David Lowery is a director, writer, editor and producer who returned to the director’s chair last year with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; a movie that is about to be released onto DVD.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the movie, where the idea for the story came from, and getting the fantastic cast on board.
- Ain't Them Bodies Saints is about to be released on DVD here in the UK, so can you tell me a little bit about it?
It is a story of an outlaw in Texas in the 1970s, who, along with his wife, does a lot of ill deeds, gets caught, goes to prison, and four years later breaks out. He then sets off across the countryside to go and find her.
- You are in the director's chair as well as having penned the screenplay. Where did this project star for you? And what inspired the story?
I have always loved American folklore, folk tales and folk music and I wanted to make a film that functioned in the same way; a movie that felt like a story that has been told before or a song that has been sung before and this version we are just singing in a slightly different key and trying to make it feel new again.
It is the idea of telling a time-honoured story, doing it justice but bringing something new to it at the same time.
- There is a depression era fell to this film, and yet it is set in the 1970s. Why did you decide to set it in this period rather than go back to the Depression Era itself?
To be quite frank, the very first inkling of setting it in the past was because I realised that if I set it in the present, it would make the story completely fall apart. Therefore, I decided to set it back in the seventies, before there was any technology that would have allowed that kind of communication to occur.
From there, I went to scout all of these tiny towns in Texas that exist in the middle of nowhere. When you get to them, you realise that they have stood still. They are farming communities and everyone hangs on to their old trucks and wears their old jeans; it is quite difficult to tell what time period you are in. It is very much like you are in a twilight zone. I loved that.
I thought what if we just took that idea and ran with it, making a film that is set in no discernable time? You watch it and you know that it is in the past, but it is hard to tell when.
Indeed, all of the clothes are from the Depression Era; Rooney’s clothes are from the Depression Era, while Casey is wearing something that is closer to the 1950s. We tried to blend all of these different time periods and create a general sense of the past with a capital P.
- During the writing process, how much did the story/characters change from the initial idea to the film we see on screen?
The characters didn’t change that very much at all. Their goals, what they were after, and their arc didn’t change. Keith Carradine’s character did change; he went from being a villain to someone a little bit more subtle than that.
The overall arc of the narrative always remained the same. There were specifics that did change, but not much. You can read the first draft and think ‘this is a lot like the film that I have just watched’. That being said, my very first version of this movie - which I never finished writing - was a straight up action film; it was more like Taken.
However, that never got done and I never finished it. About a year after I abandoned that, I picked up the idea of a man breaking out of prison and re-fashioned it into what this is. Since then it has remained fairly consistent.
- What made you want to take this story in a different direction and abandon the action theme?
I think it was just the fact that as I was writing the action scenes I kept… there were two things; I kept getting bored writing the action. Filming action scenes is exciting, but writing it is quite dull because you are just imagining people running and shooting and trying to make it sound exciting on the page.
I found that I was far more interested in everything that happened before and after; that was always the most interesting thing for me. The prison break at the beginning, I just wrote ‘prison break sequence’ and then went ahead and continued the script after he got out. That was more interesting to me.
Also, in action movies, you usually have a lot of bad guys - and good guys sometimes - who get killed indiscriminately, and I was having a crisis of conscience writing that. I just felt bad writing people to death: especially if they were inconsequential character because that made me feel very callous.
I can watch a Die Hard movie and a James Bond movie and not care, but when I was writing it, that degree of violence - it was violence for the sake of entertainment - definitely rubbed me the wrong way. I wanted to deal with that, and so when someone pulls the trigger in this movie I hope that it counts.
- The movie brings together a terrific cast with Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Ben Foster all on board. Can you talk a bit about the casting process - particularly the roles of Ruth and Bob?
I wrote the script without any actors in mind. I didn’t think that I would have the opportunity to cast anybody of note; I thought I would make the movie with non-actors of untrained actors like I had with my past films. At a certain point, the script got out and agents started to read it.
Someone called me and asked ‘if you could cast anyone, who would you want to play these role?’ For Bob, I definitely wanted Casey; because I thought he would do a grand job in that role. For Ruth, I was still convinced that it needed to be someone unknown because I felt that if you have a ‘movie star’ in a small Texas town she would just stick out and not feel authentic.
Rooney’s agent called me and asked if we could send it to her - this was right around that time that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo came out. I realised very quickly that she represents the best of both worlds, as she is a movie star and also a completely anonymous entity; at that point, no one knew what she looked like. Everyone knew what Lisbeth Salander looked like, but they didn’t know what Rooney Mara looked like.
I was fairly confident that anyone who could go from The Social Network to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo could pretty much disappear into any part. Therefore, I met her. She had an anonymity to her in person; she is incredibly beautiful and yet she could walk into a crowded room and people won’t notice her because she doesn’t look the characters that she has played.
I was certain that she wouldn’t want to do this tiny indie film after doing a huge blockbuster directed by David Fincher, but she quickly said ‘yes’. And that was that.
