By Linc Leifeste | December 18, 2013
Linc Leifeste: Were you born in Texas?
David Lowery: I was born in Wisconsin. Waukesha, Wisconsin. My mom was born and raised in Fort Worth and then she moved to Wisconsin when she got married. I was born there and then coincidentally my dad got a job in Dallas so we moved back to Texas, my mom came back to Texas. I moved there when I was seven. I lived in LA for a year at one point but other than that, I’ve always been there.
LL: Beyond Ain’t Them Bodies Saints being set in Texas, there were a couple of other Texas-centric things in the film that stood out to me. For example, Ruth’s character sings a lullaby to her daughter that centers around events in Texas history, the Gonzales cannon and Santa Anna. Do you consider your directorial voice to have a Texas accent? Are your Texas roots a key element of your voice?
DL: Absolutely. When I first moved here I didn’t like it at all. I came from a place where it snowed in the winter and that was one of my favorite things in the world, seasons, then to come to a place like this. I had all the stereotypical images in my head of guys on horses in dirty streets and things like that. And none of that was true, of course, but I was still predisposed to not like it. And at a certain point I began to like it and then sometime after high school I realized for the first time that I identified myself as a Texan and wasn’t ashamed of that. I was actually proud of it. I actually thought it was cool to be Texan. And I realized that people respond to Texas in a certain way, on an ideological level, separate from the political stance that people might assume of someone who lives in Texas. There’s a response that is elicited by claiming the state as your own and that’s something that I really liked. I really liked that people thought certain things about me because I was from Texas and also that their expectations might be confounded when they find out what I’m really like. All those things were very appealing to me and I just became sort of enamored with the Texas spirit, to a large degree.
LL: And on the topic of Texas filmmakers, let me get this out of the way early. Terrence Malick. I know the first time I saw the trailer his name immediately popped into my head, the trailer visually having a Malick feel. But then when I saw the film it quickly became evident that you had your own distinctive cinematic voice and this wasn’t just a case of another filmmaker channeling Malick. That said, it seemed clear that influence was there. Can you talk a little bit about his filmmaking and how particular films such as Badlands and Days of Heaven have influenced you?
DL: I love his movies. I love the way he uses cinema the way you would use poetry. The way he edits his movies is terrific. That being said, I knew going into this movie that it was going to have comparisons to Badlands because obviously we’re telling a story that is very similar, not so much similar, but picking up where that movie left off on a narrative level. And beyond that, I didn’t really think about Malick at all. Whatever came through in the movie, certainly there are things that I’ve digested that will subconsciously show up but that goes for any movie, you process it and it comes out in your own words, you don’t have to think about it. And we did decide to shoot some scenes outside and you’re shooting in Texas in the summer so you get lens flares, you have fields full of grass, there are things that are definitely considered Malick trademarks that we used but it wasn’t because we were trying to be Terrence Malick, it’s just because that’s where the story takes place. The comparisons are fine and I gather where they’re coming from but I always hope that people will look beyond that because I think there is always so much more that a film has to offer than simply a regurgitation of whatever Malick might have given me as a filmmaker.
LL: There were a few other things in the film that made me think you might be tipping your hat to other films and directors. For instance, Ben Foster’s character is named Patrick Wheeler, which happens to be the name of Ward Bond’s character in Rio Bravo. And then you have a credited character, who I never actually saw in the film, named Altman.
DL: I’d seen Rio Bravo but that name came from the actor that plays the police chief, Robert Longstreet Wheeler. So I borrowed his last name for that character. So it was just a nice coincidence that it tied in to Howard Hawks.
Robert Altman is one of my favorite American directors. I love all of his movies, even the ones that are terrible, because I think he made a few terrible ones. And McCabe & Mrs. Miller is certainly one of my five favorite movies of all time and that’s something I’ll openly say, “That influenced this movie directly. We thought about that a lot.” There was a character named Altman but that character got cut out of the movie. He was just a drunk guy at the bar.
LL: Having immersed myself in the world of the film by watching it three times in one weekend, I have a hard time imagining other actors in these roles. I tend to feel that way about actors in films I love although I’m wise enough to know it’s probably never really the case. I’m curious as to at what point you had Mara and Affleck in mind for these roles and if you wrote these characters with these actors in mind.
