David Lowery Explores Aftermath in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”
Writer-director David Lowery originally set out to write an action movie when he started the script for his new film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. But as his characters started dying off, he realized he would prefer to write about the aftermath of the action. And that’s what he did. The film centers on Bob (Casey Affleck), who’s been sent to prison and left behind his pregnant wife Ruth (Rooney Mara). When Bob escapes from prison, Patrick (Ben Foster), who has befriended Ruth, keeps an eye on her in anticipation of Bob’s return. A stark character study, the somber film has a certain beauty to it that recalls Hollywood films of the past. Lowery recently phoned in to talk about the movie.
You originally set out to write an action movie. What happened?
I wanted to make an action movie because I had never done anything like that before. It was new territory for me and I thought it would be fun. I was writing an action movie in which the bad guy got shot. You go see a James Bond movie and you see that kind of thing all the time. In Iron Man 3, there hundreds of guys who just showed up to get shot. You never think about it. When I was writing it, I felt really guilty about it. I felt like I was doing a disservice to someone who didn’t even exist. I kept wondering, “What did that guy want to do with his life? How did he end up becoming the guy who got shot in that scene?” The idea stuck in my head and the fact that I was guilty over it was fascinating to me. I started to meditate on the idea of aftermath. When I picked up the script again, I recalibrated and decided to do a story that was entirely about the aftermath of the action and the consequences and everything that happened after the last scene in the movie, basically. I started the movie where most movies normally end and just went from there.
Talk about Texas as a character in the film.
I live in Texas and grew up there for the most part. It has a singular identity it informs whatever happens there. It’s one of those rare geographic places. I wanted to make a film that was very intimate but I wanted it to feel epic. If you take an outlaw and put him in Texas, he almost automatically attains an almost legendary status because of the state and want it represents. I want to represent the landscape that I know. That makes sense to me. That’s what I see when I look out my window. Not literally, because I live in the city but I can drive 10 minutes and be in the world in which this movie takes place. That’s important to me. I like to tell stories that are from a place that I’m familiar with. From the very beginning, the movie was in Texas. That part of things never changed.
It’s also a period piece.
When I started writing the action movie version, it was a practical decision because if we had cell phones or Google maps, the story would instantly be over. They would catch the guy right away and there would be no drama. When I started working on the new version and it was about consequence and aftermath and these legends that are dying out, it was important to isolate it in a context-free past. It’s not any particular year. It’s not any particular time. It’s just the past. By doing that, it helps these small, almost insignificant characters achieve a more mythic stature. It also adds a texture that I really like. I love the texture of old things.
Who’s the protagonist in the film?
I think everybody is. It’s hard for me to choose. I vacillate on a day-to-day basis. You can break it down to screen time. I think Rooney Mara’s character has the most screen time. But it’s also Bob’s story as well. And it’s Patrick Wheeler’s story. I was incessant that every character is someone you can root for. I don’t want anyone to be a bad guy. Everyone is trying to do the right thing. The definition of what is right is where is the line is drawn. Each person has a different idea. Everyone is trying to do their best and trying to be considerate of others. It’s hard to make drama work that way and it’s easier to throw bad guy in there to create conflict. I wanted there to be a strong sense of aspiration on the part of every character in terms of wanting to do the right thing.
But Patrick Wheeler isn’t really that likeable. He doesn’t seem confident enough in himself.
It’s true. I’m confident in lots of ways. But I’m also shy and kind of unsure of myself. In private moments, I’m always wondering if I’m doing the right thing. I constantly second-guess myself. I put all of that in that character. I was the guy who could never get up the guts and I wanted him to be constantly unsure until that one moment at the end when he finally says what he means. That was something I wished I could do on a daily basis. It’s a bit of a wish fulfillment.
Why did you cast Ben Foster in that role?
When I met Ben, I noticed he was a very kind and gentle person. I wanted him to be someone with a strong sense of decency. He’s a genuinely good person. It was exciting to get to let Ben stretch those muscles. He’s always played villains or very intense characters in the past. I wanted him to subdue those instincts and let that niceness come through. He didn’t take it as far as I wanted him to take it. I wanted him to decide to stop being a sheriff and to go off and be a schoolteacher. But Ben did so much research on how Texas sheriff’s work and what their ethics are. He delved into what kind of person this character would be. He made the character in to a real person. He took a simple character and turned him into an incredibly complex human being. Initially, I resisted because it wasn’t what I was writing. But he demonstrated through his immense care and professionalism and performance showed exactly why he was right in this regard.
Talk about the music.
The music was all-original and all done by a friend of mine named Daniel Hart, who composed music for a short film I had done in the past. I knew music was going to be important but I didn’t how important. While we were editing, he went off and wrote music. I didn’t tell him exactly what it was going to be. I mentioned a few instruments and the tone of the movie. I didn’t talk in musical terms. I knew what we would bring would be far better than anything I could ask for. I trusted him to go off on his own and while we were editing, he sent tracks in the and the music was more refined and perfect than the edit was at that point so we started to cut the movie to the music. The movie and the music progressed hand-in-hand. The music informed how the movie was cut. It became a backbone of the entire film. It became a character in the film itself. I can’t imagine what the movie would be like without it. The first time we heard the handclaps, that was a galvanizing moment and we knew what this movie would feel like. It was one of the most memorable moments of the entire production.
What have you learned from doing the festival circuit thing for the past couple of years?
I’ve learned it’s important to collaborate and make friends and learn from one another. It’s important to grow. It’s been remarkable travel the festival circuit with new films. My first feature and then some shorts and then this film. I see a lot of the same filmmakers and we’ve become good friends and collaborators. It’s great to see where they go from one film to the next. That’s a constant reminder to me that I need to move in a new direction and keep striving for something new and something different. I want to grow as a person through my work. That’s the great thing about going to film festivals. Over the course of time, you see artists emerge and reach new levels of fruition and define who they are. That’s why you see the same filmmakers celebrated at festivals like Sundance and SXSW. They got their start there and festival wants to show audiences how they have matured. I hope my work continues to grow and change in new mysterious ways and I can’t wait to see what my peers are doing in the same way.
Can you talk generally about screenwriting? It seems like something you’re quite meticulous about. How did you develop that skill?
I worked hard to learn how to throw the script away. The script is a great template but once you start shooting the movie, everyone knows the script and you can’t be beholden to it. That’s how I make a movie. For me, I like to use the script as a platform and try to create a context so we can rely on that as a basis but look for ways to elevate it. We don’t want to shoot the script because the script is just words on a page. We’re trying to create a moment and feeling and those things won’t happen until you have a bunch of people in a room with a camera. When you’re filming, you can discover these serendipitous things you might not be aware of. I’m trying to be aware of whatever magical thing might be happening on set that would make the movie a better movie. Sometimes they don’t make the movie a better movie. Sometimes you follow some random idea and it turns out to be the wrong idea. But you want to be alert to these ideas because sometimes they lead you down the right path and made you discover something that you would have never thought of when you were sitting at your desk all alone writing.