After several years honing his craft directing short films and editing featurs, David Lowery makes a supremely confident entree onto the feature directing stage with Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a visually rich, surprisingly affecting character drama about an escaped convict (Casey Affleck) determined to reunite with his beloved wife (Rooney Mara). On the eve of the film's release last Friday, I had a chance to speak with Lowery (who also wrote the film) about his inspirations, aspirations, and what his personal journey was like bringing his first feature film as a director to the big screen. Check out the text of our conversation below:
I've been reading your blog entries about the making of the film, and it's been really interesting to get that insight of the process as you've been going along.
That's something that growing up, wanting to make movies, was always the kind material that I always looked for and sought out, so I'm glad that other people are enjoying it. I hope that I can provide something of interest in that material.
Now, you come to the film with an extensive background in editing, and I was just curious about the differences you see being an editor versus being sort of an all around storyteller.
You know, when you're an editor you are working to bring something to life. In a way, like when you're on set you're trying to take all these different things, all these disparate elements, and create an image, and create a moment, and to capture that moment. And there's so much you have to have on your mind at all times. It's hard to focus on any one thing. And it's, it's a miracle that movies get produced in that environment.
When you're editing, you are focusing specifically on the materials that have been accumulated for you by the director. And all those materials have an intent behind them. All of the shots, all of the sound, everything there has some degree of intentionality. And it's your job to sift through those intentions and sift through the, many, many shots that they may take and try to ascertain what it is that a director wanted. And to realize that intention and to make the most concise, the most meaningful, and most truthful and sincere version of that vision.
And if you're editing your own film that you directed, it's a great chance for you to figure out what it was that you really wanted, and what it was that mattered to you about the story, and to cut out all the things that don't matter. To really look at yourself in the mirror and decide what's really important to you about the movie and, and you just start cutting away. And I think a very interesting experience in terms of a self-examination, self-analyzation.
But the purpose of an editor is to, with clarity and purpose, present the best possible version of the story at hand. And whether you are directing a movie and editing it, or you're working with another director, you're always just trying to do that. That's your goal.
You've alluded to feeling some frustrations in the editing process here. I was wondering if you could elucidate on that a little bit.
It was growing pains for me because I'd never worked with another editor before. I've always handled my own material. And that was an entirely new process. And it was just difficult to adjust to the idea of working in that mode with somebody else, and not have my hands on the controls. There's something beautiful about letting go, but there's also the fact that the editing process, the one that I know the most, I'm the most comfortable with, and get the most joy out of.
So it's very difficult for me to deprive myself of that, and to wait and see what other people would bring to the table. And they brought great things to the table, [but] there's no denying it was also very frustrating for me to have to turn it over to them. And it wasn't something I had to do, it was a choice I made, but it was one of those choices that ultimately, whether or not it was the right one or not, I don't know. I'll think about it in a couple of years and call and answer then. It was definitely difficult. It was just, it was hard to let go.
What brought you to this particular story? What was the genesis in your own mind, and what was some of that process of getting it made?
There was a lot of different things that led to me making this particular story, and one of them was trying to write an action movie and failing because I was more interested in what happened after the action, in the aftermath, and all the moments you never see in movies like this. And I also really wanted to make a movie that sort of participated in the tradition of other movies I really loved. Particularly the movies of Robert Altman, like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and things like that.
And I wanted to make a movie that functioned on that level and was filtered through my own perspective but was very much a film in that tradition. And once I decided what the story was, which was, it's a very simple story, it's a very traditional, very time honored story. And once I figured out what my perspective on it was going to be, I wrote the script, it didn't take that long to write. And I just decided that I was going to make it.
And most of the time, or not most of the time, but often with an independent film you write a script and then you go try to find actors who have some value in the marketplace, who will convince financiers to make an investment in your movie. And I've never been interested in doing that. I've always felt that that was backwards, and that that was counterintuitive to the creative process. And I always wanted to, you know, I decided early on that I was going to work within my means so that I would never have to wait on other people to say yes.
And so when I wrote this script, I definitely knew that I was able to make it within my means. I figured that I could make it for a very small amount of money, and it was an amount of money that I knew I could go raise between me and my friends or my producers, I knew that we could raise this money and go off and shoot it, and in a very short period get this movie made and have a really great film on our hands that we could be proud of and that was creatively exactly what we want to be doing. Completely uncompromised.
And what ended of happening was we got a short film of ours that we made, that I directed, into Sundance, and people loved it. It really did well at Sundance. It really did well at festivals all over the entire world, and people started asking us what we were doing next. And what we were doing next was this movie called Ain't Them Bodies Saints that we were planning on shooting in a few months in Texas. And people asked to read the script, and the script started getting out there.
