When George Bernard Shaw wrote “Youth is wasted on the young”, he obviously didn’t know of writer/director Nicholas Fackler. Now only 26 years old, at age 17 Fackler began writing what would ultimately become LOVELY, STILL. Capturing the exuberance, magic and wonder of falling in love for the first time, Fackler went beyond the story of a first love, and turned this into a love story for the ages and for any age. The end result is LOVELY, STILL. Magical, memorable, tender, sweet and filled with love, LOVELY STILL is, quite simply, absolutely lovely.
Robert Malone is a lonely old man. Living alone in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood, his daily routine is rote after all these years as he prepares each morning for his job as a part-time bagger at the local grocery store. His home is sparse in decor. There are no pictures on the walls. The one bit of illumination and color is Robert’s Christmas tree which is decorated and twinkling by the corner window. Sadly, the only gift under the tree is one that he wrapped for himself.
Venturing out onto Overture Street where Robert lives and walking through town, everything is small town picturesque like a turn of the century picture postcard; from the brilliant white of new fallen snow to the twinkling of lights on every door, eave and window in town, there’s an undeniable magic in the air and the unspoken hope for miracles.
At the store where he works, he has an unusual relationship with the store’s rather zealous, and slightly goofy owner-manager, Mike, who in one moment has the affection for Robert of a loving grandson and in the next, is counseling Robert like a father would to a son. And of course, there’s a recipe book that Mike is anxious to not only get Robert’s thoughts on, but bring him in as a business partner. Quite often, Mike looks as lost and alone as Robert.
Across the street from Robert, Mary and her daughter Alex have moved in. Mary, a widow, at first blush appears to be a bit of a busybody when Robert finds her lurking in his house. Under the guise of the door being open and she was “just checking” to see if anyone was hurt, Mary’s ulterior motive is quickly discovered. She has seen Robert before and is quite taken with him. She wants to date him and invites him to dinner.
As anxious and excited as a young boy crushing on his first love, Robert can’t wait for his date with Mary. But wait. What do you do on a date? What do you where on a date? It’s been so long since Robert went on a date, he’s forgotten the whole process. Turning to grocery store Mike, Robert gets some rather interesting dating advice.
Despite Mike’s advice, Robert and Mary hit it off immediately, as if they’d known each other for decades. Robert is head-over-heels in love, his joy almost uncontainable over Mary’s attention and love for him. And best of all, Robert won’t be spending Christmas alone. He will be with Mary.
As Robert counts down the days until Christmas, marking each one off on his calendar, not everything is as perfect as it seems. Robert is having nightmares. Fuzzy, disjointed, disconcerting, Robert starts waking up in a panic but quickly settles back into happiness and contentment on seeing his beloved Mary. But Mary also seems to have a secret as she keeps checking her pill bottle, herself panicking when she can’t get a refill of what is obviously a much needed prescription. What her secret is, is something you will have to see for yourself as it turns this exquisite love story into something very deep, very poignant and very powerful.
With LOVELY, STILL, the acting is what allows the emotion of the story to unfold. Ellen Burstyn is wonderful as Mary. So used to seeing her filled with fire and energy, here she has a quiet grace that is almost ethereal at times. And thanks to the lighting and lensing of cinematographer Sean Kirby, there are scenes in which she looks like the face of a cherubic angel, just filled with love. But then she balances that with some rather emotionally fraught and tense scenes with the pills and the medicine cabinet. You see her face. You see fear. Is she dying? Are her days numbered? The emotion that Burstyn brings to the screen and the effect that it has on one watching is quite powerful.
Wanting to work with extremely experienced people, despite his youth Fackler had no qualms about seeking out Martin Landau to play Robert. “It’s not like Matin is getting a lot of scripts where he is the lead man in a grand love story, so I thought, it’s not out of the realm of possibility of getting someone like Martin Landau [or Martin Landau] to be in this.” And what can one say about Martin Landau that hasn’t already been said? He is superb - especially once he and Burstyn hook up. Landau has you truly believing that Mary is Robert’s first love. His exuberance is like that of a schoolboy suffering with puppy love. Landau makes you forget that he is 82 years young. His enthusiasm brings a smile to your heart. Meticulous and precise to a tee, his performance is absolutely priceless. And as the crescendo of the story rises, both Landau and Burstyn make your heart bleed to the point of aching for Robert and Mary. In discussing his leads, Fackler opines that “he looked at acting very different. He is very method. His training was very unique acting training. Same with Ellen. They are both beyond method actors. I wanted to learn more about it.”
