Premiering at Sundance Film Festival 2013, writer/director David Lowery has crafted a subdued, slow-burn drama with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, one that aches with excellent performances from its ensemble, which includes Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Nate Parker and Keith Carradine. Following the aftermath of a crime-filled life, the film skirts around the major peaks one may find in another drama of its kind, instead focusing on quiet, sublime exchanges.
We got a chance to sit down with the filmmaker during the festival to discuss his latest project, including how it came to be, as well as the editing process, crafting the beautiful score, the cinematography, production design and more. We also dive into his influences, which include Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and even a touch of David Cronenberg and the Coens. Lowery also helped out with two other Sundance features, Shane Carruth‘s Upstream Color and Yen Tan‘s Pit Stop, and we discuss his process with the former, so check out the complete conversation below.
The Film Stage: From what I understand this project had a different iteration in the beginning. Can you talk about how that process was, when you realized that the script started getting attention?
David Lowery: It was always going to be the same script but my original plan was to make it very low budget, very guerilla style, and just scrape together whatever funding we could, to just make it in a very tiny fashion. At a certain point I was advised (along with my producers) to consider that a really good plan B, whether the script was good enough to potentially warrant an expanding of our horizons. So we took that to heart and decided “Let’s try to see what would happen, what will happen” and we knew that we could always go back to making it that tiny, guerilla way that we intended in the beginning. So we joined forces with some other producers, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Amy Kaufman, who had read the script and wanted to just help out however they could and it went from being, “What do you think? Do you have any advice?” to “Hey let’s all team up and work together!” And through them the project picked up a little bit of steam; and they have done other movies and have outlets and resources that we didn’t have and were able to start getting it out to people. It got to an agent in WME and Craig Kestel who then was really excited about that and my short film and started sending it to actors. From there where he was like, “Do you want to? Who would you like to send it to?” and it was a very quick response. It was while I was here last year that I got a phone call that I needed to go to LA to start meeting some people.
Was the main cast the initial cast you met?
Yeah, the first people we met are the people in the movie.
And so you’re on set the first day with a bigger budget than I assume you ever imagined. Did you feel a little more in control?
You know, I was wondering that myself because I didn’t know completely what to expect and ultimately I had complete control. From day one of preparing the production I talked to almost all the crew members, all the key crew members. I only hired people I had a good gut instinct on and that I knew I could communicate with and be a good collaborator with. I felt in spite of the size of the film the fact that we had trucks and drivers and all that…I think that’s the thing that makes it feel bigger; that you just have all these people to drive trucks around and have trucks, rather than having everything piled into a van. You have a big 18 wheeler full of gear but then once you get used to that (which you do very quickly) it doesn’t feel that different from making a $12,000 film or a tiny little short film. The techniques and the tricks of the trade, so to speak, are all the same and you just put your head down and start trying to make a really good movie.
In a post-screening Q&A you said the script cuts out the big moments and I’m always sucker for those kind of movies. Were those things in the script or in an outline? Did you have those big moments there and then pared them down a little as you filmed?
No, I never had any of them and in fact, the first version of the script didn’t even have the shoot-out in the beginning. It started out with Casey [Affleck]‘s character already in jail, and I was like, “I think we need a little bit at the beginning.”
So did you find that prologue before the title, did you find that in the editing?
No, that was definitely written. I really like the idea of having a big prologue. The title hits almost fifteen minutes into the movie, and I like the idea of having a lot of stuff happen really fast and very quickly and covering a lot of ground. Then it just slows down, and that was always the intention.
I have to ask about the score. It adds to the folk song-esque title and it adds a lyrical feel. Those hand claps, how did they come about?
Daniel Hart, the composer, is a really good friend of mine. And he worked with me on my first feature, St. Nick, and then on my short film, Pioneer. He’s someone who I very quickly realized that I could just tell him what the movie was about or show him a picture and he would know what to write. I think that’s a very rare thing with any collaborator. That’s what you’re always after, having that sort of shared wavelength and he and I had that right away. So, for this film he read the script (and got it of course) and came down to set and watched us shoot some scenes and watched all the dailies, not all but some of them. I described certain [music]; I’m a big fan of Joanna Newsom who’s one of my favorite musicians. There’s a video of her playing one of her songs live and there was one part where I was like, “I always that it would be amazing to have a scene with a score that sounds like that”. That was about as specific as I got, I just like the way that stuff sounds. So he went off while we were editing, like two weeks in, sent me a first track of music and it was the piece that plays at the beginning of the movie when Casey goes to jail and he writes his first letter and all of a sudden you just start hearing those hand claps and I was like, “Ok, you did it. This is great!” That’s in the movie. It hasn’t really changed, and that became a motif because it was so strong and something I’ve never heard before; and just completely captured the tone I wanted.
When it comes to the cinematography, I loved how the camera was always slowly gliding. Was there any storyboarding at all?
It wasn’t storyboarding, but I shot listed it to a certain degree beforehand and I just really love finding a point of focus and I think camera movements are great for that because whether it’s a zoom or a dolly, I love just being directed where I’m supposed to look and you can do that without moving the camera too but it just adds a degree of intentionality when the camera starts moving and it’s also just dynamic. I like it. Also, especially that scene with Casey and Keith Carradine, where we have a lot of ground to cover, he’s on one side of the shot, Keith’s on the other and it’s going to get more and more intense as it goes along. We were really able to turn it into choreography with the camera and that was something we started doing more and more, just figuring out a way. Ben Foster described it the best, “you’re dancing with the lens.” That’s what we really began to do more and more as the film went on. There’s always an intention behind it, we never moved it just to move it, we always had a reason. Then, when the camera doesn’t move there’s very specific points where it’s like here’s a shot that we’re going to hold and we’re not going to move and that’s again for a reason. I always try to (at least on some ephemeral level) be able to explain why it should or shouldn’t be moving.
One shot that stood out to me in particular, one that tells you everything need to know about Rooney Mara and her daughter, was the shot where she was walking down the street. Was that something that was in the script?
It was kind of in the script. We just said they walked home from church. The great thing with Rooney is that she is so wonderful with children and they instantly [got along], from the day they came in. They’d done a couple of auditions and they came to meet her. Just instantly they all just gravitated towards her and attached themselves to her and just wanted to be around her. So basically, whenever she is in a scene with them it’s more case not me directing but her just interacting. I was like “We’re just going to follow you for a while and just walk home and dialogue, talk about whatever.” That point in the movie the spirit is a little lighter. It was a good moment to capture the dynamic between the two of them and it really was that’s just how they were acting all day long.
You have two other projects here at Sundance, so how did your relationship with Shane Carruth start with Upstream Color?
We had a mutual friend and I was big fan of Primer way back when and I knew he lived in Dallas. We met officially last October as he was getting ready to make Upstream Color. Toby [Halbrooks], my producer, and I were like “whatever we can to help out we’re happy to do that,” and at the time Amy Seimetz was in post-production of her feature and I was editing it. So Shane was certainly aware, and he was an editor and he liked the way that film was coming together, I guess. At a certain point he asked if I would work on Upstream Color and I wasn’t sure if he was still shooting and I wasn’t sure if he just needed someone to do an assembly or whatever; but I wound up working on it now with him, all the way up until we started Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
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