"Individualizing, particularizing a place, a Southern theme, but yet at the same time being universal — it's that kind of storytelling with maybe a little more edge," he says of the film's script written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell. "There's some good Southern writers. Horton was right at the top, though, as good as any writer I ever saw — Tennessee Williams, any of them, Arthur Miller. He was a late bloomer too. He was always working, right up until the end. I think he would have enjoyed 'Get Low,'" Duvall says in the restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel.
In a role that seems tailored to the actor, Duvall plays Felix Bush, a feared recluse in 1930s rural Tennessee, who, upon realizing his end is near, arranges a grand funeral for himself — to be held before his death, so he may attend. It's inspired by actual events that have since become Southern legend, transformed here into a man's need not only to hear what others say about him but also, as Duvall puts it, to finally "speak his piece, to free himself of his guilt. Or to try to. But rather than have people tell their stories about him, he ends up being the chief spokesman."
Especially with the crazy-hermit look he sports at the top of the film, Duvall utterly inhabits Felix, an enigma to all — even to the woman who considers herself the only one to ever have loved him (played with warmth by Sissy Spacek). Meanwhile, the hustling funeral director ( Bill Murray) smells a bundle to be made, and his young employee ( Lucas Black) tries to keep everything on track and on the up-and-up.
"[Mitchell] is from Alabama, and he's a wonderful Southern storyteller," says Duvall of the writer who reworked the original script. "He added those essential things, the embellishments that brought me to it. I just let what my uncles and my father, who were from Virginia, kind of creep in [to the character] without going for anything, an accent, to make it a Southern tale. It was in the writing — that led us."
Also key in capturing the distinct flavor of the place and time is the visual detail of first-time feature director Aaron Schneider, a veteran cinematographer who won an Oscar for his short "Two Soldiers" ("Get Low" was shot by David Boyd).
When the 79-year-old actor is asked if he is more forgiving of a rookie director, he chuckles and says, "Sometimes more so than guys who've done it 50 years in a row. Sometimes they can be worse than anybody, get set in their ways. He did well; he's a very good director. He's not a Southern guy, but he was open to that culture to learn and try to capture it."
The storied actor still enjoys those totally immersive moments that come with commitment to the role.
"There was a quick little scene where I go back after I know I'm sick, where I find the picture of my love and kiss the picture," he says. "I don't remember doing that. I saw it and thought, 'Yeah, I like that moment.'"
But the film also stayed with him in unexpected ways.
"The final speech … I hadn't done theater for a while, but when you do a play, it sticks with you for a while. Then it fades out, a week or a month later. That was like a play. I would do those lines for that final speech two or three weeks after I finished the movie," he says of the monologue that explains his mysterious disappearance from society, which was shot in a single long take with three cameras.
Then he refers again to his good friend Foote, who penned Duvall's Oscar-winning turn in "Tender Mercies" and had long ago personally recommended him for his screen debut, as Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"When I gave my final speech to the audience, my wife was off-camera and had just got the news that he had died. Strangely spooky. It was like full cycle from 'To Kill a Mockingbird' to that. It's like he was there. And I had always told him, 'I want you to see this movie because it kind of reminds me of your writing.' Right when this mule pulls the coffin off, she got that phone call. So strange. Ironic. But I think he would have enjoyed the movie because it's somewhat similar to the way he presents things."