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Interview: Director David Lowery Discusses His Sundance Sensation 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' & Assembling 'Upstream Color'

Photo of Cory Everett By Cory Everett | @modage February 1, 2013 at 10:21AM

David Lowery went from being a relative unknown to having one of the heavily anticipated films of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the outlaw drama, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” Though his most recent short film “Pioneer” picked up acclaim at the festival in 2011, not many saw his previous micro budgeted feature “St. Nick,” a dreamy brother-sister tale which cast only non-professional actors. And yet the anticipation for this film was off the charts thanks in part to the casting of Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine and Nate Parker for this “Bonnie & Clyde”-like tale of criminals determined to reunite with each other at whatever cost.
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Mccabe
Most people would probably guess "Badlands" or "Bonnie & Clyde" as being touchstones for the film but can you talk about some of your more conscious influences?
You have a whole catalogue of things you’ve digested throughout your life that you draw on as you’re creating something. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” -- certainly that was a big one -- and we also looked at a lot of Claire Denis movies, especially “35 Shots of Rum.” There was something about that one that I felt really tonally applied to this film. There’s a scene in that movie where the characters’ car breaks down and they go into a bar late at night, turn on the jukebox and dance with each other. There’s a feeling in that, a warmth and congeniality that somehow really, I felt, applied to this movie in a strange way. The scene’s on YouTube and I sent a link to it to everyone that worked on the movie. The scene in the movie where Casey wanders around the bar listening to a song on the jukebox I think owes a little bit to that.

And there’s no denying that “There Will Be Blood” was a big touchstone as well just because they achieved something that we were after: to create a really old-fashioned motion picture that yet has a strange modernity to it as well. On the technical side of things, we definitely followed in that film's footsteps by shooting on 35mm film, using old fashioned lenses and trying to limit the number of modern filmmaking contrivances. We didn’t use any modern lighting equipment and the camera was locked down or on an old dolly for the most part, sometimes we broke out a steadicam but we never used a crane or anything like that. We tried to keep everything as stately and as old-fashioned as possible. I know my cinematographer Bradford Young talked to ["There Will Be Blood" DP] Robert Elswit just to get some tips on how to process the film in an old-fashioned way. I don’t know how many of those secrets were divulged because I know cinematographers like to keep their tricks close to their chest but that discussion was certainly something we were very keen on having.

Lowery set 2
How important was music to you while you were writing the script? And when you were on the set?
Music was also a huge part of how the film wound up feeling. When I was first starting to talk to the cast or crew, I put together a playlist on Dropbox and sent it to everybody. I would say, “Here’s a song that I want a certain scene to feel like ” or “I want the whole movie to feel like this.” Sometimes it was very specific dialogue that would echo lyrics of a certain song and sometimes we would just reference it with our composer for mood. But more often than not it was just the tone of it, the overall feel of the music played a big influence both in the writing of the script and all the way through the shooting of the movie. While we were setting up the camera we would have music playing sometimes to try and get into this mood of what I wanted the movie to feel like.

I can probably just call out the entire playlist that I had: Joanna Newsom was a huge part of it; for Rooney’s character, I gave her a bunch of songs that very specifically applied to the journey that character takes. There’s one song in particular called “Go Long” and one draft of the script had very specific quotes from that song in the letters that her character writes. And then Bill Callahan and Bonnie Prince Billy were also a huge influence. I would just listen to all of them on repeat just constantly. “Ramblin’ Blues” by Mickey Newbury, “Christmas in Prison” by John Prine was something that I wanted to have in the credits at one point, Nick Cave a little bit here and there, but it was Joanna Newsom that was such a huge part of how everything came together in the movie tonally and what I wanted it to feel like. In the movie there’s still a lyrical reference and I was so glad that that made the final cut because it was such a huge part of where the movie came from.

Had Mara heard of Newsom before?
It was the first she had heard of her but she definitely has heard of her now because I just keep talking about her and sending her music. I feel like if Joanna Newsom were to watch it, she would definitely catch the reference and if you were to watch it again, if you know her music well, you might catch it as well.

This article is related to: Ain't Them Bodies Saints, David Lowery, Interviews, Interviews


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