The veteran actor on nailing it, being Gilliam’s Don Quixote and his dim hopes for the Coens’ remake of “True Grit”
Robert Duvall already has pocketed an Academy Award for “Tender Mercies." This award season, his role as a grizzled Tennessee hermit whose secrets emerge after he decides to throw his own funeral in Aaron Schneider’s “Get Low” has put him in the running for what would be the seventh Oscar nomination.
He talked wlth TheWrap about being Gilliam's Don Quixote, why it's hard not being Brad Pitt and his dim hopes for the Coens' remake of "True Grit."
You’ve compared "Get Low" the work of your friend Horton Foote, many of whose screenplays were definitely rooted in the South.
It’s just the same kind of tale, with a little bit more of an edge, maybe. I wanted Horton to see it, but he died before we finished. In fact, he died as I was giving a speech in a funeral scene at the end of the movie. We got the news that Horton had passed away right as the hearse was coming on.
It was so spooky. It was like full circle between that and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was my first movie, which he wrote the adaptation from Harper Lee’s novel. I had a wonderful run with Horton, but he didn’t live long enough to see this. I would have loved that.
That funeral scene is the emotional climax of the movie — when your character opens up in a way that you’re not sure he’s ever going to do.
I thought about that scene for a long time. But when we actually did it, they did one take and it was over. And then they turned the cameras around and did one take on Sissy Spacek. So it was a very nice, easy day.
It wasn't like usually when they do something like that, when you repeat a scene to death all day long with different angles, and by the time they’re finished you’re exhausted. This was over by noon.
When you did your one take, did you feel as if you’d nailed it?
Yes, sir, I did. Yes sir.
What attacted you to the project?
I liked the premise of a guy that sets up and goes to his own funeral. It was fictionalized from something that really had happened. The director came back east and we met and talked. And then I forgot about it for a while, because they started a rewrite process that didn’t work. It was not good.
What went wrong?
Oh, it just went off track, and I didn’t think I was going to do it anymore. And then this guy Charlie Mitchell, from Alabama, came in and turned it all around. You go through that on almost every project, but when they got the money and came back to me and said “We’re going to do it,” I didn’t think I wanted to do it anymore. But when I saw what Charlie had done, I thought, well, I better do it.
What did Charlie bring to the script?
That whole last speech was his. And he worked on the relationship with Sissy’s character. He made it feel right. I was able to read his script, and just let the South seep into me.
Let's talk about another Oscar contender, "True Grit." The Coen brothers have put Barry Pepper in the role that you played back in 1969 (left).
At first I didn’t know why they’d want to remake it, but the Coen brothers, they could find something interesting in it. It’s weird, though, remaking an old movie. I don’t think anybody’s gonna be remaking “Get Low.”
But you were not a fan of the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”
No sir, I did not like that movie. The music was good, but they were really looking down on the South, making fun of those characters. I didn’t like it at all. I’m hoping “True Grit” will be better.
Now that you’ve been in L.A. for a few days, are you heading back to Virginia soon?
Well, I have to stick around a little longer to meet with Terry Gilliam. He’s still trying to get “Don Quixote” made, and he wants me to play Don Quixote. If he can get the money for that, I’d love to do it, he’s such a creative guy. But I have no idea if he’ll be able to get the financing.
And then I’ve got to Texas to try to raise some money myself for a project I want to do.
I’ve been trying to get this movie “A Night in Old Mexico” made for years. We’ve got one of the hottest young directors in France [Xavier Giannoli], he read the script and came to my farm in Virginia to talk about it. But it’s taken so long that you can’t really make this kind of movie about that area near the [U.S./Mexico] border anymore – it’s too dangerous.
The problem is, in Texas they’ll give you money if you want to make a movie about religion, or if you want to make “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3.” Anything else, they’ve got all that money down there, but they’ll just sit on it.
It always comes back to money, doesn’t it? Does that bother you?
Yeah, it’s frustrating. If you’re Brad Pitt, you can get anything you want made. But for other people, it’s hard.
“Get Low” took a long time to get financed …
It took quite a while to raise the money, that’s true. But that’s true of a lot of independent films. My theory is, for some reason the studios think it’s easier to spend $100 million on a film that might fail than to spend $10 million.
The producer was Dean Zanuck, and I was telling him, “If the Zanuck dynasty can’t raise $7 million to make this movie, I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to do it."