off a substantial list of heists and 18 prison escapes, continuing to pursue his passion for his very particular craft into his twilight years.
While Redford has suggested Old Man will be his last screen turn, Anderson and Lowery didn’t approach the project as such. “We just wanted to make a movie that people liked, with this star that they knew and loved. We talked even early on about the camera wanting to be fun, to be light, and to not take itself too seriously,” Anderson says. “I think with this first wave of good digital cameras, people often make really dramatic cinematography that takes itself very seriously. We wanted to go a different [route] and have fun, and let the camera have the twinkle in the eye that Redford does as well.”
Working with a storyboard artist for the first time while shooting on Super 16 and choreographing a series of stunning montages, Anderson found Lowery to be the most trustworthy of collaborators, and someone who had lessons to impart. “He’d made a big-budget Disney movie, and there are certain things you learn when you work on big projects like that, that we were able to use on this film. We had some big police chase scenes that take place at night, that involve car crashes, and stunts, and he really understood how to do those simply,” the DP notes. “Having gone through the studio system, he knew how to do those very simply and elegantly on an independent film budget.”
Working closely with this director on the rise—who will reteam with A24 on Green Knight, following his critically acclaimed A Ghost Story, as Deadline told you first—Anderson sought an unobtrusive ‘70s look, toeing the line between throwback and cinematic innovation, and the tools that would make it possible.
How did you initially come to work with David Lowery?
I had been working as a DP at the Sundance Lab in 2012 and got asked by Bradford Young to come work as a focus puller and second unit DP on this movie for this guy named David Lowery. I’d retired from working as an assistant at that point, but everybody spoke so highly of David, including one of the directors at the lab, Mari Heller. Just by circumstance, I sat down next to her during lunch, and she just raved about David, and said he’s so special. I decided to go work with him and Bradford, and make a special movie. It turned out to be a great experience. I met my wife on that job, and this is where I officially got to retire from being an assistant cameraman.
I started working with David, who had seen a film that I had shot at that point, Simon Killer. He came up to me in pre-production, and it’s just nice as a crew member to have the director come up to you and be a fan of your work. I think we always had a slightly different relationship from a normal director and crew member.
You’ve said that Super 16mm film was integral to Lowery’s visual concept for The Old Man & the Gun. Why was that?
It just made sense on a gut level. It is a period piece, and shooting Super 16 is kind of the best time machine, in terms of creating an older look.
What kind of challenges did this format pose?
It’s a smaller format, so some of the current trends in cinematography suddenly no longer apply. It’s very difficult to create super shallow depth of field; it’s very difficult to shoot in a freeform documentary style. Every decision has to be carefully considered when shooting Super 16, and it’s funny: We’re not used to the daily workflow. A film comes back looking very low contrast, very muted, and you don’t get that same rush of excitement when people see dailies until much later. Once the film is color graded, then people get to actually see the intent.
Could you expand on the tools you employed with this film, and the philosophy behind your choices?
We didn’t take an overly technical approach to the cinematography. Sometimes there’s little bumps in camera moves, and a pan isn’t necessarily perfectly controlled, and it has a lot of personality. We always just embraced those things, and used the older zoom lenses made by Canon that really help take you back in time. David, even on a script level, had zoom shots written in, so zoom shots had a big influence on our camera decision. At one point, I wanted to shoot anamorphic, but there are no anamorphic zoom lenses that would be able to do the shots that are in the script, so we created the look with a mix of modern and older tools. We shot on Super 16, but we shot with a very fine grain film, a slower film stock. A lot of Super 16 can look very documentary, but we wanted it to look somewhat stately. We [did] the shoot on a slower film stock and underexposed it in a way to give it more grain, but it still had a sharpness that didn’t look amateur. On top of that, we did use fairly modern prime lenses, which balanced some of the softness of the Super 16.
Those zoom shots are quite powerful in taking you back in time—a clear marker of ‘70s cinematic vocabulary.
They are, but we didn’t want it to be a throwback. There’s a fine line between making a period piece that is copying a previous generation’s style versus putting your own creative touch on it. Zooms were very popular in the ‘70s. The technology had just changed so that zoom lenses were much easier to make, and much more affordable, and they really became a bit of a fad. It’s interesting, there’s two movies I think of in the ‘70s that use zoom lenses, which were very popular at the time, but in two very different ways.
There was Barry Lyndon, and I believe the other movie was Tom Jones. Tom Jones used lots of zooms, but they’re a little bit hokey; they don’t really stand the test of time. Whereas Barry Lyndon could have been using the exact same lenses, but uses them in an artistic way. We wanted our zoom shoots to draw people in, rather than break people out of the story.
You mentioned the notion of giving your photography a twinkle in the eye. How did that manifest in the final product?
