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Interview: Director David Lowery Discusses His Sundance Sensation ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ & Assembling ‘Upstream Color’

Interview: Director David Lowery Discusses His Sundance Sensation 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' & Assembling 'Upstream Color'

David Lowery went from being a relative unknown to having one of the heavily anticipated films of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the outlaw drama, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” Though his most recent short film “Pioneer” picked up acclaim at the festival in 2011, not many saw his previous micro budgeted feature “St. Nick,” a dreamy brother-sister tale which cast only non-professional actors. And yet the anticipation for this film was off the charts thanks in part to the casting of Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine and Nate Parker for this “Bonnie & Clyde”-like tale of criminals determined to reunite with each other at whatever cost.

Our review from Sundance called, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” a “wholly engrossing and impressive piece of work that the movie world will be talking about all year long” and in a recent Indiewire Critics Poll, Lowery and the film were ranked as the #2 Best Director and Feature of the festival (behind Richard Linklater‘s “Before Midnight”). As if being the writer and director for one of the most well received films at the festival wasn’t enough, he was also the co-editor of Shane Carruth’s beguilingly abstract Upstream Color” and the co-writer of the NEXT selected love story “Pit Stop.” Shortly after IFC Films picked up ‘Saints’ for distribution, we spoke to Lowery about his unexpected influences for the film, sidestepping clichés and pulling off the ultimate Sundance hat-trick.

Where did your initial idea for the movie come from?
The idea for the film came sort of as a response to my first feature, “St. Nick” which was a slow and nearly silent film about children running away from home. I wanted to move in a different direction, so I thought, “Well, I made this incredibly slow, very ponderous and serious movie, let’s try something different. Let’s make an action film next.” It started as sort of a lark and I started to try to write something but very quickly the action part fell away. Initially I was going to open the film with this giant jailbreak scene with lots of intense action and chases, but maybe subconsciously I was disinterested in the action part of it, so I just skipped the actual jailbreak and started with the guy already out. I still think the film really is my version of an action film — only the whole film is all about the aftermath of action rather than the action itself.

The other big inspiration was just like a lot of the classic American films from the ‘40s through the ‘70s. I really wanted to make something that felt very old-fashioned. With “St. Nick” I was very much into European cinema and, especially Pan-Asian cinema, directors like Tsai Ming Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien and [Hungarian filmmaker] Bela Tarr and all the filmmakers that really mastered the art of the long, long take where nothing much happens and yet a lot happens at the same time. And I love that genre of filmmaking but having made that film already, I was ready to try something else and I was really getting into some American filmmakers like John Ford, John Huston and also ’70s filmmakers like Robert Altman and Michael Cimino. So I felt a strong desire to make a film in that mode that had that sort of clarity, simplicity and muscularity. I really wanted to tell a classic story that was pretty well known, not like a true story or anything but a film that followed traditional beats where you wouldn’t have to pay too much attention to as far as the plot goes. I really love movies where you’re able to sit back and luxuriate in the details or the characters or the moments in between the big scenes. That’s what I really was, more than anything else, really trying to do.

I’ve spoken a lot about how “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was influence on this movie but more than the film itself, perhaps, is something that Robert Altman had said on the commentary track which is that if you give an audience a story that they already know, it gives you an opportunity to just mess around in that story, to look in the corners and find all the weird details that you wouldn’t necessarily notice in another film. But because everyone knows where it’s going because it’s all so familiar, you’re really able to present something entirely different and entirely new by paying attention to what’s happening behind the action, so to speak.

