Can David Lowery save American cinema?
That's a rhetorical question (he said, knowing full well that there's no such thing as a rhetorical question on a website that has a comments section), and the sort of glitzy junk lede that's more conducive to selling magazines than encouraging intelligent discussion, but it's a question that seems genuinely worth asking in the wake of Lowery's second feature.
American cinema is in dire need of saving, this much we hold to be self-evident (but I'll reductively attempt to explain it anyway). The blockbusters are uniformly awful, mid-level studio films are practically extinct save for the perennial crop of prestige films (read: movies that somehow involve George Clooney), and several major festivals are programming with less of an eye for vision than recognition, having largely succumbed to the wash cycle of indie inertia (you know you're it's bad whenever the name of a film festival starts to be used as a genre). Micro-budget projects continue to fascinate, but even with the emergence of VOD they struggle to be seen, and most of the filmmakers who contribute to this category – for better or worse – aren't gifted with the dexterity that allows someone like Joe Swanberg to make the most of his talents.
In other words, the movies are either too big or they're too small, and the middle ground has been lost. But with "Ain't Them Bodies Saints", certainly one of the most exciting films to debut at Sundance earlier this year, writer / director / editor David Lowery seems perfectly capable of restoring some actual cinema to American cinema. A handsomely mournful drama that invokes Western tropes in order to explore the grandeur and decay of American myth-making, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" plunges into the heart of Texas to tell a fugitive love story that begins where ostensibly similar movies tend to fade out. The day after Ruth (Rooney Mara) tells Bob (Casey Affleck) that she's pregnant with their child, the two wind up in a shootout in the aftermath of a heist gone bad. Bob is jailed, Ruth is set free, and the two begin their lives apart. Several years later, Bob escapes prison, determined to get back to his love and the family that she's cultivated in his absence.
The film is rich with ambition, emotionally sweeping even after it settles into a rather intimate scale. While Lowery was obviously empowered by his relatively high-profile cast (whose participation likely bought "Ain't Them Bodies" the luxury of shooting on 35mm), you get the sense that his vision simply prohibits him from acquiescing to the few modes of filmmaking that seem available to indie filmmakers these days. Anyone who's seen "Upstream Color", which Lowery edited for his friend Shane Carruth, knows that he's eminently capable of telling a unique story in an environment that seems resistant to such things, no matter how compelling they might be. And while it certainly helps that movie stars want to work with him, Lowery's relationship with Carruth – as well as the stunning cinematography and music that "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" earned from Bradford Young and Daniel Hart – suggests that if Lowery might save American movies, he won't be doing it alone.
With "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" ready to hit theaters in NYC and LA this Friday (before expanding nationally in the weeks to come), I sat down with David Lowery to discuss his influences, that title, and why the most dangerous love stories are the ones we tell ourselves.
FILM.COM: It's funny, because I’ve wanted to talk to you ever since I saw the "Daily Routine" short, which I found oddly reassuring. I’m trying to remember if you're a morning person or —
DAVID LOWERY: Not at all. The later the day gets, the better I get.
Ditto. So cool, thanks a lot for talking to me. I’ve actually seen the film a number of times, now.
Does it hold up? I can't even tell anymore. How does it feel?
Well, expectations can be tricky. Not not in terms of it being under or overwhelming, but about what type of film it is, because I had been reading about “Ain’t Them Bodies” for so long after Sundance that much of my first time through was preoccupied with adjusting to the rhythms of the film…
Yeah, completely. When I saw the first comparison at Sundance to "Beasts of the Southern Wild," I was like, "Oh no, this could go horribly wrong."
I can't imagine how suffocated you must feel with the constant chorus of Terrence Malick comparisons, and all the nonsense that comes along with that.
The last time I was watching it, I was almost explicitly just looking for Joanna Newsom references.
Did you find them?
Well, you know, I’m a huge Joanna Newsom obsessive and I was reading something, I think it was on your blog, where you were talking about the song "Go Long" being referenced. But watching the film I couldn’t pinpoint where.
That one – I mean, if you want to get nerdy – "Go Long" was the song that I told Rooney [Mara], "That's just who your character is." And that was… Everything in that, and in fact, in her letter that she writes to Bob, one draft of that was just largely lyrics from that song. That all got taken out, but nonetheless, that's what we always had in mind, was that song for that character. The tone of that whole song, I tried to make the movie kind of mirror that.
