Film director David Lowery remembers the exact moment when everything changed, when his entire world view of what movies could be experienced a cinematic seismic shock.
It was 1994, he was 13, and -- being a self-proclaimed master of buying a ticket to a PG-13 movie and then sneaking into an R-rated one -- he pedaled his way over from his Irving home to a now defunct AMC theater to catch the muscular, foul-mouthed mayhem of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Things would never be the same.
"That just blew my mind," the director, 32, says now, before digging into a balsamic portobello mushroom wrap at the Four Seasons' Cafe on the Green, not far from where he had his cinematic epiphany. "I'd never seen anything like that and it opened up my brain to what was out there. ... I still believe that movie is a masterpiece."
Nearly 20 years later, the m-word is being trotted out in some quarters for Lowery's first major feature, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which debuted last week in New York and Los Angeles and opens this week in more markets, including Dallas, and then Fort Worth on Sept. 13.
Starring Casey Affleck ( Gone Baby Gone) as Bob Muldoon, a man on the wrong side of the Texas law, along with Ben Foster ( 3:10 to Yuma) as the small-town sheriff on his tail, and Rooney Mara ( The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as the woman Bob's trying to reach, it was a big hit at Sundance -- nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and winning cinematography and producer's award honors before being picked up for distribution by IFC -- and has been greeted with many critical hosannas.
Salon.com's Andrew O'Hehir called it "the arrival of an immense talent ... surely one of the best American films of the year."
Closer to home, pre-release screenings at the Oak Cliff Film Festival and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth have attracted near-capacity crowds.
Yet, while Lowery may have found creative spark in the pop-culture dynamite that is Pulp Fiction, the lyrical Ain't Them Bodies Saints is less about being a post-modern, cinematic smart aleck like Tarantino than evoking an earlier, quieter era of American filmmaking -- Robert Altman's Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), or the Americana dreamscapes of Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).
Lowery's growing reputation means that Hollywood is knocking on his door now. He's co-writing a revisionist take on Pete's Dragon for Disney, and Robert Redford is starring in his next directorial effort, The Old Man and the Gun, a based-on-real-life tale about the world's oldest bank robber.
Now, Lowery -- whose shaved head, bushy mustache and piercing green-gray eyes give him the distinctively heartland look of a character in Saints -- joins the ranks of the iconoclastic, ruggedly individualistic directors who cut their teeth in Texas, including Malick (whose more recent work includes The Tree of Life), Wes Anderson ( Moonrise Kingdom), Richard Linklater ( Before Midnight), Jeff Nichols ( Mud), Robert Rodriguez ( Sin City), Jay and Mark Duplass ( Cyrus), and Shane Carruth ( Upstream Color).
"It's true, there's something about the attitude of Texas, as a place, as a state of mind that speaks to independent film," Lowery says. "You can separate that from the politics of the state -- though it includes that -- and there's a rebelliousness that I think is very much of the same state of mind you have to have to make independent film. ... Filmmakers coming out of Texas or who have gravitated towards Texas, that's the kind of work they make. That's something that's very meaningful to me."
While Lowery may have been 13 when Tarantino turned his world upside down, his love of film began at age 7, after his family moved to North Texas from Milwaukee. Though his dad, a professor of moral theology at the University of Dallas, and mom were very strict regarding TV viewing and video games for Lowery and his eight siblings, they had a bit more respect for film. In fact, before the director could read, his mom used to read him reviews by film critic Roger Ebert. When he got older, he began to read Ebert for himself.
"I could tell you about any movie and any director but I hadn't seen any of [their movies]," Lowery says with a laugh.
Lowery decided early on that he was going to be a director, a tough choice when there wasn't even a camcorder in the house. Later, while at Irving High School, he saved up enough to buy one.
"All through that, I was writing scripts," he remembers. "I've always had a stubborn, independent streak and when I realized that independent film was something that existed and was a means to make movies, that was instantly what I gravitated towards, and I spent a lot of years making movies that weren't very good."
Though he went on to study English lit at the University of Dallas, he dropped out after two years. The allure of movies proved too great, no matter how much he loved novelist Cormac McCarthy.
From 2000 to 2011, he was a veritable factory, turning out 13 shorts and features of his own and becoming an invaluable member of the local filmmaking fraternity, acting as editor, writer, cinematographer or camera operator for a variety of projects. In fact, he and four other filmmakers -- James M. Johnston (co-owner of Fort Worth's Spiral Diner), Yen Tan, Nick Prendergast and Toby Halbrooks -- became something of a collective, helping out on each others' work and acting as a support system in a region that lagged well behind Austin as a film community.
Johnston first met the director after seeing an ad in a local film magazine looking for crew people to help out on Lowery's first film, Lullaby, in 2000. The two have gone on to work on such Lowery-directed films as the feature St. Nick in 2009 (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Dallas International Film Festival) and the short Pioneer in 2011 (winner of the Competition Award at South By Southwest).