Were there any clichés of this kind of outlaw story that you consciously tried to stay away from?
When I writing the script, I was always thinking, “If I were watching the movie, would I be disappointed if I went in this direction?” And sometimes you do have to go in those directions because it seems proper or it seems easy but those are always the directions I would have to catch myself on. For example, there’s a certain expectation in these types of films that the outlaw and the sheriff are going to have a confrontation at the end, which is the way to tell this story traditionally by having those characters fulfill their archetypes. So I was always trying to find circuitous routes to achieving those classic moments or clichés as you might say. So indeed, the sheriff and the outlaw do indeed have a confrontation at the end but it’s not the one that you might expect from “High Noon” or any of those classic movies where the good guy and the bad guy finally meet up. And there’s certainly plenty of clichés but if you do them well — by side stepping the expectation and yet fulfilling it in a roundabout manner — they are satisfying in a really wonderful way. And so when I was writing the script I was always just very conscious of where I needed to get to but I always looked for backhanded way to get there.

Most people would probably guess “Badlands” or “Bonnie & Clyde” as being touchstones for the film but can you talk about some of your more conscious influences?
You have a whole catalogue of things you’ve digested throughout your life that you draw on as you’re creating something. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” — certainly that was a big one — and we also looked at a lot of Claire Denis movies, especially “35 Shots of Rum.” There was something about that one that I felt really tonally applied to this film. There’s a scene in that movie where the characters’ car breaks down and they go into a bar late at night, turn on the jukebox and dance with each other. There’s a feeling in that, a warmth and congeniality that somehow really, I felt, applied to this movie in a strange way. The scene’s on YouTube and I sent a link to it to everyone that worked on the movie. The scene in the movie where Casey wanders around the bar listening to a song on the jukebox I think owes a little bit to that.

And there’s no denying that “There Will Be Blood” was a big touchstone as well just because they achieved something that we were after: to create a really old-fashioned motion picture that yet has a strange modernity to it as well. On the technical side of things, we definitely followed in that film’s footsteps by shooting on 35mm film, using old fashioned lenses and trying to limit the number of modern filmmaking contrivances. We didn’t use any modern lighting equipment and the camera was locked down or on an old dolly for the most part, sometimes we broke out a steadicam but we never used a crane or anything like that. We tried to keep everything as stately and as old-fashioned as possible. I know my cinematographer Bradford Young talked to [“There Will Be Blood” DP] Robert Elswit just to get some tips on how to process the film in an old-fashioned way. I don’t know how many of those secrets were divulged because I know cinematographers like to keep their tricks close to their chest but that discussion was certainly something we were very keen on having.

How important was music to you while you were writing the script? And when you were on the set?
Music was also a huge part of how the film wound up feeling. When I was first starting to talk to the cast or crew, I put together a playlist on Dropbox and sent it to everybody. I would say, “Here’s a song that I want a certain scene to feel like ” or “I want the whole movie to feel like this.” Sometimes it was very specific dialogue that would echo lyrics of a certain song and sometimes we would just reference it with our composer for mood. But more often than not it was just the tone of it, the overall feel of the music played a big influence both in the writing of the script and all the way through the shooting of the movie. While we were setting up the camera we would have music playing sometimes to try and get into this mood of what I wanted the movie to feel like.

I can probably just call out the entire playlist that I had: Joanna Newsom was a huge part of it; for Rooney’s character, I gave her a bunch of songs that very specifically applied to the journey that character takes. There’s one song in particular called “Go Long” and one draft of the script had very specific quotes from that song in the letters that her character writes. And then Bill Callahan and Bonnie Prince Billy were also a huge influence. I would just listen to all of them on repeat just constantly. “Ramblin’ Blues” by Mickey Newbury, “Christmas in Prison” by John Prine was something that I wanted to have in the credits at one point, Nick Cave a little bit here and there, but it was Joanna Newsom that was such a huge part of how everything came together in the movie tonally and what I wanted it to feel like. In the movie there’s still a lyrical reference and I was so glad that that made the final cut because it was such a huge part of where the movie came from.

Had Mara heard of Newsom before?
It was the first she had heard of her but she definitely has heard of her now because I just keep talking about her and sending her music. I feel like if Joanna Newsom were to watch it, she would definitely catch the reference and if you were to watch it again, if you know her music well, you might catch it as well.

