In his stunning second feature, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” filmmaker David Lowery paints a poetic picture set against the gritty landscape of early 1970’s rural Texas, evoking the mythology of westerns and saturating the dramatic space with an aching sense of loss. Featuring artful visuals and powerful performances by Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Keith Carradine, the film meditates on the ill-fated love of two American outlaws in the waning days of the West. Lowery intended for it to feel like an old folk song — classical, American, and a little rough around the edges. But like a great piece of music, the emotions are timeless, classical and surprisingly relevant.
During my roundtable interview with Lowery, he talked about the challenge of making the transition to larger films and getting everything he wanted in a very limited amount of time, how he succeeded in casting his first choices for every part, what it was about the actors that made them right for their roles, why he set the film in 1970’s Texas, how he achieved the film’s extraordinary visual style, texture, and tone and took advantage of the natural lighting, and his plans to team up next with Robert Redford on “Old Man and the Gun.”
Hit the jump to read the interview:
Question: What was the biggest challenge for you in making this movie?
David Lowery: I think the biggest challenge in making this film was making the jump from making very, very small films to doing something that was slightly larger. This is still a very tiny movie by most standards, but we spent $12,000 on my last feature. I was ready to make this film for as little or as much as I could. I never really have thought about film production in terms of trying to get a big budget or anything. I just want to make films, and make them however I can, with the means I have available to me. On this film, I certainly had more than I’ve had in the past, but with that comes certain considerations, mainly time, and realizing that when you hit the last day of shooting, that’s the end, and you have to make sure you get everything. So that was a challenge just to figure out how to get everything that I wanted, because I wanted a lot of things. We had a very ambitious plan for how to make the movie and how it was going to look, and achieving that in a very limited amount of time was certainly difficult. We just rolled up our sleeves and did it.
Q: Can you talk about how you put together such an ideal cast? How did you convince them to be a part of this?
Lowery: It was incredibly lucky that I got all of my first choices for every part. One of the things that helped was we sent the script out. I had my list of people I wanted to send it to. It was Rooney, Casey and Ben. I sent the script out with the short film that I had made called Pioneer. I think between the two of those, they were able to see that the script had its own qualities. I feel it was a strong script, and I think they all agreed since they said yes – but they were able to watch this short film, “Pioneer,” that I had done and get the sense that I knew how to make a movie. Also, by watching that film, they were able to get a sense of what “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” would feel like as a movie and how I would handle it. They all, luckily, really responded to that. Again, they were all my first choices. Rooney was the only actress I met with. Casey was the first actor I met with. They were my gut instinct choices as to who should be in the movie, and luckily they all said yes.
Q: What was it about their work that made you think they were right for those roles?
Lowery: With all of them, with everybody in the movie, the important thing for me was that they would be able to feel timeless in the same way that the rest of the movie was. We knew the production design was going to look a certain way, we knew the film stock was going to be developed a certain way, and we wanted everyone in the movie to be a part of that and to not feel modern.
So with Casey, I’ve been a fan. Gerry is one of my favorite movies. I’ve loved him for so long, and I knew that he could do it because he was so wonderful in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” And I also just love listening to him talk. There’s a lot of talking on that character’s part, and it was a great opportunity to just listen to him.
With Rooney, I had seen “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which had just opened, and “The Social Network,” and between those two movies, I had no idea what she actually looked like. I couldn’t tell you what she was really like, and I thought that was perfect, because here’s someone who very quickly has become a major movie star in front of a huge franchise and yet no one has any idea what she’s actually like. That gave me the confidence in believing she could certainly disappear into the texture of the movie we wanted to make, and into that character particularly. When her name came up, I was like, “Yeah, let’s see if she’ll do it. And if she doesn’t, we’ll go find someone in a small Texas town who’s never acted before because she’s the only person I can think of that would fit the bill.”
Ben was someone who I had met with right after Casey. Initially, I was meeting actors thinking they could play either one of those parts, and very quickly I wanted Casey to play Bob. I thought normally you would cast Ben as the outlaw character who’s breaking out of jail, but when I met him, he was such a kind and generous and gentle person in person that I was really excited about letting him play that side of himself on screen, which he never really has before. He’s usually playing a very intense character, and to let him play somebody who’s gentle and the moral center of the movie and just a really good person was an exciting thing. Luckily, he said yes to that as well.
Q: Could you elaborate on the style and texture you wanted to achieve, even down to the tone of the actors’ voices, which exist in a very specific, soothing range?
Lowery: In regards to their voices, I love the lull of someone speaking gently, and perhaps I’m a little too fond of that. Maybe I let things get a little too gentle. I don’t know, but I love that. I love listening to people with that type of voice talk, and I love that tone of voice. It probably just goes back to my mom reading me bedtime stories or something like that.
But as far as the texture goes, this is a case where I was making a movie that looks the way I like things to look. The description I gave my cinematographer (Bradford Young) was that I wanted the movie to look like an old piece of wood, and I wanted it to look like you could reach out and run your hand over it and feel the texture of it. And that speaks to how you light a scene and how you design the costumes, and that feeds through everything. But I really like things that have this type of texture, that aren’t a smooth veneer, and thematically, that carries through to the characters, the writing, everything. The important thing also then is to make it all as complete as possible and make it all feel knit together as part of the same fabric.
Q: Following-up on the voices, was that something you were specific about wanting, or was that something the actors instinctually brought to it?
Lowery: I think they picked up on it. Again, having watched that short film, which indeed is a bedtime story, they got the idea that that was the tone the movie was taking place in. On set sometimes, I would say, “Let’s bring it down just a little bit,” or, “Bring it back up.” We would perfect it on set for sure, but the whole movie had a sing-song quality to it. The way the dialogue was written just lent itself to that sort of performance and that sort of gentle lilt that just comes through. It feels very Southern. It feels, especially with those accents, very Texan. I definitely wanted the movie to feel like an old folk song, and to have the dialogue carry through with that musical tonality to it. It was very important.
