The following interview was originally published on August 27th, 2013 at HollywoodChicago.com.
Even if “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” hadn’t premiered this year, snagging two Sundance awards in the process, 2013 would still be considered a landmark year for David Lowery. He brought an arresting poetry to Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” and Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” through his hypnotic, artfully nuanced ending. Now one of indie cinema’s most indispensable collaborators has helmed a major, star-studded feature of his own.
“Saints” unfolds in a melancholic haze, as an escaped Texas outlaw, Bob (Casey Affleck), struggles to reunite with his estranged love, Ruth (Rooney Mara), and their young daughter. Ben Foster steals scenes as a compassionate police officer who falls for Ruth, while Keith Carradine exudes animalistic force as Ruth’s father, hellbent on ensuring that Bob keeps as far away from his daughter as possible. The duet forged by Bradford Young’s gorgeous cinematography and Daniel Hart’s exhilarating score makes this picture a must-see on the big screen. Lowery spoke with Hollywood Chicago about the power of lingering shots, the importance of tone and the poignance of juxtaposition.
I recently saw Kris Swanberg’s films, “It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home” and “Empire Builder.” You served as cinematographer on both films, and there are images from both that have continued to linger in my mind, such as the low angle of the train as it enters the countryside in “Empire.”
I love that shot.
How did that experience in cinematography inform your approach to your own directorial work?
I had always set out to be a director and happened to do these other things as a happy accident. In terms of shooting and editing other people’s movies, it’s really taught me a lot, and it was great to learn how to tell stories on those projects. Not that they were guinea pigs, but they helped me really learn how to use a camera to tell a story, to use compositions to make a strong impression, and to string all those compositions together in the editing afterwards. I credit whatever skills I have as a director to those collaborations to a large degree, especially those with Kris. She’s the one person who I would still shoot a movie for. I’m really glad that you got to see them.
I really like how you allow an image to evolve before the viewer’s eyes, such as when Bob is pursued by a mysterious car, and the various alterations to the lighting deliver a great sense of unease.
I love to let time do its thing. I love to watch something transform, watching people and spaces and the change that occurs to them over time. In movies, you have to compress that time, so you only have a few minutes, but you can still have a shot linger and let the audience get adjusted to the image. They’ll become very attuned to what’s happening within it. Those changes that occur will have a wonderful ripple effect on the rest of the story. I love the idea of using the confines of a single shot to convey a great deal of information. That goes back to Tarkovsky, who talked a lot about how you can use the endurance of time or the passage of time as a narrative tool in filmmaking. I really believe that. I love the idea of a single shot lasting long enough to make an impact on the viewer. Our whole life is about the passage of time and if you can encapsulate some fraction of that on camera and show something meaningful happen over a period of time without cutting away from it, that’s one of my favorite tricks in the tool bag.
Though easy comparisons could be made to Tarkovsky and Malick, this is a very distinctive work. You can’t say that this is anything other than a Lowery picture.
That’s great. I wanted to make something that both harkened back to older movies and had a unique feel to it. I’m glad that it feels unique because that was certainly the goal.
The tone of the film is encapsulated by Ruth when she says, “I just feel so tired.” The film’s measured rhythm conveys the fatigue and exhaustion of these estranged lovers.
Yeah, that’s so exciting to hear you say that. The movie is about people who are tired. They had the entire time before the movie starts to get revved up and ready to go, but at the point where we’re picking up the story, they’re worn out. The life that they’ve built up for themselves has fallen away. The world is changing and they’re having trouble keeping up. I understand some people find it boring, but I wanted the film to feel slow in the best sense of the word. For me, tone and texture are so important, and they’re almost of more importance to me than the plot. I wanted this film to have the simplest story possible. I didn’t want to have anything that was complex with twists or too many surprises.
I wanted to tell a very simple story so that I could really luxuriate in that tone, and in that feeling of time having passed these characters by. I wanted that to be the predominate aspect of the movie, and that was exactly what we set out to do from the very beginning. At the end of the day, what we’re trying to capture is a feeling rather than tell a story. The story is important, of course, and we all cared about the characters, but we wanted to preserve that story in amber like a fossil that had been dug up. The first 15 minutes of the movie go by so fast and give you so much information that once you get through it, the whole movie slows down. We wanted to drag and stretch things out as much as we could, letting each moment breathe.
In addition to directing this film, you also co-edited “Upstream Color” and “Sun Don’t Shine” this year. Both films do a remarkable job of creating parallel timelines between the past and present, suggesting that they could be unfolding simultaneously. There are similar sequences in “Saints,” juxtaposing the early joys and current sorrows of its characters.
