It took him the better part of a decade, but producer Dean Zanuck — whose charming new drama, “Get Low,” opens Friday — finally got his men.
After working with original screenwriter Chris Provenzano (“Mad Men”) for three years and eventually recruiting first-time feature director Aaron Schneider to the project, Zanuck, 37, reached out to Oscar-winner Robert Duvall, his first choice to play ornery hermit Felix Bush. Then, he pressed his luck.
“Almost as a lark, I called up Bill Murray’s lawyer,” Zanuck says. “I asked him, ‘How does one get into the Bill Murray business?’ The answer was simple: You don’t. You send him a one-page synopsis and you’ll never hear back from him.”
Zanuck sent the synopsis and forgot about it until three weeks later, when Murray left a message requesting a script.
But, as Zanuck and Schneider are quick to acknowledge, many hurdles remained before the Oscar-nominated “Lost in Translation” star signed a contract.
Complicating matters was money. In an effort to entice possible backers, Zanuck and Schneider began working Murray’s name into the conversation — a risky maneuver considering the actor’s reluctance to commit.
“I slept by my phone for a month, hoping to hear from him,” says Schneider, 40, who ultimately sent Murray an impassioned letter.
The plea paid off. Murray avoided signing a contract until three weeks after filming — he’s superstitious like that — but he arrived, after a series of cryptic text messages, on the first day of shooting, ready to address a stunned cast: “Was there an over-under on whether I’d show?”
In “Low,” Duvall brings characteristic gravity and a gruff sense of humor to Bush, a backwoods recluse who plans and presides over his own funeral.
Feared by neighbors he keeps at a distance, Bush is rumored to be a killer, but cash-starved funeral director Frank Quinn, played by Murray, is happy to take his money.
Zanuck and Schneider stress that Murray was a consummate professional, thoroughly reliable once he arrived in Georgia for the on-location shoot. Duvall concurs.
“Bill added so many wonderful things,” says Duvall, 79, who makes his home in rural Virginia and appreciated the story’s authentic Southern feel, cultivated during rewrites by Alabamian co-author Charlie Mitchell. “You never know what’s going to come out of his mouth.
“He said this was a funnier movie than most comedies you see because the humor arises naturally from the human drama — nobody had to go for it, it was already there. And he’s right. That’s one of the things that makes the movie so special.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black
Written by Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell
Directed by Aaron Schneider
Running time 1 hour 42 minutes