Interview – David Lowery, writer/director of AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS
A few weeks ago I talked to David Lowery, writer/director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints before the film opened up nationwide. It moves over to the Sie Film Center (click for showtimes) on Friday after an exclusive week-long run at Landmark’s historic Mayan Theater. The film is an elegiac tone poem about a couple – Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) in love who are separated by a violent act. It was reviewed last week in the New Movie Roundup over @ 303 Magazine. Lowery is a filmmaker to keep your eye on as he had a part in three movies that debuted at Sundance back in January (writer of Pit Stop, editor on Shane Carruth’s fantastic Upstream Color and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). Now he’s hard at work on several projects from a remake of Pete’s Dragon to working with Bob Redford to a low-key, sci-fi movie with Casey Affleck that has a Looper-feel. Great news.
KDR: Do you ever get confused for the lead singer of Cracker? (Who also shares the name David Lowery)
David Lowery: It happens more and more. As more people talk about the movie, it comes up quite a bit. I only know one Cracker song. It definitely happens more and more.
KDR: You set the movie in the 70′s in Texas yet there seems there seems to be an almost timeless quality to the movie as it could be from the 30′s, 40′s or 50′s. It gave the movie a certain timeless, mythical quality. Was that something you were specifically going for with the movie?
DL: It was very intentional. You hit the nail on the head with mythical. I wanted it to have a very mythical feel. I felt that by depriving the audience of a hard, temporal context it would have an more immediate feel to it. It would feel like it could have taken place during any time period. For the sake of practicality we said it took place in the early 70′s which allowed us to say we could use this car but we couldn’t use that car. We were always striving to make it feel older, so if we had something that was new from the 70′s we would age it down to look older. If we had something from the 40′s we would jump on that. We tried to create a blend of time periods that made it impossible to tell when it took place. There’s never any real sort of indication as to what year it is. If someone had turned on the tv and there was a report about the Vietnam war then all of the sudden it would contextualize the movie in a very specific way. I wanted to remove that specificity in every way possible and have the movie placed in the abstract.
KDR: One of my biggest pet peeves is a movie set in the 70′s where everyone drives a new car from the period and all of their clothes look like they’re going to the disco. I read that you really worked hard for a world that had a “lived-in” feel to it.
DL: We really wanted the world to be a character in and of itself. The texture of everything in the movie was very important.
KDR: When you had written the script and started the casting process, you’ve said that you wanted to convey a specific, elegiac tone. In order to do this you showed your cast photos that depicted the tone you wanted. Dorothea Lange’s WPA photographs seems like an obvious influence, especially if you look at the photo used on the poster for the film.
DL: Her photography was something that we absolutely used as a reference point even though it’s was a different era, that’s exactly what we wanted this movie to look like. Those photographs she took of the Dust Bowl and of America at that time period. That was very important to use to have images like that not only made a time and place but emotion. They have such deep feelings, you don’t have the complete story when you look at them. You don’t know where that person came from or where they’re going but you have get this feeling of what’s going on in your life. That was the type of thing we were trying to do with the movie. A very deep sense of feeling that was important to the plot.
KDR: Bradford Young’s cinematography seemed to evoke Edward Hopper paintings. His paintings have such strong characters in them that I can think for hours about them.
DL: Andrew Wyeth, Hopper, all of those guys were on our minds when we were coming up with these images. You can look at their paintings and there are complete stories. There is some much depth of feeling in those single images. We were thinking ‘Why can’t a movie do the same thing?’ Our movie is not made in that same way, we are trying to do something slightly different but these paintings were on our minds, how such a singular image can carry so much information. We really wanted this movie to be made up of images similar to that.
KDR: The score of the film is fantastic, as many people have already commented on. You have mentioned before that you played for the cast before filming. What was some of the music you played for them to help get across the tone of the movie?
DL: A really important one to me was Joanna Newsom. Her music has been very important me personally in my life, it has gotten me through a lot of rough patches. That was something when I started writing this movie. I wanted the movie to make people feel the way I do when I listen to her songs. Specifically for Rooney [Mara], I would give her songs from her records and tell her that this is what her character feels like and what her character is going through. For other characters, songs by Bonnie Prince Billy, who is also actor, he is one of my very favorite musicians. Nate Parker who plays Sweeney in the film, I gave him a specific song that Bonnie Prince Billy sings that is so precisely in tune with character’s relationship with Bob (Affleck) that I gave it to him and I was like “This is all you need to know, this song. Listen to it and carry it with you as you perform the part.” Everybody had songs like that which informed their characters. Casey got a lot of Bill Callahan records, Ben Foster had a lot of old country music like Waylon Jennings. He went out and bought more of the music on his own as he felt it really spoke to his character.
KDR: Overall the movie’s mythical vibe reminds of a Bob Dylan tune like Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts or several songs off Desire, specifically Romance in Durango. The movie seemed more akin to those songs that say other films. I’m not sure if you a big Dylan fan like I am.
DL:I am a huge Dylan fan. I was listening to Blood on the Tracks a lot, I know that’s kind of a cliché to say I was listening to that while I was writing this movie but I was. One of the things that was really exciting to me was to hear songs of his that I thought was an original only to find out it was a cover. There’s one song in particular called Love Henry. I heard that song covered by Nick Cave first and it was called Henry Lee and I love that song. I didn’t realize it was a folk song and that Bob Dylan had covered it. I listened to his version and then eventually traced it back to these old blues recordings of it. It was interesting to see how the song evolved and how Dylan participated in that folk tradition of storytelling through music. That was a huge influence on what this movie was. I wanted this movie to feel like a cover of a song that someone like Bob Dylan would’ve sung. Everyone knows the Dylan version but there’s other versions, ones that are from decades earlier. It sort of traces through history. It has its roots in American history but it has been transposed hundreds of times by other artists.
KDR: One element in the movie that I have not seen discussed much is the role of handwritten letters between Bob and Ruth. Letters are such a dying art form that it’s like your film, no pun intended, is a love letter to an older, more romantic time when lovers wrote letters to each other.
DL: Absolutely. I love the art of letter writing. I deeply regret that I don’t do it as much as I used to. I used to write letters all of the time. I would write them to my grandparents, to my friends. As soon as email came about I started to gravitate towards that. I do write very long emails so hopefully that makes up for some of that. I love hand-writing. I love the meaning that can be conveyed by the act of hand-writing. I love watching someone write something by hand, there’s something so beautiful in that and meaningful. When I met my wife and before we were married, at first when were courting each other we communicated almost entirely through letters. Some of those were through the post office, some were online, it was all done by hand, through the written word. We didn’t talk on the phone for months. It was so meaningful for me to dot hat because letters have always reminded me of my childhood. I kept a box full of letters in my childhood, anything that anyone ever wrote or sent to me I hung on to them. I wanted this movie to honor that. I wanted there to be a love of the written word of ink on paper and what that means when you give someone something that you have written down. That is such a beautiful gesture to me and I wanted to celebrate that.