David Lowery: “What I always expect of my work is that it has a certain degree of integrity to it”

First, there was his breakthrough film, the outlaw tale “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013), which put him on the map. Then, after his remake of “Pete’s Dragon” (2016), shot in New Zealand and starring Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford, he was all set to join the A list of filmmakers. And now, considering his latest feature, “A Ghost Story”—reuniting Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, his leading actors of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”—along with the other ambitious projects that are coming his way in the near future, the sky is the limit for film editor and director-screenwriter David Lowery (b. 1980).

It took the Dallas-based filmmaker only a few years to go from shorts and low-budget features to a production like “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” with two major stars, Casey Affleck—this year’s Academy Award-winning Best Actor—and Rooney Mara, the newly discovered leading lady who fought her way through David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2012), grossing over $100,000,000 in the U.S., right before she appeared in front of Mr. Lowery’s camera in the summer of 2012 to star in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”

Although this little masterpiece was also shot on a tight budget, Mr. Lowery’s mastery didn’t go unnoticed, and now, only a few years later, he just wrapped his latest film, “The Old Man and the Gun” with Casey Affleck and Robert Redford—who also produces—while in the meantime he promoted “A Ghost Story” with interviews and Q&As, and which took him across the globe to Europe and Asia. But if you want a full-fledged update about Mr. Lowery’s life in pictures since May 2004, you’d better check out his blog. Formerly a film journalist, the blood still runs in his veins: not only as a filmmaker but as a writer too (or blogger, if you wish), his creative input and output are inspiring. You’re in for such a treat.

This interview was conducted at the 2013 Film Fest Gent when he came over to Belgium to talk about “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” his working methods, his craft, and his view on filmmaking.

Mr. Lowery, with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” as an independently made film, you showed that a low-budget film can have a huge potential. Would you agree with that?

Yes, that’s true, but on the other hand, I also hope that a major studio would trust me one day, so I could make a movie with them because of all the support they give you. Up until now, though, all my work has been made independently, so I still haven’t crossed that line. Right now, I do things my own way, and with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” I got more money than I used to have, and with Ben Affleck and Rooney Mara, I had actors who had done studio movies before.

What was the budget of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” like?

It was about $3,800,000 which is still pretty big. The first movie I made, had cost $12,000.

What was it like to realize that there was so much more money involved now?

I have made films when I had to pick up all the equipment myself. Now I didn’t have to do a thing. In a way, it was disconcerting since I’m always familiar with every facet of my production—with my partners and I paying for everything. Now I had the luxury of not having to pay or worry about that. I remember on the first day, the set was full of trucks, there was a prop truck, a camera truck… It was amazing at first because everybody was there to service ‘my’ vision. And within twenty minutes, you’re called away to the set with the cameras which are being set up, you tell them where you want the cameras; meanwhile, you’re focusing on the actors…

So I presume you had total autonomy on the set?

I did, but I love to collaborate with everybody on the set, and I never want to exclude my producers from any decision. I take everyone’s feedback into consideration—creative partnership is terribly important to me, and I have a very tightly knit group of collaborators. So the autonomy on the set belongs to all of us.

When you watch the film, the way you tell your story, the performances by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara,… this is Oscar material, don’t you think so?

You know, my wife believes that too, but I’ve learned that it depends on how much money the distributor wants to put up for it. The wonderful thing about the Oscars is that they always shine lights on smaller films that otherwise could be overlooked. I always hope that something might happen, but I also keep my feet on the ground. The film owes a lot to Sundance; without their Festival and their support, I don’t think the film would have gone as far as it has. I would have made this film for $100,000 if I had to. But then, more people got involved, actors got on board, and it got bigger and bigger, and Sundance really pushed it further. Without them, it would have gone otherwise.

Was this film to you an emotional exercise or an intellectual one?

Definitely an emotional exercise. I made it without a thinking cap on. I think there is enough for anyone who wishes to analyze the film intellectually, but for me, it was definitely an emotional expression. I was trying to capture a mood and a feeling more so than to make a statement. That is the level on which I hope people will react initially.

When you started writing the screenplay, did you expect the film to become so impressive, so powerful?

What I always expect of my work is that it has a certain degree of integrity to it. It’s not so much that I anticipate it being particularly moving, or intense, or whatever adjective you wish to use to describe it. I do think that with anything I finish, I demand of myself that it has a certain level of integrity. As a result of that, whatever the intent of the movie as a whole may be—or of a certain scene—it needs to have that strength. I don’t set out to do it, but because I demand a lot of myself, I have to hit certain standards that I hold myself to, so the work will hopefully result into a strong piece of work.

“A Ghost Story” (2017), Mr. Lowery’s second film with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara

The casting of Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara gives the film an enormous boost, doesn’t it?