DL: No, I wrote it thinking I was going to make another movie the same way that I made St. Nick, which was to get together with my friends, get a camera, cast other friends in all the roles and just make it on the cheap. I figured we could make this movie for 50 or 75K and it would be good, I knew it would be good. I wrote the script knowing how I was gonna make it for that much. And what happened was right as I was finishing the first draft of the script, our short film Pioneer got into Sundance. And it played there and did really well; people loved it. And they began to ask what we were doing next and we’d tell them about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Then James M. Johnston and Toby Halbrooks, my producers, applied for the Sundance creative fellowship with the script and they got in. So that summer we went from location scouting all over Austin, where we were planning on shooting it, to them going to Utah to spend their week learning how to produce, basically. And while they were there the advisors who read the script all suggested, “You know, this script is good enough to pursue grander means than what you think you have to make it. You don’t have to limit yourself to the money you think you can raise from friends and family. You can try to make it for a little bit more because this script will hold up.” And I’ve always been of the opinion that I would rather make a movie than wait to make a movie or wait for someone to tell me that I can make a movie. That’s why I’ve always worked on such a low budget, because I don’t want to wait around for an actor to say yes or no or for a financier to make a decision. It was always important to me to not wait, because I’d seen people get caught in that trap of just waiting years to make their first feature and waiting for the money to come together and so on and so forth. And so I was a little nervous at first about doing this because I thought that it might just put the brakes on something that’s moving forward just fine on its own. And then I decided, okay, let’s just give it twelve months. If we can put the movie together in twelve months on a scale that’s bigger than anything we’ve ever done before, that would be worth it. And if not, we’ll just go right back to doing it the way we’d planned. And that was in September of 2011. Within a few months, by December, the script had gone out and was being sent to talent agencies and an agent at William Morris Endeavor wrote me asking, “Do you mind if I send this to some of our people? And by the way, is there anyone at our agency who you think would be good for the lead roles?” And so I looked through their roster and let him know that Casey Affleck was someone I was interested in, someone I thought would be perfect for this part. And so they sent it to him. And then they asked if they could send it to Rooney Mara. And this was a week or two before Girl With the Dragon Tattoo came out and I remember writing back saying something along the lines of, “Why would she ever do a movie this small? She’s starring in this massive, international blockbuster. How could she follow that up with this movie?” And her agent said, “I get that but I think she would actually really respond to this.” So I wrote a little note and we sent the script over and by January of 2012, a month later, I was booking a ticket to Los Angeles to go sit down with both of them. And Ben Foster, who’d read it by that point as well. I met with a lot of different people. Casey was the first person I sat down with but I met with seven or eight other actors, but I instantly knew from the first time that we exchanged words that he was the one that I wanted for that part. And Rooney was the only actress who read the script and she said yes. And five months after that we were shooting. So it all came together almost alarmingly fast. And once the actors were on board, a lot of people wanted to put money into it. The financing came together very easily and we were off and running. It was a shockingly fast process. So fast that I rewrote the script because I’d originally written it to take place at Christmastime and everyone was available in the summer and couldn’t promise they’d be available in the winter, so I just decided that the cast was more important than the season and rewrote the script to take place in the summer.
LL: The setting of the film is Meridian, Texas. Why Meridian? I’ll admit that, despite being a lifelong Texan, it wasn’t a town I was familiar with.
We were location scouting, just driving through these small towns and we found that one and I just loved the way it looked. At that point in the script the town was never named but once we found it I decided that we might as well just own it and let that be the name. It sits in the landscape in a really nice way. It’s right at the foot of the hill country. So it’s like this little town in a valley, almost and looks spectacular when you come over the hill and see the courthouse. I was just enchanted with it from the very beginning. Ben Foster actually went to visit it to see what it was like because he’d shooting scenes there and he got there and called me, “I’m standing in the town square and I just don’t see what’s so special about this place.” I’m like, “I know, I know, but you have to take a step back and look at it and think about it in terms of where it is in the country and the landscape around it, even on geographic terms, where the fault line is, how the landscape changes right there.” It’s a very specifically Texan town and that’s what I liked about it.
