It’s Texas sometime in the 1970s and Ruth Guthrie and Bob Muldoon are in love. But in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the passionate, earnest couple cannot stay together. There’s a confrontation with the police, and Bob (Casey Affleck) ends up in prison, while Ruth (Rooney Mara) raises their daughter alone. But Ruth’s quiet life is upended when she gets word that Bob has escaped from prison.
With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and will be released in theaters on Aug. 16 (and VOD on Aug. 23), director David Lowery crafts a tightly constructed, lyrical portrait of people tied together by love, tragic circumstance, and obligation. And even though there are guns, wounds, threats, and betrayals, Lowery has somehow managed to make nearly every character empathetic. EW spoke with Lowery about the film, his love of Robert Altman, his use of violence in the film, and the state of independent movies. Take a look after the break. WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The movie focuses on Bob Muldoon (Affleck), Ruth Guthrie (Mara), and the local policeman Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster). Is it any one character’s story?
David Lowery: I really wanted it to feel as evenly divided amongst the three as possible. You can break it down in terms of screen time and make calls on that, but I think the thing that has been really gratifying to me is that everyone who sees it comes away gravitating towards one character’s story. That’s really nice to hear because my goal was to be even-handed with everybody.
All the main characters are incredibly empathetic, even though some commit crimes, intentionally or not.
I really wanted to make a movie with a lot of nice people in it. I wanted to do something where everybody was trying to do the right thing — even though they all have different ideas of what is “right.” I don’t like to hate anyone. Even Keith Carradine’s character, who could have easily turned into a villain of some sort, I just wanted to make him nice.
Your use of violence in the film seems very measured for a Western. The characters may use the threat of violence, but any acts are generally out of self-preservation or done by accident. Why is that?
When it came to Bob, he’s a character who wishes he could hold a gun with some degree of authority. He’s like a little kid with a cap gun. He never thinks about what the consequences are or the fact that this might hurt somebody. He’s never actually thinking of what he’s doing in violent terms. When he’s given the opportunity to actually shoot someone, he can’t do it. The gun was just an accessory to an image more than it was an implementation of violence. Ruth, her perspective was slightly different because she actually did shoot someone and had to deal with that.
What was your goal with how to present the violence?
I don’t like violence that’s made to be cool, and I hate fetishizing it. In this movie, when the violence does break out towards the end, it happens quickly and in a way that’s not glamorous. I wanted it to be thrilling, but not exciting. I didn’t want people to walk away thinking that was a fun part of the movie. I’ve shot one gun once and I hated it. I wanted all the violence in the movie to contain that disgust.
Bob even asks at one point, in a comedic respite from the tension and action, “Why did you shoot me?!”
It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around certain things, and one of those things is the idea of actually hating someone enough to want to get revenge. I always wonder, “Why would this guy do this?” And I thought, well, I’m just going to have him say it. I shot it and thought it wouldn’t work. It’s such a weird thing to have someone say that in the middle of a shoot-out. But those words actually ended up making sense.
Ben Foster is so compelling in this film, and he said once that Patrick represented
“core American values.” Is this something you talked about while developing his character?
I think it goes further back than American values. It’s this idea of chivalry and being a gentleman. Here’s a character who, in the archetypal sense, would normally be out to get Bob, or after something more duplicitous. I wanted to take that character and make him be open and to be able to let things go. I tried to make him a genuinely good man.
Rooney Mara is terrific too, and her career is really taking off. What was it like working with her?
She’s remarkable. It might sound lazy, but as a director you kind of hope that actors will intuitively get everything you want so you don’t really have to explain too much to them. But it’s great when it happens. It just means you’re on the same page with somebody. She definitely had that. She got the project. She got the character. And she was very professional. She’d come knowing her lines. She could do any scene at the drop of a hat. So that freed up our ability to discuss different options of where to take things and push it further than we had on the page.
You’ve talked a lot about the influence of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and you were able to cast Keith Carradine, who appeared in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, in a key role. How did you get connected with him?
He came on pretty late in the game. We were having a lot of trouble casting that part. I’d initially wanted to go out to him and for whatever reason we weren’t able to get the script to him. We were already shooting by the time we got the script to him, and he read it and came to town. It was a nice that he has a direct tie to McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but first and foremost was the quality of his acting.
You’re in a very enviable spot in the independent film world. You co-edited Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, you’ve worked with Joe Swanberg, you are connected to the Ross brothers. Are you optimistic about the state of indies?
I would make Ain’t Them Bodies Saints for $12,000 if that’s all I had to do it with. The means to make things are constantly available and there’s nothing stopping me. They can be big or small, but I know that I can always make something and express myself through this form. I think that’s true of my peers and collaborators too. We’ve all chosen this medium outside of any industry factors. We can do it on our own. If the industry pays attention and wants to give us money or help us make a living, that’s icing on the cake, but that’s not the goal.