David Lowery On Going From a $12k First Feature to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Yesterday I had the chance to watch on a big big screen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the second feature film written & directed by David Lowery, and it was a feast for my eyes and mirror neurons. (i.e. go watch it as soon as you can). The first thing I did back home was to check on Lowery because, who is this guy who does a second feature film with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck? I knew from an interview I had shared on a Sunday Newsletter that Lowery never went to film school and wore pretty much all the hats one can wear when in a film crew, but how did he make the big jump, I had no clue.
The first thing that is apparent is that Lowery embodies the real indie filmmaker spirit, writing, directing, editing his own work, but also working as an editor to pay his bills (his last film as an editor: Upstream Color), doing everything and anything on others’ sets to learn and master his craft. Lowery is not an overnight success story, but a 10,000 hours one. And as such, he follows the lineage of Soderbergh, Aronofsky or Nolan, where the hard work he put for many years, and a strong Film Festivals life lead to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
Below are selected quotes from a talk Lowery gave at the Lincoln Center that shed light on the process of transitioning from a 12k DIY first feature film to a $4 million second one with A-List actors:
On Writing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints for 25k
“I made St Nick for $12,000 and when I was in the festival circuit I started writing what would eventually become this movie. My plan was to make it on a very small scale, I didn’t think I could pull it off for 12k but I had an inkling that maybe I could do it for 25k.” “With my producing partners in Texas we’ve always made movies together and we’ve always made them our own way, for better or worse and we’ve never really liked the idea of waiting around for someone to say ‘yes‘. So we’ve always endeavored to work within our means, and those means are small budgets, locations that we already know, and we all know how to wear a lot of hats so we can make low budgets that looks more expensive than they are. There is still going to be a ceiling that we hit but we feel confident that we could make a movie that looked pretty grand in scope and pretty epic for a very very small amount of money.”
On Deciding to Try Raise More Money
“I had the script and we decided to make it and we set a start date. We had a different couple budget levels and we were just gonna try and raise a little bit of money in Dallas, where we all live. Then Pioneer got into Sundance and people started asking us what we were doing next and we would tell them about this project, and James [M. Johnston] and Toby [Halbrooks] my producers, got into the Sundance Creative Producing Fellowship. While they were there, all of the advisors told them ‘Doing the micro budget version is a great plan B, and you know you can do that, but why don’t you just spend a little bit of time formulating a new plan A and see if you can make it for just a little big bigger.’ And we were talking for like maybe a million dollars, something in that realm. At first I was all ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I just want to go ahead and make this. Let’s not wait, I don’t want to get in that trap of waiting for trying to raise a million dollars, because who knows if that will actually happen.’ I got all ancy for 24h and then decided ‘No that’s a good idea, let’s try to make it and expand our horizons’ We partnered with some of those very folks that we had met at the Producing Fellowship, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen and Amy Kaufman, who at that point came on as executive producers.”
On Polishing the Script Before Sending It Out
“[My producers] encouraged me to actually get a draft that was a really strong readable draft. So I did that. And at that point they were like “Once the script gets out people are going to read it. It’s going to get everywhere so make sure it’s as good as it can be. ” I got it to where I felt comfortable with it, we all felt good, it was exactly the movie I wanted to make, but it was all here on paper and people started reading it. Word got out and an agent at WME read it, and he called me. We had already kind of been in touch because he really liked Pioneer, and he asked if he could give it to the talent division and I said ‘sure, let’s see what happens.”
On Casting Famous Actors
“I had a very small list of people who I thought would be right for the movie. I wasn’t interested in casting whoever would be the most bankable star, I wanted to get someone who was right for the part. This was in December 2011. And the following January, Casey was reading it, Rooney was reading it, Ben was reading it and they all wanted to meet and talk about it. So right after Sundance that year, I flew to L.A. and sat down with all of them. It was remarkably easy. I always built up this idea that getting actors involved was going to be a nightmare and would take forever. In this case I really locked in into a very easy, and graceful and simple process. I mean I can sum up my meeting with Casey, which is I sat down and I was very nervous cause I’ve never met a famous person before and, I’d always loved him and thought he was an amazing actor. I was sitting waiting for him to come into this coffee shop, he came in and within a minute it was like we’ve known each other for a long time and we were just on the same wavelength, we talked about all the things we liked and we had similar interests and the next day he wrote me an email and said he wanted to do it. And then of course the contract took another six months but you know, that email was all that mattered. It was very simple and five months after we were shooting the movie so it came together alarmingly fast.”
