Ain't Them Bodies Saints - David Lowery interview
Compiled by Jack Foley
DAVID Lowery firmly believes that there are times when the universe will provide. After he’d written Ain’t Them Bodies Saints he promised himself that, no matter what, he was going to make the film, even if it was on a shoestring budget with an unknown cast. And then the word got out, fate took a hand and A-list stars Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Keith Carradine had all jumped on board and he had a “dream” cast.
Here he talks about some of the challenges of completing the film’s journey from page to screen.
Q: The film is beautifully shot and the light seems natural. Was that the case?
David Lowery: We did use natural light as much as possible and we wanted to have that feel. I worked very carefully with Bradford Young, our cinematographer, figuring out how we wanted the light to feel in every scene because in Texas in the summer the light is very harsh and so we had to use a lot of screens to control it so it would have some shape and some softness. We wanted to have that feeling that it was natural light.
Q: It also has a timeless feel. It’s set in the 1970s but at times it almost feels as if we’re in the 20s or 30s. Was that intentional?
David Lowery: It was absolutely intentional. When we were making the decision about when the movie takes place, we said, ‘it’s the 1970s.’ But if you go to a small town in Texas or the South it hasn’t really changed much since the 1930s. People have new cars and there might be a fast food place in there but they feel very timeless and we felt that would work for this film and the more timeless it felt the more universal the story would become. And I also felt that technology dates films in a weird way, so as soon as you start having a computer or a modern cell phone or too much plastic, all of a sudden it feels very dated. So, I felt if we set it in the 1970s it could feel as if it was happening at any time and feel modern and old fashioned at the same time. So the intention was to have as timeless a feel as possible.
Q: And how was that reflected in costume design and wardrobe?
David Lowery: Some of the clothes were indeed from the 1950s and 1960s and some were even earlier than that in there design and that was all intentional. We just tried to find things that felt right. It was never a matter of saying that something was specifically appropriate for a year, rather we would look at things and say, ‘that feels right.’ So, even with the police cars they were not technically 1970s police cars but they felt right for the mood of the film.
Q: When you first see Casey Affleck in the film you are reminded of Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath…
David Lowery: He does look just like him. It’s remarkable – the cheekbones and the hat.
Q: You said earlier that the story changed because you were falling in love when you wrote it. Please elaborate on that?
David Lowery: I had made a very slow, very deliberately paced Art House – with a capital ‘A’ – film before this one and I thought I would like to follow that up with an action film to catch people off guard. And as I was writing it the action all fell away. I remember writing a gunfight sequence and I felt so guilty about having a character get shot. You know, you go and see a James Bond movie and a character gets killed and you don’t even think twice about it but when I was writing it I felt very guilty. And that interested me and I wanted to explore that and deal with that and so the story began to change and began to be more about the consequences of one’s actions rather than the action itself. And then I met my future wife in the year I started writing it, which was in 2009.
I started the script in 2009 and put it away for a while and when I came back to it we became engaged and as I was starting to scout locations we got married and all of the responsibility that comes along with deciding to get married and join up with someone for the rest of your life filtered into the script. I’m a filmmaker and I’ve spent most of my life travelling around and being completely independent and all of a sudden I had someone else to think about, someone else in my life who is very important to me and who I had to consider with every choice I made. I couldn’t just go and spend a year sleeping on a friend’s couch helping them with their film anymore because I had someone else to think about back home. And that was something that definitely played into the film and it became more of a love story than I had originally intended it to be. And it became more about responsibility because of what was going on in my own life.
Q; Did you put any of yourself in any of the characters?
David Lowery: I put myself in all of them – they all represent facets of me. Once we started shooting I most strongly sympathised with Ben Foster’s character, Patrick Wheeler, who I think is indeed the closest to me. My middle name is Patrick and I didn’t even think about that until we were shooting and I realised I had subconsciously given him a piece of me in the name. And he is someone who, very much like myself, has trouble expressing himself and has trouble telling someone how he really feels. And he is not about to impede on somebody because he feels strongly about them. He is not going to go and ask Ruth to marry him and say ‘we should run away together..’ He might say ‘I just wanted to let you know this..’ And I’ve found myself in that position many times in my life, being the guy who feels something for someone and it wasn’t the right time or it wasn’t the right place. Even with my wife, Augustine, the first time we got together it wasn’t the right time and place and it took a while for things to work out.