"It's hard to define exactly why you become close friends with someone," reflects Johnston in a phone interview. "From a filmmaking perspective, we have similar tastes and goals. Both of us love cinema and we bonded over big Hollywood blockbusters and tiny indie films. And then there's him as a person; he's very pragmatic, easy to get along with, very cooperative and very collaborative."
Being collaborative is something that Lowery would like to continue even if his career skyrockets. After all, while his Ain't Them Bodies Saints has been the talk of the festival circuit this year, Yen Tan's Pit Stop (a saga of two gay men in small-town Texas which Lowery co-wrote) and Shane Carruth's Upstream Color (a fever dream of a love story that Lowery edited) were also attracting notice.
"It became a way to make a living, help out my friends and a way to get better at what I do," he says of his willingness to work on projects other than his own. "I credit a great deal or all of whatever skills I have as a director to having the luck of editing so many movies. I hope I can keep doing it. I'm editing a short film for a friend next month, and I like diving into other people's work and playing in their sandbox."
In the beginning, Ain't Them Bodies Saints wasn't meant to be any bigger than Lowery's previous projects. He had an idea of wanting to write a script about a guy who breaks out of prison -- at first, he imagined it as a contemporary action film -- but that slowly evolved into being an homage to the '70s movies he liked so much, the aforementioned McCabe & Mrs. Miller, as well as another Altman film, Thieves Like Us, and Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
"It wasn't so much the case of having a story I wanted to tell as having a storytelling tradition that I wanted to participate in," Lowery says. "I really liked the idea of the outlaw, the outlaw mythology, the outlaw as an icon."
At most, Lowery thought his budget might be $500,000, and he was prepared to make the film for as little as $75,000.
But producers Johnston and Halbrooks sent Lowery's script to Redford's Sundance Institute as part of an application for a fellowship. His script so impressed everyone that they convinced him to set his sights higher. Ultimately, some of the Sundance advisers became producers on the film and Lowery ended up with a $3 million budget.
More money meant he could attract bigger stars, like Affleck, Mara, Foster and Keith Carradine, who starred in many Altman films. "I was nervous before I met them," says Lowery. "I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of meeting someone I've seen and admired. Casey is someone I've loved since Good Will Hunting. I remember sitting at a cafe in Los Feliz [in Los Angeles], thinking, 'I'm going to meet Casey Affleck. This is going to be so weird.' And, within 30 seconds, it wasn't weird at all. It was very clear that we were kindred spirits."
"I read so many scripts and so often they have nothing unique or special or interesting about them, and this definitely has its own voice," Affleck recently told the Washington Post. "David's writing has a very unique voice that's very earthy and lyrical, and the story is really compelling."
Mara knew she wanted to do Saints from the minute she started to read the script. "I think I knew in the first 10 pages," she told the Post. "The opening scene just really spoke to me right away, and then the whole script is so poetic and it's just such a beautiful story."
Lowery got nervous again on the first day of the shoot in Louisiana (they didn't film in Texas because the gumbo state offers more generous tax breaks). "To see all these crew members whom I hadn't met yet, that was a strange experience because on my previous films, the crew was never more than seven or eight people at most," he says. "And I was the one who hired every single one of them and most of them were my friends."
Now that Ain't Them Bodies Saints has hit the marketplace, not everyone has jumped on the Lowery love train. In fact, A.O. Scott of The New York Times applauded the "skill and sincerity" but lamented "the studiousness and solemnity of its mood. Strong emotions -- desperation, dread, desire -- are indicated but not really communicated, and everything happens in a hazy atmosphere of humorless homage and exquisite good taste."
But Lowery seems to be taking it all in stride. "I kind of wish he had torn it apart more," instead of being so equivocal, he laughed about the Times review.
As it stands, Lowery isn't getting too enmeshed in the gears of the industry. He lives in east Dallas with his wife and 13-year-old stepdaughter, who wants to be an actress/singer (she had a short film at SXSW and, in case you're wondering, Lowery says he pulled no strings to get her in). And he has no plans to move to L.A. He lived there briefly in 2009 but decided it wasn't for him.
"I love it here," he says of Dallas. "My family's here and it was funny because when I first moved to Texas, I hated it. Even once I started loving Texas, I couldn't wait to get out. I wanted to move to New York. I wanted to move to L.A. Then I started going to those places, and the more I went to them, the more I just realized that I loved Texas."
Now that he has been discovered, his options are multiplying. He's considering another project with Casey Affleck as well as other people's scripts he might like to retool.
"While I have the opportunity, I'm trying to get a bunch of irons in the fire," Lowery says. "I don't know how long this window will be open. Hopefully, [it will be] a long time, but I'm aware it's a fickle industry. I'm going to get as many movies made that I care about as possible."
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571 Twitter: @carydar
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