Get Low, a small-budget gem now in theaters, is directed by long-time cinematographer Aaron Schneider, his first time at the helm of a feature film. He had previously won an Oscar in 2004 for best short, Two Soldiers, which he directed. Schneider is also credited as the editor of Get Low.
The film is loosely based on the true story of a recluse who wanted to attend his own funeral. In the film, veteran actor Robert Duvall delivers another one of his star turns as Felix Bush, a seemingly crazy coot who has lived a solitary existence for nearly 40 years, harboring a dark secret. One day he arrives in town with a wad of cash and goes to the local funeral parlor, run by a sardonic Bill Murray, demanding to buy a full-dress funeral and wake which he will preside over. Sissy Spacek plays an intimate acquaintance from Felix’ past.
Matching the award-winning cast is an equally impressive production team that includes: Emmy Award-winning cinematographer David Boyd, A.S.C. (Deadwood), Academy Award-nominated production designer Geoffrey Kirkland (The Right Stuff, Children of Men) and twice Oscar-nominated Costume Designer Julie Weiss (Frida, Twelve Monkeys). Jan Kaczmarek composed the score.
Below the Line recently spoke with Schneider who was in Los Angeles to promote the film.
Below the Line: Given your background as a cinematographer, what did you bring to the shoot that another director might not have?
Aaron Schneider: Everyone brings their own unique experience – mine was having been a cinematographer for 13 years. A cinematographer runs a complex camera crew. And having shot movies for a director, you have a unique understanding of the crew’s requirements – what they care about and what they need to do their best work. My previous experience wrangling crews, inspiring them to do their best work while also having some fun during the process all helped me in my role as a director.
BTL: In addition to your amazing cast, you also assembled a topflight crew.
Schneider: We had a brilliant production designer Geoffrey Kirkland, a wonderful costume designer in Julie Weiss and David Boyd doing the terrific cinematography. Those are the main visual departments – building the world, lighting the world and clothing the world – and the keys were all really fantastic.
BTL: You shot a lot outdoors.
Schneider: Shooting outdoors is primarily about scheduling and timing. One of the neat things about the 1930s, when the movie was set, there wasn’t much artificial lighting. If there was a light in a place like this it was either a candle or a fire, or a tungsten bulb or the sun. That kind of lighting contributed to the movie photographically. Especially in his cabin, Felix lives with the sun and sleeps with the moon so all he’s normally got is a match or a lantern.
BTL: Get Low starts with a big moment, the house burning down as Felix escapes. Talk about what it took to pull that scene off. There was no possibility of a second take.
Schneider: We found a house in rural Georgia, where we shot, that was run down and condemned, sitting on a piece of property surrounded by nothing but trees. We dedicated three to four hours lining up several cameras on it and burning it down. The tricky part came when we had to incorporate a man bursting out of the window on fire.
It ended up as a controlled burn, with artificial flames coming out of the windows, and the man sliding down the roof and onto the landing. Then we cut and turned this into a plate. We rolled the cameras again and it was a lock-off shot; and we rolled the cameras again and set the house on fire and created another plate of the raging inferno. Then, through the magic of digital effects, we were able to take the elements of the man bursting out of the window and composite it on top of the fully burning house to create the illusion that he was coming out of this great fire. It took 20 minutes for the house to really catch ablaze. All these little interesting things were happening as it caught fire – a piece of the porch would drop off. And because it was a lock-off shot, we were able to take different mosaic tiles at different points of time in the burning house footage and composite it back on the cell, so it was like creating your own custom inferno.
BTL: There must have been major safety precautions.
Schneider: We had the fire department and we all did a farewell to the house, thanked it for being part of the story. It belonged to a family, so we tried to do it with the proper respect for the property. We waited until dusk. We wanted it to be moody so it had to be dark, but we needed enough light so you could see. That’s why we waited for magic hour at the end of the day. I remember standing next to David, our director of photography, always looking at our watches. There was this little window of 10 to 15 minutes during which we had to pull off both of these takes – the controlled burn and the full burn. It was a little nerve wracking.
BTL: Could you talk about the challenges your production designer faced, creating a number of key interiors, from Felix’s cabin to the funeral home?
Schneider: This is the kind of movie that requires seeking out locations that are still a little bit lost in time, and then subtracting and adding the appropriate elements. Our set decorator Frank Galline did a marvelous job putting together objects and furniture. Our production designer saved the day by coming up with a new technique. We couldn’t afford to paint and we couldn’t afford to wallpaper. He wound up taking cloth material and taping it to the walls to simulate wallpaper, and it worked beautifully.
BTL: You were working with a small budget?
Schneider: Very small – around $7.5 million and a 24-day shoot schedule. That is the speed of a television pilot.
BTL: You are also credited as the editor on the film. When did you master this craft?
Schneider: Again, it came about because we ran out of money. Postproduction is unfortunately the first thing people dip into when they are up against it financially. I had cut my short film, Two Soldiers, on Final Cut Pro at home. So I had some experience as an editor that I thought I could bring to it and get us around the problem of not having the money to hire the kind of editor we would have liked to have.
I paid a little price for it in terms of objectivity. As a director it’s nice to walk out of the editing room and come back, and maintain a certain distance. On the flip side, editing decisions are highly directorial. When you get down to it, you’re making decisions about pace and performance. And you’re rewriting the script in some cases, cutting dialogue or creating moments that didn’t exist in the screenplay.
So I found it satisfying as a director to get intimate with every frame of footage. By the time I was done there was no stone left unturned. I’d seen it all, I touched it all. Scrip writer Charlie Mitchell would come down from Santa Barbara and he became the extra pair of eyes I needed. And Dean Zanuck the producer would come and sit down with this too. The three of us, each with our particular point of view, bounced off each other and that helped the edit work out.
BTL: Your costume designer, Julie Weiss, had a big task for the carnival funeral sequence.
Schneider: It took it two weeks of courting her to convince her to do the movie. She wanted to do it, but had reservations. She didn’t want to commit to the funeral party unless she was given enough support to pull it off. That scene was the biggest challenge. I still don’t know how she pulled it off but she did. She set up her own costume crew. Extras would arrive and they’d stick them in one end of the tent, and they’d come out of the other transformed for the 1930s. And then she walked around policing all day.
BTL: Could you discuss the mixture of music in the score that contributed so much to setting the period feel?
Schneider: The music was made up of three elements. There was a score by Polish composer Jan Kaczmarek, to underline the drama. But as for the period and the flavor and the authenticity of the sound and its folktale nature, we knew we needed to add local color as well. So we invited Jerry Douglas, who is often considered to be the world’s greatest dobro player. He’s played behind Elvis Costello and Allison Krauss and many others. I had been looking on iTunes for the right of kind of song for the funeral party, and I cut to one of his songs. I let the music drive some of the editing. It fit perfectly. It was like Jerry’s music itself, authentic and traditional but also accessible and contemporary.
There were a handful of cues that needed to be completely dobro, and a couple of fiddle and dobro cues to boost the energy. He came for one day to a small studio in LA, and we had a jam session. Jan, who was also there, would throw in his own ideas. Jerry basically birthed these little solos and ensemble pieces spontaneously, and we recorded them. Meanwhile, Jan brought electronic versions of his music to play back into headphones and asked Jerry to play his dobro over that. If the movie is a mix of drama and levity, maybe that’s reflected in the music in terms of the classical score and the dobro ensemble.