LL: And as far as the time setting for the film, I assume it was the 70’s but I don’t know car models well enough to know from the cars exactly what year. I had a hard time deciding if you were trying to lock the film into a specific point in time. There were scenes that appeared to be older, like the scenes in the bar, which made the film feel like it was outside of time. And I also read an interview with the Mara and Affleck and she seemed confident that you intended it to be set in Texas in a specific year in the 1970’s but he felt that there would be scenes in the film that were shot in Louisiana that wouldn’t look like Texas to those who live here and he pointed out that you chose to use a 1980’s model pickup.
DL: That’s true. We did. We never had rules where we said that was because something was made after a certain date it couldn’t be in the movie. It was more about whether or not it looked right in the movie. And that was something that I just worked with Jay Heeler, our production designer, and Bradford, the cinematographer, to figure out what those visual rules were. So we had hard dates on newspapers and on all the props that we needed them for but we never wanted to actually show those dates. I felt that if a character were to turn on a TV and see a news report about the Vietnam War, it would suddenly contextualize the movie in a very immediate and direct way and it would turn it into a certain type of period piece.
LL: I originally was under the impression that the film was made in Louisiana but it was also shot in Texas?
DL: Yes, I don’t know what the percentages were but anything shot inside was in Louisiana, most of what’s outside is Texas. I will say that I love Louisiana and it was great to make a movie there but it was definitely heartbreaking not to be able to shoot the whole movie in Texas because it is such an intrinsic part of the story. The truth is that there are not many financiers today who will allow you to make a movie without taking advantage of tax breaks. So everyone who wanted to finance the movie said, “Yes, we will finance this but you have to shoot in either Louisiana or Canada.” And we chose Louisiana because we could drive across the border to Texas. We shot in the countryside outside Shreveport, so literally just on the Texas border and then we did come to Austin and Meridian and Dallas and shot stuff there as well.
LL: One thing that I loved about this film was that it doesn’t present the viewer with much in the way of the characters’ backstories or give explanation for their actions. The viewer is just dropped in on these characters in the moment, so to speak, with bits and pieces of their history revealed as the film progresses. The viewer is free to respond to these characters based on their actions and according to the viewer’s own biases and impulses, and honestly I found myself sympathizing with all the characters.
DL: Good, that was the intention. I think that our approach to it was…I kept thinking about how we have so much cinematic history that we can fall back on, and that we don’t need to see the crime spree and we don’t need to see a prison break, because these characters have done that in other movies. With these characters, there’s no denying that I was looking at this as an excuse to play around with archetypes and to rest on those archetypes. I really wanted the characters to feel like full rich characters, characters that you will sympathize with, but at the same I was happy to let those archetypes, and your expectations of them, do a lot of the heavy lifting. That’s what appealed to me about telling a story like this, that there is so much history and so much tradition to this type of story that you can kind of let that do a lot of the work for you. And that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to do work as a filmmaker or as a storyteller and it certainly doesn’t mean that the audience doesn’t have to do work in putting the pieces together. But if you go into it with that mindset it’s a good way to approach this film because it’s definitely calling back upon all of these works of the past.
LL: In keeping with what you said earlier about attempting to make a film that is comparable to folk music and mythology, when I watched the film I had the feeling that you were tapping in to something otherworldly, not necessarily spiritual but definitely mythical and with the feel of folklore. Affleck’s character, in particular, seems to want to participate in a world of myth and legend and the scene where he describes how he broke out of prison is one of my favorite pieces of dialogue, and delivery of dialogue, in a film this year. Of course every time he sets himself up as bigger than life, reality knocks him back down.
DL: Bob’s a character who is trying to participate in folklore and mythology in the same way that the movie is. And the movie sympathizes with him to a great degree in that they’re both trying to do the same thing to a large extent. The idea of him telling tall tales is so intrinsic to that character because he wants to go down in history, he wants to be a celebrated outlaw, he wants to be famous in that regard. And the hubris of his character is that he thinks he can get away with it, the tragedy of his character is that he can’t. For the majority of the running time he’s this idealistic dreamer, this little kid who believes he’s gonna be this guy when he grows up and I love that he’s getting carried away with that and enjoying it and listening to him talk about himself with this sense of grandeur. It’s remarkable to give someone like Casey that kind of character and let them sit back and tell a good story because I love listening to Casey talk, his voice, and giving him a chance to tell the story was on one level just fun, to sit back and listen to that, and on a secondary level, to watch that become part of who that character is and see him internalize that. It’s a joy as a director to have an actor take those words and do that with them.
