Unless you’ve been traveling the U.S. film festival circuit in recent years, chances are strong you haven’t heard of David Lowery. The Dallas-based filmmaker’s 2009 feature-length debut “St. Nick,” a nearly dialogue-free story of two young children adventuring across an empty landscape, premiered at the SXSW Film Festival but never received a wide release. But Lowery’s credits extend much deeper into the fabric of the American independent film community: As an editor, his credits include recent festival hits “Bad Fever” and “Sun Don’t Shine,” in addition to Shane Carruth’s highly anticipated “Upstream Color,” premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival.
But that’s not the only reason Lowery’s at the festival this year: His own competition feature, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” premieres Sunday in the wake of major buzz. Starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, the outlaw tale revolves around a couple on the lam. In terms of exposure, it’s a huge leap from when Lowery came to Sundance in 2011 with his short film “Pioneer.” Now his name is all over the festival — not only for his credits on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Upstream Color,” but also as a co-writer of “Pit Stop,” premiering in the festival’s Next section. Less than 24 hours before the premiere of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” a movie he scrambled to finish just days before the festival, Lowery talked about his rapid progression and how his latest achievement connects to his previous films.
How did you go from working on microbudget features and short films to a $6 million production with stars in less than two years?
In 2011, when I was here with “Pioneer,” I had the first draft of the script done. I had written the first draft in the previous months. I was planning on making it very low-budget for half a million and very under the radar. After we played at Sundance with “Pioneer,” [Lowery’s longtime producers] James [M. Johnson] and Toby [Halbrooks] had the opportunity to apply to the Sundance Producers Fellowship. So they applied with the script and got in over the course of four months. It went from being this little under-half-a-million-dollar movie we were trying to raise money for to being something that people were paying attention to in a much larger context. James and Toby met Lars Knudsen, our producer, at the Producers Labs. From there, they signed on as executive producers and wanted to help push the project to the next level.
That took place over the course of 2011. In winter of 2012, I came to Sundance for the writers lab. At that point, Craig Kestel at WME had read the script and asked if he could send it out to some actors who might be interested. My whole modus operandi was that I wasn’t going to wait with this movie. I knew how to make it and had a plan, but if we could do it on a bigger level, let’s go for it. He sent it out to other folks at the agency and very quickly there was a response. So by the time I was at Sundance last year, I had meetings set up with several actors in L.A. shortly afterwards. Rooney Mara was the only actress I met with. Casey Affleck was the first actor I met with. I had a gut instinct of who would be perfect for these roles. It was those actors. Luckily for me, they said yes. It became what it is very quickly — from Sundance last year until now.
Why do you think these actors were interested in this project?
I was confounded. I made “St. Nick” on a 30-page outline. “Aint’ Them Bodies Saints” was a full-bodied script, but it still had a lot of room for improvisation. There were scenes that weren’t there on the page — just a sentence saying something happens. I was like, “We’ll figure this out when we shoot it.” I was very surprised to a certain extent that they responded to it as much as they did. But what helped was that we sent the script out with “Pioneer.” When folks could read the script and watch that movie, I think it really helped contextualize the film we wanted to make. I think there’s a real delineation between “St. Nick” to “Pioneer” to this film. It’s very clear what we’re coming from with this project. The actors really responded both to the script as a piece of raw material that could be developed and also to “Pioneer,” which represented the fruition of what myself and my partners helped develop. When you’ve made a $12,000 feature, people are like, “Well, that’s great,” but it’s hard to justify taking that risk. Because it is a risk. “Pioneer” helped make this a safer chance. If you can show 15 minutes of people talking in a room and people find it intriguing, that’s something.
Was it surreal when you started shooting the new movie and realized how much bigger a production it was compared to your previous work?
Very much so. With “St. Nick” and “Pioneer,” I’d go pick up the equipment myself. I’d place the orders. With “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” I didn’t have to worry about any of that, which was very disconcerting on the one hand, because I’m used to knowing every facet of my production since I’m the one paying for it all — myself and my partners. In this case, I was afforded the luxury of not having to pay or worry about it. On the first day, the set was full of trucks: the prop truck, the camera truck. It was sort of breathtaking at first because all these people are there to service your vision. Within about 20 minutes, you’re called away to the set with the cameras being set up and you say where you want the camera set up, and you talk to the actors. At that point, all of a sudden, it’s like all those elements of the machine of motion picture production faded away. Once again, it became about lens, actors and what they’re saying on camera. The budget just vanished at that point. It became like “Pioneer” or “St. Nick.” It felt exactly like every movie we made in the past.
At the same time, “St. Nick” was clearly not a movie made with commercial intentions. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” seems to reflect broader intentions.