On Finding the Right Cinematographer
“The cinematographer is a gentleman named Bradford Young and he won the Sundance Cinematography Prize a couple of years ago for a movie called Pariah. I didn’t know him before he started making this and I didn’t really have a cinematographer that I had worked with extensively or someone I was immediately going to turn to so I was interviewing a lot of DPs, and a lot of great people. One of my producers had just worked on this film called Mother of George and the DP of that movie was Bradford Young, and [my producer] said that I should meet him, he thought we would get along really well.
I looked at [Bradford’s] work, I had seen Pariah, and I saw some of the other things that he had done, and he was immensely talented, his images were beautiful and incredibly rich and varied. He tried a lot of different things, I could tell he liked to try new things and to experiment. So, we talked on the phone and he liked the script a lot and he was really excited about it. I went and met him here in New-York, and we were instantly brothers. We were finishing each others sentences, we were both vegan, that was really helpful, and we both had big beards at the time, and no hair, it was almost like we were twins immediately. He’s become one of my best friends, he was such an amazing collaborator and such an amazing presence to have when you are making a movie. He got what I wanted to do. He got the idea of trying to make a movie that looked old, that felt old, that felt like an old-fashioned film but also wasn’t relying entirely on the tricks of the past. We wanted to take the images that we were creating and pushed them into a new direction. And the thing that we did, that we were really trying to explore, and was somehow new territory for both of us, was letting the image get really really dark.[…] Exploring that with him was just so exciting and creatively satisfying because it was scary, we were both always wondering if were getting an exposure, but we were trying something new, trying to push the boundaries of the image while also making it as pristine and beautiful as possible. And that’s a fun process. Our work and relationship on the set was, we were constantly at each other’s side, and when you’re around someone that intensely for that period of time, you always want someone who will be a friend, who is a good friend, who you want to be around. Bradford is someone I always want to have at my side as I make movies in the future.”
On Working With an Editor vs. Editing Himself
“It was a tough process and a more arduous process than I wanted it to be. I like editing, I love it, that’s like the most enjoyable part of the filmmaking process for me and I realized in the process of working with other people that part of the reason I love it so much is because it’s so solitary and you get really to kind of explore things on your own. When you’re making a film it’s such a massively collaborative effort that I think I was really looking forward to get into a room by myself and I had forgotten about the fact that I had hired an editor to work with me. It was difficult. There were times when I just wanted to grab the control and do it by myself because it was faster but I wanted the experience to be working with somebody else.” If I could go back again, would I edit the movie myself? Yes I would.”
On What’s Next…
“I ended up editing because I needed to edit my own films, but I always wanted to direct, that’s been the goal all along. I certainly want to take advantage of whatever opportunities I might have to just keep directing at this point. That being said I love editing, I’m going to keep editing my own movies, and as friends might call me up, if I have the opportunity, I would love to keep working as an editor as well. Although hopefully I don’t have to depend on that to pay the bills anymore because, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past five or six years.
I’ve got four scripts that I’m working on right now. I’ve been writing my heart out, more that I have ever before because I want to make another movie and I’m excited. This movie got me excited about directing in a way that I haven’t been in a long time and the fact that it’s coming out now is exciting because it means it’s really time to turn to the next thing, and I’ve seen this through and I’m ready to make another one, so I’m trying to get a script done as quickly as possible.”
There is much more to Lowery’s talk, included a lot about how he chose his angle to tell the story, the feel he wanted to convey through this story, and how he built each characters. I’d recommend to listen to it once you’ve seen the film, but if you can’t wait to learn more about it, watch below and enjoy:
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