For the explicit references, it's actually "Only Skin" from her previous album, which there's a direct quote in one of Bob's letters, and then visually, I chose to have them barefoot, because of that one line, "Come across the desert with no shoes on." That was always a profound line to me. The whole passage of that song is so epic, and in fact, when I was talking to Daniel Hart about the score, the only reference point I gave him was a live performance of that song, and the way the instrumentation was transposed for the live tour that she did. For that song, a specific part was like, "Okay, just listen to that, and everything else you can do. That's the only reference point I have."
That's great, especially because he transmuted it in a really interesting way without just lifting the music directly.
Yeah, which is why I love him. I know that he'll take that kind of information and do with it what needs to be done.
Well, I could easily just spend the next 20 minutes talking to you about Joanna Newsom songs, and how you should make a feature-length adaptation of her second album, but... there’s a whole lot of movie here!
What was the original journey for the story? Was it a song? Or was it a character or even just an image?
It initially started with having made my first film, "St. Nick", which is a very, very quiet, uneventful movie on the surface that I think audiences had to meet the movie halfway. I wanted to make something that was easier to get involved with. So I thought that I should just make an action movie. And that was the initial idea, and that very quickly evaporated, and the idea of making something that would meet the audience at the front door also went away fairly quickly.
But I really… I wanted to do something that was a riff on genre, I think that was a part of it. I just wanted to take archetypes and play around with them, and I just gravitated towards movies that I liked, and songs that I liked, and a lot of it was Joanna Newsom, a lot of it was also having just worked with Will Oldham and loving his music, and Bill Callahan, all the Drag City artists, basically. And just wanting to make a movie that felt like that, and that felt like a lot of the old movies that I loved, and wasn't really about a plot but just so much luxuriating in the tone of it.
And it's interesting, you know, you can make that movie, which is what we did, and then you put the weight of expectation. You see people referring to it as a Western, which… It also has that, that was certainly a part of it, but it also has all of these other things that get brought to it, and I think that hopefully a second viewing is helpful, because you can get those expectations aside and realize that, "Yeah, this is just about almost meditating on a tone rather than trying to tell an epic tale."
It’s funny, on the way here I was actually listening to Bill Callahan’s "Rock Bottom Riser", and I was thinking to myself "I can totally imagine this song informing Casey Affleck's character."
Something that the second viewing revealed to me was exactly what you were just talking about – that for me, it really became a movie about storytelling. Everyone is telling stories in this movie, everyone has a story to tell – even Keith Carradine’s gun has a story! And so much of the movie is about this myth that Bob perpetuates for himself – it's almost as if he's more motivated to get back to Ruth and Sylvie because it's the story he's built for himself, and less so because of any profound romantic love.
Yeah, I think it's more than the actual devotion. If he actually truly loved Ruth, on a pure level, he would leave and go off in the other direction. But because he loves the story that he's spinning about himself, or the two of them together, and he loves his own mythology that he's been trying to build up around himself, he goes back to her. And his arc, so to speak, is at the end of the movie, realizing that all of that is nonexistent, that it's all in his own head.
So it's selfish, but not for necessarily the reasons that you might expect.
Yeah, it's selfish… He thinks of it as selfish. I don't think he has the perceptive skills – if I were to really read into the character – to understand why it's selfish until the end of the movie. Like, he thinks he is Odysseus returning home to Penelope, like that's definitely what he sees himself as. But that's because he has built up his entire life as a character in a drama of his own creation.
He doesn't realize that Odysseus ended up ruining two different generations of men in the town he returned to.
(Laughs) Yes, a hundred percent.
Absence naturally plays a large role in a story like this, and that idea is expressed spatially in the film. The most resonant images aren’t necessarily of characters, but of the spaces between them and the spaces they’ve left behind. When you designed your compositions, was empty space treated like a character of its own?
That's interesting to think about, because I definitely made a conscious decision to… I wanted to be clear with the framing, and I didn't want to obfuscate, which I think is something that I'm fond of, and I've done it in the past, and I see a lot of filmmakers do it, when you don’t tell the audience what you want to see in the image. So we were always trying to put the characters in the center of the frame and be clear, but it's really interesting that you say that, because that absence definitely is a huge part of the story, and I think that when it is part of the frame, it hopefully is a big part of it, and that you're not necessarily being confused. You're not being denied and image, but you're being presented with – and especially with that shot as an example – we were being presented with an absence.
