Paste’s choice for the Best Original Screenplay of 2010 isn’t even nominated for an Academy Award. The script was originally penned by Atlanta’s Scott Seeke and his friend Chris Provenzano based on a story that Seeke’s wife’s grandfather told him on the porch one night. Ten years and several Hollywood legends later, Get Low made its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, was immediately bought by Sony Pictures, and has moved audiences everywhere. This week it’s finally out on DVD and Blu-Ray. Paste sat down recently with Scott to talk about the film’s origins, themes, and reception.
Paste: I’ve heard of a lot of writers in Hollywood doing some crazy things to get a great script idea, but I’ve never heard of someone getting married for one. How did that happen?
Seeke: I think more people should try it, really. It worked out very well for me. It came about when my wife’s grandfather was telling me about the real guy who had his own live funeral, and I thought, wow, that would make a great movie. So I called an friend of mine, Chris Provenzano, who is a writer in Hollywood . Chris and I went to college together. And I said, hey, what do you think? Wanna do this? And he said, actually yes, I think I do! So we spent a lot of time with me working my day job and talking with him at night on the phone,. And it took ten years and an awful lot of work by a lot of people, but it became a film that I’m very proud to have been a part of.
Paste: And that man, your wife’s grandfather, plays a pivotal role in the film, or at least a fictional representation of him does.
Seeke: Not only that, but her great-grandfather does as well. Bill Murray plays her great-grandfather Frank Quinn. And in real life his son-in-law was Buddy Robinson, Lucas Black’s character. But it was amazing to see these family members that she had known or heard about for years, people that I had met, being portrayed on screen. The Quinn Funeral Home, which hosted Felix Bush’s funeral in the movie, is a real place. It was a business for years and years. The first time we saw that hearse roll up with “Quinn Funeral Home” on the side, that was a pretty special moment. It’s not everybody that gets to see family history portrayed up on screen, and especially by such amazing people. Sometimes I’ll look at her and say “do you realize that I’m one of the writers of a movie where Bill Murray plays your great grandfather?”
Paste: I think your next book project needs to be How To Write Your First Screenplay And Have It Produced By A Hollywood Legend, An Oscar Winning Director, And Three Of The Greatest Actors Alive.
Seeke: If I could bottle it and sell it, believe me I would! But it was almost a miracle the way it came together. Chris and I developed the story and wrote the screenplay. And Chris’ manager was buying a house from a woman who mentioned that her husband was a producer. He turned out to be Dean Zanuck, of the Hollywood Zanucks. His grandfather started 20th Centruy Fox Studios, and his father did Jaws and Driving Miss Daisy and all kinds of movies. I mean, Richard’s star is right outside Graumman’s Theater in Hollywood. These are big folks. So when Dean decided to do the movie, we just about fell over. And when we were writing it, we sort of had Robert Duvall in mind. He’s a Southerner, he’s knocked these kind of roles out of the park before. So we wrote it sort of dreaming in the back of our heads that maybe someday he’d do it, but never really believing it. Except then he did. Which was just wonderful. Then once he was on board, Dean pitched the film to as many directors as he could, and one of the people that sort of rose to the top was this young director who had never done a feature before, but had won an Oscar for a short film called Two Soldiers, and that was Aaron Schneider. And Aaron brought a strong visual sense; he’s a former cinematographer. And with amazing talent like we had, and with Aaron’s great visual sense, we had a film that was acted beautifully and looked beautiful too. One of my real regrets about the Oscar thing was not just for Robert Duvall, but also for our cinematographer David Boyd, who I though did just an amazing job. There’s so many folks I felt could have been nominated for this film, but the Academy didn’t see it that way, and I understand that. But it’s a film I’m amazingly proud of, and to be able to say we were snubbed for an Oscar is I guess not the worst problem to have.
Paste: You just did a workshop at the Macon Film Festival on screenwriting. I don’t expect you to give the whole thing from memory here, but can you give us a highlight or two?
Seeke: I think the most important thing in developing any story, whether a book or a movie or anything, is to know what it’s about. You only have a limited amount of space, so you really have to know what it’s about. Get Low fell into my lap in some ways — it was a story about a man who threw his own funeral. Okay, but why? And it’s the “why” that made it so interesting. We had to make him a little more interesting as well. A popular guy, who everybody loves, having his own funeral? Not that interesting. So we made him into a terrifying old hermit who’s been a legend for years. That’s a little more interesting. I’d like to hear more about that. So you have to know what it’s about. And then you have to develop the hero’s arc. It’s always about the character. People like to think that Star Wars is about blowing up the Death Star. And it is, but what makes it great is that Luke Skywalker starts out as a nobody and ends up blowing up the Death Star. That’s why sequels generally suck, because we already know who the hero is, and they’re already the hero. We like watching people become the hero. So you’ve got to know where the character starts, what choices they make, and where they end up. And if you can put all that together, and make it something that when you tell it to strangers they say “Wow,” then you know you’ve got something. That’s what we had with Get Low, and that’s really what this industry really requires.
