Writer-director-editor-etc. David Lowery has been a part of the filmmaking world since 2000, but odds are you were never exposed to his work until the last year of so (unlesss you saw his previous feature, the moving drama ST. NICK from 2009). But in that time span, he has worked on countless numbers of his own shorts and started to have a hand in editing others' films as well, including works by Dustin Guy Defa, Amy Seimetz, Kris Swanberg, Andrew Brotzman, and most impressively, Shane Caruth's UPSTREAM COLOR.
But coming out of this year's Sundance Film Festival, one of the films I was hearing almost universal praise about was Lowery's latest feature, AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS, a quiet, tense period crime drama starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, and Keith Caradine. It's a work of such beauty and atmosphere that is feels more like a film made by a seasoned, 30-year directing veteran instead of this early-30s Texan who co-edited this movie under a pseudonym.
I thought this interview I did with Lowery was the first time we'd interacted, but at the very end of our enlightening conversation, he made mention of a previous time that frankly stunned me in the best possible way. AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS is a remarkable achievement, and talking to the quite unpretentious and wonderfully eloquent Lowery made it that much more enjoyable. Please enjoy my chat with David Lowery…
David Lowery: Howdy, sir.
Capone: Hi David, how are you?
DL: Good, how are you?
Capone: So where are you right now?
DL: I’m in Dallas, Texas, which is where I live.
Capone: This is one of those films that I just heard nothing but good things about coming out of Sundance, so I was really excited to see it. The first thing I noticed about it right away was the wonderful use of silence that you use. It really plays well for an audience to just take a moment and say, “What’s really going on in this scene?” Can you talk a little bit about the importance of silence?
DL: Yeah, absolutely. I’m someone who loves silence. I love the moments in between conversations or the space between words or silent glances that speak volumes. All those things are my bread and butter, so to speak, and this movie has more dialogue than anything I’ve ever done before. I made this movie called ST. NICK that was 90 minutes with about five lines of dialog in it, and I just love being able to get impressions of things without words. Film is a visual medium, and I love taking the idea of visually telling a story and separating it from all the information that you usually get through dialog or through language. And that’s not to say I don’t love dialog and language, because I certainly do, and there’s plenty of that in the movie as well, but I’m really glad you mentioned the silence, because that’s something that is important to me, and I love being able to give audiences space.
Capone: And of course to balance that out, the second thing I noticed is that you’ve also got a couple really loud shootouts too.
DL: [laughs] They were loud.
Capone: In your film, as opposed to maybe 95 percent of the other films I see in a given year, a bullet hitting a man means something. It’s not just taking out some person; you feel it and you hear it. Talk about staging some of those moments and the use of those really loud gun sounds in this otherwise fairly quiet film.
DL: Well you know the funny thing is, when the movie started off, I wanted to make an action movie and I was having trouble. You go see a James Bond movie or any general action movie, and you have the nameless bad guys who all get killed and you never think about it, and I was writing an action movie version of this and having people get killed. I was feeling very guilty about it, like “Who was that guy when he was a little kid?” It was very disconcerting to me, because I go see these movies and I don’t care at all about them, but when I was writing it it definitely came up.
So I re-calibrated the story, and it went through different alterations and became what it is. One of the things that happened was I wanted all of the violence to really matter, and there’s not that much in the movie. There’s not mush action, but when it does happen, I wanted it to mean something and to not be just anonymous violence. I don’t like guns. I fired a .22 once and I hated it. I felt terrible and I wanted every time a gun was fired in this movie for it to have that same sickening feeling that I felt while I shot a gun for the first time.
I’m an incredible pacifist at heart, so when I engage in violence cinematically, I want it to mean something, and so sound is an amazing way to do that, because when you’re on set those guns don’t make any noises at all. They go “pop,” and then in the studio mixing it and trying to make each one matter, there’s a lot of different sounds going into each gun shot to make them sound like horrible things. That was the idea.
Capone: What’s it like to be the one guy in Texas that doesn’t like guns?
DL: You know, it’s funny. I live in a bubble. I know very few people who have guns, but this girl I knew in high school who was one of my oldest friends, I remember I was helping her move one day. She lives in Austin, and I hadn’t seen her for a while, and she had a gun under her seat in her truck. I was like “Holy shit.” She’s got her baby the baby carrier in the backseat, but a gun under the seat. That really shook me up, like “That’s really interesting. Here’s someone I thought I knew really well.” I knew her husband had guns, but I never would have thought, “Here’s a mother with two children in the car and a gun.” That was a really interesting opening up. My perspective shifted at the time.
