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.
As an editor, director, writer, and general renaissance man of the artistic world, the Texas-born filmmaker has moved into territory of his own with his latest feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, proving he is well on his way to becoming a modern cinematic treasure. With a title that sounds as delicious rolling off the tongue as the film does unfolding moment by moment before our eyes, the richly textured picture plays out like an ode to the lovelorn Westerns of days gone by. Harkening back to cinema of the 1970s and American folklore of centuries past, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints tells the aching and poetic tale of Bob Muldoon (played by Casey Affleck) and Ruth Gutherie (played by Rooney Mara), a young couple in love and living outside the law. But after finding themselves in a Texas hills shootout—in which Bob takes the blame for Ruth’s accidental wounding of a sheriff—the two must face the expansive emptiness left in the wake of their separation as he’s incarcerated and she’s left to raise their daughter alone.
When speaking to actor Ben Foster, he referred to Lowery as a man “out of time,” a gentleman “not of this time.” And with its slow-burning and beautifully flickering essence that entrances you into the screen, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a film haunted by the past. And as one of the most anticipated and beloved premieres to emerge out of Sundance this year, Lowery has made himself present as an incredibly refreshing and wonderful new voice in filmmaking. But for all his admiration of mythology and bygone eras of cinema, Lowery has created a film that not only reminds us of what we love and feel nostalgic for, but what the future can hold.
Earlier this week, I got the chance to sit down with Lowery to dive deeper into his desire to capture the essence of a feeling, not wanting to out his actors in a box, and his deeply passionate gravitation towards cinema.
Before going into the film, I hadn’t seen you previous shorts but must admit have been quite obsessed with the films you’ve edited. Sun Don’t Shine, and Upstream Color—which I’ve seen many, many times—are what initially drew me to this because I assumed it would have to be good if you were responsible for those.
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.
So expanding from your short films to a larger narrative feature, what was the initial spark of the film for you? Did it come from one theme or image that struck you?
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.
I had that seed of a story, and I liked the idea of telling a really simple story and dealing with consequence and aftermath. The theme of growing up is something that’s always prevalent in everything that I do, so that was in there as well. And then more than anything else, it was trying to capture a tone. And part of it was a tone of old movies that I liked—1970s movies that are obviously a reference point—and trying to capture what those movies made me feel. But also trying to capture the way a lot of my favorite music makes me feel and to explore and luxuriate in a tonality that mattered to me.
I was going to mentioned that the film felt so tone-heavy and the language it worked in was feeling, which is very much something that has a musicality to it. The dialogue wasn’t filled with exposition and what was said was only of importance.
Exactly. There’s really like no exposition in the movie whatsoever.
Was that desire to tell a story through tone and emotion something that you initially sat down to write and how do you translate that sentiment onto the page?
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.
I really loved the way you opened the film. Not only did it dive you right into the narrative and their relationship, but it also was so gorgeously composed and shot and drenched in the emotion that was at the core of the story.
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.
And speaking to the cinematography, whether it was the vast landscape or the overwhelming darkness, did you have any visual references that you went back to when creating the aesthetic language of the film?
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.
Also McCabe & Mrs. Miller in terms of Vilmos Zsigmond’s use of natural light and a textured darkness in order to bring you into the past.
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.
From watching your earlier work and reading your blog and learning more about it, you seem to not only be someone who loves to create films but envelops yourself in cinema entirely.
I try to!
What always interests me about filmmakers is their connection to film and why they’re so drawn to this medium above everything else. Whenever I go into a film, whatever it may be, I’m always looking to have a physical reaction to it and that’s a way for me to gage how I truly feel about it and love that experience. So what’s your personal relationship with cinematic experience?
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.
The movies that I hang onto the most are the ones I can’t quite get out of my system because they’ve dug their claws into me. It’s something about the synthesis of all these mediums that are coming together in one. And then the one pure thing that is explicitly cinematic is editing, and that’s why I think I’ve gravitated towards that, because unlike every other art form—music is just auditory and paintings are visual, but you can look at a painting for however long you want—with film, you’re taking an image and explicitly saying, look at this shot for this long and then this one because the juxtaposition of those two are going to matter. It’s like alchemy, it excites me and fascinates me to no end. And whether it’s a romantic comedy or a really obscure experimental film, they’re both using the same language and I love seeing the interplay between those.
Film is such a new medium. I often think what would I have done if I’d been born 100 years ago, and I think that people have always thought cinematically. You listen to composers whose music lends itself so well to movies and it’s because they were thinking cinematically before cinema existed, and that’s really exciting to me. I think poetry is the same way, it’s a very analogous medium to cinema and there’s very cinematic poetry out there that functions in its rhythm and its meter much in the same way that film does and the way it plays out over a period of time. There’s so much opportunity in the medium and so much room to try out things and use that language in new ways, it’s great to have an art form that can grow with you as you discover new things and it can change as well.
So do you find yourself gaining most of your emotional insight for a film through poetry or literature, things outside of film to inform you?
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…
A very particular feeling.
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.
Well that’s certainly something you helped weave into Upstream Color and Sun Don’t Shine, which are two films completely told in texture and feeling in a way that’s almost overwhelming but speaks so loudly and lends itself to allowing you to really succumb to them.
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.
When you were writing the film, did you have anyone in mind for the roles? Casey seems like an obvious choice in retrospect because he’s so much of that world. But Rooney, this was a different role for her and we haven’t seen her be this maternal before.
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.
I’ve had him saying “And someday, it will be so,” stuck in my head since I saw the trailer—but go on.
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.
I’ve known plenty of people like that, that didn’t expect to have a child and don’t quite have that relationship that you always hope to have with a child, and that’s not a happy situation but if that had been the case, I was totally prepared to make that part of her character. But the little girls who played her daughter, they just bonded so quickly and so instantly and she was so sensitive to them and so instantly maternal that it was wonderful to watch them bond over the course of the shoot.
Do you feel like you learned a lot as a filmmaker through the making of this? You mentioned something on your blog about never being more naive then in the beginning of shooting the film.
Yeah. I’ve always had confidence what I’m doing and where I’m going—I’ve never known completely where that is, I’m always fumbling in the dark, but I’ve had confidence in that fumbling. But with this film, what I really learned was how to take those little instincts and those things I can’t quite quantify or explain and those feelings and apply them to a major motion picture production. Everything I’ve made in the past was so small and so handmade and that process was always so important to me, to get that same effect and that same methodology to work within the confines of a movie set. This is still a tiny budgeted movie, but for me this was huge and you’ve got trucks and lots of crew that you have to communicate to. So learning how to get what I want out of that situation is what I learned the most. There are plenty of cases where I fell short on the set because I didn’t know to handle it or didn’t know when I could say yes or no—I didn’t realize that I could say no to things if I didn’t want them, I thought everyone knew more than I did in this situation. But in fact, everyone’s there to make the movie that they signed on make based on the script and they’re trusting me to do it, and I realized that I can stand my ground and say this isn’t working and it will be okay, no one will get mad at me. I’m always worried people will get mad at me. So going forward, whether my movies are bigger or smaller, regardless of how much personal confidence I have in what I’m doing, I have a great deal more know-how in terms of how to get that in the machine of a motion picture shoot.