Q: Why did you decide to set the story in 1970’s Texas?
Lowery: I live in Texas and I’m interested in telling stories that are set there. Part of it is that I can get out of bed and go to set, even though we didn’t get to do that with this movie. I also just really love the landscape. I love the way the landscape changes in Texas. I love the spirit of Texas. I don’t necessarily love the politics of the state, but I do love the rebellious attitude that it has.
The time period was something that was never specified in the script, but I always knew that it was going to be the 1970s. One of the things [we realized] as we were location scouting and we were driving through these small towns is that nothing has really changed since they were built in the ‘20s or ‘30s or ‘40s. The architecture is all still the same, and these are all farming communities where everyone keeps things. So you have all these old trucks, and everyone is wearing jeans that were meant to last through years of hard labor and boots that were meant to hold up out on the ranch. Aside from fast food restaurants here and there, you really can’t tell what time period you’re in. So I set the movie in the ‘70s, because I was born in the ‘80s and I feel like once you get in that period, technology starts advancing so quickly that it very quickly dates itself, and I wanted the movie to be unable to be placed in a specific time period. So there were no computers, no phones. And that was a practical thing, too. If there were cell phones available, the story would be over right away. He would’ve just called Ruth [and said], “I’m out.” So we set it in the ‘70s so we’d be able to say, “Ok, here’s where we cut things off.” We don’t have anything past 1979 or 1980. Everything has to happen before then. And then, we just went on gut instinct as to what looked right and appropriate. We wanted to try to create, even though we were setting it in the ‘70s, a timeless feel and never put a time stamp on the screen or a newspaper or a TV that had the Vietnam War on it or anything like that, because anything that would give you a point of reference as to when it took place would then become part of the story and give it a context, and we wanted the story to feel like a frozen moment in time and to just feel timeless.
Q: Regarding technology and its impact on storytelling, and how if Bob had had a cell phone it would’ve been easier to reach Ruth, along the same lines, would it have been easier to break out of prison in the ‘70s?
Lowery: That’s true, too. When I first wrote the script, people [would ask], “Well how is he staying out? How is he not getting caught?” And I said, “Just drive 20 minutes outside of Ft. Worth and you get an idea of how you could survive outside of prison,” because especially in Texas, cities end very quickly and you’re out in the middle of nowhere. These small towns pop up here and there, and you feel like you could just disappear into them. Whether or not this is true, the past lends you a certain safety net as far as the idea of someone being able to be out of prison and indeed break out of prison. It just feels like things were probably easier back then and that is important. I didn’t want people to be watching the movie and wondering, “How is he not getting caught? How did he break out?” It’s much easier if you just give yourself the safety net of the past. Everything was easier and simpler back then. Technology in some ways has ruined storytelling, I feel, because so much of how I communicate as a person is through texts and emails, and that’s not a cinematic thing to show. “The Departed” did a really good job of making text messages and pagers exciting.
Q: How much did you use the natural light of the Texas sky?
Lowery: We spent a lot of time outside looking at how the light was changing at that time of year over the course of the day, and then also indoors figuring out how we were going to make that light translate through to the inside. We wanted the movie to look as if [it was natural]. If it was daytime, the light was coming through from outside and there weren’t a lot of lights turned on indoors. If it was at night, there’d be one or two bulbs here and there. We really wanted it to feel old fashioned. So anytime we were outside, it was all just natural light. Anytime we were inside, we only used old-fashioned movie lights. Modern lighting equipment is very clean, especially with fluorescents, and we wanted the light to be dirty and to have a texture to itself in its own right. So we spent a lot of time experimenting with different lights and figuring out what would look best, and then also figuring out how to control daylight coming through the windows. A lot of what we did was done with just household bulbs and then a very careful arrangement of scrims and flags to block the light coming in through the windows. We also wanted everything to be as dark as possible. When you’re shooting outside in Texas in the summer, the sun is right above you. It’s beating down. It’s really hot. We were interested in how to make a scene set outside at that time of day dark, and it was [achieved] through a lot of camera tests and trying out different emulsions, different processing of the film. I mentioned earlier we wanted the movie to look like an old piece of wood. We also described it alternatively as trying to shoot the movie as if it was shot through a burlap sack. You just experiment with the light and figure out what works best and try to then control it exactly the way you want it. That was one of the things that was tough, because we had such limited amount of time to shoot the movie, and getting that look took a lot of time on set each day, but we made do.
Q: Nobody ended up with the money in the end. Was the idea to show that they robbed the bank but nobody used the money? Could you explain?
Lowery: Ultimately, it just didn’t matter. That was one of those things where it was an ulterior motive, and the idea thematically is that the money led to all sorts of bad things happening. When the money shows up in the movie, that’s when the bad guys also show up. At the end, it ultimately proves to not matter. The guys aren’t even after that. The money is abandoned in the field. It’s a classic trope of that genre that they’re after the money and that’s a MacGuffin. In this movie, I just wanted to demonstrate that for these characters, none of that matters. That’s all just going to blow away in the wind.
Q: What are you working on next?
Lowery: I’m doing a couple things. I’m writing a lot. I have this one movie (“Old Man and the Gun”) that, since it’s been announced, I can say that I’m writing. It’s based on a The New Yorker article that Robert Redford is going to produce and star in. Hopefully that will happen sometime soon. And then there are a couple other things I’m writing that…you never know which one will hit first. I’m trying to keep a bunch of irons in the fire.