On your blog – which I think is great, by the way – you wrote a bit evasively about the changes between the Sundance cut and the theatrical one, and you mentioned that there was a lot of 'red tape' involved, even in the original cut, that there were things that you had maybe wanted to do in post that you weren't able to. Can you safely elaborate on that?
Yeah, I mean, it's a question of chemistry. Like, I am very comfortable in the editing room, and that is my safety zone, and the shoot was hard. It was really fast, and really hot, it was really difficult, and I was really excited to get back into the editing room. And I wasn't ready to get in there with another person. And that just created a struggle. There was just no way around it. I realized, after the fact, that when you're editing your own movie, you go through the period where you hate everything. And then you realize what it is you've done, you realize it's actually not bad, and things start to work, and I've always experienced this privately. And experiencing it with another person was a nightmareish situation.
And for the red tape involved, was purely the fact that this was a union signatory movie. I wasn't a union editor, so we had to have somebody else. And that created all sorts of difficulties. I couldn't go off and edit myself, because then the bond company would think that I was stealing the movie. Just things like that. And I would love to have… The editors I worked with are tremendously talented, but we just didn't have that spark and chemistry where it worked. I had that with Daniel Hart, the composer. I had that with Bradford [Young], our cinematographer. There were a few cases, partially because I'm a very strong-willed, editorially-minded loner, I guess we just never quite clicked.
So, we were behind on the edit from day one because of that reason. And it was a struggle to get to the point where you could show the movie to Sundance, and once Sundance, thankfully, saw enough promise in there that they invited the film, we were again in a rush to get it done. And then, after Sundance, we went back to it again, and again we rushed to get it for Cannes, to the point where there's still a million things I would love to do with it. But the movie itself, it is what it is, and whether or not a handful of shots are too short, or the rhythm is slightly off, it's still the movie, but it definitely gave me clear perspective that next time, I just need to take some time with it on my own to get used to it, and then if I bring somebody else onto the process, to make sure that it's gonna be a productive situation, and not something where we're constantly taking one step forward and two big steps back.
Right. Well, as far as being comfortable with releasing the movie and not being obsessive and having to change things, I feel like it's similar to a relationship, and how you might not be able to get over someone until you fall in love with someone else. Once you start your next project, the voices in your head nagging you about the minutia of “Ain’t Them Bodies” might get muted.
It's true, and you know, right now, there are alarm bells going off in my head all the time because the movie is about to be out of my hands. And I haven't been able to edit it for months now, which is good. I'm glad I'm able to let go. But nonetheless, I'm constantly just like, "Why didn't I do this?" I'll read a review, and think like, "That review was right, why didn't I do this?" And it's the kind of thing that will keep you up at night for a couple of hours, and then you'll wake up the next morning, and realize, you know, "I've got this other script I need to write." Then I go running, get it out of my system, and I look forward to about a year from now, going back and watching "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" – flaws and all, whatever it is – I'll be able to love it, because it is a very personal thing. It's part of me, and right now, it's going through massive growing pains, going out into the world on its own, and I can watch it and hate it. I can watch it and love it. It's always a very volatile relationship, but much like, you know, you're friends with an ex a couple of years down the road, once all the feelings have settled. I look forward to being able to give this movie a hug.
As far as that much-discussed title is concerned… I read somewhere that it just came to you, and you liked it, and that's really all the explanation I need. But my question now is that when you think of the movie now, do you retroactively see meaning in it that you can apply to the text?
There was always some degree of meaning. Like, I knew going into it, if I'm going to be so bold as to put a title like this on a movie, I should have at least some answer that's not completely facetious. But it was never facetious, like I was never putting it on there just to court attention or court people wondering why I used this title. It had a very… The resonance, just that phrase, gave the movie something important enough to actually stick with it.
But I love, you know… I was raised in the Catholic Church, and I was raised to think that sainthood was the ultimate position someone could aspire towards within that religion, and so I've always equated saintliness to being some degree of good. And I love the idea of also people trying to do the right thing. That's something that has always mattered to me. It's always been important to me to just be good. And I wanted to make a movie where you have a bunch of people who, in another movie might be terrible people, or perhaps before the movie started, they were terrible people, but in this case, in the world of this movie, in the context of this movie, they are all trying to make the right choice, all aspiring to do right by the people around them. Whatever their own definition of that is. Every character has their own definition of that. But they're all trying, and all aspiring towards making the right choice. And that was something that was very important to me in the script stage, and I felt that the title – if I was going to be asked to break it down, which I knew I would – that was what why I felt like it was a valid choice.
