The House A Loner Built: Behind “Get Low”
Producer Dean Zanuck (“Road to Perdition”) needed a director for an unusual period script with a tiny independent budget. After watching the Oscar winning short “Two Soldiers,” he found that match: former cinematographer Aaron Schneider. Schneider embraced the opportunity.
“Movies tend to be a lot of spectacle now, and this spectacle will be put into just about any department that they can to get eyeballs,” said Schneider. “What excited me about ’Get Low” was that it called for a classic look.”
Schneider recruited David Boyd, his “Two Soldiers” cinematographer, to shoot “Get Low.” The two men were inspired by their cinematography icons when establishing the film’s look and tone.
“(Boyd) and I are hardcore Conrad Hall and Gordon Lewis fans; we’ve always admired the natural but beautiful approach they took,” said Schneider. “It wasn’t about photography being muscular or in the foreground. It was mounting the story as simply and elegantly as you could so the story took the limelight.”
“Get Low” is based on the true story of a hermit removed from society who throws his own funeral while still living. To develop set pieces that not only reflected a historical accuracy but represented the uniqueness of the main character, Schneider recruited veteran set designer Geoffrey Kirkland. With a resume that includes production design on “Midnight Express,” “The Right Stuff,” “Children of Men,” and “Angela’s Ashes,” Kirkland is picky about the projects he gets involved with, demanding a high quality story to devote his energy to.
“If you don’t start with a script that grabs you, then it’s really no place for a conversation, everything else is just work,” said Kirkland. “I come out into the rain when I‘ve read something that’s worth coming out into the rain for.”
Set in the 1930s, the movie focuses on the life of Felix Bush and the townspeople who have come to fear him. Conducting his own research for the style of the lead’s houses, upscale funeral pallor, and an elegant church, Kirkland worked closely with all the department heads to create the most accurate environment.
“The analogy of making a movie is a jigsaw puzzle for me,” said Kirkland. “You just have to go out and find the pieces and put them together. When you get onto a period movie, you’ll find there’s a lot of cross traffic between the decorators, the costume designers and the production designer. We’re all going to be comparing notes because we’re all in the same battle.”
Bush’s establishment provided the greatest design challenge. Because he fabricated his own house and furniture, it deviated from the period’s style. Schneider and Kirkland developed a process of determining the look of Bush’s surroundings by answering questions about his character.
“We focused on certain questions that seemed to be the hardest to answer: what would his design influences be, what would his work ethic be, what would his tastes be,” said Schneider. “If we were talking about the house, we weren’t flipping through architectural books so much as talking about where Bush would have learned to build from: his father and grandfather.”
Kirkland felt a Craftsman style would be most appropriate for Bush’s house and barn. Relying on an approach similar to that of the Shakers, the structures and furniture built by Bush followed the cut of the wood, and were held together mostly by pegs and glue. Also important to Kirkland was finding the correct type of wood that Bush would have used.
“I like to find the real deal if I can, I don’t usually accept wood yard lumber,” said Kirkland. “We were successful in finding an old barn that was being torn down, and we used a lot of that lumber. We put a few newer, more rustic pieces in it, so it blended well.”
Because of budgetary limitations, Schneider wanted to find a Southern location that would provide the wealth of visual requirements the film would need including a period-ready city street and a wide open farmland. Georgia, with an attractive tax incentive, made the perfect fit.
“I knew finding a main street would be the hardest obstacle to overcome,” said Schneider. “Finding an old church and old bar with no telephone poles is nearly impossible. Crawford Village in Georgia worked out well for us; it had enough empty store fronts, and the incentive came out right before we started.”
Discovering the vast distance between potential locations, Schneider employed common internet sites to assist in location scouting. He’d first type in the requirements of a location into Flickr.
“Once I found something that looked right I’d enter it into GoogIe Maps and find the distance,” said Scheinder. “If it looked great and was a reasonable distance to travel, we’d check it out.”
A Civil War National Park became the site for the Bush house and barn.
“His farm was the biggest build,” said Kirkland. “We built all that out in a park which was strangely enough a battlefield. The field where we threw the wake party was in the center of the trenches used for the guns in battle.”
In addition to acquiring great locations and crew, Scheinder was able to secure Oscar caliber actors to “Get Low.” Working with these individuals rounded out a pleasant experience for Kirkland.
“Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, they were such a delight to work with – it’s a privilege to work amongst people like that,” said Kirkland. “I happen to think it’s a wonderful film. It’s a great thing that somebody made it.”