For those like myself who frequent the film festival circuit, David Lowery has been omnipresent for the past year, an editor on no less than five features and two shorts in the past 12 months including Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” and Shane Carruth’s equally extraordinary “Upstream Color” in addition to co-writing Yen Tan’s “Pit Stop” and picking up any number of odd jobs on friends’ productions. And while that would be extraordinary on its own, the fact that he was able to shoot and complete his second solo feature as a director, one decidedly more ambitious than his first, the assured yet enigmatic child disappearance thriller “St. Nick,” is practically shocking in that context. Still, not as jaw-dropping as the resulting film “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which may be the only thing more inescapable than the man himself.
Yet “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” keeps rattling around in my mind months after I first saw it, having slipped into the bloodstream from the moment it starts, beginning when the bank robbing pair of Bob and Ruth (a beguiling Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, respectively) are ending their run, forced to part ways by law enforcement with Bob headed to prison while Ruth is left to raise their first unborn child alone. Their bond unbroken despite their physical distance from each other, Bob eventually breaks free four years later to reunite with Ruth, only to find her doted on by the local sheriff (Ben Foster) and hemmed in by other forces beyond his control, rendering his trek across the state all but futile. However, it gives way for Lowery to reenvision cinema at a molecular level, employing a synthesis of rippling editing, a cacophony of Daniel Hart’s melancholy score and ambient noise and Bradford Young’s burnished cinematography to stick to the ribs like the dirt that cakes Bob’s skin.
The result is a desperately romantic and utterly harrowing journey down the backroads of ’70s Texas, as defiant of traditional film tropes as the outlaws at its center while retaining all the familiar pleasures of Hollywood’s greatest love stories and crime dramas, and as busy as Lowery continues to be these days, the Dallas native took a few minutes to talk about the film, how his many other films have had an influence on his directorial work, his affinity for running away and how he and Joe Swanberg created the summer’s most ubiquitous indie film character.
Do all the different projects you’ve been working on wind up influencing each other?
There’s no way that seepage doesn’t occur. It just has to. “Pit Stop” was a little while ago because Yen [Tan] had already written it and I did a draft on it with him, so that was further back, but we spent years going to the movies together, so we have the same influences in many ways and there’s things about that movie that feels like one of my movies. But I was editing Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” and then “Upstream Color” back-to-back right before we started [“Aint Them Bodies Saints”] – I basically left Shane [Carruth]’s house and drove to set for my movie basically. [laughs]
You learn from every movie you work on. A lot of times the things I think I’m learning I forget about once I’m on set, but especially as an editor, I’m there with the director at ground zero and it’s just me and them in a room and I’m seeing them at their best and at the worst. You get to explore somebody’s else’s perspective and see how your own perspective is not necessarily the only way or maybe not always the best way to see things. Then working with someone like Amy and Shane, where we were so in sync on both of those movies about what they were supposed to be, and I’m thinking especially with “Upstream Color” — with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” I’d always written [it] to have this flurry of things happening at the beginning where you’re just like thrown into the midst of something and then it’s just one thing after another.
For 15 or 20 minutes, it’s just a rush of fluid imagery and sound and plot points and then it stops and the movie continues from there, but that instinct for the opening, which was [already] in the script, was kind of the same mode that I was cutting “Upsteram Color.” That whole movie is like that and the amount of information that gets conveyed so quickly and so fluidly, it gave me confidence with my movie to really push that as far as I could. We could’ve pushed it even further and I had written many more scenes to try to cram in there that we couldn’t afford to shoot, but it was always like see how much information you can get in there as beautifully and as evocatively and as efficiently as possible and then let that then drop away and let the story continue from there.
You actually moderated a Q & A with Shane around the time when “Upstream Color” was released in Los Angeles and he spoke about “rejecting the notion that there are building blocks in film now” – meaning the process shouldn’t be as traditionally linear as it’s been where you write a script and build off of that where everything is divided into separate areas such as composing the music, hiring the actors, editing at the end. It should all happen as simultaneously and cooperatively as possible. Since this film seems to enter the bloodstream in the same way, is that a mode of filmmaking actually believe in yourself now?
I don’t reject the building blocks and I often depend on them, but I love just knocking them over. The thing that I love is, especially with my film, is we’re dealing with things that have been dealt with in film for 60 years at this point and there is a cinematic tradition that I’m relying on. But by relying on something that is so ingrained, that allows you to circumvent other things and to take detours and weird little avenues. I really like the idea of relying on classical narrative form and then just tweaking it ever so slightly to make it feel new and modern. I also don’t want to be so crass as to say subvert it because I want to honor it and I think it’s great, but I do want to find new ways to use them.
Speaking of which, the film’s look actually feels like it’s of the moment and timeless as well. Bradford Young, your cinematographer who used blacks so amazingly in “Pariah” where they felt sharp and deep embraces them here to feel tactile in a different way. How did the color scheme come about and getting something that felt rich?
