Calibrating Director David Lowery's Dialogue Scene Experiments with Each Step of Redford's Pro Turn Toward Retirement

Director David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun, allegedly the final film starring Robert Redford, is a master class in point and counterpoint. Co-stars Sissy Spacek and Casey Affleck, a Lowery regular, sweetly saunter in a kind of Texas shuffle around Redford’s charming serial bank robber, Forrest Tucker, gently tipping their hats while in Redford’s orbit. There’s also plenty of rough-hewn, gritty action that, in the hands of Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story), DP Joe Anderson and editor Lisa Churgin, ACE, careens through multiple decades at once.

Churgin began her career as an assistant editor on The Warriors and Raging Bull. Her editor credits include Reality Bites, Gattaca, House of Sand and Fog, Dead Man Walking, and The Cider House Rules, for which she received an Oscar nomination. She first worked with Lowery on Pete’s Dragon, the 2016 Disney live-action film.

We talked to Churgin about Lowery’s experiments with timing and takes, how she mastered Adobe Premiere CC before cutting the film with it, and why feeling nervous before every edit is actually a good thing.

StudioDaily: How did director David Lowery, who is himself a talented editor, convey his goals for the narrative to you?

Lisa Churgin: I think the ways in which David and I approach the edit are very sympatico. Having worked together on Pete’s Dragon (2016), we already had a shorthand. I would do the typical thing when I finished cutting a scene and send him a cut. When I finished that six-minute dialog scene [between Redford and Spacek at a diner, pictured above] I sent him a text saying, “Phew.” That was the big one and it changed very little; it just got tighter. But he also put bigger spaces in certain places. I think that’s something David really wanted to experiment with in this project: how long can you hold certain cuts? Sometimes it was more than I was comfortable with, but to each his own, and it’s his film. We would have long discussions about these kinds of things. But what ultimately makes the film work is [that] these beautiful, poignant dialogue scenes are interspersed with those fun and lively montages and cat-and-mouse cuts of the robberies and Casey Affleck’s character, John Hunt, who is trying to figure out what to do next. Those scenes had a nice motor going on. I was trying not to be overly cutty, but it’s hard when you have a scene where people are sitting opposite each other across a table. So you start with those intentions of “How long can I really hold it?” but you also want to make sure you’re protecting the actor and bringing everything to the forefront and sculpting and molding in the way that the material calls for. You’ve probably heard it before, but it’s true — once you start sitting with it, the film starts to speak to you and tells you what it wants.

Did you look back at all of Redford’s and Spacek’s films for reference? There are a lot of nods, and even some actual footage from an early Redford movie.

That’s from The Chase (1966). And Downhill Racer (1969), obviously, because of the kind of character he played in that movie. But when I said to David, “What do you want me to watch?” he started with Peckinpah: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. We didn’t even talk why but what I took from that is the charismatic character that Kris Kristofferson plays as Billy the Kid and the cat-and-mouse game that he and James Coburn, as the sheriff, play. The fact that he could talk anyone into anything is very much the same, although it’s coming from a much older man in this film. But he still has that smile that will melt anybody’s heart and make you swoon, whether you are male or female. When he smiles at Sissy at the end of that coffee shop scene and says, “Well, what do you think? Ah, I’m just kidding.” When I think about that scene I still smile, and I saw it many, many times. That’s Bob for you. You just sort of giggle, because you can’t believe that somebody has this much ability to draw those reactions out of you. I’ve worked with some very, very talented actors who delivered amazing performances, but in a way he is the first true movie star that I have cut. The way that he captures the screen, and our attention, is just on a different level.

What did Sissy Spacek bring to the equation?

To see her acting with Bob is just a pure joy. Those are two pros dancing together. Sissy is naturalness personified. She is truth, which is what we as editors are always searching for, to capture those moments of truth. But then it becomes an embarrassment of riches because David likes to play, and when you have certain actors who like to play, in terms of delivering the subject along with the scene as written, you have sometimes too much great material to choose from. Add to that actors who have lived such rich lives and can bring that experience and subtext and wisdom to the words.