LL: Was his dialogue 100% scripted?
DL: That monologue was 100% scripted. That was one of the first things that I wrote and it didn’t change from day one of the script. That scene was kind of a pillar in the middle of the script. The scene where he speaks to his friend and then to himself in the mirror, another big long rambling monologue, that was something that I wrote the morning of that scene. In the script that scene was only a line of action which said, “Bob puts on his shirt and washes his face and looks at himself in the mirror.” I knew there was going to be dialogue there but I didn’t know what it was going to be and the night before we shot it I wrote four monologues and emailed them to Casey. “Here’s a bunch of stuff. We’re just going to start rolling and you do whatever you want.” And so what he ended up delivering was an amazing mixture of all those monologues along with stuff that he improvised and came up with on his own. And by that point in the shoot, I knew he was a master at taking what you give him and tweaking it ever so slightly to make it his own without exceeding the parameters of the character or the movie. He understands the context of what everyone’s trying to accomplish and knows exactly how to play around inside of that. He’d always ask for a take at the end of every scene…he’d ask if he could destroy a take and that was his way of doing his version of it. And often those takes would be the most amazing discoveries. And he knows. He’s like, “I’ve got something to say. I’m going to do something with this scene. I’ll do what you want and then I’m gonna do my own version of it.” And probably 50% of the time those versions are what wound up in the movie, because he understood it so intrinsically.
LL: I could imagine Affleck’s character being an older version of The Boy from St. Nick. Is that something you thought about?
DL: As I was writing I definitely thought about that. And at one point I actually entertained the idea of having them wear the same wardrobe. Back when it was going to be a low budget movie I told our costume designer that I wanted Bob to wear tattered corduroys and a brown jacket. And we pursued that but it ended up not looking right. Nonetheless, I feel like that little boy in St. Nick gets on that train at the end of the movie and could very well grow up to be someone just like Bob.
LL: I’m curious about how the editing process worked for this film. I know you’re an established and respected film editor yourself but two other editors are credited on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (Craig McKay, Jane Rizzo). How involved were you in the editing process?
DL: Yeah, I also did a lot of it myself and the final product is sort of a mixture of everyone’s input. And it’s something I wonder a lot about, what the movie would be like if I cut it myself. In many ways I wish I’d cut it myself. But I’m also glad that I had the input of the other people. So it’s interesting. I’m still very sensitive about how it’s cut and wonder if I’ve made the right choices. I don’t know. I was definitely going for something different. The way the movie’s cut was respected in the script, I wrote it that way, but we could have taken a different path. We could have made the movie more concrete, less ephemeral. And sometimes I wonder if that would have been the better choice and other times I feel like we did make the right choice. I look at it now and see the four months we spend editing it, which were very difficult and very arduous months. It was like a game of tug of war constantly. And I wonder if I had actually been able to spend eight months working on it or a year working on it, what would have come out of it. It’s this feeling of questioning whether I made the right decisions and this was a movie whre getting it made was easy on one hand but so difficult on the other. I still can’t quite put a finger on what the movie is. I’m still adjusting to what it is and what I was trying to do. And I was definitely wanting to do something unusual with the editing and it definitely reflects my editorial sensibilities but as I live with the finished film more and more I’m wondering how it would have turned out had I just gone into the room myself and spent four or five months just exploring it on my own without anyone else doing anything. It’s hard to say. With St. Nick I feel that film got to exactly where it needed to be. With Pioneer that film is 100% what I wanted it to be and I think it’s perfect. And with this one I think there’s no way for me to ever think of it as anything but a work in progress that we unfortunately had to abandon, because the movie had to come out.
LL: I know St. Nick was made for $12K and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was made for a little under four million. That’s obviously a huge difference. I assume along with the increase in money you get freedom but also lose freedom. How different did you find the process?
