Ain’t Them Bodies Saints isn’t a Terrence Malick knockoff. Whenever a movie has beautiful landscape shots or characters talking with a musical quality, Malick’s name is the first one to appear in comparison, but writer/director David Lowery’s Sundance darling bares little similarity to Malick’s work.
This isn’t a story of criminals wildly in love, but of a man, Bob (Casey Affleck), trying to return to his lover and former partner in crime, Ruth (Rooney Mara). With the exception of the film’s opening, Lowery doesn’t show any of the big scenes you expect from that plot synopsis: Bob escaping from jail; getting into a car chase with the coppers; or finding himself in a shootout. The film starts with a bang, but as Lowery puts it, he wanted to focus on what came after that bang.
Most films would have their first act show Bob and Ruth robbing banks together. Did you ever consider that version or was it always this film?
No, it was always this movie. It was always about the aftermath. I always intended for the beginning of the movie to include a lot of content upfront. I toyed with the idea of showing a robbery or something from their past, which would be crammed into the first 15 minutes. My idea was to have a rapid and fluid opening, but then the brakes would be hit and the movie becomes this intimate, meditative story about everything that might’ve happened. I definitely counted on the fact we’re dealing with archetypes. I felt you could bring your entire history of understanding of a guy and a girl on the run, because it’s a cinematic trope that can make you understand what these characters have done. I want to embrace the archetypes, but then slow down to know them.
I wanted to make something that sticks in your throat, which is true for everything I make. The movie is very simple, but I try to make things that are harder to digest. I love a movie that doesn’t let me forget it. I always hope to do the same thing. The longer it takes to digest a movie, the better it is because you’ll still be thinking about it.
It’s interesting that Ruth and Bob have very few scenes together, but they’re relationship is the focus of the film. Did you know you needed actors with real presence to make the film have weight?
That’s funny, because that’s never something I was thinking about it. I wanted actors who would be able to blend into the timelessness of the movie, along with weird things, like, the tone of their voice. Casey [Affleck] is someone I love listening to talk. I wasn’t sure if we’d have the luxury of rehearsal, so I didn’t want to count on there being chemistry. I certainly hoped there would be, but I didn’t know if there would be. Casey and Rooney [Mara] barely met prior to their first day on set together. I counted on them to get there and make it happen. It was just luck, though. They hit it off and it changed the movie, because I never really considered this a romance before I saw their scenes together. As soon as we saw their rapport the film suddenly defined itself. If there wasn’t chemistry we thought we could make it work regardless, but it made everything so much easier.
Do you recall the first scene between them where you discovered that romance?
It was the scene where they’re in the truck from the very beginning. It was the first scene I shot with them, but it was midway during the production. I shot most of Casey’s material at that point and was about to do Rooney’s, but they had three days where they overlapped. We shot a much longer version than the one in the movie, but you’d watch that long version seeing characters who truly loved each other. The entire crew was really excited, and so were Casey and Rooney. It really informed Rooney, because she really missed him when he left the set.
Once you discovered the film, did you easily embrace that change?
I embrace change. I feel like when I write a script I know 30% of the film is what’s going to happen on set that I can’t anticipate. I look forward to that, to the point where I’ll hear on the set, “You don’t care about that dialogue? You want to lose that?” I’m not precious about what I’ve written. I have clear ideas for tone and texture, but beyond that, I want to do things that surprise me. The film got pushed into a new territory and seeing that happen and working it into everything else is a challenge, because there’s new things you have to consider.
You’ve said how Casey Affleck had a lot of ideas he wouldn’t tell you about on set, but they made it into the film. What were some of those ideas?
A lot of them were little things. When the prison guard tells him he has a baby girl, Casey turned to his right, despite me telling him to turn to his left, and it was so much better. It’s a little thing, but it’s great. There’s other scenes where I learned he’s quick on his feet as an actor. There’s a scene where he’s talking to himself in front of a mirror and I didn’t write any dialog for until the morning of the shoot and I told him, “Here’s four monologues. Digest them and spit them out however you want. We’re just going to roll.”
How about Ben Foster?
He’s known as being incredibly intense in his characters. That’s true of him, because he is an intense person. He’s also very kind and professional. The entire crew loved him, because he’d show up, know what he had to do, and understands the distance between him and a lens. He knows how to handle himself in front of a camera. He understands the nuts and bolts of it, which is the best person to make a movie with. He’s the type of actor who knows how to hit his mark, but he also has a curiosity about what makes a character tick.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is now in limited release and expands into theaters and VOD August 23rd.