In David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, an escaped convict, played by Casey Affleck travels across Texas to be reunited with his wife (Rooney Mara) and young daughter, but in his absence another man (Ben Foster) has attempted to fill the void. It's a very straightforward and classical narrative and there's something satisfying old-fashioned about David Lowery's approach to telling this tale. This slow-burning romantic tragedy is heavily indebted to the cinema of the 1970s, with the gorgeous cinematography, imaginative score and elliptical editing ensuring that it looks, sounds and feels like nothing else in cinemas right now. Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a strikingly confident piece of filmmaking, and the kind of film that lingers in the memory long after the closing credits have rolled. I met David Lowery when he was in London recently to discuss it.
Looking at your IMDb page, you've got credits in almost every possible department of filmmaking.
I know. It's sad but true. [laughs]
Even though you're looked at as a young director starting out on his career, you've already amassed a lot of experience in a relatively short space of time.
It feels like it wasn't a short space of time, but that's because I started working on movies as soon as I graduated from high school, doing whatever I could. I didn't go to film school so my method of learning was to work on as many films as possible and wear as many different hats as possible. IMDb started around the same time, so all of a sudden I started getting all these credits. I look at them now and there's a million of them I'd like to take off, but they're all there for posterity.
It's reminiscent of the old-school, Roger Corman way of working, to serve your apprenticeship and learn your trade on as many low-budget films as possible before stepping up.
Exactly, it's completely like an apprenticeship. The difference is that technology is now so much easier to use, so instead of just focusing on learning how to use the camera you can bounce from one thing to another, and on one film you can end up doing lots of different things.
After you made your feature debut with St. Nick, what were the key lessons you took from the experience that you could apply to Ain't Them Bodies Saints?
The main lesson was just to listen to my gut instinct. If something felt wrong it was probably wrong, and that was a film that was made entirely on that basis. The script was 30 pages long and it was really a chance to explore a complete story and a cinematic story without using a script as a guideline, just to start each day and see what felt right. I had to keep the entire movie as a whole in my head at all times, to see what each scene might do to the one being shot immediately afterwards, and to not have a script to fall back on. It worked out, the movie was a success, and even though Ain't Them Bodies Saints was scripted I wanted to approach it in the same way. Because it's bigger it's harder, you know, you don't have as much freedom when you have a bigger budget, so we didn't get to do it as much on this film, but it proved again that listening to my instinct is always best. The times where I didn't listen to it are the times when I look at the film now and see mistakes, and the times when I did listen to it are where I feel the film succeeds the most.
I haven't seen St. Nick in its entirety but I've seen clips of it online, and it seems to be a film that's very heavy on visual storytelling and very light on dialogue. Is that an approach you're particularly drawn to?
Absolutely. I love dialogue and I love listening to people talk at great length, but I also love silence. I love the space between sentences, when people might have just had a conversation and then they have that quiet moment when they don't have anything to say, those are the moments that I love. St. Nick probably has 5 or 10 lines of dialogue in the entire running time; we shot more dialogue, but in the editing process it all just fell away, and the silent scenes were the ones that spoke loudest. With Ain't Them Bodies Saints there is more of a story, more of a plot and more dialogue, but I still wanted to honour that, the silence I had grown to love so much. I wanted the space between what people were saying to be something that we were paying attention to.
I guess the fact that you have a very simple core narrative gives you a solid foundation and allows you to experiment in that fashion.
That's exactly right. I didn't want to tell a story that was going to reinvent the wheel. I wanted to tell a very simple, time-honoured story that is predictable, because I don't think being predictable is a bad thing. I think if it's the right kind of film then having a very simple and direct narrative is a boon to the filmmaker, because you're actually able to focus on other things. I wanted to make a film that was less about the story than the texture, the tone, the feeling, the sense of montage, the rhythm – all those things took precedence to me over the story. By choosing a story that is so traditional I felt we had a good leg to stand on and we were able to dive into all of that ephemera in a more effective way.
It's the kind of story where the characters have an inescapable fate.
Yeah, there's an inevitability to it, and that's great. You know how the movie's going to end. You might not know exactly what's going to happen, but you're pretty sure it can only end one way, and that frees you up from expecting plot twists and such. As a viewer I always appreciate that.
Given your background in editing, do you find you're editing the film in your head as you shoot, or do you figure out how to put it all together later?
It was definitely a case that I was editing it while I was writing it, and then when we were on set I was editing it in my head while we were shooting, absolutely. On the schedule that we were on, I kept having to cut shots out and change things, so knowing how it might fit together was incredibly helpful in finishing the movie on time. But once we got to the editing room it still went in a different direction. We took a roundabout way of cutting it where I threw the script away and started working intuitively, so the film went through this process of becoming something completely different before gradually returning to where we started. The finished film is very similar to the script, but we tried out all sorts of things on the way there.
As an editor yourself, what was it like working with Craig McKay and Jane Rizzo on this film and communicating your ideas to them?
I worked with Jane first, because she had cut a few of my friends' films – Compliance and Great World of Sound – and she had also worked with Robert Altman, and I just wanted to hear some stories about that! [laughs] Craig McKay came on later when I just wanted new eyes on the movie. There's no denying that it was difficult because editing is one of those things that I know how to do, and it's just easier for me to actually grab the controls and do something myself than it is to tell someone what to do. So what ended up happening was that I just left the editing room because it was very difficult for me to be in there while editing was being done. I would go off and work on my own and we would work on different parts of the movie, and then I'd come back and we'd compare ideas and see whose ideas felt the best. It definitely was a challenge for me to let go and have someone else working on it, but as an editor myself I've always loved the idea that I could contribute something to a director's vision and I wanted to experience that as a director, so it was important for me to work with people for the first time.