And then you add Adam Scott into the mix as Mike. I have always enjoyed his performances. Small but always indelible, it was only a matter of time before Scott would come into his own in a role such as Mike. His chemistry with Landau is adorable with this great sense of admiration and love between them. But what is most engaging about Scott is the goofiness and childlike behavior he brings to Mike, particularly when giving Robert advice or going Christmas shopping with him.
You could have knocked me over with a feather when I found out this is Nicholas Fackler's first screenplay and first feature film. This is truly a project kissed by the gods. For a first timer to elicit the kind of emotion and beauty that Fackler does both with story and visuals, just proves that quality filmmaking is alive and living and its rooted with excellent storytelling and heart. A story like this, and quality film like this, is something that only comes from the heart. For Fackler, watching LOVELY, STILL now, “Is kind of like going to psychology class as a teenager. I remember how I felt when I wrote that line. I remember what my thinking was behind that. Deep down, what I’m really looking at is ‘This is what I want. I want love this way. I want someone that will care about me this much and someone that I can care about this much and we can spend our lives together.’” Fackler definitely conveys those feelings in LOVELY, STILL. He conveys the emotion, the hope. The story and the characters are so beautifully crafted.
What really stands out with LOVELY, STILL is Fackler’s shedding a new light on the elderly with this beautiful love story. “Love is universal. It’s not age specific. It’s not something that just ends and stops for people. I wanted to make sure people are reminded [love] is never over.” His attention to the little things in life that make a life, make a romance, make a love story - taking walks, holding hands, quiet little dinners, making little jokes - all are exquisitely detailed and seamlessly meld into the characters and story.
Calling on his experience directing music videos, Fackler knows the importance of visual imagery, thus his long search for the perfect cinematographer - Sean Kirby. “Visuals conduct emotion just as much as story does.” A big key to the overall excellence of LOVELY, STILL is Kirby’s cinematography. It is exquisite and at times, amazing. Even Fackler, who was looking for someone who could bring a cinematic quality to the film admits, “I don’t know how he does it. He paints with light.” What I find particularly outstanding about Kirby's work is that, although he began his career as a painter, he has a limited range of experience in terms of vision, lighting and lensing in past films, yet with LOVELY, STILL, it’s as if the stars aligned and he created magic. Just look at some of those snow scenes with Robert and Mary among the tress with snow flakes softly falling. Perfectly framed and lit. Standout are the use of Christmas light dissolves as scene transitions and also as an integral part of the story along with some innovative lensing techniques involving glass. “It was a unique process to use that effect. We invented a lot of things; a lot of techniques. One of the things we did is we took a giant piece of Mylar and wrapped it around a light board and then wrapped multi-colored Christmas lights around that mylar and then we actually light actor’s faces with that.. .and we had lights shining through stained glass windows hitting mylar, bouncing off the mylar through another stained glass window and then lighting a room that way.” Set during Christmas time was an added bonus for Fackler and Kirby. “It has a lot of built in techniques that we can use. Snow falling...gives great, really interesting reflections coming off of the white. And we have multi-colored Christmas lights everywhere. So how do we use that in a unique and interesting way.” Obviously, both Kirby and Fackler have honed their craft well to achieve the lovely - and often, metaphoric - visual results. And then you toss in some snappy editing by Doug Crise that perfectly completes the experience.
Blending in beautiful renditions of traditional Christmas carols, there is an underlying score by Conor Oberst which only makes the emotion of LOVELY, STILL soar to even greater heights. A musician himself, and with two parents who are also musicians, it comes as no surprise when Fackler says that “Music is very important to me. That’s my other passion and my other skill set. I know the power of music. It was very important how it was made.”
In speaking with Fackler, one thing that stands out is how near and dear his friends and family are to him, something that carries into the film. During our interview, his mother came in and began tinkling the ivories. Maggie the dog even joined in. For shooting LOVELY, STILL, “When I started doing the film, I wanted to bring all my Omaha people together.” A very personal experience, “Part of making this film, for me, is wanting that love that lasts a lifetime. I also believe that as filmmakers, we have a role and responsibility in molding the way people handle certain situations.”
LOVELY, STILL is a testament to the power of love. The hallmark of good performances and superb storytelling, you feel as if these characters are part of your family. LOVELY, STILL fills your heart and soul, giving you faith and hope in the little miracles and magic of life that are all around us.
Robert - Martin Landau
Mary - Ellen Burstyn
Mike - Adam Scott
Alex - Elizabeth Banks
Written and directed by Nicholas Fackler.