Film tells of a man who attended his own funeral before dying

Felix Bush
Robert Duvall plays the misanthropic Felix Bush in "Get Low."
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Many of us muse about what people might say about us after we die. A new movie, "Get Low," opening in the Twin Cities this weekend, tells the story of a man who decided to find out.

As "Get Low" opens, we meet Felix Bush. He's lived alone on his remote Georgia farm for 40 years, with just his mule for company. There are lots of local legends about his ornery nature. One day he goes to town, walks into the undertaker's, and announces he wants to organize his funeral, and be there for it.

"You want to be at your funeral party? Alive?" said Buddy, the undertaker's assistant.

"Yessir," is Bush's response.

It turns out Felix wants to invite the surrounding four counties, so he can hear what people have to say about him. He puts up a lot of money to create a gala event.

Director Aaron Schneider says the story clearly strikes a chord with many people, although not everyone.

Aaron Schneider
First-time director Aaron Schneider says while there was a sense of awe in working wih Bill Murray and Robert Duvall. When the cameras began rolling, everyone was a professional and got on with their jobs.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Maybe it's because I live in Hollywood. People aren't too hesitant to tell you how they feel about you while you are still alive, so I have never had that curiosity," Schneider said. "I think there's something primal about the end of the road, and the rite of passage that it represents. The movie explores what it might be like to prepare for that."

Schneider says the script is based on a true story which took place in Georgia during the Great Depression. Schneider actually met with Buddy Robinson, the undertaker's assistant, who helped the real Felix Bush organize his funeral, which was attended by some 10,000 people.

"I asked him why he thought this man did this, what was behind it," Schneider said. "And he just didn't know. It was a mystery."

It was that mystery which allowed the screenwriters to have a little fun with the story. They developed a past for Felix.

"There's something primal about the end of the road, and the rite of passage that it represents."

In the movie, Felix goes looking for a preacher to officiate. The preacher talks to an old friend, who knows more than a little about Felix's history.

"I've talked to God a lot about you over the years. He said he broke the mold when he made you," said the preacher to Felix Bush. "Said you're sure entertaining to watch, but way too much trouble."

In the film, Felix Bush is played by veteran actor Robert Duvall. As with many such projects, Schneider says, the film got made because Duvall signed on.

"He marches to his own drum, and when he wants to do something that no one else wants to do, he does it himself," said Schneider.

Although Schneider made a name for himself as a cinematographer, this is his directorial debut. Because of the story, and because of Duvall, the project also attracted Bill Murray, who plays the undertaker, and Sissy Spacek, who plays one of Felix's long-lost friends.

It might seem intimidating to work with these big names. But Schneider says everyone is a professional, and they just get on with the job at hand. He says it's his task to make sure the actors have what they need to perform.

One major challenge was melding their very different styles. Duvall is known for being very prepared for his scenes, and doing just one or two takes. But Murray likes to improvise scenes, sometimes many, many times. Schneider says he had find a way to make it work.

Opportunity Knocks
Bill Murray and Lucas Black play undertakers who realize they may have hit the jackpot when Felix Bush hires them to organize his funeral.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

"Bill Murray's approach is no more or less professional than [Duval's]. It's the way his genius works," said Schneider. "So you would be very smart to support that, and do everything you can to give him what he needs."

It's all been a learning experience for Aaron Schneider, especially as he began showing the film to audiences. He says there's no magic formula.

"You make the movie for you, with a healthy respect for the audience," Schneider said. "And try to say something, try to make yourself feel something. And hope that somebody else feels the same thing, and then put it out there."

"Get Low" has been drawing warm praise for its performances, and for its mixture of comedy and pathos. Schneider says as it opens in Minnesota, he's intrigued at how that mixture will play here.

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