- How did you find working with them? And what did they bring to the table as you were developing these characters together?
At a certain point, the characters… I wrote them and they are mine to begin with, but at a certain point, the actors take ownership of them. I always love the moment when they cease to be mine and the actors go on to know them better than me. I wrote what I wrote, and then they took those words and turned them into fully functioning human beings.
I often would defer to them, if they wanted to say a line differently, say a different line, or not say a line at all, more often then not, I was ok with it. I really wanted them to take ownership of the characters and make them their own. They brought… I can’t even quantify how much they brought to it.
I take credit for allowing them to do that, but so much of my direction is just casting them, letting them run and make such beautiful decisions on their own. If they came up with lines of dialogue or bits of blocking they thought of spontaneously, those are things that I love to see as a director; I love to be surprised.
As long as I can create a context in which they function, with the movie we want to make, and we are all making the same movie, I just love to let them surprise me.
- The music in this film is also terrific and used to great effect. How did you end up working with composer Daniel Hart?
He is someone who grew up with my producer Toby Halbrooks in Texas; they were childhood friends. He went off and became a prominent rock & roll musician; he has his own band, but came to prominence recording with other artists. He has done some tremendous work in the rock & roll realm.
When I needed a score for my first film - I didn’t need a score just a single piece of music - Toby suggested Daniel. I called him and described the movie to him, and he came back with a perfect piece of music without having seen a frame of footage. When someone intuitively gets what you are trying to do, you hang on for dear life and want to collaborate with them again.
This is his first feature film score. I told him what the feel of it was and what I wanted to do. I didn’t think that there would be that much music in the movie, but he wrote enough music for a three-hour movie.
It really became a character in a way that I had never expected; I really decided to just go with it and make it the backbone of the movie, because it was so strong. When we started to put it into the edit, it just affected things in such a dynamic way. I really just went a bit wild and really try to involve the music in the story.
- This movie was screened at Sundance last year and I read that you made some changes after the festival; can you talk a bit about the changes that you did make?
We finished shooting in October of 2012, and it premiered a Sundance three months later. The post-production was extremely fast first time around, but we always knew that we would go back and do more sound mixing; we did get the sound to a pretty good place, but we knew that we had more work to do. So we premiered it that was the first time that I had watched it with an audience.
When you are editing you are in a room by yourself, and while you do show it to people it is a very solitary process. We got it to a really good place. However, when you watch it with two thousand people for the first time, you start to notice things that you didn’t notice before. The energy in the room will shift from one scene to the next, and you can tell where something may be a little too slow or a little unclear.
I ended up cutting about ten minutes out of it. It seems like a considerable amount, but most people don’t notice. Now, when I watch it I wish I could keep doing it. You always wish that you can keep working on it and keep making it better. There are things that I would still go back and fix. It was definitely a godsend to get that chance to go back and re-visit it.
To be perfectly frank, I think that I did make some mistakes when I went back to it, and in those ten minutes that I did wrong - I did get a lot right as well. Looking back with hindsight, you are always going to find mistakes that you have made, but I am very happy with it.
- How have you been finding the response to the film?
People like it. At Sundance, we got glowing reviews. I was expecting the worst. Everyone loved it and it got glowing reviews across the board. Once it was screened at Cannes and started playing internationally, some of the reviews were a little less favourable.
There are a handful of people that didn’t like it, which is fine. The one thing that I am glad about is that a lot of the people who didn’t like it still wrote very favourable reviews and engaged with it. Even if people don’t like the film, I always hope that they did engage with it, and give you something to think about.
Even if you are thinking about why it doesn’t work for you, at least you are thinking about it. You always hope that it will have an impact and, whether you like it or not you do have to wrestle with it.
- You have an extensive background in editing - you have edited this film as well - and I was wondering how that maybe impacts on the decisions that you make as a director?
It has a considerable effect. When I am writing a script, I will think about how one scene leads into the next and whether the dialogue in the scene is necessary. Therefore, it is something that I do think about a great deal.
When I am on set, it also helps because you can decide what you need and what you don’t need: especially when you are on a low budget film and you don’t have a lot of time.
You will show up to set with a shot-list or a storyboard that has eight shots on it, and half way through the day you realise that you only have time for four of those. Thinking about how the movie is going to be cut together, you can very judicially decide which ones are important and which ones aren’t.
You can make those decisions because you are thinking about how everything will cut together. You can also back yourself into a corner. You can tell yourself that you don’t need a wide shot, but when you get to the edit you realise that that is the only shot that you should have had (laughs). Luckily, those instances are very few and far between.
- Finally, what is next for you?
I am working on a handful of different things. I am writing more than I have ever done before, and I have four scripts that I am working on; three of which I want to direct. One of them is a movie with Robert Redford, one is an adaptation of a war novel, and one of them is a science fiction movie.
The science fiction film would see me reunite with Casey Affleck as we are developing that together. I hope to make all three of those in the near future (laughs), fingers crossed.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is released on DVD 10th February.