Q: You say you have trouble expressing yourself but you are clearly articulate with your writing…
David Lowery: If I could go through life only writing notes to people that would be great (laughs). If you want to hear a true story when my wife and I first dated we broke up and then a few years later we reconnected through email and we spent an entire year just writing emails to each other. And then finally we realised that things were working out again – entirely through writing – and we were living in different cities at the time so I moved back to where she was living and that was that (laughs). And that played into the letters that feature in the movie; the letters are a motif all the way through the film.
Q: And writing letters is almost a lost art now…
David Lowery: Yes, somewhere I have a box of letters my grandmother and I used to write to each other. And writing letters is something I miss. I try at least once a year to write letters to people and I still write letters to my grandparents because they don’t have a computer. And you know I love receiving letters and I love keeping them. They are wonderful keepsakes.
Q: One of the great surprises of the film is Keith Carradine and it feels like we haven’t seen him on the big screen so much in recent years…
David Lowery: He’s done some television and he does a lot of stage and theatre work. In fact he was nominated for a Tony Award a few weeks ago [for Hands On A Hardbody]. But we haven’t seen him so much in cinema but you know, one of the big influences on this film was McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us and he was in both of those films. And I loved him in those films and then I saw him in (the TV series) Deadwood a few years ago and he had grown into this majestic Western figure with a wonderful voice. And when I was casting this character I thought he would be perfect for it, both because of the lineage that would tie this film to those films I mentioned, and also because he carries himself so well now and he has such a majestic presence. And I also discovered that he is just the nicest guy to hang out with ever – he is such a charming gentleman and such a hard worker. He has no ego about him and he drove to set and was there every single day and knew his lines. I would give him new script pages every night and he has more dialogue than anyone else in the film and he would memorise every version and have it all there. He was such an amazing actor to work with.
Q: Let’s talk about the rest of the cast. Was it easy to recruit actors of the calibre of Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara?
David Lowery: When I wrote the script I had no idea what budget it would be or if I would be able to cast it with actors that are known or unknown and so I didn’t write it with anyone in mind. And then at a certain point the script sort of got out and some agents called me and asked if they could send it to their clients and Rooney was one of them. I had always thought for Ruth that I would cast someone who had never acted before. I thought about how in Winter’s Bone Jennifer Lawrence was unknown at the time and I wanted to find someone like that, who didn’t really have much of an identity in cinema. And Rooney had just come out of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and I knew her from that and I knew her from The Social Network and I thought, ‘well here’s someone who is a new star but also no one really knows what she is like..’ because those roles were so different.
So, I said, ‘please send her the script.’ So she read it and responded to it and I met with her and the first thing that struck me was that she was so different from either of those screen personas and I had complete confidence that she was just perfect for my film. And I also felt that she would feel timeless in the same way that the whole film would be – she wouldn’t feel like a modern character sticking out in the film. And thankfully she liked the script and liked my short film that she’d seen and trusted me to do it.
Q: And how did Casey come to the project?
David Lowery: Casey was the first actor I met with and then I met with a few more because I felt I should cover my bases. But I really had a strong instinct that he was right for the part. I loved him in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and I loved him in Gerry, it’s one of my favourite films. I’ve been a fan of his for so long. He has this beautiful idealism to him and he has so much hope in his voice and so much optimism and he’s like a little kid. And because my films deal with the idea of not wanting to grow up, not wanting to face responsibility and I felt he would be the perfect choice to play a man who has the youthful idealism of a dreamer who has to come to terms with the fact that they world is moving on and that they have to face the responsibilities of their actions. I just felt that he was the perfect person to do that.
Q: In what way is the character a dreamer?
