Filmmaker David Lowery on Ain't Them Bodies Saints and the Influence of Texas vs. Taxes
The first thing you see in David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, after the IFC logo, are the words, "This was all in Texas." What observant viewers will notice in the end credits, though, is that, for a movie set in Texas, a lot of it was made elsewhere, specifically in Shreveport, Louisiana.
For someone who wants to see Dallas, and other cities not named Austin, develop a more defined film community, that might be disheartening news. But the story doesn't end there. Lowery has put the Texas he knows and loves all over his movie, and he's found that not having a more visible film scene around him has actually been a blessing rather than a curse.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as Bob and Ruth, a couple with a criminal background. When Ruth shoots a cop during a gun battle, Bob takes the fall and is sent to prison. Meanwhile, Ruth gives birth to a daughter and waits for the day when they'll be reunited.
The film's third star, Ben Foster, plays Patrick, the cop injured by Ruth. Without knowing that Ruth pulled the trigger, he's fallen in love with her and shyly tries to become a part of her life, even as Bob breaks free from jail and begins his long journey back home.
The story is set in 1970s and has a distinctly Texas feel, but breathing life into it meant moving the bulk of production one state over.
"We shot most of the movie in Louisiana, and we had to do that because of the state of film financing right now," Lowery says. "Most movies, including big studio movies, are subsidized by tax incentives, and it's just a sad state of affairs that you kind of chase that money."
Tax incentives even figured into his decision to edit the movie in New York instead of, say, his own bedroom, where he would've preferred to work.
"It's really disappointing as a Texas filmmaker, that I can't make movies set in my home state in my home state," he says.
But not to worry, Texans. Most of principal photography may have occurred elsewhere, but Lowery still found a way to bring his actors and a small crew to Texas for many of the movie's exterior shots.
"All those open landscapes, all those scenes of the characters out in that world, that's real Texas -- honest to goodness Texas," he says.
Lowery and his secret Texas crew spent a week shooting all across the state, with one day each in Dallas and Austin, plus time in Meridian, where the movie is set.
"We got enough material to where I could hold my head high and put at the beginning of the movie, 'This story was set in Texas' and not feel like a liar or charlatan."
Stylistically, Ain't Them Bodies Saints has shades of Terrence Malick, Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson (Lowery cites the latter as one of the biggest influences in his work), but Lowery didn't want film to be his only frame of reference as he made his movie. It also has shades of Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson. But more than anything else, he wanted to make a movie that felt like a song -- or, more precisely, a cover of someone else's song. He points to old staples like The Long Black Veil, Stagger Lee and Henry Lee -- classic folk ballads that he says are simple and follow pretty much the same plot, without change.
"But what does change," he says, "is the person performing it and the way that their voice sounds and the type of instrument they play and the way they play that instrument."
In other words, what Lowery wants audiences to experience is not something entirely new, but something familiar done in a fresh or unique way.
And so what now? With Ain't Them Bodies Saints earning acclaim far and wide, and with Hollywood knocking on his door, does he feel any particular pull to leave Dallas? Not at all. Lowery's family is here, his friends are here, and if he ever has to get to New York, LA or anywhere else in the world, there's an international airport not far away. That makes it easy to keep one foot in the wider film world while also staying put.
"The thing I discovered about being a filmmaker in Dallas," he says, "is that it sort of allowed me to be a participant in a filmmaking community that wasn't bound by any sort of geographical lines. So I consider my film community to be inclusive of people in Chicago, New York, and Austin -- and all over the world, really."
And that, he thinks, has made a world of difference in how the movie has been received so far. Because he and his friends could work on projects without being seen strictly as Dallas filmmakers, it "was actually really helpful, to not be defined by where we were from. We were actually able to make films that were separate from that."
Ain't Them Bodies Saints opens in Dallas on August 23.