Filmmaker David Lowery screened his excellent short film PIONEER at the 2011 edition of AFI FEST. His follow-up feature AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster debuted at Sundance this year before screening in the Critic’s Week section of the Cannes Film Festival. We caught up with Lowery to discuss his new film in advance of its theatrical release on August 16th.
Can you talk about where the seeds of this idea came from, and how your experiences on PIONEER and your first feature ST. NICK shaped what you wanted to say with your new film?
I feel like PIONEER was a refinement of what I was after with ST. NICK. I watched a double feature of the two a while back and it was remarkable how the short film distilled all the themes of the feature into a much more concise statement. Both films are about growing up. AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS is, too, and I always imagined that Bob Muldoon could have been a grown-up version of the little boy in ST. NICK, but it actually deals with adulthood directly instead of presenting it as something that’s just around the corner.
There are other similarities - it’s a fairy tale, in its own way, and a tone poem, both of which I thought were accurate descriptions of ST. NICK (even though I dislike the term tone poem). But I didn’t set out to make a continuation of my prior work. I wanted to make an action movie and an outlaw film and all the personal stuff inevitably crept in.
This is your biggest project in terms of scope, budget and cast. What were some of the challenges involved?
The biggest - and really, the only - challenge was simply the restrictions that come part and parcel with a bigger budget. When you have no money, you can more or less get away with anything. On this film, the budget was relatively low, but it was still big compared to what I’m used to, and with it came certain rules and obligations that we couldn’t avoid. We couldn’t just grab the camera and go shoot stuff on the weekend because of union rules - but on the other hand, the budget that enforced those union rules also allowed that camera to be a 35mm Arriflex instead of a 5D. So you lose some, you win some. It was a tough learning curve, though.
Sundance and Cannes showed reportedly different cuts of the film and in addition to your own work, you are known for editing for other filmmakers. What has changed with the recent cuts and how do you prefer to refine a film in the editing process?
Not that much has changed. It lost about ten minutes, but folks who’ve seen both cuts have been hard pressed to tell the difference, which means the edits work. I took out one scene but added two new ones. It was more a matter of adjusting the pace than anything else. And you know, you always see things. When you step away from a film for a bit, you come back and see where it can be improved. That never goes away, whether it’s your own film or someone else’s. Sometimes you have the ability to make changes, but usually you don’t.
In this case, prior to Sundance, we had a really rushed post-production process, and while I can work quickly and objectively on other people’s films, I knew here that I might have a little more trouble seeing the forest for the trees. So I worked with some other editors for the first time, which was a difficult process in its own right, and by the time we had to lock picture, I didn’t know what else we could do on the film but had a nagging feeling we weren’t all the way there.
Luckily, I was able to take some time off after Sundance, get my wits about me, solicit some advice and readdress certain things. It was a great luxury. There are some things that still bug me, some scenes I still think I could do better, and I’m frustrated that I didn’t nail it the first time - but it’s also my own film, so of course I’m going to be very hard on it.
You’ve been linked to some projects that are wildly diverse in spirit and tone this year. What are you working on next and how you plan to approach the material?
I kinda just have to go with my instincts. It all might sound disparate on paper, but I think everything will feel of a piece in the grand scheme of things. I just trust that to be true. With the Disney project, the Pete’s Dragon remake, it was something that I think took people by surprise, but our version of it is going to be very much in keeping with PIONEER and ST. NICK, both of which are childrens’ films in their own way. I’m writing that right now, and also this period crime movie for Robert Redford. Now that I think about it, both of these scripts bookend each other in a really nice way, dealing with childhood and old age and the rebellious aspects of both.
There’s another thing I’m writing that I’m kinda keeping secret for the time being, and is completely different from both of those, but that would sort of fit in between those two, in that it deals with being someone my own age. I guess that I just need whatever I’m working on to feel vaguely autobiographical, even if I don’t know it at first! I don’t know which movie I’ll direct next, but I really want to be in prep on something by the end of the year. I need to write faster.