Our review from Sundance called, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” a “wholly engrossing and impressive piece of work that the movie world will be talking about all year long” and in a recent Indiewire Critics Poll, Lowery and the film were ranked as the #2 Best Director and Feature of the festival (behind Richard Linklater's “Before Midnight”). As if being the writer and director for one of the most well received films at the festival wasn’t enough, he was also the co-editor of Shane Carruth’s beguilingly abstract “Upstream Color” and the co-writer of the NEXT selected love story “Pit Stop.” Shortly after IFC Films picked up ‘Saints’ for distribution, we spoke to Lowery about his unexpected influences for the film, sidestepping clichés and pulling off the ultimate Sundance hat-trick.
The idea for the film came sort of as a response to my first feature, “St. Nick” which was a slow and nearly silent film about children running away from home. I wanted to move in a different direction, so I thought, “Well, I made this incredibly slow, very ponderous and serious movie, let’s try something different. Let’s make an action film next.” It started as sort of a lark and I started to try to write something but very quickly the action part fell away. Initially I was going to open the film with this giant jailbreak scene with lots of intense action and chases, but maybe subconsciously I was disinterested in the action part of it, so I just skipped the actual jailbreak and started with the guy already out. I still think the film really is my version of an action film -- only the whole film is all about the aftermath of action rather than the action itself.
The other big inspiration was just like a lot of the classic American films from the ‘40s through the ‘70s. I really wanted to make something that felt very old-fashioned. With “St. Nick” I was very much into European cinema and, especially Pan-Asian cinema, directors like Tsai Ming Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien and [Hungarian filmmaker] Bela Tarr and all the filmmakers that really mastered the art of the long, long take where nothing much happens and yet a lot happens at the same time. And I love that genre of filmmaking but having made that film already, I was ready to try something else and I was really getting into some American filmmakers like John Ford, John Huston and also '70s filmmakers like Robert Altman and Michael Cimino. So I felt a strong desire to make a film in that mode that had that sort of clarity, simplicity and muscularity. I really wanted to tell a classic story that was pretty well known, not like a true story or anything but a film that followed traditional beats where you wouldn’t have to pay too much attention to as far as the plot goes. I really love movies where you’re able to sit back and luxuriate in the details or the characters or the moments in between the big scenes. That’s what I really was, more than anything else, really trying to do.
I’ve spoken a lot about how “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was influence on this movie but more than the film itself, perhaps, is something that Robert Altman had said on the commentary track which is that if you give an audience a story that they already know, it gives you an opportunity to just mess around in that story, to look in the corners and find all the weird details that you wouldn’t necessarily notice in another film. But because everyone knows where it’s going because it’s all so familiar, you’re really able to present something entirely different and entirely new by paying attention to what’s happening behind the action, so to speak.
Were there any clichés of this kind of outlaw story that you consciously tried to stay away from?
When I writing the script, I was always thinking, “If I were watching the movie, would I be disappointed if I went in this direction?” And sometimes you do have to go in those directions because it seems proper or it seems easy but those are always the directions I would have to catch myself on. For example, there's a certain expectation in these types of films that the outlaw and the sheriff are going to have a confrontation at the end, which is the way to tell this story traditionally by having those characters fulfill their archetypes. So I was always trying to find circuitous routes to achieving those classic moments or clichés as you might say. So indeed, the sheriff and the outlaw do indeed have a confrontation at the end but it’s not the one that you might expect from “High Noon” or any of those classic movies where the good guy and the bad guy finally meet up. And there’s certainly plenty of clichés but if you do them well -- by side stepping the expectation and yet fulfilling it in a roundabout manner -- they are satisfying in a really wonderful way. And so when I was writing the script I was always just very conscious of where I needed to get to but I always looked for backhanded way to get there.