DL: The budget afforded us so many things but there was absolutely a give and take. On the one hand we were able to shoot on 35 millimeter, we were able to cast these actors, we were able to have a relatively large crew of people who knew what their jobs were and how to do them expertly. On the other hand, we had very little time, we had very little flexibility with the time we had and that was something that was tough for me to adjust to. Because when you’re making the movie for no money you can kind of get away with anything. You can say at the end of the day, “Well, we didn’t quite get that but let’s just pick it again tomorrow and we’ll figure out further on down the line how to fix it.” Because everybody’s getting paid very little and there’s a lot more flexibility at that point when everyone’s in it because they love it and not because it’s a job. I mean everyone in this movie was in it because they wanted to be there but at the same time the budget was high enough that we had to follow certain rules that are mandated by the unions. Which are there for a good reason. But it still presented me with a learning curve that I had to adjust to because my style of working was always so freeform and flowing and almost spur of the moment. And because of the way we were now having to work I had to be much more concrete in my decisions and I had to know exactly what I wanted and I couldn’t actually change things. I couldn’t even cut a scene out because the bond company would wonder why the scene wasn’t scheduled anymore. There were things I didn’t want to shoot that I had to shoot and they’re not in the final cut. There are a bunch of scenes where we got to the set and I realized we shouldn’t shoot them because they weren’t going to make the cut but we had to keep shooting it because if the bond company saw that we didn’t shoot it they’d assume we weren’t making our days and they’d come take the movie over. And that’s a frustrating thing and those scenes definitely aren’t in the movie because you can tell when something’s not working and you can tell that there’s a better way to do things but because of the structure we had…none of the folks involved with this, myself included and James and Toby, had done a movie of this scale before. I think next time we do it we’ll know exactly how to handle what that machine is. It’s definitely a machine and you have to know how to work with it and you can get wonderful results from it. You just have to know exactly what the parameters are. And going into our next film, which will be the same size or bigger, I think it will be much easier because we’ll know what to expect and how to plan in advance and know how to trick the system, so to speak, to get a little bit more flexibility out of it.
LL: Speaking of the next film, I’ve heard it involves Casey Affleck again and sci-fi?
DL: Yeah, the experience of working with Casey was tremendous. I loved him and after we wrapped he sent me a short story that he’d always wanted to turn into a movie and asked me if I’d be interested in doing it. So I read it and fell in love with it and said yes and we’ve been putting the pieces together for the past year and I’m writing it right now. It’s been described in the press as being similar to Looper but it’s actually not. We always think about that movie Birth, the Jonathan Glazer movie. It’s got odd similarities to that and that’s a movie that I absolutely love.
LL: I thought the cinematography in this film was stunning. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with Bradford Young’s work prior to this. How did you come to work with him?
DL: I was interviewing a lot of cinematographers, a lot of really great ones, who all wanted to do the movie. I was blown away by the talent that wanted to work with me on this movie. It was humbling and I met Bradford toward the end of that process and he’d just shot this movie called Mother of George that one of my producers had produced and that producer recommended that I meet Bradford. He felt that we’d get along really well and I’d seen Pariah and thought it looked great but of course it’s set in New York. It’s a very urban movie. But it was incredibly rich and shot on film. So I looked at some of his other work and saw how varied it was. Very little of what he was doing looked the same from one project to the next. He was always pushing himself and pushing what the medium could do as far as capturing images on a negative or in terms of digital what digital was capable of doing. And that excited me. I really like people who push boundaries. And Bradford is all about doing that. And so I talked to him on the phone and we had a great conversation. I went to New York and we sat down and had breakfast and just got along so well. It was instantaneously so clear that he was the guy to make this movie with. I always endeavor to make movies with my friends and when I have to hire people that I’ve never met before I’m hoping that they’re people I can become fast friends with and with him, much the same as it was with Casey, it was just instantaneous. Two peas in a pod from the word go. He is someone who is such a calming presence on set and so pleasant to be around that it just makes the entire shoot better to have him there. And then on top of that his talent behind the camera is hard to process, he’s so good at what he does.
LL: The film’s score is another amazing component of this film, one that blends in seamlessly with the narrative, but as the film unfolds it becomes almost like another character in the film. Again, I wasn’t familiar with Daniel Hart coming in. Is he someone you’ve worked with before?
