Dallas Film Director David Lowery Is About To Blow The Hell Up.
David Patrick Lowery made a triumphant return home to North Texas after premiering his new movie, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And we do mean triumphant: Critics are already claiming that the new, Dallas-based kid on the block has “[established] himself as a true talent.”
Yes, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints certainly is impressing in the early goings of this year’s film festival circuit. Starring Casey Affleck (Good Will Hunting, Gone Baby Gone) and Rooney Mara (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo),his film tells the tale of a 1970s outlaw who escapes from prison and sets out across the Texas hills to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met. The part-modern western, part-picturesque tragic romance is being praised for its originality of style and plot, with one reviewer going so far as to say that “Lowery avoids every cliche from the action-thriller, romance and noir handbooks, transmitting a palpable sense of the pain caused by forced absence from a loved one.”
Needless to say, Dallasites should be proud of Lowery’s recent successes and excited that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints will hit hometown theaters some time in late summer or early fall. He’s clearly a man on the rise.
So we were pretty excited, then, when we ran into a couple of weeks back at the Texas Theatre, taking in a screening of Goodfellas.
“I’m not in this for the money,” he humbly told us then over some whiskey when we congratulated him on his recent good fortune. “I love making movies. My only goal is to make something better than the last.”
With that in mind, we reached out to Lowery again in days following that meeting so we could speak with him a little more formally about the journey he’s been on so far and what it’s really like to be a filmmaker in Dallas.
In 2011, Pioneer, a short film that you wrote and directed, won several awards including the Jury prize for Narrative Short at SXSW. Before that, your work has been mostly under the radar. Your first feature film, Lullaby, is nothing more than a listing on your IMDB these days. Your second feature length, St. Nick, received some attention when it won the grand jury prize at AFI Dallas for Texas Film Making in 2009. You made a few music videos for Sarah Jaffe and School of Seven Bells. But, then, seemingly all of a sudden, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is really putting your name out there. Can you tell us a little bit about the road that led to your recent successes? What were some key moments for you, creatively speaking?
It’s funny to think about it from that perspective, because, from where I’m standing, every little step built to where I am now. It feels like it’s taken an alarmingly long time! Calling Lullaby my first feature is sort of a misnomer; it’s like calling the naively sincere short story you had printed in the high school newspaper your first published work. It was a way to learn what to do, and even moreso what not to do. I kept making short films all through the early aughts, and, all that time, I was learning what I wanted to say as a filmmaker and how I wanted to say it. Or, rather, to show it. It wasn’t until I made a short film called A Catalog Of Anticipations in 2008 that things really began to click into place. That short film did very well on the festival circuit, and it paved the way for St. Nick the following year, which did even better — it played all over the world and established me and my collaborators within the independent film scene. A year after that, we made Pioneer, which really paved the way for us to go right into making Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It was two years from the time I wrote the first draft of that to right now, in the aftermath of its premiere. It may feel like it was very sudden, but there was a lot of work leading up to it. A lot of long hours and frustrating moments and seemingly dashed dreams and well-timed pick-me-ups. You make a lot of bad films, and hopefully those films never get seen — although they do sometimes wind up on IMDB. Then, at a certain point, they hopefully start getting good, and getting noticed. In retrospect, that delineation seems very clear.
You’ve spent some time in Los Angeles and New York, but you currently live in Dallas. What advantages and disadvantages do you find being a filmmaker in Dallas? Why have you chosen to live here? Do you intend to stay in Dallas for the foreseeable future?
I am admittedly a slave to nostalgia, so the fact that I grew up in Dallas has a lot to due with why I’m still here. But, beyond that, it’s convenient. It’s a short flight to both New York and LA, there’s a good arts scene, great coffee roasters. And it’s been really easy for me to make films in Dallas. The film industry here has been very kind to me, very supportive.
Along those same lines, your films tend to have connections to Texas. St. Nick was about two kids mostly wandering through the woods near Fort Worth, Pioneer told the story of a father who forged his way across a metaphorical wilderness that may not necessarily be Texas but could be, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been called a modern western in part because it takes place inSouth Texas. What role do you feel Texas plays in your art?
I like Texas. I didn’t always. I moved here from Milwaukee when I was seven and I sort of hated it at first. At some point, I realized I didn’t hate it anymore. Then, one day, I realized I loved it. I subscribed to the larger-than-life sensibility that goes hand-in-hand with being Texan. I love the way the land looks, and the sky. I love Texas in the winter. There’s a free-spirited state of mind that has thus far applied both to my life and to the stories I want to tell. My most successful movies have been about people who dream big, and this is a good state to do that in.
In some of the early reviews of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints you have been directly compared to Terrence Malick. I also know that you were a huge Tim Burton fan as a kid. But what do you claim as influences now, both artistically and personally?
I like Terrence Malick a lot, but I have to admit that I was surprised he was cited so extensively in the Ain’t Them Bodies Saints reviews. That’s probably naive of me — and I’m not complaining — but he wasn’t on my mind at all when we were making the movie. There are other filmmakers I love more, who I might have cribbed from a bit more consciously, although, more than anything else, I sort of relied on music for inspiration on this one. Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham, especially. I take great joy in the films of Claire Denis, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman, James Gray. I tried to keep John Ford in mind when I was making this one. Tim Burton, not so much. I still love his early films, but he hasn’t been floating my boat as much lately. But I did like Sweeney Todd an awful lot.
Polyphonic Spree theremin player Toby Halbrooks has been a part of nearly all of your projects, usually as a producer. What role has he played in your recent success? Does he play a creative role in any of your work?
Toby is one of my best friends. He and James M. Johnston, my other producer, are absolutely instrumental in making these films, and they’re as creatively invested in the films as I am. As producers, they just come at it from a different side. Whereas I’m on set thinking about a new angle to shoot a scene from, they’re thinking about how adding that angle might affect all the other shots we need to get. It’s a common misconception that producers are just focused on the budget or the schedule. What people don’t realize is that they’re worried about those things because they want to make sure the creative vision that we’ve all set out to execute isn’t compromised by anything. But I digress! I met Toby six or seven years ago when we were editing a commercial together. We hit it off immediately and, within a week or so, were writing a script together. Lately, we direct all our music videos together, and we’re about to start writing something else. I’m bald and he has long hair, so we even each other out nicely.
Now that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been purchased by IFC and is sort of out of your hands, what is the next step? What are you working on now and/or in the near future?
One of the reasons we partnered with IFC to release the film is that we get to be very hands-on with it — so, even though it’s been sold, we’re still going to be very involved with the film in the coming months. It’ll be coming out later this year, and we want to make sure it’s brought to the big screen with all the care we put into making the film. There are trailers to cut, posters to design, and we’re going to go back to the movie itself and spend some time fine-tuning the picture and sound. Watching the movie at Sundance was the first time we’d seen it all the way through, in it’s finished form, with an audience. That experience always highlights little things you might not have noticed before. But, beyond that, I’m writing a few new things — some on my own and some with Toby — and just seeing what ideas gain enough momentum to get made. We’re always throwing lots of things at the wall and hoping something sticks.
Keep up with Lowery and see some of his truly original work on his website.