It wasn’t even intentional at first. We knew that we were going to see Ruth and Bob together at the very beginning and at the very end. It was a task of making sure that the audience is on board with how deeply the characters were in love with each other, and how wild and passionate their love was. We wanted to capture that within the first five minutes of the movie. Shifting things up temporally allowed us to have Ruth giving birth while making love to Bob in flashbacks. The other instance of the timeline becoming more flexible occurs in the middle of the movie, and that was something that I added in pretty late in the game. It’s very brief and subtle and hopefully just flows right by. We’re not going to see these characters together in a good way ever again, in terms of the straightforward narrative timeline, but emotionally, they’re still so wrapped up in each other. Cinema is a wonderful tool to break those rules, allowing you to flash back to an earlier, happier moment that captures the emotion someone might be feeling in the present. That was definitely a great way to keep the bond between those two characters alive. There’s not a lot of it, but when it happens, it hopefully hits home in an effective way.
The very final shot of the film takes place in the past, as Bob lays his head in Ruth’s lap as her eyes look forward, as if able to peer into the bleakness of their future.
When we were shooting that scene and she looked up, we all went, “Well, that’s the end of the movie.” That wasn’t necessarily the plan. We knew that she was going to look up, but we didn’t know how it was going to play until it happened. The movie follows many rules of genre and classic storytelling, such as the tropes of a love triangle, but it was important to me that the triangle was subverted by having Ruth’s ultimate decision be unbound by two men. I didn’t want a female character who was defined by the men in her life, though she is defined to a certain extent by her love for Bob. I didn’t want her alternative to just be another guy. Even though we have this construct of the love triangle, it was important for me to move beyond that. The last shot may not take place in the present, but it suggests that Ruth has moved beyond both of these guys in her life, and is looking off towards a future that is defined only by herself. Having Bob down in her lap like a child suggests that he never grew up. He’s become a little boy and she’s more of a mother to him in that moment than she is a lover. All the characters have fallen into their proper places, and Bob’s is unfortunately not a happy place to be. He refused to grow up and that’s where he wound up.
I don’t think a list of the year’s best scores would be complete without Daniel Hart’s extraordinary debut score for this film, though one of my colleagues dismissed it as a Nick Cave imitation.
I really feel like the score is the backbone of the movie and I didn’t expect that to be the case. I knew that music would be an important part of it, but I didn’t expect it to play such a prominent role until I started hearing the music he was writing. This is his first time scoring a feature film, but he also scored my short film [“Pioneer”] and wrote a piece of music for my first feature [“St. Nick”]. He’s one of those guys who gets what I want without me having to tell him. When you have a collaboration like that, it’s something that you cherish and you want to keep pushing to new places.
On this film, I gave [Daniel] a couple ideas as to the instruments I wanted and the feel of certain scenes, but I wanted him to run free because I knew that would yield the best possible work. And indeed, as we were cutting the movie, we got these pieces of music from him that were so perfect and so refined even in those rough sketch forms. We started to edit the movie to the music in a way that we hadn’t expected to happen, and it’s all him. I didn’t tell him that I wanted hand claps or anything. He interpreted the movie in his own way by using his own tools. It was so perfect and exactly what the movie needed. The score became a huge character in itself. I hope the movie does justice to it. I love Nick Cave and he’s had a tremendous influence on me as a storyteller, but I never would’ve thought of him in regards to this score.
How did Keith Carradine become involved in the project, and what was the origin of the song that he sings over the end credits?
As someone who loves the movies of Robert Altman more than the work of almost any other American filmmaker, I was so honored that Keith agreed to be in this movie. He brings this gravity and amazing presence, but he also has this cinematic history that comes along with him. He carries that baggage, but it’s a wonderful piece of baggage to have. I love that there’s a lineage there. My movie is tied to the work he did with Altman, along with other films of the ’70s, such as “Pretty Baby” and “The Duellists.” All of that adds up to something when he’s onscreen. When actors get older, they have that presence because you’ve spent an entire lifetime watching them in other movies. He was an amazing person to work with and one of the nicest guys, an amazingly talented professional actor.
It was great to know that his character was going to be part of a legacy in a strange way. I don’t want to limit it to that. He’s doing something new, and he’s not the sort of actor who would repeat himself, but there’s no denying that he has a whole history that comes with him. All of the songs in the movie are original, though we wanted each of them to sound vaguely like something you may have heard before, which is true of everything in the film. We didn’t use a single piece of music that had existed before this film, and Keith’s song [“The Lights”] was written by a friend of ours. When we heard it, we realized it would be a perfect song for the end credits, and how amazing it would be to have Keith perform it. It’s a perfect capper for the movie. It’s the best ending note I could’ve asked for.
Lowery’s latest film, “A Ghost Story,” also stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, and will be released in theaters on July 7th.