The ghost of Horton Foote hangs over Robert Duvall's latest film.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter wrote the screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, Duvall's big-screen big break. He also was the author of Tender Mercies, the movie for which Duvall won an Oscar in 1984.
Foote "was the biggest influence on my life and career," Duvall says. "I kept telling him, 'You have got to see this movie I'm doing, Get Low, when we finish it.' I felt it was almost a Horton Foote piece."
Foote died in March 2009, before that could happen. But Duvall wonders whether his old friend didn't have a way of putting his stamp of approval on this film about a hermit in 1930s east Tennessee who throws a "funeral party" for the neighbors who have hated and feared him for decades.
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"When I was shooting the big speech scene in the movie, talking to the crowd about who I was, a mule comes up hauling my coffin. And as the scene started, my wife ... got a call. Horton Foote had just died — as I was doing this scene. Strange and ironic. But that just meant he was there, in spirit, I guess."
Something about Get Low, one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2010, feels blessed. Many critics point to the odd chemistry between Duvall, long lauded as one of the finest actors of his generation, and former Saturday Night Live comic Bill Murray, who abandons his normal ironic distance and gives in (just a little) to the movie's sentiment. Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Stephen Cole said that "it's Duvall and Murray who make Get Low a small, wonderful thing."
"Putting Robert Duvall and Bill Murray in a room was going to make something interesting," says Aaron Schneider, the movie's director. "Two guys with different styles, very different histories."
Schneider says that the clash of styles was evident every day on the set, "especially when Duvall was in his hermit's beard. He'd go off in between scenes and takes, just to be by himself. Murray's cutting up with the crew, playing with boomboxes. But Duvall was in character."
Duvall, 79, has his technique and he's sticking with it. He says he didn't want to ruin his preparation.
"We spent some time around Christmas just before we shot this up in the foothills of Argentina, where my wife's family is from, just looking up at those beautiful Andes mountains. Out there, I got a sense of the solitude and privacy of this man. ... There's a little bit of daydreaming up ideas, and borrowing traits from some of my uncles from Virginia, some of my people.
"I don't know what Bill Murray's technique is. No idea. But he's one of the few people to come out of Saturday Night Live as a legitimate actor," Duvall says. He had seen Murray in Lost in Translation, "so I figured it would work. We related and it went well."
Schneider credits Duvall with being the force that got Get Low made, just as former Somerset resident Scott Cooper, Duvall's director on Crazy Heart, credits him with getting that movie made and earning Jeff Bridges his Oscar.
"I help any way I can, getting these movies made," Duvall says. "Sometimes it's signing on; sometimes it's making a few phone calls, getting people on board.
"These (small) movies are important to do. A $100 million movie can go down the drain, and in the back of the studio people's minds, they know it's going down the drain, but they make it anyway. But some little $10 million movie, they aren't willing to take that chance on."
As for his getting Bridges his Oscar: "Jeff won that on his own. He turned the movie down, but when he finally came around, he saw he was the perfect guy for that part."
And how about the early Oscar buzz for another Duvall co-star, Bill Murray?
"Well, I have no idea if he gets an Oscar out of this one. But he's good in it, isn't he?"