Lucky McKee made the most of the small sandbox he had in RLJE Films' Old Man, which follows the story of a lost hiker, Joe, played by Marc Senter (The Free Fall), who stumbles upon an erratic old man, played by Stephen Lang (Avatar, Don't Breathe) living in the woods never imagining the nightmare that awaits him. The director spoke to Bleeding Cool about how the wisdom of the main character drew him in, Lang and Senter's chemistry, inspiration, improvisation, and more.
How McKee Connected with 'Old Man' Script, Working with Lang & Senter
Bleeding Cool: What intrigued you about 'Old Man?'
McKee: The script written by Joel Veach landed in my lap by Marc Senter, who plays Joe in the story. I found a personal connection in this Old Man (Stephen Lang), and he was similar to people I observed growing up in rural environments. There was a lot of truth in that character, and it was something interesting to explore. I started with that personal connection I found with it and the truth in the Old Man's voice. Not necessarily that I agreed with his view of the world, but I felt like it was an honest portrait of that kind of character. I wanted to see if I could represent that.
What made Stephen and Marc's dynamic work so well on screen?
It's rehearsal, getting to know each other, and having like-minded views about the script or opposing views when that creates the correct kind of friction. There is something beautiful about watching the two of them work together because when you've got an actor that's got 30 years of experience on top of the other, this mentorship naturally finds its way into the process. It was beautiful to watch Stephen take Mark under his wing, encouraging him to be himself, and let a freak flag fly with the character. It was a beautiful experience, and both Marc Senter and Stephen Lang are grade-A professionals at what they do. They still have the fire in their belly. That all led to this perfect storm between the three of us. It was a lovely collaboration working with those guys, and there were no egos involved.
Andrew Wyeth & Other Inspirations Filming in Single Location
What challenges were present given the confining space of the cabin?
Another thing that attracted me to the material was playing in such a tiny little box: "How do you keep a story as cinematic when you're in that confined of an environment?" I started talking about this movie before the pandemic, and then we're making it at the height of it. All of a sudden, we're all pulling this off, and all this time we spent in isolation. Those feelings crept their way into it. A significant advantage is we had to build the set from scratch, and production designer Lili Teplan did a brilliant job of bringing to life the feeling of these Andrew Wyeth paintings I brought to the table as a reference point. We got in there, packed that set with as much meaning as possible, built it in a way that made it pliable for shooting, and made it to where we got a bunch of different looks. It was a dream for a production designer because we got to see every inch of this beautiful set that you don't see over the course of the film, and she did a fantastic job.
Aside from the Wyeth influence, were there other filmmakers or other external inspirations that helped drive the vision of the film?
We watched many single-location movies: '12 Angry Men' and 'Reservoir Dogs.' There is a lot of great single-location and very contained film. This one was really about getting there in the morning. I didn't have a bunch of storyboards or a rigid shot list or anything because we knew the story was about performance and the characters, not about getting super fancy with the camera. It was about getting there in the morning, rehearsing for a long time, and going a long run. My photographer and I are figuring out where to get the camera to shoot these guys from the best angle or a view that represents what's coming out of them. It was very organic, and that way, the process of designing the visuals. As we were doing it piece-by-piece, we largely shot in linear order, which you don't get to do, and film very often.
We reminded ourselves that we needed to keep changing it up, but not in an in-your-face sort of way, but in an organic way where one thing flows to the next. We're suddenly in a scene where things are happening in tight close-ups, and it's very intense. When we want to get a breath, we take a step back; we're taking in these wider shots and letting the environment help tell the story. It was following our guts along the way.
Speaking of "following the guts," how much of it was improvised compared to what was scripted?
A little bit. We shot Joel's script, but as with any script, sometimes an actor will need to change things around, or we'll suggest how to get somewhere a little bit faster than saying, There were so many marbles in their mouth" or something like that. There are little tweaks, and the writer was there the whole time to help us with them. The actors and I contributed some ideas. Number one, we shot his script, but many of the changes and the things that felt different than the script came out in behavior. It also came out the way an actor delivers a line in an unexpected way. Sometimes an actor can deliver a line that you glossed right over in a script and then infuse it with some sort of dark humor or some sort of pathos. That's where a lot of the interesting discoveries were made, and it's in the way the material was delivered.
Old Man, which also stars Liana Wright-Mark and Patch Darragh, is currently in theaters, digital, and on-demand.