DL: Yeah, he did a little bit of music for St. Nick. The film has almost no score, it has two pieces, and he did one of them. And he wrote the score for Pioneer. And in both of those cases I didn’t tell him anything about what we wanted. I just showed him the movie. In fact, with St. Nick he didn’t even watch the movie. I just told him what it was about and he wrote a piece of music and it was so perfect that we just put it right in and that was it. And with Pioneer he watched it, went off and wrote the score, and again 100% perfect. So when you find a collaborator who just understands what a movie needs to that degree, on such an intrinsically, almost psychic level, you hang on tight. So from the very beginning of this movie, when it was a tiny $75K movie, it was always going to be a movie that Daniel Hart was composing the music for. We talked a little bit beforehand about what I wanted in terms of the feel of it and the tone and we talked about instruments that we thought would work but I pretty much just let him run wild. We sent 15 minutes of the movie to him right off the bat when we started editing and they were very, very rough, almost unwatchable, don’t resemble the current movie whatsoever, but he sent back music for them that was so perfect in its own right that we actually started cutting the movie to the music to some degree. And that’s a dangerous thing because you don’t want to have the music dictating too many things but what he was writing was so strong and so well defined that it actually felt like it was capable of being the backbone of the movie. And not just in terms of underscoring emotion, not just in terms of manipulating you to feel a certain way but sort of informing you of how the movie should be processed. It really puts you in the right frame of mind to watch what you’re watching. And I love that about it. When I first heard those hand-claps, that was the first time that I realized exactly what it was that we were making and what it was going to feel like when it was finished. And indeed that became a defining trait for the entire film.
LL: And beyond the score, there were several songs and lullabies in the film. Were those original songs?
DL: Yeah, all of the music in the movie from the score to the songs are all original, and the lullaby and the song on the jukebox and a couple of others were written by my friend Curtis Heath, who has a band called the Theater Fire, which is a really wonderful band. And he’s also a schoolteacher. He teaches history. He loves Texas history. So I asked him to write a lullaby that had something to do with Texas and that’s what he came up with. And it’s so wonderful. There’s just so much about Texas in that song. And whether or not people pick up on that doesn’t really matter. It’s all in there and it reflects on the movie in such a wonderful way.
LL: I find your writing to be exceptionally strong, both the plot development and the dialogue. I know you’re writing the script for your next film and I heard that you’re involved in writing a script for a remake of Pete’s Dragon. Are you a prolific writer?
DL: I am now. Prior to this I was very slow. It took me a while. And it wasn’t that it takes me a while to write things, it was just that I’m lazy and procrastinate a lot. When I finally got down to the business of writing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints it came out fairly quickly, a few months but the idea was percolating for a long time before I actually got down to doing the work. That’s usually how it works when I come up with my own projects, I’ll just think about an idea for a long time and if it sticks around my head long enough and accumulates other ideas that correspond eventually it feels like something that’s worth writing. And sometimes those things get finished and sometimes they don’t. But lately because this movie is enabling us to get other movies made, all of the sudden I feel the pressure to actually get something done because I want to jump through that window while it’s open. So I’ve got a lot of scripts I’m working on now. I’m writing three scripts at the same time and it’s a bit of schizophrenia. It takes a bit of schizophrenia to do that but it’s a fun challenge and they’re all getting done, which I’m proud of myself for because normally I’ll write a page and then go look at the internet for two hours and now I’m having to flip that. Work for two hours and spend ten minutes looking at Twitter or something.
LL: Do you see yourself at some point down the road as being a writer outside of being a filmmaker? Do you see short stories or a novel in your future?
DL: I’ve written short stories before. I wrote a novel when I was eleven or twelve but no one will ever read it. It’s a terrible mash up of Les Miserables and The Professional and Interview with a Vampire. Make of that what you will. But yeah, I never finished my degree but I was majoring in English literature. I love literature. I don’t know if I have the perseverance at the moment to write a novel but I certainly would love to do so. And I think I just need to actually try to do it because I’d probably, if I get going, I’m just kind of scared to get started, and I feel daunted by that in a way that I’m not daunted by screenwriting but writing a novel feels like such an in depth process that I just don’t wanna commit to it yet but I know I want to do it at some point in the future. I try to make my screenplays read like literature. They don’t have to because no one’s going to ever read them after the movie’s made but I still try to make them feel like they have some literary merits and to read well. I think that’s why the actors responded to it, because the script does read well.