Capone: At the beginning of the film, there’s a title card that says something about….
DL: “This was in Texas.”
Capone: Right. But if I read the credits right, it looks like you shot it in Louisiana. Why did you do that, A, and then B, what makes this such a uniquely Texas story that you felt you wanted to call attention to that?
DL: To answer the second part of that question, living in Texas, I just love the state. There’s an attitude that is inclusive of, but also you don’t have to subscribe to the political side of it. There’s this rebelliousness to Texas that I really admire, and I really subscribe to, and it speaks to me as a filmmaker. I love the fact that Texas is the one state that will fly its flag at the same level as the United States flag. I love the fact that Texas tried to secede. All of those things are really fun and exciting to me.
I don’t subscribe to the politics of a lot of Texans, but nonetheless the spirit of the state is something that I’ve grown to love. I wasn’t born here, but when I moved here, I hated it at first, but realized at a certain point that I had grown to love it, and it was a part of my identity. All of my films so far have been set in Texas, and I wanted this one to be a Texas story. I wanted to be part of that legendary Texas mythology that so many other great films participate in, and the easiest way to do that was to start off by saying “This was in Texas.” So the whole movie is instantly contextualized with that title card.
The heartbreaking thing was that because of the way film financing works today, you have to chase tax incentives to get your budget, and we were told that we had to make this movie either in Canada or in Louisiana. So we went to Louisiana and found that farm house on the border of Louisiana and Texas and decided to shoot there. Then we had a secret unit [laughs] that snuck across the state line into Texas proper to shoot the rest of the exteriors.
It was really important for me to have the landscape that I know and love, and I want the story to be set against that landscape, and it’s very specific, you can’t find that in Louisiana, it doesn’t look the same. There are a couple of shots, like exteriors, that are in Louisiana, and I’m always hoping people don’t notice, like “That tree does not exist in Texas! That topography is not correct.” It purely was a financial thing. It was very disappointing, and I hope all the things that are happening right now in the Texas legislature are going to put the tax incentives back at the forefront and let people make movies here.
Capone: This is a really interesting love story, because the lovers are almost never on screen together. And in a weird way, we know that these two together is a bad idea, but they want it so much that we end up wanting it for them. It’s almost infectious. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DL: It was funny, writing the script, I knew there was going to be some degree of either you’re going to want to see them get back together or you don't. If it worked, you were going to want to see them get back together or you hoped that they wouldn’t. I didn’t know what the chemistry between Rooney and Casey was going to be, because they had never met each other, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. I was like “As long as it’s not neutral. As long as you either want to see them get back together or want them to stay away as far as possible." One of the two would work.
We shot the movie in two segments. We did all of Casey’s material and then all of Rooney’s material, and then they had three days of overlapping scenes, and we shot that scene with them in the truck at the very beginning, and instantly the chemistry was so strong that the movie automatically that day turned into a love story in a way that I actually never imagined that it would be. I never realized it would be that strong of a narrative drive for the movie that you wanted to see these two people get back together. I knew that was part of it, but I never realized how much that would be the fulcrum of the narrative.
It was really exciting to see them together, to see them come alive as these two characters who felt that way about each other. The whole crew just felt it. It was amazing to see, and that opening scene of the movie where they are arguing in the field, that was not in the script, and that was something that we shot because we just loved watching them together. It was so great to see these two people that I was like “Okay, we need a little bit more at the beginning, because they have so much chemistry together.”
Capone: You say we want to see them together, and I’m not sure that’s as true as we just want to see them reunite one last time. You set up this classic “She’s got the bad boy that she’s passionate about and has a kid with, and then she has this responsible guy.” I saw REALITY BITES; I know how it works. That love-triangle thing is as old as movies.
DL: Yeah, of course. I wanted to constantly be taking things that are as old as movies and subverting them just slightly. It’s a love triangle, but ultimately it was important to me that she not be stuck in a situation where she was choosing between two men. So at the end of the movie, you can believe if you want to that she goes off with the sheriff. In my opinion, it was important for her to be alone at the end, and the last shot of the movie she is by herself and has moved beyond both of these men in her life. That was important to me, that she’s not stuck in a triangle where, as a woman, her only salvation is to go with one of two guys. It was something she had to do on her own. That was important to me.
