David Lowery on Editing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

david lowery

David Lowery made waves last year in the independent film world with the news that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints — the follow-up to his $12,000 feature film St Nick (2009) – had attracted the stellar cast of Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Ben Foster. It quickly became one of the year’s most anticipated independent films, premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Critic’s Week, and set to open in the US on August 16.

The contemporary Western about a young couple torn asunder by a robbery gone wrong features shootouts and other elements of an action movie, but is at its heart a poetic riff about young people struggling to find their way in the world. In its theme and approach, it is very much in keeping with Lowery’s previous work such as his SXSW-winning short Pioneer (2011), a metaphysical history of the US in the form of a bedtime story told by Will Oldham, which had brought him notice as a writer and director a couple years earlier.

Prior to his success as director, Dallas-based Lowery was already established as a prolific editor, with credits on films such as Shane Carruth’s intense poetic thriller Upstream Color (which also premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival) and Amy Seimetz’s much lauded Sun Don’t Shine (2012). With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints budget of just over $4 million — a huge leap from the $12,000 of his previous feature — Lowery chose for the first time to work with another editor on one of his own films. Filmmaker spoke to him about that experience, and how his own approach to editing was altered by the process.

In Filmmaker’s current print edition, Lowery discusses the development of his screenplay and the film’s production. (If you’re a subscriber to Filmmaker, you can also read this piece online by logging in to this site.) Below, Lowery talks about the film’s editing, post-production, and its race to Sundance.

Filmmaker: So you wrapped in August, right? And then had around eight weeks before you had to submit to Sundance?

Lowery: Yeah, roughly eight weeks. In retrospect, I think that the next time I make a film I’ll definitely take a little vacation before we jump into the edit so that I can gain some perspective. But, I went straight to New York and began cutting. It was very difficult to have a clear perception of what it was that we had made. I felt that I’d gone horribly astray from my intentions. When you’re that close to the production, there’s no way it can’t feel like a disaster and you just throw your hands up in the air and be like, “Oh my God, what have I done?”

I was working with an editor for the first time, and I think that with St. Nick and with other films I’ve made, the first cuts are always the ones where I’m wondering if I failed. That’s always the part of the process where I have the most doubt.

The interesting thing was that I’d always gone through that process alone, so I was able to enter the editing process with great confidence, and then emerge from whatever arduous long dark nights of the soul that I went through and come back and show people what I was working on with confidence again. And because I was working with an editor for the first time, I felt very exposed. It wasn’t a private process, and that was an entirely new experience for me.

Every day I would go in there and just lament at what a disaster this day’s scenes were and it wasn’t productive. The morale was not there at that point because I hadn’t yet adjusted to what the movie was. Once I figured out that I had in fact made exactly the movie I had intended to make, all of my confidence was there and I was able to work very productively, but at least for me, I think I need that period of adjustment.

Filmmaker: Can you remember any of the things that you felt weren’t working when you first saw it, and then you realized actually were great?

Lowery: A huge issue was the tone. I had all of these arbitrary rules that I had very quickly laid down like that it doesn’t work to cut from Ruth to Keith Carradine’s character because they feel like they’re in two different movies. Keith Carradine’s big scene with Casey was a tough scene to edit. Until I got it right, I felt that that scene stuck out like a sore thumb and that it sort of defined that character for me in a way that prevented me from wanting to integrate it with the rest of the movie.

Filmmaker: That scene is one of the ones that changed the most from the cut I saw in early December to now. Somehow it’s different and it feels like what it needs to be – the turning point of the movie, in a way.

Lowery: Exactly. It’s the longest scene in the script, it was meant to be a turning point, and it just took a lot. There were other scenes that felt real, like a lot of the stuff with Ruth, which clicked together very quickly, and then there was stuff like the stuff with the Skerritt character or with Sweetie, Nate Parker’s character, that felt like a completely different movie from anything going on with Ruth and Patrick.

Filmmaker: As you were going through these versions of that scene, were you primarily alert to tone, were you slowly figuring out what the scene was actually about on a level you didn’t see before? Or were you thinking about it strategically in terms of what it needs to do?

