Get Low, the folk tale of a hermit finally revealing his decade’s kept secret, is slowing expanding its way into theaters across the country. Tomorrow sees another huge wave of screens receiving the film, making it even more likely that there’s a showing near you, and diminishes any excuse you have for missing a wonderful and rare Bill Murray performance on the big screen. Along with Murray’s perfectly wry turn as the local funeral director is a heartfelt performance from Robert Duvall as Felix Bush. Devin reviewed the film favorably at Sundance and his thoughts nail the charming, if a touch diminutive, success of the film.
I was able to speak with Aaron Schneider, cinematographer turned director who brought this folk tale, filmed amongst the whispy pines of Georgia, to the big screen. Below you’ll find our interview (which I shared with a local 11 Alive journalist, my questions are in green), which touches on everything from the genius of Bill Murray, to dealing with snow on the day you’re supposed to have hundred of extras.
If the film interests you (and I think you’ll be hearing more about it, come time for acting Academy nominations), then check out this page listing the screens where you can catch it.
How does your background in cinematography inform your directorial approach?
Aaron: Well, cinematography is, everybody on the set is a storyteller in their own way, everyone on set is trying to help the director tell his or her story. As a cinematographer the tools are the camera, the light, the composition, movement, right? Where as the director has all the tools; sound, music, the performances, everything. So I would say, having really studied the camera, the way photography and light and movement can help tell the story for a director, when it came time that I had the whole tool belt, the experience as a cinematographer I think helped me personalize my story with the camera. Plus I had a lot of experience in television particularly pilots, which are tiny little mini films shot on very low budgets that desperately try and look like big-budget movies, which is exactly what I wanted to do with Get Low- I had very little time, very little money but some pretty good experience in stretching a dollar, and getting production value up on the screen using the camera. Like, what’s the difference between a close-up in a 100 million dollar movie and close-up in a one million dollar movie. What’s the difference between the shot of a guy coming into an office in a one million dollar movie and a two hundred million dollar movie? Really nothing, except maybe the time you have to do it and the taste and the craft that goes into it. If you work fast and hard enough, you can overcome your budget.
Since this is a period piece, did you find it jarring to go from the movie set with no electricity and cast-iron skillets back to real life?
Aaron: It’s funny because I collect 1930s art-deco machine-age industrial furniture and design objects.
You started out as an industrial designer, didn’t you?
Aaron: Well I started out as a mechanical engineer, but I fell in love with this really brief period in American design history called the machine age, which is where all the chrome furniture, futuristic chairs, flying cars…. Skyscrapers bursting out of the landscape… There’s nothing in my office that’s much [newer] than 1939. I kind of work in that world, so being on the set was kind of fun that way, looking around. Things were beautiful back then- there was craftsmanship back then, there was beauty, thing were built to last. The hearse you know, weighed something like three tons. So it was always a pleasure to get back on the set.
It’s a pretty big deal coaxing Bill Murray into your film. He doesn’t grace us with his shining face that often, not as often as we’d like. Was there much of a challenge to that, or was he right on it…?
Aaron: He was never hesitant, but he’s got a process. He likes to circle the airport until he feels it’s safe to land. He likes to get to know the people he’s going to work with, above and beyond whether he thinks the project is worthy creatively for him as an actor. He wants to have a good time and be with good people, that’s a priority for him. So it took him awhile to get to know us, and he had several conversation with the producer and he’d call me, and then he’d disappear on us again. I had to write a letter to him at one point because, we were steaming towards a start date and we didn’t’ get a definitive… it sounded like he wanted to do it, but we weren’t’ sure.
How many drafts of that letter did you go through?
Aaron: Oh tons, try writing a letter to Bill Murray. It’s not an easy thing to do. But you know, I just laid it down the way I felt, and sent it off to a PO Box number that he’d given us for a script in hopes that he would go to the PO Box- I didn’t even know if he was in New York. I landed in Atlanta for a location scout, we were very close to having to move on, and I turn my phone back on and there was a text rom the producer Dean Zanuck that said, “Bill got your letter, he’s in!” So it was quite a cliffhanger, but he came through for us.
