David Lowery: Timeless in Texas
Film-maker David Lowery on his Texan aesthetic, why he prefers old-school celluloid to the new world of digital film-making and what it’s like working with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara
Writer/director David Lowery with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Variety)
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
David Lowery is, in many ways, the model of a hip, young independent American film-maker. He dabbles in eccentric facial hair. He has been lauded at the Sundance Film Festival. He recently helped super-polymath Shane Carruth edit the sleek, crisply contemporary Upstream Colour.
But his art seems wedded to antiquity. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery’s third feature, ventures out with a title that could have been plucked from Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Sure enough, the film – a sideways western featuring Casey Affleck as a class of holy outlaw – seems, like that strange record, to take place in some dusky, indeterminate past. It could be last week. It could be 1957. It could be never.
“Yeah. That’s right,” Lowery says. “It started off very practically. ‘If there are cell phones then the story is over’. We quickly moved towards this strange situation where it’s in the past but there is no specific time period. It’s something I noticed researching this film. We found all these small towns that had sprung up after the war and they had barely changed.”
The film makes a joke about its own temporal uncertainty, does it not? At one stage, Affleck’s character, recently sprung from jail, spies a calendar in a gas station and, examining a man who appears to be wearing 1970s hair, wonders if this is now the current look. Of course, we don’t know how long the calendar has been hanging in this spot.
“Yeah. That was a gag Casey just came up with on set,” Lowery remarks. “This film had to take place in the past. Once a story recedes into the past then it takes on the quality of folklore. It takes on a sort of mythical quality.”
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints begins with beautiful outlaws Bob and Ruth – played with sullen charisma by Affleck and Rooney Mara – being apprehended by the police in a remote corner of Texas. Bob goes to prison and Ruth remains at home to bring their daughter into the world. Some years later, the anti-hero escapes and attempts to make his way back to see his family. No amount of biblical mayhem will stand in his way.
The film is soaked in pungent Americana. In particular, it gestures vigorously towards the tropes of the western. Observe as three varmints arrive into Keith Carradine’s store. We could be watching an outtake from Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller.
“I was very conscious of that,” he says. “When those three guys walk in, that is just the most overt reference to the western. I wanted it to feel like a western even though it mostly takes place in small rooms and dark spaces. Each of the characters represents an icon. If you can capture that iconography and use it then that takes an intimate story and gives it a grandeur. It makes it larger than life.”
Again, Lowery returns to folklore and antiquity. He explains that the desire to keep things old-fashioned even extended to what went on behind the camera. Unusually for a modestly budgeted picture (unusually for any current picture for that matter), Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was shot on 35mm film rather than some class of digital video. Lowery believes that, among other things, the process allowed him to shoot in such impressively stygian degrees of darkness. Not since the great days of Gordon Willis (the cinematographer nicknamed Prince of Darkness) has a picture wallowed in so much gloom.