Aaron Schneider's Get Low makes the Old South feel new again

Oscar winner discusses his star-studded feature-length directorial debut

Young filmmaker Aaron Schneider grew up in the Midwest, yet his work makes the Old South feel new again.

An Emmy-nominated cinematographer for the moody legal drama "Murder One" whose filmography includes Kiss the Girls, Schneider won the 2004 Academy Award for Best Short Subject for "Two Soldiers," his ambitious, nuanced adaptation of William Faulkner's short story. Schneider returns to Dixie for his feature-length directorial debut, Get Low, starring heavyweight actors such as Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Billy Murray.

Inspired by a true story, Get Low casts Duvall as Felix Bush, a hostile hermit with ZZ Top hair and a boogeyman's status among the nearby townsfolk. The road to his shack features the warning "NO DAMN TRESPASSING — BEWARE OF MULE." When Felix grows aware of his impending mortality, he hires a small-town funeral parlor (run by Bill Murray and Lucas Black) to throw him a "funeral party" so everyone in the region can pay their respects while he's still alive. As a carnival atmosphere surrounds the impending big day, the event turns out to be less of a rustic ego trip than a chance for Felix to come clean about the secret that transformed his entire life.

Schneider was fascinated by the way a single incident reshaped the life of Get Low's protagonist. "It was a story about a man who lost someone who he loved very much early in life, and charted a different course for him. In the film he says, 'I believed I'd see the world, but I barely went nowhere, on account of what I did.' I looked at my life and thought how my life is different because of things that happened to me and people I lost. A high school friend passed away at an early time of my life. But everybody loses somebody. I'm not unique. That was my emotional way into the movie, when I got up in the morning or sat down at the editing machine."

Get Low and "Two Soldiers" each convey the textures of the Depression-era South without succumbing to cornpone clichés. Schneider says he feels a kinship to the Southern sense of tightly knit social structures. "I think it comes from growing up in the small community of Peoria, Ill. In the South, the small community is celebrated in the writing of William Faulkner, Horton Foote and others. Minnesota has Garrison Keillor, but so many Southern writers excel at finding the epic in the everyday."

Schneider's production chose Crawfordville, Ga., to stand in for the film's rural Tennessee locales, partly because the town felt like a historical throwback. For the scenes in town, Schneider explains, "The mountains are CGI, but we didn't do anything to main street except put some dirt down to make it look pre-pavement."

Schneider applied his training as a cinematographer to enhance the film's approach to a rustic narrative. "I wanted Get Low to feel like a folktale. It should look like an old book, like a Mark Twain book, in which the pages are yellow but the print is still bold and easy to read. There's a quality of folktales that I wanted to convey visually. That's the job of the director, cinematographer and designers. After filming, we dried out the color a bit."

The filmmaker pushed the idea further in "Two Soldiers," in which a young farm boy tries to join his brother in the Armed Services shortly after Pearl Harbor. "We used the same process to dry out the colors, to a more extreme degree in 'Two Soldiers.' We wanted to make it feel like you'd found a movie print in an old closet and put it on dad's projector — to make it look like a memory. But with Get Low, we didn't want to make it feel that far back in time. Some period films can feel too distant. We didn't want the audience to think, 'That's the old days.'"

Not surprisingly, Duvall, Spacek and character actors such as Gerald McRaney and Bill Cobbs look perfectly consistent with the period. The most unexpectedly persuasive player turns out to be Murray, who takes a familiar type — a middle-aged, money-grubbing schemer — and fleshes him out in fascinating ways, showing understatement worthy of Bob Newhart. Schneider acknowledges that Get Low's screenplay was tweaked when Murray signed on, but only a little. "I think screenwriter Gaby Mitchell gave the script one pass, knowing Bill Murray's sense of rhythm. The character was always the same in terms of who he was, what his past was, and what he wanted. Bill just fit the role to his own unique gifts."

For his first feature film, Schneider admits that it was a challenge to work with such iconic film actors. "'Intimidated' wouldn't be the right word. It was more like I didn't want to disappoint them. They put their faith in me and this project, and I wanted to make sure I lived up to their expectations. They're all great people and put me at ease. For a while I was blown away when I was talking to Bill Murray, who I'd seen in movies since I was a kid.

"At one point in Crawfordville, I started singing Bill's Star Wars lounge act song from 'Saturday Night Live,' and then he broke in and sang with me. It was an honor." As a comedy icon, Bill Murray deserves folktale status along with the likes of Mark Twain's celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. With Get Low, Aaron Schneider brings tall tales to life, while making ordinary life look like the stuff of legend.