Some of my favorite achievements in the movie are not single shots, but sequences. There are several montages in the movie where seven or eight shots all interact with one another, and that was very carefully planned out ahead of time, including which direction the camera would pan, and which order of banks we’d shoot in. The cinematographer often has to have a lot of faith in the editor, that all these plans that we made will make sense in the edit room. We were very lucky that David was able to work with Lisa [Zeno Churgin], with whom he’d worked on Pete’s Dragon. They really brought those to life.
We did use old-fashioned tools to make the movie, but we also color graded the movie with very modern tools. The colorist was Alex Bickel, who is probably most well known for his work on Moonlight, which is very colorful, very modern, very contemporary. It was interesting to bring his dynamic into this world. A lot of times we’d work for quite a while on tweaking an image, and at the end of the day it just looked better to give it a lighter touch. Sometimes we would do a lot of work and gussy up the image, and then taking several steps backwards, that’s where the image would look appropriate. That’s one of the interesting things about shooting film; it does have a bit of an inherent look that you can’t fight.
Could you explain exactly how you brought the film’s montages to life? What kind of choreography was involved? How did you ensure that each shot would work nicely with the one before it?
It’s an interesting challenge, working with an 81 year-old actor who has to be involved in some action scenes. We really had to use a lot of movie magic to make the scenes feel dynamic. For some of these montages, we would scout the location, knowing that this needs to happen at this certain point. The camera needs to pan from left to right, land on Redford to say his line, and then pan off to the right, at which point the camera will cut to something we’re going to shoot a week later, where the camera will continue the pan from left to right, and land on a bank clerk.
That happened over multiple weeks, multiple cities, and we just needed to have really diligent notes taken on the focal lengths that we used. The lighting styles needed to all be different, but complement each other. It took a lot of planning from the production designer, from myself, from the lighting crew, to make sure things all weaved together properly.
How did you execute the one heist sequence we see in its entirety? Did you storyboard?
We used J. Todd Anderson, and he is an amazing character. We liked him so much that we actually put him in the movie; He’s a cop in one scene. He’s done all of the Coen brothers’ movies, and they board every single shot of the movie; they plan it all out in pre-production.
For this movie, some of the action scenes—the big bank robbery scene, the big police car chase—we storyboarded with the storyboard artist. He’s incredibly talented. We could sit down and talk with him for an hour, and he would come back to us a couple of days later and have almost exactly what we imagined in our heads. We would give him a shot list, we’d talk to him a little bit about locations, and he was just a pleasure to work with.
He had an interesting phrase where he was always saying, “I’m always thinking about the next shot.” I didn’t quite understand what that meant to begin with, but I do think it’s something filmmakers have to remember, that shots in a movie all work together. Oftentimes we get too bogged down thinking of one individual shot, but you have to remember that a movie is a quilt.
One of the film’s most impressive moments comes toward the end, when we see a montage of all of Forrest Tucker’s prison escapes. Generally, you seem to shoot a stand-in from behind—to cultivate an imagination of a younger Tucker—with one exception. Eagle-eyed viewers will catch in this sequence a shot of a younger Redford from one of his earlier films, Arthur Penn’s 1966 crime drama The Chase.
It was a really wise decision on David’s part not to shoot that montage during principal photography. When you have a 100-person crew, it’s so difficult to do a company move for all these locations. We had always planned to do that sequence in pick-ups, months later, with a more reduced crew. The movie is set in Texas; we shot in Cincinnati. But that escape montage was actually shot in Texas, with essentially a student film-sized crew. It was really only about four or five crew members, which meant that we had to rely on ideas to be the driving force of these shots. There’s no tricky camera moves, no special effects; it’s just great locations, and David’s great ideas for pulling off all these different little looks. One of the shots was always planned to be a shot from The Chase. For one of the shots, which no one has pointed out yet, we literally blew up a photo of Robert Redford’s face from a Vanity Fair magazine. We printed it out, cut it out and put it over a stand-in’s head, and had them perform a shot where Forrest is cutting prison bars. So far, nobody has seemed to notice that this is what we did. That was all David’s idea.
How did Lowery go about securing clearances for that clip?
I think there had been a lot of talking about it, even in pre-production, just because these things take so much time. It’s similar to music in terms of getting permission. I think it helped a lot having Redford wanting to support that idea; I think Redford’s real-life charm helped us get that one.
Apart from what we’ve discussed, what challenged you the most on this film?
We were working with some older actors, and it took an extra bit of planning to make them feel comfortable on set. It’s not necessarily an action movie, but there’s always some physically demanding aspects of making a movie. It’s largely a cinematographer’s job to create a comfortable place on set for actors to do their best work, and we just had great support from producers, and some assistant directors, to help schedule the film in a way that we could actually tell these characters’ stories with these legendary actors.