David Lowery: He feels he can just run away from prison, find his wife and daughter and just settle down somewhere and raise his family and that he can get away with that. That’s what he wants to do and he believes it will work and that’s his hubris. And there’s a scene that Casey has with Keith Carradine where he’s told ‘no, that’s not what you need to do. As a responsible adult you need to leave those girls alone..’ Keith’s character represents that side of the situation and Bob is the idealistic dreamer who thinks he can get away from it. He’s a child but he wants to grow old and he wants to grow old in a very idealistic way. He doesn’t think about it in terms of growing up and becoming an adult, he thinks about it in terms of what he has seen on the television, what he has seen in the movies – it’s the guy taking care of his family on a farm. He’s the kind of guy who would go and buy a farm and have no idea how to plough a field.
Q: Do you have some of that idealism too?
David Lowery: I’m still like that [laughs]. I hopefully have the presence of mind now to be aware of it and to catch myself but yes, I’ve always been afraid of growing up and making adult decisions. When it comes time to paying taxes I’m like, ‘oh I’ll put that off..’ My wife and I still rent and we don’t want to own a house because that’s too much of a grown up decision to make. It’s very difficult for me to accept the idea of making adult decisions and accept the idea that I am now an adult. I realise that I am and I know there are certain things I need to do now but it’s difficult and it’s tough.
Q: We’re told that it’s hard to make films of this size but this sounds as though it came together quite quickly and painlessly?
David Lowery: It came together remarkably quickly and remarkably easily and I don’t expect to have it quite so easy again. I’ve never been someone who waits for money to come along or waits for actors to say ‘yes.’ I just want to make the film. So what I did was I’d written the script and I decided I was going to make it. As with my last film – which I made for very little – I was going to make this one for a tiny budget and just do it on my own. So I set a start date and said, ‘I’m going to make this movie. It’s going to happen..’ And I think when you do that the universe picks up and pays attention and people realised that I wasn’t going to wait around for anyone and that ‘maybe this guy has something and maybe he knows something that we don’t.’ I hadn’t cost it at that point and I didn’t have a budget. I said to myself, ‘well, maybe I can raise $100,000 or maybe I can raise $500,000 but whatever I raise I’ll make the movie for that.’
And then word trickled out that I was going to make this movie and it just went from there. I thought that I could make it maybe late 2012 or early 2013 but all of a sudden an agent read it and sent it to Rooney and sent it to Casey and within six months we were shooting the movie. It’s incredible really and I feel very lucky that it came together in that way with a dream cast. The budget was a little bit over $3 million, which, to me, was a windfall and we had 28 days to shoot it, which is very fast, but I felt like if we’d made the movie for $100,000 it would have been the same movie. And things were different – we were able to shoot on film and we were able to cast these wonderful actors – but I think it all started with me saying, ‘I’m going to make this’ and getting the ball rolling and not waiting for anybody. I think when you wait for people, that’s when things slow down. And the great thing is that now the film has had some degree of success – people like it and people are interested in what I’m going to make next and so hopefully it will allow the next film to also come together as easily.
And once again, I’ve already decided that I’m going to make it no matter what. I’ve got two films I want to make and whichever one happens first will happen but I want to do both of them back to back. So hopefully I will spend the next year and a half doing that.
Q: Are these films you have written yourself?
David Lowery: Well, technically I’m still doing them [laughs]. But they’re almost finished and I’m feeling very confident about them.
Q: I heard that Pulp Fiction had a big impact on you when you were a kid?
David Lowery: When I was 13 Pulp Fiction came out and I rode my bike to the theatre and I bought a ticket for another movie because I knew I wasn’t supposed to get in to an ‘R’ rated movie and I snuck in and watched it and it blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like that. I’d never seen anything that had dialogue like that or used violence in that way or that told a story out of order. I had never seen a film like that before and it opened my eyes to what cinema could do and to how to use film in a new way.
It also opened my eyes to cinema in general. I’d never seen a Jean-Luc Godard film before and I didn’t even know who he was but because Tarantino’s production company was called, A Band Apart, I was like, ‘well, what does that mean?’ And I discovered that it was a reference to this French filmmaker Godard and so I looked him up and began to watch his movies. So it really changed my perception. When I was 13, after I’d seen the movie, I wrote a script. It was a terrible script, about 30 pages long, and it was a complete rip off of Pulp Fiction and I sent it to A Band Apart and asked it they would produce it and I got a letter back saying, ‘no we don’t produce unsolicited scripts but thank you very much and good luck.’