To switch gears a little bit, you also co-edited “Upstream Color” which was very narratively fragmented. Was the film built that way on the page or was that something that developed in the editing room?
The script is very similar to the finished film. If you had entered a new scene every time the movie had cut from one location to the other, I think the script would have been about 300 pages long but it was pretty accurate to the running time, probably about 90 pages. But the movie evolves as you shoot it and that was certainly the case with “Upstream Color.” As I was editing it, I was looking back at the script and it’s remarkably close and I think that speaks to Shane’s clarity of vision. He knows from the very beginning what it is he’s after and sometimes that evolved a little bit. One of those instances would be that scene where it’s cutting back and forth, over the course of the conversation, and that was a scene that I cut it that way because Shane was off shooting another scene and I was looking at the footage and saw that they had shot the same conversation multiple times in different locations and was thinking, “Well, this is probably how this was meant to go.” Very often that’s how the whole movie was put together. You ascertain what the director intended and then as it goes it just all starts to fit together.

In this movie in particular, because there’s so much density to it, it developed a musicality and the cutting became a very rhythmic thing. I think that was always intended but it was really fun to figure it out from the footage. For the first month that I was editing, I had very little interaction with Shane because he was still shooting the film. As we got towards the end and things were picking up, we just got faster and faster. At some point we had finished the film and we were looking at the first assembly and realized that the last thirty minutes had no dialogue. It wasn’t something conscious that we were after and it wasn’t something that was scripted, it just worked out that way. It was such a natural and instinctive thing that it took a little while for us to realize that it was indeed a silent movie for the last reel or two and all the dialogue prior to that is all just quotes from “Walden.” That’s something that was a wonderful surprise to realize that the movie had gone in that direction of its own accord almost and that it wasn’t an intentional decision. I’m a big believer in gut instinct and following whatever feels right and that was a very definite case of following that instinct and winding up with a movie that worked that way.

Do you think you might work with Carruth again in the future?
I would love to. I know what his next film is and when he’s hoping to shoot it, but we’ll see how things go. At the very least I would always hope to be a sounding board and someone he can show a cut to. He was the very first person to see a cut of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” I look forward to working together at the very least in the capacity of friends showing each other movies or just friends hanging out, that’s always the bar by which I set all collaborations. Hopefully we’ll hang out in the future a lot and sometimes that will involve making movies.

Did it change much from that first cut Shane saw to the final cut at Sundance? What was his feedback like?
Yeah, it changed a lot. The first cut was cut for tone more than anything else the first time and it was really different. At the moment that was the best version of it, and I was like “Alright, we got it, here it is. This is the final cut it’s not going to change at all.” I kind of knew that wasn’t true but at the same time I had gotten to that plateau for a moment and just sat back like, “Okay, this is great. I got it to where it needs to be.” Then we would show it to people and you realize, “Oh, wait, it’s not there at all.” Nonetheless, Shane watched that first cut and gave us great notes and at one point, he even recut a scene for me because he had some ideas and he said, “I can just explain it better if I recut it.” So he did that which gave some remarkable clarity on how to put the movie together. That scene that he cut isn’t in the movie in that way, but just the way he did it was the spark that gave me an idea for how the rest of the movie could work and gave me confidence to try some new things.

Do you have any idea what’s next?
I’m working on three different screenplays at the moment, just taking a lazy Susan approach and trying to get a little bit done on each one on every day until whichever one catches fire first is magically done which is how all my scripts always seem to finish themselves. I never know exactly how I finish any screenplay because it usually takes about six months for the first twenty pages and then all of a sudden it’ll be done one day and I don’t remember how I wrote it. I’m waiting for that to happen and I would love to be getting something going by the end of the year because it’s really difficult to make a film and while you’re in the midst of it you’re like, “Why did I choose this? Why did I ever sign up for this?” And then as soon as you wrap, on the last day, you’re like “Man, I can’t wait to make another one.” The longer you go without having made one, the more you just want to get back behind the camera. Right now, I’m just really excited about making something new and learning new things and growing as a person and as a filmmaker. I’m always just curious, I want to know more about everything and to accomplish that I make movies. So, I’m ready to learn some more.

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