Absolutely. This is the first time that I worked with professional actors. They both were so right for the part, they understood me and what I was looking for, so casting them made the rehearsal process sort of redundant. It became more exciting to go into each day with a little bit of uncertainty of how things might actually play out. You just know that they come in at a hundred percent from the very beginning, and your job as a director is to get them at a hundred and ten percent. And even if you can’t do that, they’d still be doing perfect, wonderful work. That was a great thing to discover, especially since we didn’t have the luxury to do any rehearsals because there was no time. We did a few with Casey because he got there early. It would be just him and me—I played the other part—but I realized very quickly that it really didn’t matter. Once we were shooting, Casey and Rooney brought something new anyway. So the rehearsals were really there to help memorize the lines. It was very exciting for me to not know what they were going to do when I said, ‘Action.’ I knew they would say their lines, mostly as written, I knew roughly where in the room they would go, but I didn’t know how. I knew how they might because I had seen their films, of course, but they would always surprise me. It’s a wonderful joy for a director to be surprised—and pleasantly so.

So you give your actors the opportunity to improvise?

Yes, there were very rare cases when I said to them, ‘Stick exactly to the script.’ More often than not, I left plenty of room for improvisation. When you work with actors, to a certain extent, the part becomes theirs, and they know the character better than I do because they are the ones who will be performing it. I know the movie, and I know how each piece needs to fit together, but as far as the character is concerned, they know that better than I do by the time the cameras are rolling. And if something feels wrong in the script, I would encourage them to skip past it. If something came to mind or felt better, I encouraged them to say that instead. I like that spontaneity; I like to let the actors live the part rather than just reading the lines that I wrote. There are hardly any lines in the script that I demanded [laughs] to be said exactly as written. Only a few, and that’s because those lines resonate through the whole movie as I had it in my head. If Casey or Rooney wanted to throw something new in, I was always happy to see that. A lot of the great material in the film is because of great ideas they had, and now I’m not only talking about the dialogue but also how they move through a room, what they do—all those things can benefit their spontaneity.

Is it necessary then to do a lot of takes?

No, but there are times when you realize why a director like Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher does dozens of takes. Every now and then, you find yourself in pursuit of something abstract. You want it to be perfect, and you can get lost in a dark tunnel of perfection when you want every little piece to be just right. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is not as precise as perhaps a Kubrick or a Fincher film, if you allow me to make that comparison—it’s not meant to be that precise because there’s a looseness to it which may be a benefit. But when I reach that point on a particular shot and I realize I might do a lot of takes, I break it off and try to find a new way to approach it because I know something is wrong. You might say that five takes is plenty and three is perfect, but every actor is different. Rooney might be perfect on take one, Casey might be perfect on take four, and then you have to figure out a way to get them both on the right page for this scene.

How about writing your screenplays? Where and how does it all happen?

Generally, my living room at home is my favorite place to write my screenplays. But lately, I have been traveling so much that most of my writing is done in hotel rooms. Sometimes it’s nice to write in places that you’re completely unfamiliar with when you don’t have the normal distraction. But on a purely routine level, I have an office at home, although I also love to not go to my office and work in the living room instead. I feel I’m more relaxed there; I sit on the couch, kick my feet up, and I start working.

Do you need any feedback during the writing process?

I sometimes do, but only after I have finished the first draft. During the process, I keep the screenplay to myself and don’t show it to anybody. Then I always need to figure everything out by myself and fix the problems on my own.

“A Ghost Story” (2017), a preview which has been approved for appropriate audiences by the Motion Picture Association of America

You always write your own scripts, but if you get an offer to make a movie based on a script written by somebody else, what standards would you use to accept it?

First, I have to like the script, and they have to allow me to rewrite, even if I wouldn’t do it. I mean, they would have to be comfortable with the possibility that I might because of the way I like to shoot my movies. Even the shooting is a rewriting, at least with my own scripts. I even rewrite them on the set. In between takes, you’ll often find me in a corner with a pencil, writing new dialogue for the actors and giving it to them. I’m always rewriting throughout the whole process. So if it’s a script that already exists, the writer and the producers would have to be comfortable with me doing that. And then there’s the final cut which to me is an ideological necessity rather than a practical one. I would ask for final cut—not that I want to exclude anyone, but just to know how flexible the producers are going to be. I would also welcome their input: they’re smart, they love film, they are great and creative people with wonderful ideas.

You started your career in films as an editor of shorts, and later on you also edited features. Now that you’re a full-time filmmaker, would you still consider yourself an editor?

