Director David Lowery: The Art Of Letting Go

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“Whatever he’s done, he doesn’t really think of himself as a bad guy.” Director David Lowery is talking about Bob Muldroon, the protagonist in his new crime drama, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which premiered last week. “Bob sees himself as an outlaw, but he doesn’t see that as a bad thing.”

And the world of cinema doesn’t either; we’ve seen plenty of outlaw romantics like Bob Muldroon. Moviegoers and critics alike tend to love them, those bad guys who just can’t help their badness, and especially the ones hooked on that one special lady. Casey Affleck (who plays Muldroon) and Rooney Mara (Ruth Guthrie) both deliver powerful performances as the Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple, but it’s really Lowery’s treatment of Ruth’s character—and his willingness to let go of certain models of the feminine and femininity in cinema—that distinguishes his work. In many areas, David Lowery’s directorial style is a practice in the art of letting go, and the results are breathtaking.

Recent works like The Place Beyond The Pines and Django Unchained are brilliant films that focus on a certain male archetype, where a woman may be at the center of the leading man’s journey, but is still marginalized in the overall story. But in the world Lowery has created—which is comparable in many ways to the aforementioned works—the lady in waiting is complicated, shedding that familiar cinematic trope of the damsel in distress. It may not have been his intention, but Lowery has created in Ruth Guthrie a powerfully feminist figure the likes of which we simply do not see in crime dramas, or much of anywhere else for that matter. Lowery explains that he drew on experiences with his wife and mother, and wrote the script as he was preparing to get married. He does not shy away from the fact that all of this shaped the story’s overall development.

“There was an early version of it where everyone died,” he laughs. “And that was definitely written before I got married. The thing that really affected where the script eventually went was this idea of being responsible to the other people in your life, which was something I was learning to do.”

Lowery admits that, while he cannot fully equate the criminal lifestyle with the life of a filmmaker, he must draw a parallel between himself and his story. “There is definitely a correlation there, where my life was previously being designed around what I already wanted to do, and fulfilling the dreams that I had of wanting to be a filmmaker. Then I started having to reconcile those ideals with someone else [my wife] who was now a major part of my life, and who had her own dreams and her own responsibilities.”

For Lowery—and for those of us who understand the experience of a true lifetime commitment—a huge part of marriage involves figuring out where one needs to let go of certain things, and the ways in which one is responsible for another person’s well being. One of his characters, Ruth, seems to understand this truth from very early on in the film, when she becomes a mother. For Bob, the journey is completely different, and in the end his character does not quite fit into a world of compromise or reconciliation. But it’s no coincidence that the female lead in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is, in many ways, the stronger character.

“I think because of the way I was raised I feel a strong devotion towards my mother and to maternal figures,” Lowery says, describing his upbringing as especially unique because he was the oldest of nine children.

Memories of his mother worked their way into the script, and that supremely overwhelming sense of nostalgia that audiences are experiencing throughout the narrative has much to do with Lowery’s attempts to capture certain childhood images. “My mom was an amazingly important part of my life, and a lot of the details of Ruth and her daughter are pulled from watching her raise my younger siblings.”

He also gives credit to his wife, and to the daughter she has from a previous relationship. Bearing witness to their particular connection—which Lowery says was cultivated in a very intimate way and without a strong paternal presence—(much like that of Ruth and Sylvie Guthrie’s), inspired a careful treatment of his female lead. And because of this unique treatment and Lowery’s willingness to be directly inspired by his own life, other important relationships in the film gain an additional layer of tension and chemistry that might not have existed otherwise.

Creating on-screen chemistry is another one of the director’s strong suits, although he admits that in his own experiences chemistry hasn’t always come easy. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is being heralded for its brilliant imagery and stunning cinematography. The very look of the film is enough to swoon over, so it was interesting to learn that the editorial process did not go as smoothly as he’d hoped it would. As an editor himself, this film represents Lowery’s first experience working with a team, and it was definitely an adjustment—one that required some more letting go on his part.

“I came at the movie thinking I was going to edit it myself, because I’d always all edited my work and I worked as an editor prior to filmmaking. It’s the part of the filmmaking process in which I’m most comfortable. Circumstances being what they were, it was just difficult to get into that good working relationship with the people I collaborated with. We just never found that chemistry in the editing room, and it just wasn’t that wonderful, creative dialectic.”

The experience was far from perfect, but Lowery is quick to point out that things ultimately came together, and the two editors with whom he worked (one of them being Oscar-nominee Craig McKay) taught him great deal.

Lowery’s willingness to be schooled by others led him to another good decision, though it might have gone unnoticed by some—the casting of Nate Parker in the minor role of Sweetie. Parker has shined in films like The Great Debaters and was one of the high points in Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer. But Lowery was unaware of any of this, as Parker was one of the few actors he cast without having knowledge of his prior work. “With Nate Parker,” he says, “I didn’t know him before, and the part that he was playing was important to the film. But I didn’t really know what would be the right interpretation of that role. So I saw tons of different actors. He brought a moral presence to this role and it was so strong and beautifully nuanced, it was almost a shame that the part was so small. Even the looks he would give Bob as Bob was giving these monologues— there was a depth to them. I knew he’d done a great deal of preparation and come up with a great deal of backstory. And it wasn’t anything that he was sharing with me. I didn’t need to know; they were things for him. I can only hope that someday I’ll get to work with him to a greater extent.”

Just as he was open to the interpretation of one of his own characters, and even open to the new experience of editing his film with a team, Lowery at one point had to open himself up to the Western genre itself. He wasn’t always a fan. “Growing up [in Texas], I hated westerns,” Lowery admits. “I rejected them, and I didn’t like that idea of the Old West.”

He now considers the genre to be “one of the great storytelling modes” for a filmmaker. “I love how you can tell these incredibly simple stories that are very direct and exciting and also very intimate,” he says. “And because you’re telling them against the backdrop of a country that’s still being formed—especially in the West— they take on this sort of greater meaning, and there’s this epic quality to them. So I wanted to just get a touch of that grandeur.”

And indeed he does. But this grandeur—thankfully—is one that takes place within the small moments of the film. Lowery is almost Virginia Woolf-like in this sense; where his depiction of the minor events of his tale —like a mother walking down a dirt road with her child, or a man, slumped over in the passenger seat of a car—receive as much care as (and sometimes more than) the more grandiose moments.

And it’s this attention to the brown stockings in his crime drama that brings us back to the newness in Lowery’s work, fiercely exhibited in his female characters and in his exquisite style. Although he cites directors Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson and Claire Denis as some of his major influences, it’s only a matter of time before other directors will be looking to his work for inspiration. In fact, we suspect that since the release of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, that’s already started happening.

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