Filmmaker David Lowery on the Making of ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’

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David Lowery is an independent filmmaker from Texas who has been involved with a number of critically acclaimed projects over the last few years. He followed his first feature film, St. Nick (2009), with a compelling short, Pioneer (2011), featuring musician Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) in the lead role. Most recently, David edited Shane Carruth’s mesmerizing Upstream Color (2012) and wrote and directed his first bigger-budget effort, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.

Since screening to resoundingly laudatory reviews at Sundance earlier this year, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has helped establish Lowery as one of the most exciting and innovative directors in contemporary American cinema. We recently caught up with him in Belgium, where he was screening the film at the Ghent Film Festival, to talk about the making of the movie and his approach to editing.

Shutterstock: Do you expect to be on the road in the months ahead, continuing to promote the film abroad, or is the cycle starting to wind down?

David Lowery: I think it will wind down at the end of November. That was something I didn’t quite anticipate — the amount of travel required — and it’s been a tremendous luxury to get to take the film around the world. But I’m also excited to put it to bed and get to work on the next one.

In the ATBS “Frames” series on your blog, you discuss some of the key images/moments from the film and expound on how they came to be. The making of this film involved a departure from the distinctly DIY approach of your earlier work; what were some of the other things you learned as a result of directing on this scale for the first time?

The main lesson I learned is that, regardless of budget, you shouldn’t do something if doesn’t feel like it’s right. Conversely, you shouldn’t take “no” for an answer if there’s something you know you need. I thought I knew both of those things going in, but I didn’t know them quite well enough.

One of the issues all filmmakers/editors grapple with, to some degree, is when to let a shot linger and when to make the decision that staying with a certain scene isn’t necessarily serving the narrative. What’s your process like for figuring that space out when you’re editing a film, and how did you grapple with that when it came to having other people handle the editing?

It’s really a matter of intuition. Perhaps there’s an exact science to it on a basic psychological level, but why ruin something magical with mathematical patterns? I just back the edit up a few minutes, hit play and see how things feel. Sometimes you just want to live with something a little longer. Sometimes you feel like you need to get the hell out of there. Sometimes you watch it again and feel the opposite of what you felt a few moments earlier, but more often than not, your gut instinct is correct. This is particularly noticeable when working with other editors, actually. When it just feels right to more than one person, you know you’re on the right track. If it only feels right to you, well, you’re still the director, and hopefully your gut is guiding you in the right direction when you tell them to cut a shot in half.

This is a film that beautifully incorporates Texas landscapes, and the land plays a vital role in supporting the iconographic nature of your characters. Was seeking out the right balance between the land and the characters part of your writing/planning, or is that something you felt your way through as you went?

It was definitely part of the writing, at least in terms of the iconography of it all. I wanted the film to start out in these beautiful vistas and then gradually move indoors, while retaining that same Western imagery and framing in closed-in spaces. My shorthand for the visual approach, if we were to distill it down to a single shot, was a wide shot of a landscape that pans over to a close-up of someone’s face.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been praised for the impeccable way in which it was cast, and beyond the fantastic work of Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, the supporting players seemed to really give your story an uncommon gravity and authenticity. How did you end up working with Keith Carradine and Nate Parker had they been on your radar for a while?

Nate Parker’s agent contacted me and recommended I get in touch with him. I’d seen him in a few films, but he wasn’t 100% on my radar. We had a few chats, and he was kind enough to put a scene on tape for me, which was what sealed the deal. Now that I know him and have worked with him, I can’t wait to spend more time on a movie with him — he’s a true movie star and a gentleman, in every sense of the word. He took a tiny part and made it valuable, and it was with great regret that I wasn’t able to expand his role on set. Keith Carradine was someone who I was certainly very familiar with, and he was in fact one of my top choices for the part of Skerritt very early on. For various reasons, I wasn’t able to get the script to him at first, and we explored a few other ideas for the part; but eventually it all worked out, and I think Keith was fated to take this role.

Upstream Color, which you edited, is a decidedly more opaque film. Could you talk about how you and Shane (Carruth, writer/director/actor) worked through putting that together? Did Shane have very specific plans for the approach you took, or was he more hands-off than you expected? Did that experience inform your own approach to working through the editing process on ATBS?

This ties in to my earlier answer about intuition. Upstream Color may seem opaque or complex, or any number of things, but it was in fact the easiest film to put together, simply because it functions on such basic narrative levels. I loved editing it, and I loved getting inside Shane’s brain. He was fairly hands-off once he knew that I had a handle on what he was after. Which isn’t to say he was uninvolved — we spent a few intense weeks constantly in each other’s company — but simply that he trusted me enough to not sit over my shoulder.

Upstream Color definitely had an impact on ATBS. There were things I already had planned that fit in nicely with what we were doing on UC, but it certainly inspired me to take in a more tonal direction than I might otherwise have.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is currently available via VOD (including iTunes in the US).

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