And at a certain point we had the opportunity to actually just send it to some actors we liked. And someone, an agent, asked me, "Who would you want to be in this movie if you could cast anybody?" And I thought Casey Affleck was, you know, would be a great protagonist. And all of a sudden, now we're sitting down with Casey Affleck. And then Rooney Mara, her agent asked us if she could read it, and she read it and all of a sudden now I'm sitting down with her. And one thing led to another. And I definitely got all of the actors I wanted.
I was like, well if we're gonna go for recognizable actors I better get the ones that I think will do a great job and will fit for this, fit this project. And I had a very short list, and that short list all said yes. It was a really remarkable, remarkable turn of events. And, and then the financing came together very, very quickly. And the movie went from being a very tiny movie that was gonna cost, you know, spare change, to being a $3 million movie with Oscar nominees. And it took about six or seven months for that to happen. And all of a sudden we were shooting the movie, and now here we are. It opens next week. It's been a very fast process.
What is it like to work with actors with their own ideas of how to construct characters. How do you meet with actors, where you have a specific vision and one presumes that they have a vision, and you co-create this character that we see?
It turned out to be very simple. One of the great ways to do that is to cast people who are basically just like your best friends. I've always endeavored to make movies with my friends. And when I met with these actors one of the things I was hoping for was that I would get along with them really well. And luckily I did. We all just got along seamlessly, and it was very easy to talk to them, and there was no sense of hierarchy or ego.
There was no sense of them being movie stars. And we all just went to work and rolled up our sleeves, and we're all on the same level. And then the next step of the process is for me to just create a context in which they can do their best work possible. They've got the script, they're professional actors, they can read the script and understand what the characters need. And I talk about that with them, for sure. I certainly spent many hours talking about the characters with them, but when it came time for shooting, all I needed to do was make sure they knew what the mood was gonna feel like, and look like, and how it was gonna be shot, and to give them a sense of the world that it took place in.
And once they knew that, they were able to just bring all of their own ideas to the table. Because once they knew what that, those parameters were, they knew that maybe one idea would fit within that and another one wouldn't. And so they would ignore the idea that wouldn't fit. Or they would just understand the tone that we were all trying to establish with this movie. And they, it really became sort of like we all had a psychic link into what this movie needed and how it was gonna work.
And so my job as a director, when I'm working with a cast like this, they came in at a hundred percent. They were there, ready every day. Prepared, they knew their lines, they knew the characters backward and forward. And then my job was to create the context in which they could do the best work possible. And when necessary, give them that little nudge to the left or to the right, or to open up a little bit more or shut down a little bit more, or to lighten up, or look this way or that way.
You know, just the little things that will help make the movie cohesive and make each scene feed into the next. All the little things that I can kind of instill into, into the movie itself. I can help them realize that, but they're all, they all, by the time they get to the set, are so thoroughly prepared that it's really more a matter of me just calling action and stepping back and watching them do some magic.
Are you ever completely done with the movie? Do you look at it now and view it as a completed work that there it is? Or do you always in the back of your mind say, "Aw man, I would have liked to have done this a little differently"?
Hindsight is the most dangerous thing imaginable for me. I imagine that's the case for most filmmakers. And I would love to be a filmmaker who was an exception to that rule, but I'm certainly not. And I, I'm never done. You reach a point where you have to stop. And at this point, the movie's about to open in theaters, there's no...I'm done with it. I can't do anything else. If I watch the movie right now I will see a million things that I wish I'd done differently.
I will see a million things that I perceive to be mistakes. I hope no one else notices them. If they do, I hope I can learn from the mistakes and not make them the next time. But you know, you always wish you could do things differently. There's always things that are gonna stick out. And, and it's important for me to be aware of that and to just make peace with it and to let go. And so, right now my participation with the movie is to help it get out to the world and, and to kind of create a context for audiences the same way I created a context for the actors.
But I'm not going to be there for every screening. I won't be doing a Q&A. I won't be doing an intro, so there's only so much I can do at this point. And it's about to be out of my hands. And that's a terrifying feeling, but it's also very liberating for me, 'cause I can move on to the next movie. And I can't wait make the next one.
And the world gets to sort of take ownership of your film I guess at that point.
They very much do. And I hope the world is kind to it, and loves it, and enjoys wrestling with whatever I tried to do. And that it, it lasts. I hope that it sticks around for a little while.
Many thanks to David Lowery for being so generous with his time. Ain't Them Bodies Saints opened last week, and is now playing in limited release.
THE spot for your favorite fan theories and the best Netflix recs. Learn more