Absolutely. I think, with “St. Nick,” when you’re working with a smaller budget you have fewer risks involved. You’re able to take chances with style and content. But I was still learning and trying to figure out what I wanted to do as a filmmaker. It was easy for me to grab onto these concepts of formalism and cinema as a voice unto itself. I wanted to utilize that to the max. We got a grant to make the movie that was supposed to go towards the larger production costs, but it would end up being the entire budget. It was a pittance. I feel comfortable making films at that budget level. It was an immensely satisfying experience. After having made it, I felt like I’ve done this film where the audience has to meet me three-quarters of the way, which is satisfying on the one hand but also frustrating because you automatically exclude some people. There’s always going to be the person who doesn’t want to go that distance. I felt the opportunity was there to make a film that has the same degree of integrity but also embraces the audience. I certainly didn’t want to dive into commercialism appealing to the lowest common denominator. But I wanted to go to a crowded movie theater and watch this film and sit back and enjoy it with an audience caught up in it. As an audience member I like having to do work but I also like being taken on a ride, so I wanted to find the common ground between those two modes. I hope it feels like a film people have seen before but they’ve never seen this way.
So how would you categorize it?
All throughout the pre-production process we were batting around a very small number of terms. We called it a drama, a melodrama, a thriller. We have all of those elements. “Drama” has unfortunately become a dirty word. I resent the market for doing that. Dramas are incredibly compelling. I feel like “Silver Linings Playbook” is a drama but because it’s funny people market it as a comedy. I’m not a huge fan of “Flight” but that movie was an adult movie made on a budget. I hope studios acknowledge that because it’s the type of film I want to see and I think audiences are willing to go for that. Hollywood is able to make these films responsibly and define that box office mentality. I don’t know how this movie will be sold. I’ve seen a rough cut of the trailer that contains every single gunshot to make it look like an action movie. But ultimately it’s a love story, a drama, a movie about adults reconciling very adult decisions. It’s hard to boil that down to a single sentence. It might be ultimately described as a thriller. But it’s also a romance, which is hard to define in the marketplace.
You used “There Will Be Blood” as a reference point?
It was a reference point in multiple ways. That film was shot on 35mm with anamorphic lenses that were virtually antiques. They processed it photochemically in an old-fashioned manner. It was done entirely photochemically from the production to the exhibition process. We lit our film in the same way. “There Will Be Blood” was dedicated to Robert Altman, and Paul Thomas Anderson was clearly influenced by working on “Prairie Home Companion.” By the same token, Altman was a huge influence on me as a filmmaker, especially “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” We cast Keith Carradine partly because he’s an amazing actor, but it was a nice bonus that his first role was in “McCabe.” He plays a similar character in this film. We really wanted it to feel old-fashioned and cast actors who in spite of their modernity could disappear into the texture of the movie. When we looked at “There Will Be Blood,” it was because we wanted it to feel old-fashioned and modern. Also, PTA grows as an artist in such amazing ways. I was 16 or 17 when “Boogie Nights” came out and I’ve really felt like every film he makes urges me on to the next one.
How did your experience as an editor impact the filmmaking process?
From the very beginning, I intended to edit the film. I had just come off editing “Upstream Color,” which was an incredibly satisfying experience that I wanted to have on my picture. I wanted to have someone make my movie better. I don’t want to go so far as to say I made Shane’s movie better; Shane’s an amazing editor in his own right. But I feel that I contributed something. I was really excited about the prospect of having someone contribute something. That being said, we were in such a tight post-production schedule that we didn’t have time to find the collaborative rhythms with my editors. I worked with some amazingly talented people, but I was never able to turn my back from it. That’s partially my own overestimation of what I can expect from people, but nonetheless it never happened. So at a certain point I had to take the movie myself and go cut for awhile. I spent a little over a month working on it and it just got to the point where I felt comfortable with it. Then I joined forces with another editor and we completed the picture together. I’m so used to just doing it myself and not having to verbalize the changes I make. In this case, I was telling someone to hit a key and make something happen. It was slower and sometimes frustrating for me. It was a tug-of-war in the best way possible.
But ultimately you took a pseudonym in the editing credits.
Yes. Patrick M. Nickelbime, which is my, James’ and Toby’s middle names. I went back to Texas for a month to cut my film and they stood by me to let me shape it into the form I needed. I wanted to subtly acknowledge everybody’s participation in that. It was a joint effort in every possible way. I’m blowing my cover by telling you this but I feel like that’s OK. Everybody knows that “Roderick Jaynes” [the editing credit on most Coen brothers movies] is the Coen brothers. Certain directors know what they’re doing going into a project and shape that into a final form on their own. Working as an editor, I’ve contributed to the projects I’ve cut, but there are filmmakers who wouldn’t hire me because they know what they want. If someone wants to hire me in the future, I hope I can help them.
Are you moving away from editing gigs now to focus on directing?
It’s funny. I’m reading a lot of scripts these days that get sent to me and sometimes I’ll think that I don’t want to direct them but I would edit them. If I want to ask an audience to take two hours to engage with something I make, I want it to come directly from me. As an editor, I can indulge in things that might not necessarily be straight from my heart but definitely interest me. I can both dabble in those worlds and learn things from different directors. It’s even as basic as just seeing a scene that was shot poorly — every movie has one. Learning those mistakes in advance is helpful. It doesn’t prevent you from making your own mistakes, but hopefully you learn from it. It’s hard to quantify the amount of knowledge you gain working in that capacity.