If you were to tell David Lowery that his new movie Ain't Them Bodies Saints
reminds you of Terrence Malick's Badlands
or The Tree of Life
, he'd probably take it as a compliment. During a 17-minute phone conversation about the film, which opens Friday in Kansas City, Lowery mentioned several independent or '70s-made movies - like Badlands
and Kansas City native Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller
- as personal favorites.
While his movie features the handheld-camera world and the breathtaking shots of twilight that Malick specializes in, Lowery has found a way to make his tale of outlaws his own. Casey Affleck stars as convict Bob Muldoon, who escapes from prison to return to the woman he's obsessed with (Rooney Mara, Side Effects
). But she simply can't run away because she has to raise their child, born while Muldoon was in the slammer. She's also friendly with the local sheriff (Ben Foster, The Messenger
). Running off isn't an option, and Lowery explores how longing can be just as dramatic as heists.
Cinematographer Bradford Young won a special award for his work in the film at Sundance, and Lowery received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. His film has a 75 percent approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com, so he now has something in common with his heroes, like Altman.
The Pitch: You're vague about when your story takes place. Was that intentional?
: Absolutely. It was. I found that when we were location scouting in five of these little towns in Texas, they hadn't really changed since the post-[World] War [II] era when they were built, or even before then in some cases.
They're all rural farming communities where people hang on to things. They drive old trucks and wear clothes that were made to last. And it really creates an interesting timeless feel. There are very few clues as to what time you're actually in.
I wanted to use that to our advantage as a narrative device because I felt that if we were to free the movie from any temporal context, it would make it that much more immediate.
I knew I wanted it set in the past, and I chose the '70s because there's a lot of nice associations with the '70s both in the way the decade looked and the movies that were made in that period. But I didn't want to be limited to that. I really tried to create a blend of all the decades that came before then.
Hopefully, you go into the movie and understand it takes place in the past, but you don't really think about when in the past. It's just very squarely in a time that's now over.
Was it tough to get Louisiana to pass for Texas?
To be honest, it wasn't. What we did was we went to Texas and shot all the landscape stuff there. (Laughs.) We shot most of the movie in Louisiana for financing reasons. We went to Texas to shoot all the stuff that looks like Texas because I wouldn't have been able to hold my head high as a Texan or make a movie set in Texas if we didn't have Texas there because it's such a huge part of the story to me, that landscape. That's the backyard I grew up in, basically. I wanted that to be a character in the film.
Whenever they're walking out in those fields or through the craggy hillsides, that's all real Texas, and that's the landscape that I'm familiar with and means a lot to me.
A lot of people have compared this film to Terrence Malick's
Badlands, but your movie is distinct from it in that unlike
Badlands, the couple in
Ain't Them Bodies Saints isn't together for the final two acts of the movie.
I really wanted to deal with the aftermath of a situation rather than the situation itself. From the very beginning when I first started to write down the script, that element of separation was intrinsic to the story I wanted to tell.
, Bonnie and Clyde
and [Altman's] Thieves Like Us
, all these great movies that this film is in the tradition of, have done such a good job of showing those characters in their heyday, when they are actually on the run, when they are defining themselves. There was no need to repeat that story.
The one thing none of those movies do is look at what happens after the blaze of glory, or the arrest or whatever happens at the conclusion of those films. That's what I was interested in purveying.
From editing your own films, you've learned how to edit the movies of others like Shane Carruth's
Upstream Color. Robert Wise, who edited
Citizen Kane and later directed
Run Silent, Run Deep,
West Side Story and
The Sound of Music, said that when he switched careers, he would shoot as much as possible so he'd have something to choose from in the editing room. Was that true for you?
I'm much more judicious. I'm sort of the opposite. It's funny for me to say that because now that you've told me what Robert Wise said, I understand that completely. I always want to have more footage. I always want to have as much as I possibly can get. You want all these loose ends.
At the same time, when you're on set, you're thinking in terms of how this story is going to play out, and you're thinking about how each shot will lead into the next. As an editor, you can't help but think in that fashion. When you have a very limited schedule and only a finite amount of time to shoot the movie, you naturally start thinking, "Which shot is the most important one? What's the most effective way to cover this scene?" You use your editorial mindset to help you along the way in that process.
If you only have time for three shots of that scene, and you originally intended to use five shots, you think about how you would cut that scene together. I have a longer shooting schedule, I would have shot more footage than we actually did. Because we were so rushed, it was helpful to know how to cut this movie together. There was always going to be a deficit of footage, and that deficit needed to be particularly handled and managed.
I had read somewhere that Ben Foster, who plays a sheriff in the film who's part of the love triangle, said he suggested a modified ending from what you've written. Is that true?
It wasn't so much the ending but where his character wound up in the story. In the end of the story I had written, his character admits that he doesn't want to be a sheriff anymore. He says that he's just not very good at it. He wants to lay down his gun and live a more peaceful life. That's something that's true to me. I'm not a police officer and never would be. If I had gone down that path, I'd probably quit because it's just not my mentality.
Ben went and did a lot of research and spent a lot of time living with sheriffs and going on ride-alongs and learning what it meant to be a Texas sheriff. What he learned was that it's not a job that you take lightly, and it's not a job you sign up for if you're not going to be able to handle it. He felt this character could maintain his sensitivity, his kindness and his gentlemanly qualities while still being good at doing what he did and loving his job.
That was something that was initially difficult for me to reconcile because it wasn't how I saw things, but whenever I make a film and entrust what I've written to actors who are going to play the characters I've written, I'm creating the context in which they operate. But those characters become the property of the actor. I have to be able to trust them to do what is right for those characters. By the time they're performing them on the screen in front of the cameras, they know them better than I do.
It was an important lesson for me to trust Ben and know that he wasn't going to do anything bad for the movie.