It's quite rare to see directors who also edit for other directors, but I imagine it would be something that a lot of filmmakers could benefit from, to see how other directors work. Have you found it an instructive experience?
I think it takes a certain mindset to be an editor and luckily I have that, and I've worked with plenty of directors who have no interest in touching that software at all. But yeah, I've learned so much from working with other directors and have expanded my own ideas about how to make movies. Seeing other people make mistakes is certainly helpful, although by the time I got to the set I forgot all of that because it's such a fast-paced environment. [laughs] But hopefully you digest all of those things and subconsciously think about the bad takes you've seen, think about why they're bad, and hopefully they're buried in your head somewhere to help you when you need to make a gut instinct choice. It has definitely been enormously instrumental in how I approach being a director.
One of the key dramatic choices you make it to not show key events, with things like the robbery or the prison break happening off screen. Was this always your intention?
That was always the intention, none of those things are in the script. In fact, the first draft of the script didn't even have that shootout.
And then you thought, we've got to have some action...
We need to have something, we need an inciting incident. It can't be all ellipses. [laughs] You know, I did try writing a prison escape scene in the very first draft of the script, and it really just felt like we'd seen it before. Any attempt of mine to do an exciting prison escape scene is only going to pale in the shadow of the great ones we've seen.
It's very hard to think of an original way to break out of prison now.
Exactly, and if it was original it would stand out and detract from everything else I was doing, so I thought I'd just move on, get past it, and assume that he has made it out somehow.
Another interesting choice was the three killers whose motivation is unclear, which suggest the weight of a backstory without it ever being discussed.
I always like the idea of characters talking to each other in a way that suggests they've known each other their whole lives. When you do know someone you're not going to talk about where you came from and how you first met, and all those things. So when those guys walk into the shop, Keith Carradine gives them a look, and you get the sense that he knows what they're up to and what they're there for, and there are little hints in the dialogue of where they came from and who hired them. But more than that, those characters are symbols, and when you see three guys who look like that you know they're up to know good and that's kind of all you need to know.
I think having an actor like Keith Carradine helps in that regard, because he brings a real presence and sense of history when you consider his own film career.
There's no denying that, in addition to being a magnificent actor in his own right, when you can utilise a performer's history it can do wonders for the movie. He is bringing all of the wonderful baggage that he has accumulated over his career with him, and in some movies that might hurt the movie, but in this case, with a character like this, it does a lot of the work for you.
On the subject of the cast, the performance that really stood out for me was Ben Foster. It's a much more subdued performance and a different kind of energy than I've come to expect from him. How did that casting choice come about?
He read the script and really liked it and wanted to meet, so we sat down and talked. At that point I was already pretty set on Casey playing Bob, he had said he'd wanted to do it and I was happy that he was the right guy, but when I met with Ben he was such a gentleman. He always plays these very wired, intense and often evil characters – and he does have an intensity to him, there's no denying that – but he's also very old-fashioned in his courteousness and how gentlemanly he was, and I immediately thought that would be a wonderful thing to see on screen. I'd never seen him do that, and I love the idea of taking a character who on the page was just a nice guy and lending him that intensity to enrich the character. Luckily he said yes, and he transformed himself so thoroughly for the film that when I saw him after we'd wrapped, and he'd shaved that moustache off and stopped talking with his accent, I was shocked! He went to Midland, Texas and lived with some sheriffs for a few weeks, and he understood that world so thoroughly and brought so much to it, and I think that character is the one true, sincere character. He's not putting on a front, he's not putting on a show, he's just direct, and he is also my voice coming through, the closest embodiment of me as a person.
This is the first time you've directed actors of this calibre and experience. How did you find that process?
Each actor was different in what they wanted, so I had to very quickly pick up on how to work with each one. There wasn't a sense of hierarchy, there wasn't a sense of them saying, "Well, this is how I've done it in the past" or "this is how I like to work with other directors." It was more a case of everybody being in this process of making the movie together and wanting what was best for it, so I never had to deal with the ego or expectation or any of the things you might expect from quote-unquote "movie stars." But they did each have their own preferred method of working; for example, Ben liked to get together and really talk about the character and know every detail in advance, versus someone like Casey who shows up knowing his lines and his character, but who liked to do different things from take to take, to shake it up. Rooney comes knowing exactly what to do but it you want to change something you can just throw it at her and she'll respond. So they all have different methods of working and my learning curve was just figuring out how to work with all three simultaneously.
I've only got time for one more question and I'd like to ask you something about Upstream Colour, which is opening in the UK this week. How did you get involved in that project and what was the experience like?
Shane [Carruth] is from Dallas, which is where I live as well, and we had a mutual friend who is a producer on that movie. I met Shane as a friend and he shared the script with me, and I introduced him to Amy Seimetz because I had worked quite a bit with her in the past, and at a certain point I think the shoot became so intense he just couldn't edit it himself. He was always planning to edit at night.
He's very much a one-man band.
Oh yeah, if he could play every part in the movie I think he would. It was just taking so long to get the movie made and it was such an intense shoot he needed someone else to start putting it together. I was nervous about doing that at first because I knew he had such a clear idea of what he wanted and it was so demanding, I was afraid that I would instantly disappoint him. I didn't want to jeapordise our friendship, so I just told him, "The moment I start making you unhappy, tell me and I'll stop. I'm happy to walk away, I don't want this to get in the way of us knowing each other." So I said I'd do it – the footage was so good I couldn't resist working on it – even though I was about to start shooting Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and luckily he liked what I was doing and didn't tell me to stop. In a very organic and natural way I picked up on the wavelength he was working on, and the movie came together very, very quickly, as complex as it appears. It was a very organic process and it was also one of the most satisfying creative collaborations I've ever had, and as an editor it was definitely the most fun I've ever had.