David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints plays like the cinematic answer to an outlaw folk song. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play lovers Ruth and Bob, separated when Affleck heads to prison and Mara settles down to raise their daughter, looked after by Affleck’s shady but loyal father figure (Keith Carradine) and looked in on by lovesick policeman Ben Foster. Comparisons to Terrence Malick are not misplaced, but this has more in common with Thieves Like Us than Badlands, with Affleck as both a wild kid and cold killer and Mara as devoted mother and lover balancing her heart’s desire with her realist’s understanding of how his desperate prison escape is destined to end.
This is Lowery’s second feature, but his first film, St. Nick, remains undistributed and to date has only been seen in festivals (Robert C. Cumbow reviewed the film for Parallax View in 2009). Ain’t Them Bodies Saints may change that. It opened in New York and Los Angeles on August 16 and opens in Seattle (and becomes available on cable On Demand) on Friday, August 23.
I spoke with David Lowery when he came to the Seattle International Film Festival in May 2013.
How did you land such a great cast for your second feature?
They all really liked the script, and that was great. One of the things that helped was that I made this short film called Pioneer that played at Sundance in 2011 and when we sent the script out, I sent that short film with it. Pioneer is fifteen minutes long and is just a father telling his son a bedtime story. I wrote it while I was writing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and even though it’s a very different film, it speaks to some of the same ideas and same themes. Because it is just two actors, one of whom is four years old, talking for 15 minutes, and the film works—I don’t want to speak to highly of my own work but it was successful in what we tried to do—I think that gives the actors confidence in signing on to this film. They had the script, and that gave them an idea of what I wanted, and then they would see that short film and I think that helped a great deal in them saying, Yeah, we’ll take a chance on this guy. Because my previous feature, St. Nick, was so tiny it’s hard to gauge from that film how this one would be, but that short film I think was very instrumental. All the actors in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints were all my first choices for the part and through some miracle all were available and all wanted to do it and it came together in a rather miraculous fashion.
While watching Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I thought about Thieves Like Us and They Live By Night, both films that are built on the idea that these young outlaws were born into this world and living in a perpetual depression.
I’m really glad you brought up They Live By Night because that’s one that I watched for the first time while I was at the end of the screenwriting process. The script was done and I don’t know if it was after we cast it, but I watched it and something I love about that movie is the way the last act, or almost the last act—the act breaks are weird in that movie—but it turns into this extended chase sequence that starts off feeling like it’s going to be just a small aside, it’s not going to be the climax of the movie, and it turns into this great mountainside chase sequence and it’s really intense and that becomes a huge part of the movie. And then you’ve got the thing with the Ma, which is extended as well, but that was something I thought about a lot in terms of how our movie finally moves towards what might be considered the one action scene and then takes on unexpectedly epic proportions, to some extent, at least.
And I really enjoyed how we learned more about the characters through the course of the film. You don’t make a point of making them mysterious, you simply throw us into the middle of their lives without an introduction and we get references to this and that and fill out this sense of their lived histories.
I love the idea of characters with history and I love the idea that people live in a world where everyone just understands what’s happened and they don’t need to talk about it. So if you drop into the middle of it, you might pick up a reference here and a reference there to something that’s happened and gradually you put together a patchwork understanding of who someone is and where they’re coming from, but no one ever sits down and just talks about, you know, does the whole David Copperfield thing: “I was born…” No one every pauses to do that so you just piecemeal it together. And as an audience member I love that. I love getting these cyphers, so to speak, and gradually through decoupage figuring out who they are as human beings and what their history is. And that’s a fun way for me to write characters. I always fall back on this description of it: I start off with an archetype and just gradually figure out what it is that makes them a full-fledged human being. I think with this movie, you start off throwing these people up there in archetypal relief in the beginning of the film and gradually, with the information you get, it chips away at the edifice of the archetypes. A little snippet of information here, another one there, and gradually you realize that they’re actually people and not these grand, mythic figures that Casey [Affleck’s character], at least, thinks he is.
They are also not their backstory. They are who they are in the moment.
Very much so. Everything has led them up to this point but they’re not… I could talk for twenty minutes about the relationship between Keith Carradine and Casey and Rooney’s characters, but that’s not what I wanted the movie to be, so we had it there, we knew what it was, and if we could make a reference to it obliquely, sure. But it wasn’t what the movie was about and I didn’t want to spend much time reminiscing, even though they do towards the end of the movie because everything’s falling apart. At the outside, you just jump in.
And you know there is history because of the way they deal with each other. Did you give your actors a backstory or work with them to develop their backstories so they knew who they were?
Not really. I think every actor, they need different things, they have a different approach. With Ben Foster, for example, we came up with a pretty significant backstory that he then employed in the way he played the characters. But with Casey and Rooney and Keith, the triumvirate we start off with at the beginning of the film—the criminal underside of whatever they are—I wrote about a 20-page prologue that outlined in very short form exactly how the characters, Bob and Ruth, met, what their relationship to Keith Carradine’s character was, and everything that happened leading up to the moment the movie begins, the robberies and everything they did. And that was all the backstory that either of them ever read. It gave them just enough to have a clear idea of who they were, and beyond that I think they took it and ran with it themselves. I know that they came up with things on their own but that was for them to do and for them to use and they didn’t need to share it with me nor did I need to see it. I just needed to see how they play the characters in the moment, as you say. I needed to see them at that moment that we’re joining them, that was all that really mattered.
