Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints
David Lowery is on a roll this year. He was one of the most talked about filmmakers at Sundance with not only an anticipated film screening in competition—Ain't Them Bodies Saints starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster—but an editing credit on another hyped competition film, Upstream Color by Shane Carruth, and a co-writing credit on Yen Tan's Pit Stop (screening here next month in NewFest). But at a festival where directors typically bask in the glow of the spotlight—assuming the movie is received well—Lowery not only won audience attention at the premiere of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, but he also received something nearly all Sundance filmmakers hope for: a distribution deal.
In the film, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play Bob and Ruth, an impassioned outlaw couple who are on an extended crime spree, but are captured after a shootout in Texas. Ruth wounds a local officer, though Bob takes the blame. Four years later, he escapes from prison and sets out to find Ruth and their daughter, who was born while he served time.
"In terms of the characters, I wanted to make a movie that harkens back to the traditions of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, but then goes off in their own direction," Lowery said Wednesday evening at Film Society's Summer Talks series. "I've always been interested in the aftermath of action… I knew going in that we'd be standing on the shoulders of [these great movies] and then going off on our own direction. It felt comfortable doing that."
Though Ain't Them Bodies Saints contains many of the elements of a Western, Lowery, who wrote the script, said the story is purposefully more intimate than how the genre is typically portrayed on the big screen. Set in the '70s, it evokes the mythology of Westerns while centering on a story of love, motherhood, and peace while staring down the past.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery
While writing the film, Lowery infused its characters with aspects of his personality. Initially, he and his producers had planned to make the movie much as they had on past projects—quickly and fairly cheaply—but after meeting with advisors, the team decided to head in a different direction.
"Casey Affleck's character is the quintessential idealist with big dreams and he's the little kid who didn't want to grow up," said Lowery. "He decided to rob banks and I decided to make movies; other than that, there isn't a lot of difference between us. He's doggedly determined to go down in history and do things on his own terms and believes somehow that everything is going to work out. There's a romanticism to all of this and a great hopefulness and that's an aspect of my personality."
After only spending about $12,000 on his previous feature, St. Nick, Lowery and his regular producers Toby Halbrooks and James M. Johnston figured they might be able to get away with a budget in the vicinity of twice that amount, but after the producers were invited to Sundance's Producers Labs, the group was persuaded to take Ain't Them Bodies Saints to a different level.
"My producing partners and I have always done things our own way and we've never liked the idea of waiting around for someone to say yes," offered Lowery. "My producers James and Tobey got into the Sundance creative producing fellowship, and the advisors told them that doing the micro-budget thing is a great Plan B, but why not spend a little bit of time formulating a Plan A and see if you can make it just a little bit bigger."
Rooney Mara in Ain't Them Bodies Saints
The finished script made its rounds, building momentum for Plan A and Lowery headed to L.A. to meet potential cast members who quickly signed on. "When I met Casey, I was really nervous. I had never really met a famous person before, but when I sat down with him that was all gone within a minute. We were on the same wavelength and got along and the next day he wrote me an email saying he wanted to do it."
Now with stars attached and a bigger-than-anticipated budget (or at least not a micro-budget), Lowery and the team nevertheless attached their indie sensibilities to the shoot. While serving as the director, Lowery's editing skills were nevertheless always present, knowing when he wanted to scrap unneeded camera angles or shots. He also set the film in his home state, in part to maximize the home turf advantage. "I'm from Texas, so I naturally set it there and that also becomes a character," he said. "I wanted the story to be as simple and traditional as possible. I didn't want a plot where you have to think about what's going to happen next. You can relax and luxuriate in the tone of it."
And while outlaws running from the law and scenery recalling the Old West are ubiquitous, Lowery said the film is not a rough and tumble series of shoot-outs and bloodshed. "There's no glamorized violence in the movie. It's all pretty clumsy and dirty—a bit like what a person who doesn't know how to use a gun but just thought they were cool got into a gun fight."
Ain't Them Bodies Saints opens theatrically this weekend, playing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center beginning Friday. And with Saints heading into release, Lowery can concentrate on his next film projects. He currently has four scripts he's working on and is anxious to get back behind the camera. "This movie has gotten me more excited in a way that I've never been before," he said. "I want to make the next movie and to finish the next script as soon as possible."