Capone: Speaking of doing things that are as old as movies, this movie has a really gorgeous, timeless quality to its visual style, where it literally could take place at any point in the 1900s. The color scheme that you use is really old-fashioned looking, like old photographs, weathered newspaper. I read somewhere that you shot this on 35mm, which blows my mind. Why did you choose to go that way?
DL: We wanted the movie to feel as old as possible. So aside from the people who were in it--and even then I wanted to cast actors who could have that timeless feel and would disappear into the parts. I wanted everything to feel antiquated, and we set it in the '70s, but it’s supposed to be timeless. You’re supposed to not really place it in any given time period, and that was a decision that ran through every creative choice on the movie--the film stock that we used, the fact that we fought to shoot on 35mm, which was definitely a fight at this point. It’s really sad that that’s a fight at this point, but it definitely was. We didn’t use a single modern piece of lighting equipment.
Capone: It looks like it was shot by candle light half the time.
DL: [Laughs] It looks dark. Bradford Young, the cinematographer who is just a genius, he and I were just talking about “Let’s see how far we can push the darkness.” It came out of discussions of just other movies we liked, photography we liked, but also the idea that we were shooting a movie in Texas in the summer, and it would be really easy to let it get drenched in sunlight and to have a lot of sun flares everywhere, and there is a little bit of that. But it’s mostly in the first five minutes, and then after that the movie just gets incredibly dark, and a lot of scenes that were lit with very careful arrangements of household lamps for shadows.
Capone: You’ve got this incredible cast of some of the best actors working today, but I’ve got to ask two things about Keith Carradine. Having this Altman veteran around, tell me about what that added to the mix.
DL: The great thing about Keith, aside from the fact that he is just the nicest guy ever and the most talented, he came so prepared with all of his dialog memorized. He’s just an amazing person to work with. And then he has this legacy, this history to him, and that was something. I’m a huge Altman fan. He’s one of my very favorite American filmmakers, and to be able to tie this movie in some way to films like THIEVES LIKE US and MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, there’s no denying the weight of history is on his side, and he can bring that sense of these characters he’s played in the past to the roles he’s playing now. That was something I wanted, especially for that character who is someone we don’t find out that much information about him and there’s never a lot of exposition as far as who he is, but hopefully the entire history of all of Keith’s roles and where he comes from in film history in general is present in his performance.
He started off in MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER as this fresh-faced kid, and now he’s this sort of authoritative figure who has such a gravity to him, and I love that over the course of all of these movies you’ve seen this guy become who he is, and if you’ve seen those movies, you can bring that into the theater with you when you watch this one, and that’s kind of like letting film history provide your exposition for you.
Capone: As the credits were rolling, I hear this song come on and unmistakably it’s Carradine's voice singing it. I was in college the first time I saw NASHVILLE, and I fell in love with his song “I’m Easy,” so when I heard him singing, I was like, “Oh my god.” Is that a new song? Did he do that for you, or is that something you found?
DL: It’s a new song, in fact every piece of the music in the movie from the score to the songs are all originalYeah, he did that song, and I’m cutting a music video for it tonight actually, so hopefully it will get some play. I loved the idea of having him grace the soundtrack as well as the movie itself. I was just so excited to have him play that song.
Capone: It’s a beautiful song, too. I even rewound it and listened to it again and paid attention. One of the most talked about films of this year, certainly on the festival circuit, but just overall-- think it’s going to end up on a lot of people’s “Best of” lists--was UPSTREAM COLOR. I fell like editing that film, in certain people’s hands might have made their head explode. I’ve watched it several times and I can’t even imagine the process that went into editing that movie. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DL: It was the most wonderful, natural, organic creative experiences I’ve ever had. I am so proud to have worked on that movie and to have had a part in it and working with Shane. I didn’t know what to expect. I was worried that it would be difficult or that he would just hate everything I was doing, because he is someone who’s got a very clear idea of what he wants and he was still shooting when I was editing, so I was not working with him directly. The moment that I realized that I was actually doing something that he liked was an incredible career lifetime achievement for me, and it wasn’t hard.
The movie that he was trying to make fit very squarely into the way my brain works, especially the way my brain works editorially. I had looked at the script, but once I started editing, I never like to look at scripts again. So I just started looking at the footage and piecing it together and figuring it out, and it all just sort of flowed very musically and very naturally and organically, and it wasn’t difficult at all. It was difficult only in that we were doing it very, very quickly. I think we cut the whole movie in about two months, and it was just wonderful. I can’t speak highly enough of the experience. And it was a great way to kickoff making AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS, because I was cutting it all up until the day I went to go shoot my movie.