Your cinematographer, Bradford Young, is amazing. I’ve only seen a couple of the many films he’s made, and they don’t look anything like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
I’d seen Pariah, which won the cinematography award at Sundance two years prior, and I was meeting a lot of cinematographers and talking to a lot of them. Everyone was incredibly talented and their work was great and some of them were people who I’d admire for years that I was surprised wanted to do this film. And I met Brad and was instantly… You want to have like a psychic connection with your collaborators, you always want to have that twins syndrome, where you finish each other’s sentences, and Brad was instantly on that level. I hadn’t seen anything that he had done that looked the way I wanted this movie to look, but everything he had done was so wonderful, so beautiful, and there were things about it that I knew that I could use as touchstones, but more than that I knew that he had an immense talents.
When we began working together, we went through old photographs, we looked online and tried to find all sorts of reference materials, and then gradually distilled those down to just five or six pictures that represented the colors, the textures, the way we wanted the night scenes to look, and really just came up with a very deliberate and very carefully planned visual guide for the film. And we did a lot of tests as well. You always think the things that make up an image in a film are the lenses, the medium, whether it’s film or digital—in this case we were using film—and then which film stock you use, but one thing people don’t think about a lot is how that film was processed and that was something that Brad was really excited to experiment with and to test out and to research. We did a day of shooting film tests and then tried out different ways of processing it in different chemical combinations and found out exactly the right way to get what we hoped would be a film that looked like a piece of wood. We always described it as we wanted a movie to have perfect clarity and yet look like it was shot through a burlap sack. There’s a really fine like between a grainy image and a perfectly clear image and we tried to find that point where you could feel the image, where you feel like you could just reach out and scrape your hand across it and feel it, and yet at the same time it never felt like an underexposed image that was grainy because there wasn’t enough light. Finding that fine line was a long process and on the set itself it was difficult to get the light right. There was a lot of finessing a scrim here, a fader there, trying to get exactly the right level so the exposure would be what we needed to pull that texture out of the image. About halfway through the shoot we were like, Maybe we bit off more than we could chew, we only have 28 days to shoot this movie and this is taking so long. But it really paid off.
The quality of light, even with all those incandescent bulbs, it looks like it was shot by hurricane lamps.
That was another thing with those bulbs. We wanted to light it with old things as much as possible. There were never any fluorescents in the movie, there was nothing that would give you a clean light, it was always a really dirty light, and we’re very fond of saying that the movie looks really dirty because that was the texture we wanted.
You specifically don’t say when this takes place and the closest you have to dating the film is the makes and models of the cars—and even then they were so old you couldn’t tell how long they’d been running—a portable TV set, and a radio in the bar that looks like it was something out of the late 1960s.
We very purposely, and not without some controversy, decided not to put a time-stamp on the movie. I really wanted the time period to be something you felt rather than a reference to something else. I never wanted a scene, for instance, where they walked past a TV and there’s the Vietnam War. We are not shy about saying the film takes place in the 1970s, but everything about it is… When we did our research on the movie, we travelled these little towns in Texas, like Meridian, where the movie takes place, and nothing’s really changed. There are a few new cars here and there but everyone else is driving cars pretty much from the eighties or early nineties. They have ranches and farms so they’re wearing clothes that have been made to last, so the clothes are all really old and the buildings are all from the thirties or forties and those haven’t changed either. So it really is sort of a Twilight Zone feel and that was what we wanted to capture, that timelessness where you don’t really know when something takes place. I feel that as soon as things became plasticized in American industry, that’s when things began to get particularly dated. Computers are one thing, telephones are another thing, but when there became an influx of plastic everything… I was born in 1980 and that’s the world I grew up in: plastic toys, plastic this, plastic that. So we really decided to cut our production design off at 1981. Anything before 1981 was fair game and rather than having a specific year in mind, it was more what feels right, what looks right. The police cars weren’t technically period specific. Bob’s truck and the police cars are from two completely different periods and they don’t really make sense that they would exist in that world, but they felt right together and that was what we used as a barometer more than any actual date.
Even though I knew it was decades later, I kept thinking that this is the town that never escaped the Great Depression.
There was one still that came out when the movie first got into Sundance, and up until recently was the only still that was out there, and a lot of people assumed it was taking place in the twenties. That’s great, that’s exactly what we were hoping for, that it would have that elusive quality, and then hopefully that you would just forget about that as the movies wore on and it becomes that world.
And may I say, there are some great mustaches in the film.
We love our mustaches in Texas. The crew gradually, over the course of the shoot, the ones who didn’t have facial hair felt a little bit ostracized, I think, because everyone started to grow beards and mustaches. Casey had a beard for the first two days because we were shooting the stuff with him breaking out of prison and he was so bummed that he had to shave it off for the rest of the movie. He was like, “Can’t we just rewrite it so he has a beard for the whole thing?” It wouldn’t have worked. But his beard did look fantastic.
You can view some of Lowery’s short films at his website.