Yes, because I think editing is my favorite part of the process. It’s where the movie gets made for me, and the editing room is where I feel the most comfortable. When I’m editing, I feel the movie is really coming into its own. Even as I am writing the script, I am thinking about it, and I write the transitions and the cuts into the script. So I’m always thinking about it. But on the other hand, it’s all directing—at the end of the day, every step of the process is filmmaking.

Film Fest Gent, Ghent (Belgium)
October 14, 2013


HAPPY BIRTHDAY (2002) DIR – SCR Yen Tan PROD Mark Buchanan CAM Jack Burroughs ED Jay Wesson MUS Steve Whitehouse CAST Benjamin Patrick, Michelle E. Michael, John K. Frazier, Devashish Saxena, Ethel Lung, Denton Blane Everett, Xiao Fei Zhao, James M. Johnston, David Lowery (Videographer)

DEADROOM (2005) DIR – PROD – SCR David Lowery, James M. Johnston, Nick Prendergast, Yen Tan CAM Jim McMahon ED David Lowery MUS Daniel Huffman CAST Sue Birch, Rebecca Bustamante, Mark Forte, Harry Goaz, Jeff Griffin, Grant James, Renée Kelly

CIAO (2008) DIR Yen Tan PROD David Lowery, Jim McMahon SCR Yen Tan, Alessandro Calza CAM Michael Roy ED David Lowery MUS Stephen Altman CAST Chuck Blaum, Adam Neal Smith, Ethel Lung, John S. Boles, Margaret Lake, Tiffany Vollmer, Alessandro Calza, Clementina Plasencia

BLOOD ON THE HIGHWAY (2008) DIR Blair Rowan, Barak Epstein PROD Barak Epstein SCR Blair Rowan, Chris Gardner CAM Clay Liford ED Michael Fleetwood MUS Paul Nichols CAST Dave George, Robin Gierhart, Nate Rubin, Tony Medlin, Laura Stone, Chris Gardner, Nicholas Brendon, Tom Towles, David Lowery (Vampire), James M. Johnston

ST. NICK (2009) DIR – SCR – ED David Lowery PROD James M. Johnston CAM Clay Liford MUS Daniel Hart CAST Savanna Sears, Tucker Sears, Monique Byars, Riley Cole, Harry Goaz, Barlow Jacobs, Andrew Sensening

ALEXANDER THE LAST (2009) DIR – CAM – ED Joe Swanberg PROD Joe Swanberg, Noah Baumbach, Anish Savjani SCR David Lowery, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Jess Weixler, Barlow Jacobs, Justin Rice MUS Justin Rice, Jo Schornikow CAST Jess Weixler, Justin Rice, Barlow Jacobs, Amy Seimetz, Jane Adams, Josh Hamilton, Jo Schornikow, Sean Price Williams, David Lowery (Stagehand)

IT WAS GREAT, BUT I WAS READY TO COME HOME (2009) DIR Kris Swanberg PROD Kris Swanberg, Joe Swanberg SCR David Lowery, Kris Swanberg, Jade Healy, Benjamin Kasulke CAM Benjamin Kasulke ED David Lowery MUS Orange Mighty Trio CAST Kris Swanberg, Jade Healy, Chris Trujillo, Nick Drashner, Caitlin Donohue

SHADOWBOXING (2010) DIR – SCR Jesse Klein PROD Jesse Klein, Tristan Borys, Marley Sniatowsky, Marc Cloutier, Durga Chew-Bose CAM Kunitaro Ohi ED David Lowery, Yusef Svacina MUS Christopher Cox CAST Bobby Lamont, Karl Werleman, Danny Coleman, Philip Xavier Matz, Susan Corbett, Dermai Zan Young, Ezra Gray

LOVERS OF HATE (2010) DIR – SCR – ED Bryan Poyser PROD Megan Gilbride CAM David Lowery MUS Kevin Bewersdorf CAST Chris Doubeck, Heather Kafka, Alex Karpovsky, Zach Green, Lana Dietrich, Garry Peters, Harper Cummings

AUDREY THE TRAINWRECK (2010) DIR – SCR – ED Frank V. Ross PROD Adam Donaghey CAM David Lowery MUS John Medeski CAST Nathan Adloff, Anthony J. Baker, Tim Baker, Denise Blank, Teressa Bondavalli, Brittany Brumfield, Zack Buell, Adam Donaghey

BAD FEVER (2011) DIR – PROD – SCR Dustin Guy Defa CAM Mike Gioulakis ED David Lowery, Dustin Guy Defa CAST Kentucker Audley, Allison Baar, Hayward Buchanan, Dustin Guy Defa, Eleonore Hendricks, Scott Parisi, Dane Stevens, Annette Wright