Paste: Two of the things this film is about on a deeper level are guilt and forgiveness. How do you see the film dealing with those?
Seeke: It’s about a guy who’s looking for forgiveness and doesn’t know how to get it. And that’s something that I think is true for a lot of us. We have regret in our lives, things we wish we hadn’t done, and we don’t know how to deal with them. And the way he deals with them is by shutting himself off in the woods for forty years. And he realizes that that’s not working. And the movie is really about his journey to figure out what forgiveness is, what it looks like, how you get it, what you have to do. And all of us have that moment when we were kids that we did something wrong and knew we were in trouble, but just didn’t want to say it. And he ‘s the same way. He just can’t say it. So the movie is his journey to discover what forgiveness really is. And I think it’s powerful to watch someone in that kind of struggle because we can all relate to it. And I think we can all learn from his journey, and his pain, and the reactions of the people around him. Because we all have people we know and we love who are looking for the same thing. How can we help them? Those topics are universal, no matter where you live. If you’re a human being, you wrestle with this stuff. And that’s why Get Low has done well in Edinburgh, and Poland, and some other places where the specific cultural references may not work. It’s universal. And I’m just glad we were able to keep those themes running through the movie. To be honest, I kept waiting for the powers that be to pull the plug on all that. But they didn’t because that’s what the movie is about, and they were smart enough to recognize that. I give Aaron and Dean and everyone a lot of credit for recognizing that.
Paste: Yeah, what’s your line about what a hard sell the movie was?
Seeke: Oh yeah, you tell someone in Hollywood that you’re going to make a movie about old people in Tennessee in the 1930’s, and there’s not going to be any shooting or explosions. They’re not too interested.
Paste: That’s one of the reasons you chose to go a more independent route, right?
Seeke: Dean Zanuck decided from the beginning that he wanted to make this independently because he recognized that it had powerful themes that audiences were going to connect to, but that studios probably wouldn’t. And he thought that a studio would probably mess it up. So we raised all the money from private investors, and it took us seven years. Dean bent over backwards and flew all over the country trying to make it happen. So then it got to the point where we needed distribution for it, and Sony Pictures was very excited about it and picked it up after our world premiere in Toronto. But it was an intentional choice to make it independently so that we could stay true to the themes of the film, and it worked out really well. And everyone involved in it really believes in it. A friend just told me that Bill Murray was on Howard Stern the other day and said it was one of the best movies he’d ever been in. I mean, wow, right? And everyone involved worked on it for peanuts. Duvall, Murray, and Spacek could have eaten up the entire budget by themselves. But they didn’t, because they believed in it.
Paste: There’s a great line near the end of the film where Duvall says he didn’t want to be forgiven, that he needed to feel the pain every day of what he’d done. It reminds me of the great line in The Mission where Liam Neeson comes to Jeremy Irons and say that the other priests think DeNiro has done enough penance carrying the armor up the falls. And Irons says, “It doesn’t matter if we think he’s done enough. He doesn’t think he’s done enough.” Why do you think that sometimes we hang on to that suffering and guilt rather than accepting forgiveness?
Seeke: I think that most of the time the amount of humility that’s required to admit we’ve done something wrong is more than our self-esteem can bear. I had a personal moment a few years ago when I realized I didn’t think very highly of myself. And I had to do some work to get through that. It’s very very difficult to articulate our pain when it’s damaged who we are so much. It’s such a risk to get it out there and let other people see us. Why would I be vulnerable to other people when I don’t think I’m worthy of their approval? And when we get it out there, it actually boosts our opinion of ourselves and makes us see that we are worthy of approval. But it’s so hard to get there. It’s a spiritual issue.
Paste: Those spiritual issues are somewhat of a specialty of yours, because like so many Hollywood screenwriters of note, you have a day job as…
Seeke: As a pastor. Like so much of the celebrity world. It’s kinda funny, people don’t know what to do with that sometimes. But yes, I do take spiritual issues very seriously. I think the core of who we are is spiritual beings. And my role as a pastor is to help people deal with their relationships with God and other people. That’s what it’s all about. And Get Low is a way to get people thinking about one aspect of that. But it’s not a movie that preaches, which is what a lot of people expect when they hear what I do for a living. That there’s some kind of hidden agenda, or secret messages in the film. But it’s just designed to get people thinking. But even in my job, I’m not the kind of preacher that tells people what to think. I don’t expect people to agree with me. In fact I like it when they don’t, because I can learn from other people’s journeys. And I hope that they can learn from mine. Ultimately spirituality and faith are a discourse, a conversation. We grow through conversation and dialogue. And one of the things I hope will happen with Get Low is that after people see it they’ll go to Waffle House or Denny’s or wherever and talk about the movie, and about their lives. I hope those conversations are taking place. And I’m really happy that we were able to make a movie about spiritual topics without forcing people to agree with my views. I’m just thrilled by that.
Scott Seeke’s blog Script and Scripture is on the website for The River Church at www.wadeintheriver.org.