There are a thousand short stories behind “Get Low,” which is premiering tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here’s one -- the filmmaker is Aaron Schneider, who happens to have won an Oscar for writing and directing a short film, though most people here, even the savvy industry types who pack this festival, don’t know much about him -- yet.
Here’s the film’s story -- “Get Low” is an old Southern tale that attracted a very classy cast in Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray and Lucas Black. Set in the 1930s, Felix Bush (Duvall), a Tennessee recluse, is near the end of his days. As a young man, he had disappeared into the hills trailing myths of murder and mayhem behind him. Now after 40 years he’s come down to town with a wad of cash and a plan to stage a funeral before he dies -- how else to know what folks will say about him?
Here’s another -- Bill Murray said yes, but not until the very, very last moment.
Producer Dean Zanuck, of the legendary Hollywood Zanucks, had managed to cold-call his way into getting Murray’s attorney to part with a super-secret P.O. box number in upstate New York that Murray might or might not check. And so they sent off a synopsis of “Get Low.”
Silence. Then a call, he might be interested. They shipped off the script. Silence. More silence.
“One day, Bill called Dean, talked baseball, golf, then said, ‘This is a really good script. Give me the number of the director and I’ll call and introduce myself,’ ” Schneider says.
For six weeks, Schneider ate, worked and slept with the phone by his side. Murray never called. Time was running out. If they didn’t start filming, they’d lose the locations, which had been locked, the other cast, also locked, and possibly the entire film.
“I sat down and it took me three or four days, but I wrote Bill a letter, I basically put my heart on the page and sent it off to that P.O. box having no idea if he would check it, if he was even there.”
“Two weeks later, I was landing in Georgia to go make the movie, when I turned on my phone, there was a text from Dean that said Bill Murray got your letter . . . he’s in.”
Murray, by now, is more myth than man around Hollywood, and part of that is that he makes his own travel arrangements. So the filmmakers told him what day and what time to show up and then prayed.
“We’d told him Tuesday at 10 a.m. So, Tuesday about 10:21 he walks in the door, has a Mr. Bill T-shirt on, and says, ‘Where do you want me?’ He walked into the room where we were shooting the wardrobe test and everybody stopped and looked. The place fell silent, and as he had everybody’s eyes, he said, ‘So, was there an over-under on whether I’d show?’ ”
What Schneider had bet was his career.
Murray plays the funeral director, a grifter with a long coat and a black hat, all too ready to accommodate this crazy cash customer, a hoary looking Duvall, who’s shown up in his office. Black is Murray’s assistant, and Spacek the old friend and widow who knows him well. It’s a quietly interior film that plays to their strengths with echoes of “Tender Mercies” and “Lonesome Dove” in Duvall’s performance and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in Spacek’s.
Ultimately, the film is an ethereal fable of good and evil and redemption, and the prisons and punishments we create for ourselves. It’s an exceedingly rich-looking project given its 25 days of shooting and $7-million budget. But then the short film that would win him an Oscar and was made for pocket change -- literally every bit of cash and credit Schneider had in his pocket -- had a rich look too.
It is one of Schneider’s strengths, to take a little and make it look like a lot, and probably has roots in his first years out of USC film school when he was focused on making a career as a cinematographer. But after a few too many years of shooting other people’s stories, he wanted to tell his own.
Here’s that short story -- William Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers.”
Schneider found it one day in the library when he was looking for something to adapt for his first film.
“I had decided if I don’t make a movie, no one’s going to believe I can do this.” Having just seen “Saving Private Ryan,” World War II was on his mind and a title, “Greatest WWII American Short Stories,” jumped out at him. He pulled down the book, opened it at random and landed on the Faulkner piece, which became the basis for his short film.
By the night of the Academy Awards, he had seen the competition and he’d stood at the back of a packed house on the Paramount lot to observe as an audience watched “Two Soldiers” for the first time, so he thought he had a shot. Still, there was nothing like that moment.
But as it turns out, an Oscar will look good on your mantel and get you a few lunches, but it won’t necessarily change your life. For a while, Schneider got lost in the wrong Hollywood -- the one that just talks about making movies and never actually makes movies. “There was a learning curve,” he says dryly.
Cinematography kept paying the bills, but it was not what he wanted. Finally, near the end of 2004 he got a call from Zanuck, who had a script -- by C. Gaby Mitchell and Chris Provenzano -- he wanted to talk to him about.
“I knew from watching his short and from his experience that we would be in good hands visually . . . but he had to impress me with his understanding of the screenplay, the story and characters,” Zanuck wrote in an e-mail. “Aaron did not disappoint.”
In a way, just as the funeral was for Felix, “Get Low” and its reception at Toronto will be a reckoning for Schneider. As he puts it, everything that has come before is “all funneling down to this one night.”
But then Schneider has bet it all before, so tonight once again he’s going to let it ride.