Bet that set a nice tone for location scouting.
Aaron: It was a happy day for sure.
Concerning Bill Murray, would you say it’s safe to expect the unexpected, except for great performances?
Yeah, he’s somewhat unpredictable, but also very reliable. It’s not that he is going to flake out, it’s just that he does things his own way and sometimes they’re unexpected, that’s all.
Did much emerge on set in terms of letting scenes go their own way, or letting actors play around with scenes…
Aaron: No, I think everybody had a pretty healthy respect for the screenplay. But then again, part of an actor’s job is to make the words their own and to fit the scene- the scene would play differently in this room than it would across the hall because it’s a different reality. So sometimes they have to make their own decisions, or build their own ideas to fit things into a room. Another actor might do something completely unexpected which affects the choices another actor makes, which is, in a sense, improvisation because you’re taking everything else beyond the words into consideration to build a performance. That’s what Bill did that was so great, he pretty much said the words but who could have imagined the words would have sounded like that, or looked like that, or been that funny or that ironic or that wry- that’s what he brought to the table, that’s his genius.
With it being a story passed down through families through generations, was it different being a part of something like that?
Aaron: Well movies and stories come from all different places, and for me anyway, it doesn’t matter where they come from. What matters is how important they are, and truthful they are, how impactful they are, how important they are to tell. So no, I don’t think it was any different knowing that the story had been passed down, except to say it had the charm of a folk tale. I love folk tales. I’m a big Garrison Keillor fan. He’s like a modern day folk storyteller, where all the men are strong, and the women are good-looking, and all the children are above average. There’s always been a charm for me in everyday life and the epic stories that come out of everyday life an everyday people, versus somebody who’s a superhero.
I don’t want to say the film was relaxing exactly, but It was a nice film to sink into.
Aaron: That’s a good way of putting it. If people feel like they can scrunch down in their chairs and get into the movie, then that’s a great compliment.
I think it’s because the period aesthetic was convincing, and you have these electric actors on the screen that you could watch read the phone book.
Aaron: That’s the key isn’t it? It’s not like a barn-burner, it’s not coming at you 100 miles an hour. So if the actors aren’t engaging in and of themselves and aren’t people that you’re really interested in and curious about, you don’t really have much, do you? We were very fortunate to have the cast we did, so the audiences would engage.
Were you drawn to GA from the beginning?
Yeah, we were touring the south looking for a great main street, because we knew that would be the hardest thing to re-create on a budget, because of the telephone poles, and air-conditioners. We found this great little stretch of main street in Crawfordville, GA but at the time we were like “…the tax incentive is so little…” because that’s a huge part of a low-budget movie getting off the ground. But it took so long for us to get the movie off the ground that by the time we did, Georgia had passed their new incentive. And we went “…wow, lets go to Georgia…” and it turns out our lead investor had a house 20 minutes from Crawfordville, so it was meant to be.
I know our weather gave you some troubles…
The biggest weather issue is that at the climax of the film is the funeral party where we needed tons and tons of extras to show up in the morning to get into period costuming and be a part of our scene, and we invited the public to come out and be part of the day. We had music and gave some things away and the actors mingled and took photographs. In fact, I think a lot of em, theres a little club now- the extras are in a club on Facebook and they stay in touch and share pictures. So we had done a lot of promotional work- people knew when we were doing it and where, we put a lot of effort into it because if people didn’t show up, we were doomed.
…funny considering the events of the film...
Yeah, we were doing the same thing Felix Bush was doing, which was to try and convince people that it was worth coming out here to see and hear about something, or be a part of something. This snow storm came in and they said it was very rare and hadn’t happened in four years, and it freaking snowed on the day we had set-up for everybody to come. So we had to push it down the schedule three or four days, but then that threw all our promotional work out of whack. Now we only have a week to tell everyone that’s its going to be pushed, and now everybody who can no longer come, won’t be there, so you have to find new people, and we just got very lucky. The actors did us a favor and went on the radio last minute and did some newspaper stuff so everyone knew. Who knows, if it hadn’t snowed, we might have ended up with a thousand people instead of five or six hundred.