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


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.

“We really started off wanting the movie to look old,” he says. “Shooting on 35mm was a part of that. We only used older movie equipment. We also wanted to experiment with the image. The highlights of the characters’ lives are over. Let’s see if we can catch them disappearing into darkness. So it gets darker and darker. And using photochemical film, you can do that in a way you can’t with digital.”

Lowery admits that his aesthetic cannot be disentangled from his Texan upbringing. The son of a theology professor and a mum who enjoys quilting, he is one of nine furiously creative siblings. One brother travels the world playing Irish traditional music. Every other Lowery has been involved in some sort of artistic shenanigans. Texas often gets a bad rap, but Lowery is keen to stress the positive side of his home locale’s proud independence.

“It’s the only state that’s allowed to fly its own flag alongside the nation’s flag,” he says. “There’s a rebelliousness to Texas that I like. That’s good for an independent film-maker. You have to make your own rules. And that’s the spirit of Texas. I wanted a bit of that to rub off on the movie.”

He doesn’t ever remember wanting to do anything other than make movies. Happily, he came of age at a time when decent video camera were coming on sale and, shunning film school, David set about educating himself at the informal university that was the independent film community. Alongside young guns such as Adam Wingard, the Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg and Carruth, he learnt his skills through practical experimentation. This fellow would edit this other fellow’s film. A bit of camera operation happened here. A bit of script-doctoring went on over there.

“It was the exact opposite of competition. We were all great friends and we are still great friends. We really want each other to succeed and get recognition. At one stage, we were making these little films. Now we are at festivals and playing in big theatres. That’s a real jump.”

The Sundance Film Festival – though often criticised for giving into the mainstream – remains hugely important for this brand of independent film-maker. Lowery says that, after first hearing about the event when he was 12, he longed to present a film at the Utah event. Saints arrived there earlier this year and carried away the cinematography prize.

“I walked out before 1,200 people and was so nervous I could barely speak,” he says. “They seemed to like it, but I didn’t know if they were just being polite. Then the reviews came out and it seemed that they really did like it.”

Now he has to deal with the largely welcome crises that result from being wanted. He will be offered silly franchises. The Green Lantern 2 is, I’m sure, his if he wants it.

“I am still focused on what I want to do,” he says. “There’s the sense of everyone wants to jump on board the train. I am trying to keep that train moving at manageable speed.”

There are worse problems.

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