Reflecting on 2013 thus far, the world of independent cinema has given us some truly fascinating and entertaining films. But when it comes to the personal cinematic experience and the emotional drive I crave when viewing a movie, there have been two films which sparked up my nerves in just the right way and cut deep enough to bury themselves under my skin: Amy Seimetz’s expressionistic drama Sun Don’t Shine and Shane Carruth’s confounding love story Upstream Color. Potent with visceral feeling and rife with texture and tone, both films possess a tactile quality that’s presented through the juxtaposition of images and sound to create an emotion beyond words. And although Seimetz and Carruth carried their respective films as writers and directors, the two were linked by the one person who figured out just how to transpose their complex narratives to the screen, editing the pictures with delicacy and incredible attention to detail—and that, of course, was David Lowery.
It’s easy for me to say I’m more proud of that than anything else I’ve done because I didn’t direct it, but I am so proud of that movie.
Thinking back on it, there are so many things that came into play. I have so many ideas all the time, and sometimes they just stick around your head a little bit longer and they’ll just hang around, and then they accumulate other ideas. This was one of them. It started off with this lark or this notion that I would write an action movie. I started that and it never went anywhere, but the seed idea, which was a guy breaking out of prison and going to look for his wife, that hung around. The things it accumulated in my head were a lot of classic narrative tropes, especially the archetypes of Westerns and old American folklore. It seemed like a good opportunity to explore those things, especially in music. I love folk songs and I love murder ballads and all the media that made America distinct in the earlier parts of the century. So it was really an accumulation of things.
Exactly. There’s really like no exposition in the movie whatsoever.
It really came about when I as writing it. I would be writing it and I would get to a point where I could have made a conscious decision to go in a plot-heavy direction and have a plot mechanic take over, or I could just spend time hanging out with the characters. The first draft of the script took place over six months and Casey’s character just spent time at that house fixing it up—and that’s something that interested me. Ultimately that was pushing things too far but I just liked the idea of a guy in an old house and just watching what he would do there. But also the texture of that house, letting that be part of the story as well, and letting all those things that when you dial back the plot, all the little details and tones that can emerge in place of major plot points or tricky exposition.
That was something we came back to. When I wrote the script, it started off with a scene between them in the car, in the truck before a robbery. And that scene was written to be longer than what’s in the movie, but when we shot it, that was the first time Casey and Rooney had acted together, they’d barely met prior to that. So we shot it really late one night and the chemistry was just so strong immediately that I felt that it wasn’t enough. I felt like I wanted more time with these characters, so I wrote this new opening sequence that we didn’t actually have time to shoot until a few months later. We went back to Texas in October and shot a few new pieces and that was one of the things that we were dead set on getting—a new scene that would just drop you right into the relationship and get a sense of who they are separate from the crimes they were doing or anything like that. It was just like, here are these characters in a moment, let them fight, let them be fiery, let them run the gamut of emotion. It was a really fun scene to shoot and a really fun scene to come up with and was indeed the little bit that the movie needed at the beginning to really kick things off.
With the cinematography, Bradford and I really turned to still photography a lot. It wasn’t so much that we had specific still photographers we would look at—although there were some—but we would look online and just find lots of things on Flickr that we thought looked right. We had this huge board filled with tons of pictures and we started to pick out ones where the colors or shadows worked, and gradually distilled it down to five or six that we felt represented the movie and those were really our reference points. We did look at movies, we talked about Heaven’s Gate and how that was so richly textured ad how the light was so defuse, and we talked about the darkness in Claire Denis movies, that exquisite darkness.
Yeah, that too. We wanted the movie to look like an old piece of wood, that’s how we always talked about it, and that was a movie where they did that. They flashed the negative, they screwed up the negative to make it look as old and textured as possible—but we didn’t want to replicate it, we didn’t want to just do what they had done. We thought, okay we’re shooting on 35mm, we’re going to use old movie lights and old movie lenses, we’re going to use a lot of filtration, but we’re going to try to take it in a direction but use it as a starting point. We have this image that’s going to look old and let’s see where we can push it into new territories. And that’s were we came up with the idea of making the movie really, really dark and really pushing how far we could get the exposure, how low we could get the exposure while maintaining an image that is clean and pristine and beautiful and varnished. So we wanted to have an image that harkened back to these other movies but also went off in its own direction.
I try to!
It’s changed as I’ve gotten older. I initially got into movies because I loved Star Wars—so special effects and the wonder of that and seeing an illusion that feels completely real and the storytelling side of things. But now, it’s what you said about when you have you physical reaction. I go into movies hoping to have that—whether it’s an emotional experience that is very wrenching or something that feels like an assault or being provoked in some way, I really respond to that. I love movies that challenge me and push me around and that are difficult to digest—that’s something I value.
Yeah, I really try not to think too much about other movies when I’m making a movie. When you’re in such a fast-paced emotional, arduous situation, it’s very easy to just fall back on things you seen before and what I try to do more than anything else, is just use feeling and gut instinct to guide my way. So a lot of that comes from music or literature or other art forms, and rather than trying to copy or transpose, say, a song into the movie, I could quote lyrics—and I’m not above that because I did that in this movie—but more important than that is trying to approximate the way that song makes me feel. If that song makes me feel a certain way, I want to find a way to use the medium of my choice to use that same feeling and that same tone in the form of a movie. I read books while I was shooting, I listened to music, I’m just always trying to wrap myself around…
Yes, a feeling that I’m trying to communicate. And to me, that’s more important than storytelling. I love stories, I love characters and they certainly take precedence, but in the perimeters of the beginning and the end of the movie, I want there to be this beautiful arc of tonality that is just something you can experience and luxuriate in.
It was really great to get to work on those movies at the point that I did because it was the perfect marriage of my own sensibilities developing to a point alongside these other filmmakers that wanted to push boundaries or make an experience like that. I consider myself very lucky that they both asked me to work on their films because it was a wonderful opportunity to dive head first into a mode of storytelling that I was very interested in and already leaning towards. And with Upstream Color that’s a case where I was really able to jump in and push things further than I would have done in my own work, and that’s what Shane wanted, and it was a joy.
I wrote it thinking that I would make it for no money and I wasn’t going to cast anyone reputable—they’d be good actors but they’d be unknown. I felt that was the most efficient way to make the movie because I didn’t want to wait until an actor said yes to get to make it. So when the opportunity came up to get it to other actors, the most important thing was that not only they be great actors but that they not feel like modern actors sticking out in a period piece. Casey instantly I wanted. He can be in any time period, and I just love listening to him talk. He’s got these letters, he’s got this storytelling he does in the movie, and it was a great opportunity to just listen to him speak at great length and he has a wonderful presence and wonderful voice and he’s so idealistic and he has such a youthful quality to him that I thought he’d be perfect.
Well, then with Rooney, we sent her the script, I thin, the week Girl With the Dragon Tattoo came out and I thought there would never be a chance in a million years that she’d read it let alone respond to it. But she did and she read it and watched my short film and wanted to do it. It wasn’t so much a case of whether I thought she could be maternal or not, I was interested in how she handled having to be a mother. She could have either come to set and said—I don’t feel comfortable with being a mother and I don’t want to engage with this child. And if she did that, we would have just gone in that direction because I’m always interested in what an actor is going to bring to a part, rather than forcing them into a box.