We had an entire library of photos. We didn’t really use movies so much. We did look at Vilmos Zsigmond’s stuff and Harris Savides, like the stuff he did in “The Yards” where it got so, so dark. But more than that, we just used photographs and color cards as a reference and we started to just arrange them and figure out exactly what that look was going to be. Then we did camera tests because we wanted the movie to feel intrinsically old, but to not have grain or a sepia-ness, all the cliches of old-fashioned cinematography. It was just a process of trial and error and just getting out there with the actors, testing filters and different stocks and going to the lab and processing those in different ways. It was a wonderful process to work with [Bradford] on that because he just has so much respect in the industry that he could call up Robert Elswit and ask questions about how he shot “There Will Be Blood” and get an answer. Ultimately, we ended up with a board that had six photographs and four or five different colors and we were like this is what the movie’s going to look like.
Although they’re very different stories, it was striking that both your films as a director – this and “St. Nick” – involve people going on the run, which I thought was an interesting connection.
It is. Ultimately, the more I talk about it and the further “Aint Them Bodies Saints” gets away from me, the more I see the connections between that and my other work. It’s not something you think about consciously at the time, but “St. Nick” was very much a film about not wanting to grow up and this film is as well and that’s where being on the run is like running from responsibility and expectations. That is something that I’ve dealt with in my own life on a personal level — not wanting to become an adult — and that is coming through loud and clear in both of those movies. [laughs] For better or worse.
Your blog wasn’t just a great way to keep track of the film’s production, but really became a great resource for filmmakers. One of my favorite posts was when you posted a picture of a draft of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” script with a note on it that simply read “SEX??” That seemed to be in jest, but you’re able to establish this very romantic relationship between Bob and Ruth without almost any physical intimacy, so was there pressure to have more scenes where that was more overt?
There was never really too much debate about Bob and Ruth [together] — they were at the beginning of the script and then at the end. Everyone got that. There was a brief period where I entertained the idea of having one more thing in the middle and very quickly decided it just wasn’t necessary. If we did our job right, the beginning would sustain that romance until the end.
The sex question mark on that note regarded [Ruth’s] relationship with the sheriff played by Ben Foster. There was a draft where there was more of a traditional love triangle and that was one of those things I decided to reject because I felt that if the movie boiled down to a woman having to choose between two men, there was nothing good about that. Who cares? I didn’t want to put an actress in that position of having to play that character, so if you look at the movie from far away, you see a love triangle and the closer you get, the more that triangle just falls apart. The relationship between Ruth and the sheriff is something that I wanted to be incredibly delicate and tenuous and hard to pin down and I felt the minute we introduced sex or even a kiss to that, it would define it in such a tangible way that it would be wrong.
That was something that I definitely fought for and people were like, “No, they need to kiss, there needs to be something like that for them to grab onto.” But that’s not what that struggle’s about. That being said, people did feel that there was a lack of immediate [connection]. I wanted to take the characters away from the realm of the archetype and make them real people, but the more romantic Bob and Ruth became, the more they went back towards being an archetype. And there is I think a deficit in the film of reality, of actual physical contact and I think people did miss that. If I had any way to go back in time, I’d [want to] figure out a way to make these people more real. That doesn’t mean there has to be sex or kissing, but just getting a sense they’re real, physical people.
Was it different having known actors who bring with them for lack of a better term, baggage – a relationship with the audience that may reduce having to have some of that exposition?
It was, purely because I had never done it before, but also it was something I was conscious of. For Rooney, the reason I was really excited about her was everyone wanted to cast a movie star in that part and here’s a movie star that has no baggage because literally no one knows what she’s like as a person. You know that she’s going to show up in this movie, but she’s not going to look like Lisbeth Salander, so you get the best of both worlds in that case.
With someone like Casey, I loved his baggage and I loved what he brought to the movie. I loved that he is the person he is in the industry and the way that could play into the character. And someone like Keith Carradine, who I don’t want to say I cast because he’s not a great actor – he’s a great actor — but there’s a lineage back from my movie all the way back to “Stagecoach,” which I can’t help but selfishly be very pleased with. And that is there in that character. You’ve got this guy who carries a certain weight just because of who he is. It’s a shorthand. And that’s a lovers on the run idea — you don’t need to see the Bob and Ruth crime spree because you’ve got an entire history of movies that have shown you that over and over again.
If audiences see both your film and Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies,” they’ll also see a character named Gene Dentler pop up in both. How did that happen?
Joe Swanberg and I met at SXSW in 2005 with early films of ours and to that extent, we owe our career to Matt Dentler [then the festival’s producer]. So I called Joe and was like, “We need to have a character with the same name” because we were starting shooting on the same day and he’s like, “Well, it’s got to be Dentler.” [I said,] “I’ve got a character named Gene and he doesn’t have a last name.” And he’s like, “Well, let’s call him Dentler.” So in “Drinking Buddies,” Jason Sudeikis is named Gene Dentler and he’s got a plaque on his desk that says that. And that plaque was shipped to our set. Unfortunately, you don’t see it in the scene, but you do hear the name at least and that is just an ode to the guy that made it all happen for us.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” opens on August 16th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and New York at the IFC Center and the Walter Reade Theater before expanding on August 23rd.