Did the narrative shift at all during the edit?

Yes, tremendously. David purposefully dressed Bob in the same blue suit, so we were able to move scenes around from reel to reel. A lot of times, those scenes ended up in the same spot in which they started but there was major investigations. You have storylines that you want to be able to balance properly, such as Jewel’s story but also Forrest’s cronies [who include Tom Waits and Danny Glover] and John Hunt’s storyline. And David wanted to see where the payoffs were. There was a big balancing act with all of that. You never know until you actually see the footage, and it’s a living, breathing thing. Scenes went in, scenes went out. We had the time, luckily, to really explore things, more than any other movie I’ve worked on, actually. That costume trick enabled that!

You had the schedule to support that, too?

They always knew they had to shoot the robbery sequences after all the other principal photography wrapped. It was done in 35 or 36 days in Cincinnati, and they knew they wanted to shoot some exteriors in Texas and do some of the robbery sequences for the montage. We had to accommodate Bob’s schedule, so that gave us a chance to really explore the edit. David wrote new scenes and we got a chance to do some additional photography towards the end. For a smaller-budget film, we definitely had a wonderful schedule.

(From L-R): Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Robert Redford and Director David Lowery on the set of the film
Photo by Eric Zachanowich. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

This is the first film you cut on Adobe Premiere. Why now?

David had asked me to cut Pete’s Dragon on Premiere, but at the time it wasn’t really suited for a big visual effects movie. But I told him, “If we ever work together again, which I hope we do, I’ll learn Premiere.” David spoke to the people at Adobe and they provided me with a tutor before I started, so I already had a bunch of hours. Mike Melendi, my very experienced assistant editor, was my Premiere assistant, so I was well supported. David’s been directing films since he was eight, so he understands the entire process. Because he’s an editor as well, sometimes he would make adjustments after I gave him the cut and sometimes he would like it just the way it was. Pictures speak louder than words, so his adjustments were a wonderful shorthand for me.

Beyond the difficulty of those dialogue scenes, what was most creatively challenging for you?

The dialogue scene wasn’t actually that difficult for me because it’s my comfort zone. Sean [Penn] and Susan [Sarandon, in Dead Man Walking] had so many of those kinds of scenes. Sure, they’re hard and incredibly scary when you start. I remember talking to Carol Littleton [E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; The Big Chill), who was a real mentor to me. “Am I ever not going to be nervous cutting a movie?” She said, “No. And you should always be nervous, because that feeling keeps you on your toes.” You want to do justice to the material. When I look back at the movie now, particularly the way David shot it and the choice of that jazz score, it places it in an earlier time. But it’s of its own time and space, and is an homage to Redford in so many sweet, little wonderful ways. In fact, Casey decided he wanted to do that Sting homage when he’s saying goodbye to Forrest in the hospital at the prison. That was all Casey’s idea.

Did any ideas of yours make it into the film that you didn’t expect?

Another one of the references David had me watch ahead of time was Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). We were wondering for the longest time what we were going to put up on the screen in the movie theater that he’s watching at one point and I think I finally just said, “Why don’t you just put in Two-Lane Blacktop?” He found the perfect piece of dialog from that movie, about building a home—all the things that Forrest could never do even though he was trying to do them.

Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford watching the 1971 drama Two-Lane Blacktop, one of Lowery’s references for the film.
Photo by Eric Zachanowich © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

How do you think audiences will react to the film?

