“We didn’t wait for anyone to say yes,” says filmmaker David Lowery, describing the unorthodox beginnings of his lyrical new romance, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. If there’s a bit of myth-making in his statement, it’s calculated. For the 32-year-old Dallas-based filmmaker, the power of hype is an article of faith: when Sundance fell hard for his Will Oldham-starring short, Pioneer, Lowery took the occasion to introduce his new project to anyone who would listen. The project is a gorgeously photographed tale of two ill-fated Texas lovebirds, Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara), who are separated when a robbery goes south. Lowery, an editor by trade, has drawn comparisons to Terrence Malick, summoning vast reserves of power and emotion without the need for many words. We spoke to the director about the importance of music in his film, Casey Affleck’s voice, and his profound love for Cormac McCarthy.
You’ve got quite a few credits to your name, but you’re a new face to a lot of people. Want to talk about your background?
I’ve never been one of those people who wait to make something. I’ll figure out the means at my disposal and I’ll figure out a movie to make within those means. Or I’ll figure out a way to fit my vision into those means. In the case of this film, I’ve made one feature before this that was tiny. It was a $12,000 movie, and then I made a short film that did pretty well on the festival circuit, and then we made this movie. That’s how I’ve always approached things: decide that we’re going to do it and then figure out a way to get it done.
The process for Saints really began at Sundance, right? It’s interesting the way these things expand.
It’s really interesting. I was told at one point, “Get the script in as good of a shape as you can, because once it’s out there, it’s out there and everyone will read it.” And that was true. There came a point where everyone was reading the script. I was getting emails from people saying they enjoyed it, they loved it, they wanted to be involved in it, and I would wonder, “How did this person get the script?” Luckily everyone really liked it, and that led to the movie being cast with the actors we have, and that led to the financing. It all happened very, very fast.
Were the casting choices made before the financing?
They happened side by side. I’m sure that one informed the other. The fact that the actors were interested in the movie made it possible for financiers to be interested and to say, “Yeah, you’ve got financing for the movie.” And that shaping up allowed the actors to commit to the part. It was all happening at once. I think it was just that perfect storm that allowed that to happen.
Who signed on first, Ben or Casey?
There’s the official sign on where they sign the contract, and then there’s the handshake, and I’d say the handshake was with Casey who, the day after I met him, sent me an email and said that he really wanted to take this journey with me. So from my perspective he was the first. They’re two of my favorite actors, and they were at the top of my list. Casey was the first person, Ben was the second, and they both said yes.
The music in the film is really a huge part of the narrative. Can you talk about the way the film and music came together?
I knew that the music was going to be important to the movie, and I wanted the entire movie to have a very musical feel to it. I often describe the movie as an old folk song. I want it to feel like a cover of an old folk song, that’s perhaps being sung in a different key or with a different instrumentation than before. So everything, from the editing to the title, all those things are designed to evoke that feeling. Once we sent [composer Daniel Hart] the first 15 minutes of the edit, which was almost unwatchable—very, very rough—he watched that and he came back with a piece of music that was so refined and so perfect that we dropped it into the editing software and cut the beginning of the movie to that music. The way I think of it now, it’s the central nervous system: it fuels everything on an even deeper level than what the characters are saying or what they’re doing.
I suspect people are going to have a hard time talking about it. It’s almost a western, but the idea of a song makes more sense.
It participates in tradition, and it’s like a lot of other movies, but it’s doing it’s own thing in its own way, and a lot of that was just me as a writer. If I came to a point where I felt like I was going down a path particularly well-trodden, I’d go somewhere else. I wanted a movie that felt unwieldy, that felt hard to pin down, somewhat elusive. It became clear that the perfect analog for that was music, because music is something that’s very fleeting, it doesn’t last very long. But when you hear a great song that means a lot to you, it pierces you right to the core. It’s hard to quantify how that works, and I wanted to make a movie that functions in the same way.
Casey Affleck has that same sort of strangeness to him, I think.
The way he speaks—I love listening to him talk. He’s got this cadence to him that is so unique and so his own, but just so wonderful to listen to. One of the chief pleasures of working with him was just getting to hear him talk at great lengths.
Had you seen him before in a particular role? His role in Saints is reminiscent of his role in The Assassination of Jesse James.
I think I’ve seen everything he’s ever done. I’ve always been a big fan of his, and Gerry was a profoundly impactful movie for me. Before I even knew who he was, I saw him in Chasing Amy. I loved him in Good Will Hunting, he stole all the scenes he was in. I’ve always been a fan of his. When we went out to cast this movie he was at the top of the list.
It seems like each character is on their own personal vector of loneliness. He and Ben Foster only come together once.
They really do, they have that scene in the end of the movie. They had some time on set together. The way we shot the movie was sort of bifurcated. We shot all of Casey’s scenes, then we shot all of Rooney’s scenes, then they overlapped and we put them together. Ben was there the entire time. He was there for the first half of the shoot, and there were a lot of times where he’d be doing sort of busywork—we’d get a shot of him driving or a shot of him walking up a hill, and then towards the latter half of the the shoot he got to do some more intense scenes with his character. But he was a trooper. He was down for the cause and he got to stay down in Louisiana and Texas the entire time while we were shooting.
Did you lend Ben Foster your mustache for the movie?
It was a silent understanding that that character needed to have a mustache. I was very pleased when he showed up in prep to see that he was growing one.
More than anyone else, there’s a deep affinity for Cormac McCarthy’s writing in Saints. Care to talk about that?
Undoubtedly. When I was in high school a friend gave me All The Pretty Horses and I liked it but I didn’t love it. Then a couple years later I read The Crossing and it was like a rebirth for me. I saw the world in a new way, I saw literature in a new way, I saw storytelling. So I went back and read All The Pretty Horses again and it was an entirely new novel to me, and I went on to devour every single thing that he’s ever published. There’s no denying that he’s had a tremendous impact on me, not just in how I tell stories and how I use language, but how I see the world and how I see myself and the characters I want to create functioning in the world and in the landscape they exist. That’s something that I can’t give enough credit to him for: opening my eyes to how to use the things I have at my disposal. To use my medium the same way he uses words. It’s had a profound effect on me.
I think you’ve done one of the best McCarthy adaptations without actually adapting one of his books.
I love the idea of an adaptation of a book that’s not an adaptation. You’re trying to capture the spirit of something, perhaps, but not begin a literal adaptation. We didn’t have that in mind that much for this film, but we certainly wanted to do something in that spirit.