UNIVERSAL SQUADRONS (2011) DIR Mark Willhone PROD Lisa K. Jenkins SCR Mark Millhone, Daniel Raymond O’Brien (story by Mark Willhone) CAM Clay Liford ED David Lowery MUS John David Kent CAST Riley Smith, Willa Ford, Barry Corbin, Christian Kane, Marshall R. Teague, David Bron, Adrian Green, Bryan Massey

UNCERTAIN, TX (2011) DIR – PROD Eric Steele SCR Eric Steele, Hunter Wood CAM Clay Liford ED David Lowery CAST Marjorie Hayes, Richard Rollin, Eric Steele, Caroline White, Hunter Wood, Clay Yocum

SUN DON’T SHINE (2012) DIR – SCR Amy Seimetz PROD Amy Seimetz, Kim Sherman CAM Jay Keitel ED David Lowery, Amy Seimetz MUS Ben Lovett CAST Kate Lyn Sheil, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, Kit Gwin, Mark Reeb, Gregory Gordon Schmidt

NOR’EASTER (2012) DIR – SCR Andrew Brotzman PROD Veronica Nickel CAM Ian Bloom ED David Lowery MUS Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans CAST David Call, Richard Bekins, Liam Aiken, Haviland Morris, Rachel Brosnahan, Danny Burstein, Geary Smith

UPSTREAM COLOR (2013) DIR – SCR – CAM – MUS Shane Carruth PROD Shane Carruth, Ben LeClair, Casey Gooden ED David Lowery, Shane Carruth CAST Amy Seimetz, Frank Mosley, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensening, Thiago Martins, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke, Andreon Watson

AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013) DIR – SCR David Lowery PROD Cassian Elwes, James M. Johnston, Amy Kaufman, Toby Halbrooks, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen CAM Bradford Young ED Craig McKay, Jane Rizzo MUS Daniel Hart CAST Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine, Kennadie Smith, Jacklynn Smith, Nate Parker, Robert Longstreet, Charles Baker

PIT STOP (2013) DIR Yen Tan PROD James M. Johnston, Jonathan Duffy, Kelly Williams, Eric Steele SCR David Lowery, Yen Tan CAM Hutch ED Don Swaynos MUS Curtis Heath CAST Bailey Bass, Marcus DeAnda, Yesenia Garcia, Bill Heck, Heather Kafka, Richard C. Jones, Alfredo Maduro, Jonny Mars, Amy Seimetz

EMPIRE BUILDER (2014) DIR Kris Swanberg PROD Kate Johnston SCR Kris Swanberg, Kate Johnston CAM – ED David Lowery CAST Kristin Davis, Samantha Newman, Bill Ross IV, Kate Lyn Sheil, Caitlin Stainken, Joe Swanberg, Jude Swanberg

PETE’S DRAGON (2016) DIR David Lowery PROD Jim Whitaker SCR David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks (screenplay PETE’S DRAGON [1977] by Malcolm Marmorstein; story by Seton I. Miller, S.S. Field) CAM Bojan Bazelli ED Lisa Zeno Churgin MUS Daniel Hart CAST Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr.

LISTEN UP PHILIP (2016) DIR – SCR Alex Ross Perry PROD David Lowery, Joshua Blum, Katie Stern, Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston CAM Sean Price Williams ED Robert Greene MUS Keegan DeWitt CAST Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de la Baume, Jonathan Pryce, Jess Weixler

A GHOST STORY (2017) DIR – SCR – ED David Lowery PROD Adam Donaghey, James M. Johnston, Toby Halbrooks CAM Andrew Droz Palermo MUS Daniel Hart CAST Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Cephas Jr., Kenneisha Thompson, Grover Coulson, Liz Franke, Barlow Jacobs, Richard Krause, David Lowery (Neighbor’s Ghost)

THE YELLOW BIRDS (2017) DIR Alexandre Moors PROD Mark Canton, Jeffrey Sharp, Courtney Solomon SCR David Lowery, R.F.I. Porto (novel by Kevin Powers) CAM Daniel Landin ED Joe Klotz MUS Adam Wiltzie CAST Alden Ehrenreich, Tye Sheridan, Jack Huston, Jennifer Aniston, Toni Collette, Jason Patric, Lee Tergesen, Rhoda Griffis, Carrie Wampler

THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN (2018) DIR David Lowery PROD Robert Redford, James M. Johnston, James D. Stern, Jeremy Steckler, Dawn Ostroff, Anthony Mastromauro, Toby Halbrooks, Bill Holderman SCR David Lowery (article by David Grann) CAM Joe Anderson ED Lisa Zeno Churgin MUS Daniel Hart CAST Casey Affleck, Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Elisabeth Moss, Tom Waits, Keith Carradine, John David Washington, Isiah Whitlock Jr.

PETER PAN (2018) DIR David Lowery SCR David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks, Arthur T. Manderley (novel by J.M. Barrie)