Ain't Them Bodies Saints - David Lowery interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
DAVID Lowery talks about some of the challenges and lessons he learned from making his debut feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and the joy of working with both Casey Affleck and Ben Foster.
He also talks about his career to date in general, the movies that helped to inspire him, and what it’s like to be directing Robert Redford next. He also discusses script leaks and why he hopes Quentin Tarantino will eventually get to make The Hateful Eight. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is released on DVD on Monday, February 10, 2014.
Q. How proud are you of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints now that it’s had a chance to gain a life and has been so well received?
David Lowery: I actually realised the other day that the way I look at it now has changed and I am incredibly proud of it. I can’t watch it right now because I still feel too close to it. And I look forward to being able to sit down in two or three years’ time and loving it. But right now, I’d still see all the mistakes that I perceive that I made while making it. But don’t get me wrong, I am very, very proud of it. It’s an amazing to be able to start out with a vision in your head and achieve what you set out to do. It gives you a great deal of satisfaction.
Q. Did you always intend to embody the landscape of American cinema from the ‘70s in the film, thereby emulating the likes of Terrence Malick and company – who you have since been compared to?
David Lowery: Yes, absolutely. I wanted to make a film that felt like a memory of other movies. I love the way I remember movies, I love thinking about movies, and I love how a brain systematically alters a memory of something. So, I wanted to make a film that functioned as a reminder of the kinds of films that I love, such as McCabe & Mrs Miller. I wanted to capture the same tone of that movie without it being a straight mimic, and I also looked at Badlands and Bonnie & Clyde and another film that I don’t think many people remember, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, which was Michael Cimino’s first film [starring Clint Eastwood and a young Jeff Bridges]. So, I was thinking about all of those films and what they looked like and sounded like and the little details that made them feel like films from the ‘70s. And then I wanted Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to function in the same way as those but also as a dream version of them. They all take place in the real world, whereas this takes place in a very surreal world… it’s almost a fairytale version of the real world.
Q. And yet it also contains an emotional reality as well, never shirking from the complexity at play or the consequences of its characters’ decisions. Was that conscious too?
David Lowery: It was and that’s a great question because I really do believe that the two can go hand in hand. The movie exists on an emotional plane. It does have this fairytale or surreal aspect to it, but that doesn’t detract from the emotional reality. It has an incredibly sincere and realistic emotional narrative that still functions slightly outside of the real world. So, certainly the emotional aspect was incredibly important. I really wanted the distance between Bob [Casey Affleck] and Ruth [Rooney Mara] to be profoundly felt. They don’t actually have much screen time together, so I was hoping that Rooney and Casey would have a great chemistry and that the beginning scenes between them would be dynamic enough so that when they are pulled apart you would feel it and that distance would underscore everything that happened. I was always paying attention to emotion over plot, or feeling over plot, because that really mattered. And I think that ultimately, it works out well. Rooney and Casey were amazing together, so much so that I re-wrote the opening of the movie to give them more time together. And I think their chemistry is so strong that it does sustain the rest of the film. You do feel their pain.
Q. It has recently been said that Casey Affleck is an incredibly under-rated actor. Is that something you felt when it came to casting him?
David Lowery: I’ve been a huge fan of Casey’s for years and I’ve always felt that he needed to be a movie star. Ironically, perhaps the fact that he wasn’t a movie star is why I loved him because he always chose such interesting roles and gave them his all. So yeah, I do believe he’s under-rated and I really do hope his fan-base grows because he deserves it. He’s a wonderful actor. And I selfishly hope he works more in the future so that I can see him do more [laughs].
Q. Similarly, you cast Ben Foster in a head-turning role as the shy, sensitive sheriff when, perhaps prior to Lone Survivor, he’d become slightly typecast as more of a villainous type…
David Lowery: Well, that was really a matter of just sitting down with him. And at that point, Casey hadn’t said ‘yes’ yet and I’d been considering Ben for his role because Ben was someone I’d always thought very highly of and wanted to meet. But the moment he sat down, he has this sweetness to him. He might not like me saying that [laughs] but he had a gentle-ness to him that doesn’t often come through on camera. Don’t get me wrong, he has an intensity to him as well and he’s very serious about what he does. But he’s also a lot of fun, he likes to laugh and tells jokes, he’s also very considerate and a real gentleman and so I immediately became hooked on the idea of him playing the sheriff. And that character is a genuinely good guy who actually gets better as he goes along throughout the movie. But I always love the idea of casting actors in parts that you’ve not seen them in before, and flexing their muscles, so to speak. So, from the first meeting it was so clear that he could do that if he agreed to do the part and thankfully he said ‘yes’. I hate talking in superlatives about my own work but I really do think what he did in this was magnificent. And I’m eternally grateful to him for doing it.
Q. What was the biggest lesson you took away from making the film?
David Lowery: It’s the lesson I take away from every film, which is to stick to your guns and not compromise. There were a few times, because this was a bigger budget than I’ve dealt with before… I’ve never done a film the size of this production before, it was a little over $3 million budget-wise and with that money came big trucks and a crew of 30 or 40 that I assumed contained people who could handle that size better than I did from experience, so I would defer to them. So, if they would tell me we didn’t have time for a certain shot, I would change it, or if they said we couldn’t afford to have actors in the bar talking because as soon as someone talks their pay grade goes up, then I’d say ‘ok, no one will talk’. But it was little things like that I should not have compromised on because ultimately, you can get away with it and figure out how to make it work. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about not being ready to watch the film myself yet for fear of seeing my mistakes… a lot of them come from those kinds of compromises and making decisions that weren’t in the best interests of the movie. Now, everyone does have the best interests of the film in mind when making it, but not everyone has the same movie in mind as I do.
