The Old Man & The Gun – A homage to a complicated anti-hero

When writer-director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story) came aboard The Old Man & The Gun, the true story of Forrest Tucker, from his audacious escape from San Quentin at the age of 70 to an unprecedented string of heists that confounded authorities and enchanted the public, Robert Redford felt a magnetic pull to the role and was gratified to step into Tucker’s shoes.

Redford has played many charisma-laden rebels and renegades in his expansive career – the sharpshooting train burglar in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid or the con artist in the classic caper The Sting – and now brings the legend of Forrest Tucker to life in The Old Man & The Gun.

David Lowery and Robert Redford during the filming of The Old Man and The Gun

Says Lowery: “Bob and Forrest Tucker were always intrinsically related in my mind. I saw all sorts of parallels with the various characters he’s played over the years, but it wasn’t until I worked with him on Pete’s Dragon that I got to know him personally. That was what allowed me to tailor the part specifically for him. It was a real luxury to have that month together in New Zealand, hanging out and working together.”

Tucker only ever had one occupation, but it was one he was unusually gifted at and pursued with unabashed joy.  It just happened to be bank robbing. In the early 1980s, at a septuagenarian age, Tucker embarked on a final legend-making spree of heists with the “Over-the-Hill Gang,” a posse of elderly bandits who employed smooth charm over aggression to make off with millions.  Tucker never stopped defying age, expectations, or rules—he made his twilight the pinnacle of his life of crime.  If the sole art form he knew was robbery, he was darned if he wasn’t going to try to perfect it, no matter how elusive the dream. Wrapped up in the pursuit are detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), who becomes captivated with Forrest’s commitment to his craft, and a woman (Sissy Spacek) who loves him in spite of his chosen profession. Now on

From The Pages Of The New Yorker To The Screen

“The police were stunned when they realized that the man they had apprehended was not only 78 years old—he looked, according to Captain James Chinn, ‘as if he  had just come from an Early Bird Special…’” David Grann, “The Old Man and the Gun,” The New Yorker

Jeremy Steckler of Conde Nast Entertainment first discovered David Grann’s riveting profile of Tucker in The New Yorker in their archives.  They quickly secured the rights to the project and reached out to Robert Redford and David Lowery.

Even amid the eccentric annals of famed outlaws, Forrest Tucker was an original, a career bank robber who escaped prison 18 times and pulled off bank heists well into his seventies.  That’s what initially drew journalist and author David Grann (The Lost City of Z) to write about Forrest for The New Yorker in 2003, three years after the bank-robbing legend had been sent back to prison at age 80 for yet another cunning heist to cap off a literal lifetime of them.  Grann revealed a man who you could not deny took a surprisingly relatable and honorable pride in his work, considering he was a lawless felon but also a nice guy.

David Lowery and Robert Redford during the filming of The Old Man and The Gun

“I told David, the one thing this movie had to be is fun. Forrest is a wonderful, complicated character, so full of life and risk and enjoying danger, but he also was about having fun,” says Redford.

Lowery took that to heart.  Extrapolating out from Grann’s journalism, Lowery imbued the story with the rollicking mythos of a modern Western.  The feeling was that of a campfire tale about a simpler time—i.e. the 1980s, that last decade just before mobile devices and the internet changed everything.  It was a time with less hurry and more room to hide, which made the chase that erupted between Tucker and the lawman who pursued him a thing of slow-burning beauty both men relished.  And as Forrest is chased, he too is chasing something: a last chance at love and at a legacy, even if it must be an outlaw one.

At the core of Lowery’s script was an homage not just to a complicated anti-hero, but also an ode to the profound pleasures of Redford’s four decades in film, including founding the game-changing Sundance Institute, which in turn helped spur Lowery’s own career as an indie filmmaker.

As for what drew him to the story beyond the chance to create a bespoke role for a screen icon, Lowery admits having his own soft spot for Forrest.  “I totally related to him,” he says.  “He’s someone who does what he loves and gets away with it. I’m sure Bob felt a kinship with him for the same reason.”

For the producing team—a group that draws together Endgame Entertainment’s James D. Stern, Condé Nast Entertainment’s Jeremy Steckler, Dawn Ostroff, Identity Films’ Anthony Mastromauro, Sailor Bear’s Toby Halbrooks and James M. Johnston, and Wildwood Enterprises’ Bill Holderman—the marriage of a character like Forrest with Redford and Lowery was the kind that comes along rarely.

Stern observes that the film employs the frameworks of some of movie audiences’ favorite genres—Western showdowns, comic capers, and gritty tales of complicated cops and robbers—but all in service to a fresh take on living outside the lines.  “David talked about honoring not just Butch Cassidy and The Sting but Bonnie And Clyde and Cool Hand Luke, all those great anti-hero films,” he says.  “But what made this story unique is that it’s an allegory for an uncompromising artist’s soul. Robbing banks maybe isn’t the greatest choice of art form but it’s what Forrest did, so he put his heart into it.  And like all uncompromising people, Forrest sacrificed a lot, in terms of relationships, in terms of what he missed, and what he risked. The film touches on these deeper themes in a playful way.”

Steckler loved watching the symbiosis unfold between character and actor. He observes:  “David’s script truly felt like an exploration of where Bob’s early characters might have ended up—how these artistic robbers who had a flair for what they do, and a twinkle in their eye, would age.  I think Bob identified with that idea—and he also identified with Forrest’s life-long dedication to honing his craft.”