Capone: If you had told me it took you a year, I would have believed that too.
DL: I know. At the time, it felt very easy, but looking back on it now, there’s a lot going on there. But I started at the beginning and just went through it; it was very simple. As much as it’s hard to believe watching the movie now, it was a simple experience.
Capone: I noticed you have a few people in your “Thank You” list in your movie--the Swanbergs and Ti West--and there’s this little film community that sprouted up, and it’s not a geographical thing. I know you’ve worked with Amy Seimetz on a lot of different things too. How do you qualify the relationship you have with these filmmakers that are sort of in the same boat as you?
DL: It’s a film community that’s not bound by any sort of geographical boundaries, but I think the one common link to every one of these things is SXSW. Joe and Ti and I all had our first films at SXSW in 2005, and we actually have a character--you can look on IMDB probably in Ti’s new movie, my new movie, and Joe’s new movie, we all have a character that shares the same name. [Laughs] That’s a reference to Matt Dentler, who ran SXSW back then.
Capone: Oh sure. I know Matt.
DL: So we all met there and just became friends. We all make different types of movies, but we all like the movies that we make, and there’s this sense of support in the friendships we’ve all made where we all just want to help each other make films, and I’ve worked on a lot of Joe’s movies just holding a boom mic. Whatever you can do to help out your friends in their creative endeavors, that’s sort of the spirit of it all. So it’s been really remarkable and satisfying and exciting to watch all of these people that I have grown up with over the past few years succeed and then to have my own movie coming together at the same time and watching it all come to fruition within the same time frame.
It’s been really nice and exciting and I love the fact that we are all still friends making movies together, and even if we are not making movies together, you know, Ti saw my first rough cut, and we are always exchanging notes and reading each other’s scripts. It’s just a really wonderful circle of friends. It almost feels like the whole George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola days in San Francisco, except there are no geographical boundaries, although I think it all does tie back to Austin, Texas, to a large degree.
Capone: Are you bummed that you’re not in YOU’RE NEXT, because it seems like of those guys are in it?
DL: I know! I need to write Adam Wingard and ask him if I can have a cameo in his next movie. I love that movie and I love that Joe is breaking out as an actor, because I think he’s terrific in that movie.
Capone: That’s what I think one of the upshots of that film, is that he’s going to get a lot more acting work.
DL: Exactly. He’s so funny.
Capone: Real quick, what do you have next? Are you still making this movie with Robert Redford?
DL: I’m writing it. I would love for that to be next movie I make and I’m in the second draft of that. I’ve got another movie that I want to make with Casey Affleck that I’m writing, and there are a couple other things that are sort of in the works as well. So I’m just trying to stay busy and find things that I really care deeply about, because I could never just sign on to a movie to do it for a job; it’s always got to be something that really matters to me. I’ve got a couple of those right now that I’m working on and my goal is to have one of them be prepped by January. I’m feeling the burn of not having directed in a year, and it’s like “I need to get back behind the camera.”
Capone: I read something about a PETE’S DRAGON remake. Is that a real thing?
DL: That’s real. Toby Halbrooks, who produced AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS, he and I are writing a remake of that. It’s totally bizarre, although if you had seen PIONEER, the short film that we did, and then we did this film ST. NICK, it’s like it’s going to be a lot like those movies, at least the movie we are writing. Who knows what will happen when it goes through studio development, but the movie we're writing is very much in line with that, and Disney was really excited by that idea of a movie about a kid and his dragon living in the woods. I love the script that we're writing and I hope that it actually is the movie that gets made.
Capone: Well, we haven’t been broken up here, but we're way past our time limit.
DL: Yeah, I think we have to wrap up. Feel free to reach out if you have more. I’m a big fan of yours. I actually sat next to you at Butt Numb-A-Thon in 2005.
Capone: No way.
DL: Way back in the day.
Capone: 2005? What were the big movies?
DL: That was KING KONG.
Capone: Oh my gosh, that’s crazy. You should have said that right at the front.
DL: I meant to, and then we just got caught talking to the movie. I used to contribute to the site also.
Capone: That’s awesome. I had no idea who contributed to this site outside of the guys in Austin. That’s so funny. Well anytime man, any time you want to come back to BNAT, we’ll carve out a place for you.
DL: I would love to. I need to bring my wife. It’s one of her dreams to go.
Capone: David, thank you so much for taking the time out and best of luck with this. It’s a phenomenal film.
DL: Thank you so much; it really means a lot. Take care.