News Column

Texas filmmaker David Lowery creates a modern folk love story with 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'

August 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 17--Most moviegoers probably don't recognize the name David Lowery. But those in the Texas independent film community know him well. The soft-spoken Wisconsin native, who moved to the Dallas area as a child, has been making his own films as well as editing and writing films by other Texans for more than a decade.

He edited Austinite Kat Candler's stirring short film "Hellion," currently being made into a feature with executive producers Sarah Green and Jeff Nichols; co-wrote and edited Austinite Yen Tan's 2013 Sundance Film Festival entry "Pit Stop," a moving story of two men falling in love in small-town Texas; and edited Dallas filmmaker Shane Carruth's 2013 critically acclaimed art-house film "Upstream Color," starring Amy Seimetz, whose feature directorial debut, "Sun Don't Shine," Lowery also edited.

When not collaborating with some of Texas' best young filmmaking talent, Lowery has created a name for himself as a sensitive director with a unique vision. His feature directorial debut, "St. Nick," a captivating and original work that followed the adventures of two mischievous siblings, won the grand jury prize at the 2009 Dallas International Film Festival. He followed that spare, almost dialogue-free feature with the touching short "Pioneer," an extended scene of a father telling his child a darkly romantic bedtime tale. It won the jury prize for best narrative at the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival.

Indie cred established, Lowery will soon reach a wide audience for the first time in his career. The 32-year-old wrote and directed "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," a beautiful, contemporary Western love story starring Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Ben Foster, opening Friday in Austin. The movie drew praise at Sundance in January, where it was purchased by IFC Films.

It represents the first time Lowery has worked with major stars and a seven-figure budget, but the movie almost had a completely different journey to the big screen. Lowery's longtime producing partners James M. Johnston and Toby Halbrooks took the "Saints" screenplay to Sundance Institute's Creative Producing Labs and Creative Producing Summit in 2011, and Lowery worked on the script at the Institute's Screenwriters Lab in January 2012.

Before the labs, Lowery and his partners had decided they would produce the film for a modest budget, as they had with "St. Nick," with money they raised. But the producing mentors at Sundance loved the script and suggested Lowery and his partners take some time to push beyond their comfort level, think on a bigger scale and attach stars to the films.

"I was really resistant to do it at first because I've always hated the idea of waiting to make a film and waiting for all of the elements that make it a financial equation instead of a creative one," Lowery said.

The wait paid off. "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is at once elegiac and brooding, a hushed love story populated with folkloric archetypes. Mara and Affleck play Ruth Guthrie and Bob Muldoon, two lovers separated by a criminal act for which Muldoon plays the martyr. Sheriff's deputy Patrick Wheeler (Foster) comes to the protection of Ruth while trying to bring justice to Muldoon.

The three actors deliver subtle, powerful performances in a movie that looks and feels like a piece of Texas legend. The unorthodox love triangle splays wide like the open spaces of the Louisiana and Texas countryside in which the movie was filmed, and Bradford Young won the award for best cinematography at Sundance.

"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" weaves elements of romantic love, protection, duty, violence and pride in a sincere story that has an undefinable sense of familiarity. Though set in rural 1970s Texas, the movie will remind audiences of classic Western tales.

Lowery always considered "Bonnie and Clyde" a cinematic touchstone for "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." Though he didn't realize it until after he had written the script and revisited "Badlands," Lowery now believes his movie has a stronger correlation to fellow Texas filmmaker Terrence Malick's 1973 classic, which Lowery calls "a perfect film. "

"This could be perceived as a film that picked up where that leaves off," Lowery said.

The filmmaker developed the idea for the script based on his love of folklore and folk music. He had previously written a script based on "Henry Lee," a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds that takes a minor incident that flowers into folklore. After falling in love with the song, the filmmaker realized Bob Dylan had performed a version of the song that actually had roots that extended to the 18th century.

"Folklore and folk music in America are so intrinsically tied together, and most pieces of American mythology have songs and ballads that are written about them and have endured for well over 100 years," Lowery said. "I wanted the movie to function in that manner ... to feel like a legend that has been maybe forgotten or that someone sang about a long time ago but everybody forgot they heard."

The title for the movie came from a folk song that Lowery misheard. Though he jumbled the words of the original song title, one he can't remember now, Lowery thought the phrase had a musicality and cadence to it that matched what he was trying to achieve with his film. The title also has a literary quality to it, fitting for a movie that feels like a well-crafted short story.

"I like movies that have a literary or novelistic quality to them," Lowery said. "Often they're movies that aren't adapted from anything. It's just something that comes about from the way the form is used."

Lowery's tale garnered the attention of another filmmaker familiar with making movies with folkloric underpinnings. Sundance founder Robert Redford was so enamored of "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" that he enlisted Lowery to pen "The Old Man and the Gun," a movie based on a David Grann New Yorker story about a lifelong bank robber. Redford considers the movie, which will be directed by Lowery if it goes to production, a spiritual sequel to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Lowery's Sundance hit has led to some serious changes in the past year -- making friends with top-tier actors, garnering more industry attention, working with Redford, writing the screenplay for Disney's remake of "Pete's Dragon" -- but Lowery says his life has remained very much the same. He lives in the same house, follows the same routine and still gets nervous about how his work will be received. And he still maintains the same goal he's had since he started making movies.

"I'm just pursuing what interests me and pursuing what I'm passionate about and trying to make great films that will last," Lowery said. "And whether it's 'St. Nick' for $12,000 or 'Saints' for $3 million, at the end of the day, it's always what I'm trying to do."

He also plans to keep collaborating with the people he's worked with for years.

"I've made a habit of working with all of my best friends," Lowery said. "That circle of friends may be growing, but I want to keep working with the people I love. It wouldn't be fun if I wasn't."

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