Says Halbrooks, who along with Johnston has been working with Lowery from the start of his career, of what Lowery was able to do with the story:  “There’s a subtlety to David’s filmmaking that’s pretty distinctive.  When we first read David Grann’s piece the big question we all had was: how could all this be true?  I remember having to double-check that it wasn’t fiction.  But because David’s way of storytelling is so concerned with the verisimilitude of emotions, he was able to tell it in a way that never feels fake and allows you to empathize with where Forrest is coming from.”

For Johnston, Lowery’s playfulness worked as a counterpoint to the film’s explorations of obsession, love, regret and coming to the end of the road. “It was important to David for the film to have levity, to feel like a fun legend people tell their kids at night.  But in the midst of that, David found deep emotion,” he summarizes “We root for Forrest because we understand him as a man who wants to keep doing what does best, a man looking for love and success who isn’t ready to quit.”

The Real Forrest Silva Tucker

The real Forrest Silva Tucker grew up in Depression-era Florida, brought up by his grandmother and raised on dime-store novels about stickup men who broke out from the social margins.  He began his own life of crime in his early teens with a stolen bicycle (at least as he tells it) and from then on, spent his entire adulthood in and out of prison—often breaking out of prisons, including his most notorious escape from San Quentin.  Molding himself into his own version of the crime legends he’d read about, he would become as renowned for his calm, personable heist style as for amassing a total of 18 successful escapes from incarceration.

Forrest Tucker passed away in 2004 at the age of 83, after serving just 4 years of his 13-year sentence for armed robbery in Texas when sent to prison in 2000.  Nevertheless, his legend persisted, though Forrest could not have foreseen that he would have eventually be portrayed by another legend, Robert Redford.  Two qualities seemed to bind Forrest and Redford:  dedication to their chosen craft and an ability to tap into a boyish passion no matter their age.

Crafting the screenplay

Early on, two people who read Grann’s piece were producers Jeremy Steckler and Dawn Ostroff.  With Redford already aboard, they brought the idea to David Lowery who had just directed the visually stunning Texas outlaw tale, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, because says Ostroff, “he makes movies the way David Grann writes, with a meticulously crafted, human approach.”

“I didn’t want to find out too much about the real Forrest because I knew Bob would define him so thoroughly. He’d make him into his own character,” says the writer-director Lowery.

His approach evolved to give the character maximum room to breathe.  “The first draft of the script was much longer and quite a bit more journalistic,” Lowery explains.  “I really leaned into the facts. In real life, the Over-The-Hill gang was much larger and grittier—there were drugs and deaths and a lot of unsavory elements. But I abandoned that approach pretty quickly, partially because it’s just not my forte and also because I just really wanted to keep the camera on Bob the whole time.  So I basically used Grann’s article as my bible and didn’t veer too far from that.”          

The internal joyousness of the character was his guide into telling the story as an almost anti-procedural, making both the crimes and the pursuit of the criminals secondary to the spirit of the storytelling. 

Says Lowery: “I wanted to see Forrest shine. As a storyteller, I naturally skew towards melancholy, and there definitely are some tragic aspects to Forrest’s story, but I wanted to curb those instincts for once and just make a movie that would make people smile.”

Writer-director David Lowery and Casey Affleck

As Lowery churned through drafts, he turned the story into two gleeful cat-and-mouse games:  one the unfolding love story between Tucker and perhaps the only woman who would ever put up with his outrageous career choice; the other the story of the world-weary law man who decided to chase him.

He also emphasized the idea that a mere few decades ago, both crime and law enforcement had a different feel. With no internet or smartphones and few computers, if police wanted to share information across state lines it was done by telephone or U.S. mail.  Most cops still carried revolvers, not automatic weapons.  “All my movies take place in that hinterland before technology was ever-present in our lives,” notes Lowery.

It was a time when a cop could take his time chasing a robber when the contest of the chase itself could overtake the finality of the capture, which is what happens between Forrest and John Hunt. “The chase is where all the energy was,” observes Lowery.  “It’s always a little bit of a letdown in movies when the chase has to end, isn’t it? And I am secretly hoping that the cop will let the robber go. When I was writing this screenplay, the fact that Hunt let him go when he had the chance is probably one of the more personal elements of the story. That’s just me, not wanting Forrest to get caught.”

Lowery also felt it was vital to highlight that Forrest aspires to peace more than harming people.  Grann had noted in his article that Forrest believed that wanton violence was the sign of an amateur holdup man.  “The best holdup men, in his view, were like stage actors, able to hold a room by the sheer force of their personality. Some even wore makeup and practiced getting into character,” wrote Grann.

That sat well with Lowery.  “Forrest carried a gun, but it was important to me that we never even saw it. If the article hadn’t been called The Old Man and The Gun, I’d probably have left firearms out altogether,” he says.

The restraint of the script impressed executive producer Patrick Newall.  “It harkens back to almost a James Cagney type of movie, where there’s an innocence to it. Forrest wasn’t trying to shoot people. David made a very clear, creative choice that he didn’t want it to be about that,” he says.  “And that’s also true to who Forrest was.  He was a gentleman, even if he was gentlemanly bank robber.”

Johnston notes that Lowery also brought a strong Texas voice to the script.  “David’s vision extrapolated a more personal story from the original article.  He explored the double-sided coin of the cop and the robber—and as a Texan, I felt he captured some of the mystique of what Texas is,” he says.

Sums up Newall:  “David walked a very fine balance in the script of not being judgmental with Forrest as a character, and brought other characters into it who kind of challenge that thesis of a troubled man addicted to something. The story is funny.  It’s moving.  It’s also exciting at times.  And I think David has that ability to craft something that works on all those levels, which is very unique.”

Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford in The Old Man And The Gun