Lucky McKee has been one of the largely unsung heroes of horror cinema, for around 2 decades now. From his debut feature, “May” to his more recent work, “Old Man”, McKee has proven himself time and time again as one of the best filmmakers today at making truly interesting character pieces.
With “Old Man”, McKee takes on a film that feels more akin to experimental theater than most films ever attempt. Taking place almost completely in a single location with only two major characters, “Old Man” seems like a film that would be extremely difficult to make work as a full-length feature. However, thanks to the efforts of McKee and his two leads, Marc Senter (who also co-produces) and Stephen Lang– not only does it work as a full-length feature, “Old Man” is an incredibly compelling piece of cinema. At times very funny, sometimes touching, but consistently it’s a tense and suspenseful film. It’s impossible to dive too deep into it without risking spoiling the whole movie. This story of a lost hiker who encounters a peculiar old fellow, who offers refuge from a coming storm in his cabin does go to some places you’ll see coming with appropriate dread but also goes to some truly shocking places as well.
Ahead of its release, I recently had the honor to talk with Lucky McKee briefly about “Old Man” and about what brought him to make the film, as well as his personal artistic processes regarding story and character.
Basically, the whole reason that I’m doing this is… because I’ve never interviewed anyone before… but my editor was like, “You’re a big Lucky McKee fan, right?” And I’m like, “Yes.” And he said, “Do you want to talk to Lucky McKee?” And I’m like, “Yes!” So…
That’s awesome, man. That’s awesome.
[Noticing the posters behind McKee] I genuinely love the “May” poster and the “Old Man” poster behind you. But the “May” poster especially because that movie is phenomenally important to me.
They’re peeking over my shoulders, yeah.
I noticed when I was looking through your stuff… Because you did, obviously “May,” which I’ve mentioned. You also did my favorite episode of “Masters of Horror,” which is “Sick Girl,” you’ve done all these different projects. And sometimes you write stuff you direct and sometimes you don’t. I’m just curious, what draws you to the stuff that you didn’t write yourself?
Finding a personal way in. I mean, obviously, that’s baked in when I create something that it’s coming from a personal place always. But it’s also… I think as a director it’s really good to work on somebody else, to direct somebody else’s material. I think it expands your skillset as a director. It keeps you open maybe to… I’m in awe of great writers, people that can write things that I just wouldn’t have an inkling to, wouldn’t have a notion to write. But I still find fascinating in terms of the director hat that I wear and what Joel Veach’s script on “Old Man”, I had a connection to this old man. I knew this kind of old man. I had grown up in a rural environment and I knew these old good old boys and I knew… And I could feel that Joel had written this character in a really honest place. And when I read his voice on the page, it sounded authentic to me. So I found a personal way into it. So that’s what got me excited.
I was also excited about doing something that was so self-contained. I was terrified at the same time. And I was intrigued by the idea of how do I keep two actors captivating over the course of 90-plus minutes. But that all went back to what my sweet spot– is just characters. I love characters and I love painting portraits of different kinds of people. And this was very, “Old Man” is very much portraiture in terms of how it plays out and ultimately what it’s trying to display. So those are the things that pulled me in. But the short answer is I have to find a personal connection to anything that I’m going to make. Because you live with these things for a long time. You live with any movie that you make, even if you didn’t write it, you’re going to live with it for a year minimum. And then you have to talk about it, like I’m doing now. You have to talk about it for months and months after that too. And it’s always going to come back and come up for the rest of your career if it had any staying power at all. So you’re welcoming these things into your life. So it’s good to have a personal connection.
I do think your character stuff is the reason “May” works as well as it does, for instance. You take stuff… where in others’ hands it would be that these characters are frightening but you instead create deep empathy for them. I think that’s amazing, honestly.
The goal isn’t to be judgemental of the characters. The goal is to glean some sort of understanding, even some sort of empathy for the characters, even if they’re doing something that is bad or is an expression of impulses that we all have inside that maybe we don’t necessarily act on. To me, I try really hard and I’ve become even more conscious of it as I’ve gotten older, to not be judgemental and to not be trying to cram a message down anybody’s throat, but just to show things for how I see them from my own specific kind of personal lens. But to not be damning anything or just being overly judgemental or message-driven. It’s all about just, like I said, just painting portraits of people that feel are honest.
I’m trying to figure out a way to phrase this question without spoiling the whole movie. So basically you have the two characters that and they have deep similarities within themselves and you could… well, the whole thing with both characters that I think is interesting is you can kind of feel where Stephen Lang’s character is coming from by virtue of the fact that he… There’s almost like this glint in his eye where he recognizes something in Marc Senter’s character. And I’m just kind of curious, what was your thought process in terms of putting that all together and making it all cohesive?