So, whenever I feel I stepped away from that, I felt the film suffered. But I’ve come to realise that if you’re going to run out of money, people will let you know. But when you’re not even shooting it yet and someone says you may as well get rid of a scene, it’s important to take a step back and say ‘prove it’. And until they can, you should stay true to your vision. Sticking to your guns is an important aspect of production. So, if you find yourself up against a wall, you always need to be able to remind yourself that you’re doing what’s best for the movie because at the end of the day no one remembers how hard it was to make or how over schedule you went. All they care about is what’s on the screen and that’s what you have to answer to.
Q. Has the critical success of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made it easier to get future films made?
David Lowery: I’m going to knock on wood as I answer this but so far it’s really helped. I’ve got several things that are in various states of moving forward, all of them written by myself. So, I just feel like I’m in an incredibly lucky place where I can get these movies made and I’m going to try and run with that as long as I can. I hope to grow with each movie I make and to keep making interesting films that engage people. And I have three right now that I’m really excited about.
Q. Can you talk about any of them?
David Lowery: Well, given that The Hollywood Reporter has just reported on one, it’s safe to assume that I can talk about one with Robert Redford that I’m doing. It’s about a bank robber again, so I’m dealing in familiar terrain with a different side of the age range. Then I’ve got a science fiction film that I’m going to be working on with Casey, who is also going to produce and star in. I can’t wait to make a lot more movies with him. And I have another one that is an adaptation of a novel, so I’m just sort of polishing the scripts for those and talking to financers. But it seems like they will happen. I’m just knocking on wood that everything doesn’t fall apart in the next month or so [laughs]!
Q. Do you get intimidated at all by the idea of directing someone like Robert Redford?
David Lowery: When I met him for the first time it wasn’t so much intimidating because he’s very down to earth, but you never forget he is Robert Redford. So, you can be having this very normal conversation but at the same time have a little bit of a disconnect because there is a part of your brain that’s very ware that this is Robert Redford sitting across from you. It’s a weird feeling. But most actors you meet, whatever degree of fame they have, quickly become ordinary people that you can have a great conversation with. So, I’m not nervous about directing him. We’ll see…
Q. How important is it to you to be able to keep writing your own material as well as directing it?
David Lowery: It’s important. I don’t demand that I have to do it that way. And I don’t need to write everything that I do. I’ve just not found any scripts that are ready to go yet. I have been reading a lot of scripts and there are some that I like, but I would still have to do a re-write in order to yank them into my perspective. Everything is from the writer’s perspective and, so far, nothing completely aligns into how I would tell the story, nothing matches my own intentions. So, at this point it’s just easier to write everything from scratch. But I’m always looking for that script, so maybe it’ll happen soon.
Q. What was the first movie that really captured your imagination and made you know that you wanted to become a filmmaker?
David Lowery: I can’t imagine anything more of a cliché but it was Star Wars. I was born in the 1980s, so I didn’t actually get to see any of them in theatres. But I watched them obsessively at my grandparents’ house because they had a video player and that was all that I cared about. I wanted to be Darth Vader so much but then when I realised that wasn’t possible I decided I wanted to make movies instead. So, Star Wars was what did it for me.
Q. But I gather Pulp Fiction was also a big influence?
David Lowery: Pulp Fiction was the film that expanded my horizons. When I was younger, it was all about Star Wars and Indiana Jones or the films of Tim Burton. They were ALL I cared about for the first 10 years. But then when I was 13, Pulp Fiction came out and it blew my mind. I never knew you could do that with cinema. It opened my eyes to world cinema as well because Tarantino names his production company A Band Apart, which is a reference to [French New Wave classic Band of Outsiders and director Jean-Luc] Godard. So, I looked him up and watched his films and the gates were opened… so many different views of cinema poured through. And that’s all to Pulp Fiction’s credit. That movie still holds up today and it still gets me excited whenever I see it.
Q. Being a scriptwriter yourself, what do you think of Tarantino’s current altercation with Gawker over his Hateful Eight script? Is that something you’d be annoyed about?
David Lowery: It’s funny because the same kind of thing has actually happened with one of my scripts. Suddenly, everyone seems to have read it and I’m getting calls from agents all the time asking for their client to be considered. But that happens all the time in this industry… as soon as a script gets out there and someone says they like it, it gets passed along like wildfire and everyone reads it. And that’s great for me… I enjoy it. I’m like: “Ok, please read it and spread it along!” That being said, I can understand why, for him, it’s very frustrating. But at the same time I think he’s making a bigger deal than he needs to out of it. The scripts for Django Unchained and Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds were all leaked before the movies started shooting. I guess this was at a draft stage that was not something he was ready to share with the world. But I wish he would take it less seriously and I do hope that he makes The Hateful Eight or at least another film soon.
Q. What’s been your favourite response to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints so far?
David Lowery: Well, it’s sort of perverse but I do love some of the negative reviews that wrestle with the movie because they make me see where I could grow as a filmmaker. Sometimes I disagree with what they have to say, especially if they’re just saying they don’t like it, but other critics dig into it thematically and talk about what they got out of it while trying to reconcile what I’m doing with what I failed to do… and that can be painful and distressing but those reviews stick in your skin and make you really think about what you did and tried to do and whether you succeeded. And I thank those critics for taking the time to dig into it, even though they didn’t like it, because whether a reaction is positive or negative I always hope that they’re discussing the work – that it gives them something to talk about because that’s my aim as a filmmaker.
On a more positive side of things, the best reactions have been from people who send me emails. I love good reviews but getting emails from people talking about how meaningful it was to them is really gratifying, whether it’s been as audience members in the theatre or on DVD. And that’s something I don’t take lightly. I’m just glad that people are finding the movie and making the effort to see it.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is released on DVD on Monday, February 10, 2014