The film doesn’t give you an easy answers, and that’s the homage to the real Forrest, a charismatic, enigmatic person. For some, it might be slow and for others it will be just perfect. The interweaving of the quiet things and some really lively scenes and montages that give us the sense of a life lived over time. Sure, the romantic in me wanted to go right back to Sissy’s farm and have Forrest live a life and live happily ever after. But that’s not Forrest and that wasn’t the film David wanted to make. He doesn’t want to tell you what to think; you get to draw your own conclusions. That’s a part of his character as a filmmaker. In Pete’s Dragon, which could have been a typical Disney movie, but there was no condescension at all. His approach with kids is so respectful. In this film, there’s also no judgement about Forrest’s character. He’s leaves that up to you.

Even Casey Affleck’s detective character can’t decide if he really wants to catch Forrest. Until he has to.

When John Hunt meets Forrest in the bathroom, that was a process of discovery. We knew we were going to be in the medium closeups and the closeups for the actual dialogue and there were five takes. The first three were sort of straight, and then in the fourth and fifth one, Casey came up with that startled-yet-astonished-glint-in-his-eye reaction as if to say, “Is Forrest really doing this right now, right here, with me?” Again, Bob’s innate charm makes it work. That was really fun to see that evolve when I was watching the dailies. Once I got to the fourth take it was obvious that’s what it needed to be. That was a beautiful thing to see. It’s also one of only two scenes that those two are in together.

What do you most enjoy about working with David?

He really, really knows what he’s got when he shoots it. He does like to play and experiment but he remembers everything. At one point, he wanted to put a shot of Sissy spilling her water at the end of one of the diner scenes. I had to wade through a lot of material to find it but it was the perfect juxtaposition in that moment. We don’t really need to watch dailies together. My assistant Mike organizes the bin for me. Then I go through it all. I know by the time I finish the movie I will have examined every single piece and every single performance. But when I first approach it I want to get it cut as quickly as possible, because I feel that’s how I can best help the director in terms of seeing what they’ve shot.

A rare scene between Redford and Affleck’s characters resulted in a pivotal moment in the edit. Churgin found it when watching the final takes.
Photo by Eric Zachanowich. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Do you have a plan of how you look at the footage?

Not always. It’s obviously a question of making sure I know what all the takes are and seeing where they go. In this case, I had a lot of additional help from the script supervisor’s notes about where David wanted to go. I obviously looked at other things, too, if I felt they didn’t work, but it gave me a place to start. So I usually start at the beginning and just go.

Did editing in Premiere change the way you typically work?

To me it’s a little more visceral than other editing platforms. The way that it’s set up, you find yourself pushing clips around more than you do in Avid, but for me, it’s just another way I work. I recently had the experience to go to Avid and then go back to Premiere. When you’ve been doing it for a long time there are certain things I like about both. Trim mode is very stable in Avid, but I kind of forced Premiere to do what I wanted it to in that respect. Again, the style of the material dictates my editorial style, and I think of myself as a recipient and am then able to create, regardless what the tools are, from the that.

You already mentioned Carol Littleton, but early in your career you also edited a scene in Raging Bull, alongside Thelma Schoonmaker. What did you learn from those two legendary editors who also happen to be women?

I only worked on the boxing sequences in Raging Bull, and it was Thelma’s first job with Marty, so they didn’t really have their rhythm set yet. I worked with Carol on two films, including Accidental Tourist, and she helped me make my transition to an editor. Carol showed me the true way to run a cutting room. She is the epitome of grace and she treats people with respect and kindness in helping to create a team, making everybody in the room feel included. I think I learned how to talk about the film with my assistants from her. Even when we were cutting on film, I always gave others, as she did, the opportunity to cut scenes, because that’s the best way to teach somebody — just let them cut it. Let them make every kind of mistake under the sun and then talk about it. She also taught me how to open up to the process of discovery, and I’ve grown to really enjoy it. David and I both happened to be at the Director’s Lab at Sundance this past June, and being able to share my knowledge is something that I really love. I realize that I have a lot to give now to try to help young editors understand the process and the ways to look at things and how to respond and react, not just to the material, but within the political world of filmmaking as they continue their journeys.