And then beyond that, it's just that the idiomatic American quality of it, the sound of an old folk song, I felt set the stage for what the movie was. So if you take that title into the movie with you… That's all I really hope people do. Just go buy a ticket to the movie, they know it's called "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," that puts their mind to just a certain space, to where they'll hopefully be that much more prepared for the movie.
And the title is actually a part of the text of the film, introduced on a delayed title card ten minutes into the film. It made me think of Thai cinema, where it’s quite common to do that, and then I saw on your blog that you had referenced Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s "Tropical Malady.” I can imagine that the references come to you like an unplugged reservoir, but how do you contend with all of them without being overwhelmed? How do you take the references and make them into something that’s uniquely your own?
I don't know. It's a balance to which… There's a degree to which you can look at this movie and see it as nothing but the sum of its influences. Like, I am very aware of that, but I try to do is just not think about it at all. For example, when making the movie, I try not to think about other movies, I try not to reference any other movies. But I do think about music, or literature, and not so much a quote from that, I don't try to quote those influences, but just the way they make me feel. And that's what I always try to keep in mind. Rather than saying, "This shot should look like the shot from that movie," or, "This shot should look like…"
I cited in my blog, that "Tropical Malady" shot, that was certainly the shot where I was like, "Here's the shot that it's gonna be like. It's gonna be like that" But more often than that, and even in those cases, it's because I'm trying to evoke a feeling. And those movies have evoked that feeling in me in the past, so I'm going to use them as a reference point.
And with music, it's such a direct and immediate response and so it's the same. It's often very easy to communicate to other people by just playing them a song, and saying, "This is what this feels like." And if you have collaborators who get what you are after, and understand on that psychic level, they pick up on that, and that sort of just informs how they go about translating what you've given them. And that helps too in keeping the movie from feeling like just an assemblage of homages or rip-offs or things that have influence me in the past, because I was certainly in a wheelhouse here, where I wanted to delve into things that I liked about other movies and other songs and books. So it would've been easy to just make this a litany of reference points, and to not do that, I just tried to never think about movies to the greatest extent possible.
It genuinely does not feel like a hodgepodge of references.
[Laughs] Great, great.
I want to ask about the use of darkness in the film. I was really struck and surprised by how much of the film is absolutely draped in darkness, especially after the first ten minutes, which are mostly set during the magic hour…
I've always loved that. I remember watching "Panic Room", the [David] Fincher movie, and just loving how dark it got, and how you're watching a movie that's not lit. It's lit – it's very carefully lit, very exquisitely lit – but there's no light. You're not seeing a blue moon light coming through the window. And I love the idea of using that darkness to communicate a feeling, and to communicate a sense of whether it's dread or loss or, in this case, emptiness. And because the movie is all aftermath, and it's all about the fading embers of these characters' lives, we thought it that was very appropriate to actually court that darkness and see how far we could push it, and just let it get as… Not muddy, but as dim as possible, and that seemed very appropriate to the story.
So at the beginning of the movie, the first five minutes, the first ten minutes – lots of magic hour, lots of sun flares, lots of light and energy. And there's a boisterousness to the pace, and hopefully some degree of – there's not much joy in the movie – but hopefully there's a quickening of the spirit that occurs in those early moments, and then after that, it just starts to slow down. And we wanted to just visually just get darker and darker and darker. And that was really the reason why, because the heyday of these characters' lives is fading away. And that was our thematic justification for it.
And then it also, Bradford [Young] and I were just really excited about the idea of, "We can make this movie look antiquated. We know how to do that. We're shooting on 35 mm. We're using old lenses, old lights, everything is old. What can we do that is gonna push this one step further so it's not just Vilmos Zsigmond carbon copy?" And the idea of taking those old images that we were trying to acquire and just darkening them, and pushing into the shadows and exploring those shadows, and pouring the texture out of them, that was where we really got excited and tried to cover some new ground.
It works really well, I just can't imagine the courage required to make that decision.
I remember Bradford constantly just shaking his head, being like, "Man we took this too far. I think we took it too far," and I'm like, "No, I trust you. I think you got an exposure, it's okay."