Writer-director David Lowery has been putting in his 10,000 hours over the past few years, working as an editor and cinematographer on many of his friends’ micro-budget projects, as part of the growing multi-tasking barter indie culture. He’s helped many of the geographically disparate friends he’s met on the festival circuit with their films; he edited with director Shane Carruth the much-talked-about “Upstream Color.” SXSW has championed the Texas filmmaker, playing his shorts and features; “Saint Nick” showed promise on a meager $12,000 budget.
Lowery’s 2011 Sundance short “Pioneer” was a ramp-up to his exquisitely crafted neo-noir western, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which was picked up by IFC Films after its rapturous reception at Sundance, and played during the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics Week. IFC releases the film August 16. See my video interview with Lowery below.
What’s more — the filmmaker is attached to direct “The Old Man and the Gun,” starring Robert Redford, and has been tapped by Disney to write the remake of “Pete’s Dragon.”
Lowery’s rising star is the result of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” The title was a misreading of an old American folk song that captured the right “classical, regional” feel, he said at the Sundance premiere press conference.
While it’s easy to compare this movie to Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” from its magic hour photography to its content, which Lowery considers an antecedent to his two young bank robbers trying to grab happiness as their future disappears, the filmmaker puts his own stamp on this familiar material. He places his actors, led by hapless robber Casey Affleck and his wife Rooney Mara (who has his child while he is serving time in prison) inside a timeless sepia universe of ramshackle houses and wind-blown grasses. (The film was shot around Shreveport, Louisiana.) “I wanted it to feel old in the best sense of the word,” he said.
The supporting actors are all spot on as well: Keith Carradine, Ben Foster and Nate Parker. And the country-tinged music (long-time collaborator Daniel Hart) and percussive sound also serve to modernize this film, keeping it simultaneously in the past and present. “It’s western and not western” said Hart, who used clapping and folk instruments in what he called “new ways.”
Lowery is a precise filmmaker of many gifts who likes to “see moments in between the big moments,” he said, “spaces between the silences when people are talking.” He likes to leave room for the audience’s imagination to get full range.
Lowery has a strong sense of what he wants to accomplish. “The films I love are very precise and every shot means something, every shot should convey something new,” he says. “When you cut from a long shot to a close shot you’re doing it for a reason, or if you let something stay in long shot for a long take. On the short films I was teaching myself how to express something personal cinematically, how to use the language of film the best I could.”
He preps for every eventuality, and then lets it ride on set. “I love films that are more random and chaotic, finding moments and capturing them,” he says. “I wanted to make a film in this case when everything counted. On set I can get carried away, it’s so chaotic, if you don’t remember, you have to trust your gut: when I was planning this, there was probably a good reason to go with that. Usually you are right, but sometimes you have to have the wherewithal to recognize that the camera’s not in the right place, or realize you don’t need something.”
He carries the film in his head, he says: “Often you need to shoot out of order, you get scene two on day 14 which is going to have an effect on scene three, which will be shot in two weeks, knowing how every little piece fits with what’s before. Or you have an idea: how is everything going to come together? Or you make mistakes. There are moments of wonderful surprise in the editing room, as well as ‘why did I do that?'”
The film’s sepia-tinged look was artfully created. “For one thing we didn’t use any fluorescent lighting, but older equipment, none of the current modern lighting technology,” he says. “We used an Arri 35 mm camera with Cooke lenses; we wanted it to be as old-fashioned as possible. Bradford Young and I spent weeks in prep going through old photographs, narrowing down to 6 or 7 the images that represented each stage of the movie, to know the palate we needed for every location. For the daylight, we made the movie look like we shot it through a burlap bag.”
The movie is often pitch dark. “We spent time on how we wanted the nights to look,” he says. “We wanted the night scenes to be really dark, but still clear so you could see things. We looked at James Gray and Harris Savides’ ‘The Yard,’ which had a wide range of exposure but was perfectly dark.”
If the light was old-fashioned the sound design was the opposite. “Technology allows us to use sound with that
degree of precision now,” he says. “Audiences can interpret it in a way, they’re attuned to how to process that information. It’s one of the most
important tools filmmakers have in their toolbox now.”
Composer Daniel Hart, who did some music for “St. Nick” and “Pioneer,” this time after visiting the set and seeing some footage, sent Lowery a track featuring hand claps. “He gets what we’re after,” says Lowery. “We have a wonderful psychic connection.”
The director never does more than ten takes. He usually does four or five,
and figures out the rhythm of each actor as he goes along. “Sometimes
they’re great on the first take and wind down, other times they build up
to it.” When Affleck and Mara did their scenes together–of which there aren’t many– “they always get better and better; they have a great
rapport. Watching them build off and expand on what’s on the page was
fun to see. “Casey is very playful, he loves to try things out, try
something new. He has great ideas, but wouldn’t tell me what they are. A
lot of that wound up in the movie.”
The key scene was the one where the young couple are arrested. “We knew that would be a pivotal image for the film,” he says. “From that moment on until the last scene they are separated for the whole film. We knew what it would be, silent, no dialogue, surrealistic to the degree that the other officers are not talking. They have a mournful funeral procession march down this hill. The direction I gave them was, ‘you know this is your last time to be together, try to be together.’ And to the police officers: ‘try to keep them apart.’ Four or five takes of that was heartbreaking every time. You needed to feel that the separation was strong, we had to sustain it for the rest of the movie, that sense of them wanting to get back together, to make sure their separation was a punch in the gut.”
The movie does a push-pull as Mara’s Ruth is attracted to two very different men: her husband the outlaw (Affleck) and a protective local policeman (Ben Foster). “They’re both great choices,” says Lowery. “She has a child, which changes things. Who’s to say which is the better choice? One is riskier, represents the grand romantic passionate side, the other has responsibility and security. I wanted there to never be a moment where we felt one was better than the other, aside from the fact that she had a daughter.”
Lowery admits that the renegade maverick and the responsible honest pragmatic guy are “both sides of my personality. I vacillate between both all the time.”
You need both to be filmmaker? “You do, for myriad reasons, and I’m always bouncing back and forth between the two. In the film they both represent something that Ruth needs. I wanted there to never to be a moment where you felt she was definitely going one way or the other. She makes a decision: to protect her child.”