David Lowery is the most prolific indie filmmaker you haven't heard about. To date, he's got 33 films to his credit as an editor, including Shane Caruth's Upstream Color, 15 as a cinematographer, 13 as a writer, and 14 as a director. But that's about to change.
Born in Milwaukee and raised in Texas, the 32-year-old Dallas-based filmmaker skipped film school and taught himself how to make movies. Inspired by greats like cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and the Coen brothers, Lowery's developing a distinct style, a misty blend of Americana and modern grit, that's got the potential to make his name as recognizable as Fincher, Malick, or Redford. In fact, the latter has tapped him to write and direct The Old Man With a Gun, taken from a 2003 New York Times story about 1920s outlaw Forrest Tucker. Robert Redford is also attached to star. And that's in addition to reports that Lowery is also attached to helm the long talked about adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis' graphic novel, Torso.
But today, Lowery is talking about the film that's starting it all, Ain't Them Bodies Saints. After premiering at Sundance earlier this year, buzz about the film spread through Hollywood, and it was picked up by IFC Films. In May, it became an official Cannes selection for its Critics Week as a special out-of-competition piece.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a peculiar film full of cinematic poetry whose backstory is as captivating as the final product itself. And we had the opportunity to get those tales from Lowery himself.
Is there anything that you haven’t said about this movie?
Someone the other day asked me about the story that Casey tells in the movie, about the guy who has the jacket that splits down the middle. That's fairly autobiographical and no one had ever asked me. It was a fun thing to delve into momentarily.
So that actually happened to you?
Not as the story literally goes. I was a very goth teenager, and I had this velvet jacket that was too small for me and it split down the middle. I thought that it made me look like Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas, but I wore it anyway, so that's where that came from. [Laughs.]
How did you get the cast on board?
There was a great deal of luck and good timing, but also the cast liked the script and they liked the short film that I sent over, Pioneer. I think between the two of them—Casey and Rooney—it communicated an idea of what I was trying to make. For whatever reason, they all liked that idea and said yes. It was remarkable because they were my first choices.
Rooney was the only actress who read the script and, when I met Casey and Ben, I wasn’t sure who would play which part or even if they would take the parts, but we very quickly decided on it. The funny thing is, I never made movies with the idea of trying to cast famous actors, I’ve always just assumed it would be too long a process or too difficult. Everything I've made before has been with friends or untrained actors. This was the first time I worked with anyone with any reputation and I was delighted that it was as easy and painless.
Was it nerve-racking at all knowing their reputations?
I remember sitting at a café in Los Feliz waiting for Casey to show up and thinking, Wow, I’m about to meet Casey Affleck. I’ve loved him for so long, since Good Will Hunting, and he was about to walk into the room and sit down and talk about this movie. Within 30 seconds of meeting, we realized we were on the same page and liked the same things. We became good friends.
Shooting the movie felt like summer camp. You’re hanging out with friends. It was a very hard and hot summer camp with long days, but there was no sense of hierarchy. We all had skin in the game; it was a team effort in every way, which is all you can ask for from collaborators, whether it be in front of the camera or behind.
You've said that most challenging scenes to film were the emotional ones. Was that because you have to be in a certain mood to act in them?
It is, and also as a director, you are asking people to get to a very delicate place, and you want to make sure they have all the support they need. You almost have to be that safety net. Especially with the scenes that involved Ben and Rooney, they were difficult because, as we were shooting them, we were figuring out where everyone was standing as far as the characters go, what they were feeling, on a day-to-day basis.
It would've been very easy to make it a traditional romance or a traditional love triangle and for Ruth to fall into Patrick's arms. That would have been the easy way out but I wanted it to be more difficult and elusive than that. Finding the right beats to make that work and still be satisfying on a narrative level was tricky and created a lot of tension. But it wasn’t bad tension, it was just trying to make sure that we were all making the movie that we wanted to make.
Rooney Mara mentioned that the love triangle she saw was between her, her daughter Sylvie, and Bob, but Ben talked about getting between Bob and Ruth. How did you see it? Did you have two different conversations with them?
In a way, yes. There is a part of it where you have to approach each actor and each character like they are the central character in the movie, because for them they are.
When I was talking to Ben, I remember telling him: "It doesn’t matter for your character and for you as an actor. You don’t need to know whether or not you know whether she is going to go with Bob or not. You go in there and you as a character are spilling your guts to her, you don’t know what's going to happen. She might slap you in the face. She might fall into your arms and kiss you. All you know is that you care for her and you need to tell her that and let her know that you don’t hold anything against her. That's you, that's what you are bringing to the table."
At the same time, I was having a conversation with Rooney about how she was feeling about that character and how she was feeling about Bob. Indeed, ultimately it's a love triangle not between her, Bob, and the daughter—well it is that, but it also involves Patrick, too; he's the catalyst for her getting to where she needs to be. It was important for me not to reduce her character to a women who can only define herself by these two men, and I know Rooney felt strongly about that as well. It was important that she transcend that love triangle, and the daughter was the way to do that. That is not to say that women should only be lovers or mothers, but to say that that was the way that she could get out of both of those situations and establish herself as her own person.
Casey Affleck's character Bob is this figure who never shares a scene with both Patrick and Ruth, yet you can feel his presence the whole time.
His character was the easiest because he doesn’t change until the end of the movie. The conversations between Casey and me were more about coming to an understanding about how Bob feels about himself and the degree to which he believes in his own self-mythologizing.
Every character in the movie has a different definition of what the right thing is, but they’re all trying to do good by themselves and by others. That's something that’s really important to me.
We shot the movie in two stages. We did all of Casey’s scenes, then we did everything with Rooney, then we had two days of overlap. And Casey’s character, over the course of the shoot, became someone and the drive for him to get back home to Ruth became that much stronger. His tie to her became that much stronger. The script was there, but you always hope that it would be much more profound when you are watching it on screen. It resounded much more strongly than we expected it too, and that affected how Rooney played her scenes.
I told Rooney, "You have to be aware that he's coming and you have to love him but but you also have to know that that isn’t the right choice." It is a very complicated thing. So with Casey, it was just a matter of perfecting that drive and also perfecting the degree to which he is diluted because as a character he completely is.
How did you come up with the title? Did you have any alternates?
I never had alternates. I tried to think of something, because I thought some people wouldn't like the title. Certainly some of our financiers said, “You gotta change that title. No one will ever go see a movie called that." But the cast and the producers, we all stuck by it. It was the right title.
[The title] predates the movie. It’s something I came up with way back when. The literal origins I’d heard in some country song and misheard the lyrics. These lyrics morphed into this other phrase in my head, which is what the title is. I thought that that would be a neat movie title.
When I started writing this movie, I went back to that title and decided to use it because I wanted the whole movie to have a feel that was similar to a song, something that you would experience more like a folk song than you would an actual film. Aside from whatever thematic qualities there are, I think that the title has this cadence to it and this rhyming structure that is very musical, and it is also idiomatic in a very distinctly American way. You can’t translate the word “ain't.”
You said the title is thematic. Can you expand on that?
I could break it all the way down to being raised in the Catholic Church and being raised around the idea of sainthood and what that actually means. But on a basic level, it suggests to me that everyone has the potential to do the right thing. I think every character in this movie is good and, aside from those three bad guys who are clearly bad because they wear big hats and look mean, everyone in the movie is trying to do the right thing. Every character in the movie has a different definition of what the right thing is, but they’re all trying to do good by themselves and by others. That's important to me. I wanted the movie to be about people who’ve made bad choices but are all trying to fix those mistakes.