Well, I mean in drama and in art in general, I think one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal is contrast. This is dark and this is light or this is good and this is bad. When we establish the old man, we spend a little bit of time with him before the Joe character comes into the picture. And when Joe does come into the picture, they seem very, very, very different. Joe is very timid and very soft-spoken. The old man is very, very blunt and angry and there’s a big, big contrast between them, which is something that I can relate to very much in terms of the way I grew up and the kind of good old boys that I was raised by. And I wasn’t built the same way as these guys, even though I grew up in the sticks and I grew up in kind of similar environments that they did. But I just came out in a different way. Maybe it’s because I had a stronger influence of my mother in my life or something. But over the course of the movie, those two guys realizing how similar they are and that they actually are connected in a really, really deep way is really powerful to me.
And that goes all the way back into what we were talking about before is that you’re trying to find a personal connection to something, or you see somebody who is so different than you, but where is the commonality? Where is the place that we actually do connect? A lot of times those things come down to just base needs in life. You need to be loved, you don’t want to be alone. You want to have love around you and not fear and not hate and not all these things. There’s something kind of beautiful about the connection that those two guys find to each other over the course, really. And it says a lot about aging, and this is a lot about how we can transform over the course of our lives. And also how guilt can eat us up, how sadness and despair and all of those things can really, really distort and just turn you into a sad, old man living in a cabin alone in the woods if you’re not careful with those decisions that you make in life.
I grew up in a similar area– upstate New York. So it’s probably not as bad, but I definitely know guys like the old man and those are guys who scared the crap out of me. But when you talk to them for a little while, usually you see they open up and let their guard down. They’re usually fairly nice and not nearly as scary as we imagine them to be. Which ties in with Stephen Lang’s performance in the movie. Was Stephen signed on from the beginning or did he join when you came in?
It was the typical thing you do. You have a piece of material, you start figuring, “Okay, we think we can finance it, if we get a person that’s recognizable.” The movie business is a star-based system. It has been for 120 years. But the trick with that is finding… is to not… It’s like Cinderella’s shoes. You want that perfect fit. You don’t want to be stuffing the stepsister’s foot into the slipper. You want Cinderella’s foot to find its way into that slipper. And to find that perfect fit takes some work and it takes getting turned down by certain people. And eventually, you find a person that fits. The biggest problem is when you try to shoehorn an actor into a part that’s not really appropriate for them. But I did a lot of research on Stephen Lang and I’d had friends that had worked with him before and got their references and they said he was great. And the more and more I learned about this guy and I learned about how deeply rooted he was in the theater and just how serious he was about his craft. It just felt like he was the right guy. And I think we made an excellent choice. He’s magnificent in the movie. It was magnificent to just witness and work every day and try to stay out of the way of getting too fancy with anything we were doing. Because it’s like, man, all you need is just a medium shot of this guy and he’s captivating.
I agree and Marc Senter, I know he’s also a producer on it. I’ve been a fan of his since “The Lost.” Again, I’m trying to figure out how to phrase it without giving anything away. He gets to do more than… It seems like he’s going to over the course of the movie. How did Marc Senter become involved with the project? Did he bring it to you? Vice Versa?
He did. He brought the material to me and he very much wanted to play that. Act out the stuff that he ended up acting out in the film. And he had such a… Marc is such a unique actor. I don’t think any other actor would’ve turned in the performance that he turned in as that character. He really made it something so unique and so special. And it’s like, “Yes, Stephen Lang’s name is over the title of this movie. His face is on the poster, It’s very much the Stephen Lang show.” But this whole movie doesn’t work if you don’t have the other side of that coin, which is Marc. And what Marc is the sensitivity. And I set up the contrast between him and the old man. And ultimately over the course of the story, like you said, finding the ways that they do intersect personality-wise and emotionally and stuff like that was really exciting to witness. I mean, Marc is very, very skilled and he just comes at everything from such a unique angle. It’s the reason I’d wanted to work with him over all those years. But I’d known him since “The Lost” because I was a producer on that and that was where I first met him. And he’s so wild and crazy in that movie and it was such a perfect part for him. But it had taken so long for him and I to find the right project to do together that by the time we got there and it was like, “Okay, we’re about to start rehearsing, what if it doesn’t work?” After all this build up and all this hoping to work with each other all these years, “What if we don’t click? What if for some reason we show up on the day, and all this fear started to set in?” And we did our first rehearsal and I was like, “Yeah, that was pretty good.”
We talked about it a little bit and he worked on his voice a little bit more. And then he just found it. He found exactly the way to approach the character and all that kind of stuff. I just was so relieved after that. And the more I worked with him every day, I was like, “Wow.” He is so inside his character in such a deep, profound way that, “Wow, this must be a tremendously emotional experience for him to come in and do this every day.” I mean, it’s… I don’t know. Just really, really fascinating. Really, really fascinating. I’m so proud. I mean, I knew Stephen Lang was going to be good and he even exceeded my expectations, but Marc was really special for me because it was, like I said, there was all that buildup over the years. Then there was that concern like, “Oh God, what if it doesn’t work? What if there’s something off?” But man, he just delivered way beyond what I could have ever hoped for.
He was great… I really like the movie too. I think everybody in it did a wonderful job.
It’s honestly been an honor to talk to you.
Thanks, man. I’m glad we got to talk!
OLD MAN will be in Theaters, On Demand and Digital on October 14, 2022