David Lowery's Real Life Romance Helped Shape 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'

(IFC Films | Getty Images)

Every once in a while a filmmaker comes along whose vision and technique are so honed it's easy to anoint he or she as the next big thing. Writer/director David Lowery is that kind of talent. His new film, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, has been near-universally acclaimed during its festival run this year. It's a stripped down western that's more interested in romance than violence, reflecting the sentimentality of the filmmaker. It follows Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), a man who escapes prison and risks everything to get back to the woman he loves (Rooney Mara). We spoke with Lowery about how his real life romance influenced his writing, and how his two male leads are each a separate half of himself.

Zimbio: Do you see Ain't Them Bodies Saints existing as a piece of reality or more of a dream?
David Lowery: I see it as a fairy tale more than that. There's a dreaminess to it and I'd be happy for it to be called a dream, but I think, more than that, it's got a fairy tale quality to it. I definitely don't think it's part of reality. It reflects reality to a certain extent but leaves it behind very early on.

I've read you started off thinking this would be an action movie but you lost those details and headed down a more romantic route. Can you talk about the romance of the film and what your intention was while you were making it?
Absolutely, I abandoned those action movie ideas early on because I was more interested in the aftermath (of the robbery) and people dealing with the things they've done. I started to play around and began to write a script based on that idea. At the same time, I was beginning the courtship that would eventually lead to me getting married. So there was a lot of romance in my life, and in my mind, at that time. That naturally seeped its way into the script. I was living in Los Angeles for a little while and my, now, wife was living in Texas. We were writing letters back and forth and that became part of the script as well.

I love love stories whether they're romantic comedies or tragic love stories I've just always loved romance in film. I love the history of it as a storytelling device. I love that, before novels were considered novels, storytelling was considered romance. All the great romances existed before modern literature, back when romance encapsulated so many things like chivalry and adventure, not just the love story aspect of it. I wanted to wrap a little bit of all that up and have a very old fashioned and traditional star crossed lovers love story, but I didn't realize it would turn out quite as romantic as it turned out to be until I saw Casey and Rooney on set together for the first time. At that point, the movie became even more of a romance than I had intended Their chemistry was so strong. I think it resembled something like The Odyssey at that point where this guy is just desperately trying to make his way home to the girl he loves.

Is Ruth Guthrie (Mara's character) a reference to Woody Guthrie?
More or less, yeah. It wasn't an overt reference but when you're trying to think of names for characters who live in Texas that was one that came to mind fairly quickly.

Could you talk about the duality of man and how these two guys (Affleck and Ben Foster's characters) are two halves of the same person almost?
They both represent different halves of myself. There's Bob, who's the idealistic dreamer, the little boy who doesn't want to grow up. He has an idea of what his life is going to be like. He's probably had that idea since he was five or six-years-old and he's dead set on making that happen. He doesn't understand the world in which he lives. He doesn't understand reality or what it means to be an adult or how to function as an adult. Yet, at the same time, he wants the world to bend to his will. He wants everything to work out and he believes it will. He's a classic idealist, a classic dreamer, and a classic romantic who thinks he can make the world his own and get away with it. He can make his own way and define his life on his own terms.

And that's something I've always wanted to do. Ever since I was six or seven-years-old I wanted to be a filmmaker and I've expected, to a certain extent, that it will work out. It's too dangerous not to expect that because it's such a difficult thing to do. What I realized when I was in the process of deciding to get married was, all of a sudden, I was living my life by my own rules, my own way, but as soon as someone else came into the picture, I had to think about how that affected them and whether the choices I was making were responsible or not now that someone else is in the picture.

Patrick Wheeler (Foster) represents that responsible side. He's the guy who's made choices that'll pay off in the future, like having a good job. Something as simple as having a good job pays the bills and he's someone who cares about other people more than himself. He clearly has an intense flame for Ruth, but it doesn't overwhelm him. He's not going to try to steal her away or convince her to leave with him, or even tell her he loves her. That's a huge difference between him and Bob because Bob believes he loves Ruth but what he really loves is the idea of them together. If he really loved her, he would go the other direction. He can't truly love her because he doesn't know what's best for her. He loves the mythology of the two of them together... Those are two things I've tried to reconcile within myself: The ability to see what's right for someone else and do right by them and then my own idealistic hopes and dreams. I think it's possible to do both, but you have to be considerate and not be selfish.

I think all of that comes across. The themes of this film are so rich and there's so much to sink your teeth into. It reminded me of so many movies, but especially Sugarland Express and Eastwood's A Perfect World. Can you talk about what films you're reminded of watching it now?
There are, I'm overtly reminded of the movies I was thinking about while we were making it but something like Sugarland Express... it's funny you mention that because I'm actually presenting a print of that here in New York tonight and I've never seen the whole thing before. I've seen parts of it and it definitely made a big impression on me because I know there are shots in the movie I pulled from that memory of Sugarland Express even though I haven't seen the whole thing. I'm really excited tonight to go see the entire movie for the first time and get a grasp on what I might've subconsciously stolen from it.

There're other things that come up. Someone mentioned Titanic the other day and that's the last thing I ever would've thought of in terms of this movie but there's no denying when I was 16-years-old I loved Titanic and bought the soundtrack and listened to that Celine Dion song so... (laughs) there's a little bit of that in there too. I spent a while the other day talking about Apichatpong Weerasethakul who's had a profound impact on the movies I make. And even though my movies aren't like his much at all there's still no denying he's influenced the way I think about how cinema can work. That influence is there even if it's very subtle or fleeting, there's bits of that in the movie as well.

The film's very modern even though it's a period piece and has these timeless themes. Can you talk about some modern filmmakers? Watching the film I was reminded of Jeff Nichols, James Gray, and David Gordon Green's movies. Who do you like now that's out there?
You hit the nail on the head when you said James Gray. I think he's just the bee's knees. He's phenomenal. I thought a lot about him when we were shooting this movie (and) planning the look of the film, especially The Yards. That movie gets so dark. The photography was definitely influential to us. He's a filmmaker who tells genre stories that have the richness of a Shakespearean epic. I love that and I love Paul Thomas Anderson's work as well. I saw his first movie when I was in high school and I feel like I've grown up as a human being as he's been growing up as a filmmaker and it's been to chart his progress as a director and my progress as a person from one film to the next. Just knowing he's making movies has been tremendously inspiring to me.

I love the work of David Fincher because he's someone whose brain works in a way mine never will. I'll never be able to make a movie the way he does. I'll never be able to think the way he does and that's fascinating to me. I love seeing that in his work. I love the work of Claire Denis in France who's one of the most mysterious and most poetic of modern filmmakers and I definitely love the work of all my peers and I would consider Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green... I know them, they're not good friends, but I certainly know them and other filmmakers like Joe Swanberg and Ty West, all these filmmakers I've grown up with especially Joe and Ty. We've all been helping out each other on films for so long. Even though we make different movies and different types and styles there's no denying we all influence each other to some extent, or, at least, they influence me. It's great to see your friends learning and progressing from one film to the next, seeing the mistakes they make and the things they do better than you. That helps me as a filmmaker get better at what I'm trying to do.

(Images of David Lowery, Casey Affleck, and Ben Foster courtesy of IFC Films | Sugarland Express Poster courtesy of Universal)
Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.