Lowery: For me, it’s always all of the above. I always try to kill those babies early on that don’t have any purpose and that don’t add anything to the movie, whether that be narrative or tonal. But, with this movie in particular, there was a really fine line between narrative importance and tonal importance because the narrative was so simple that from the outset, there were scenes that I wrote that were intended not to further the plot, but merely to influence the tone. An example would be the scene where Bob wakes up at night and walks downstairs in the bar and finds the shotgun and just opens it and notices that there’s a single shell there. When you think about that in narrative terms, you would expect that to be a first act plant, which would then pay off in the third act. And it’s not a spoiler to say that it never pays off, that shotgun shows up one more time, but not in any significant way. And it’s a scene that was written merely to convey a certain tone and to give the audience an image that would then carry over tonally for the rest of the film. And that was a scene that certainly hit the cutting room floor once or twice because we’re like, “Oh, well, we need to pick up the pace. This scene’s not necessary.” But, we did a screening without that scene and it felt wrong. I missed it and it was because it was so tonally important.

A big part of that process of discovery was just realizing that just because a scene’s not working the first time doesn’t meant that it’s a disaster. And that Keith Carradine scene, we got it working pretty well by the time you saw it in December, and now it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Filmmaker: The trick is maybe if you’re a director who edits, you have to really work with somebody who you trust, in a way. Like, you can trust their eye, which is hard to find, right?

Lowery: It is. You need to have that shorthand. I think that with any collaborator on this movie, I was always looking for someone that I have a sort of psychic connection with. You always want someone who can finish your sentences for you. I worked with two great editors, but we never quite developed that sort of psychic twin connection.

I wanted to work with Jane Rizzo because I am good friends with lots of directors she’s worked with before and I think her work is phenomenal. Ultimately she got the brunt of my post-shoot blues and she was there for all the indecisiveness and unfortunately she was also there at the point when I decided I needed to spend some time on it myself. And that was an important step to realize that I need to not be in a room with somebody when I am figuring out what it is that I have made. She did wonderful work which is still in the film, and she gracefully put up with all of my griping about everything during the period where everything felt wrong. She was always confident and would say that, “Yes, it is really working,” and I would protest and say, “No, it’s not.”

We began cutting and started over and within about four weeks had an entirely new edit of the movie. At that point, I really felt that I needed some distance. I had to go to a wedding, and so I took a week off with my wife and I disconnected for a week. And that was really helpful. At that point, I still felt, “We’re going to be lucky if this movie works.” And then, on the nine-hour drive back to Dallas from New Mexico I just all of a sudden started having all of these epiphanies about how the movie was actually going to work and how everything could click into place. I got home and instantly went to work. And from that point forward, the movie just kept getting better and better. It was a very clear realization that you need that distance because the production itself is such an intense experience that it’s impossible for the editing process to not be shaded by that.

While I was spending a month working on it myself, Amy [Kaufman, one of the film's producers] suggested I spend some time with Craig McKay, who cut all of Jonathan Demme’s early films including Melvin and Howard, which is one of my favorite films. It was great working with him. What he brought to the table was a clarity. He was the first person to voice the words: “This is a love story. That’s what it needs to be, and we need to get into that faster.” I never thought of it as a love story, and certainly not as a love triangle between the three characters. That was something that really came about in the editing process, and once we realized that, we tried not only to accept it but to emphasize it as much as possible.

I can distill what Craig brought to the movie in one scene, which is the scene where Bob hijacks the young man toward the end of the film. We see them on the side of the road, the car pulls off, and we cut back into the car. My original edit of that was very loose. The handheld camera just floated around the car and you caught glimpses of things, all in extreme close up, and it was a very fleeting, very hard-to-define image. A lot of the times, that is what I like. I like the idea of destroying the frame, and not having a clear idea of what is in the frame, and just having little glimpses that sort of suggest things rather than state them. Craig cut all the stuff that I put in there out, and just put in a close up of a gun that was very clear, and a close up of Casey, and a close up of Rami, and it was all the information you needed to know about the dynamic in that car. And at first I was thinking, “No. I don’t want it to be that clear. I want it to be ephemeral, and capturing the fleetingness of this moment,” and all sorts of mumbo-jumbo like that. Then all of a sudden, I realized that clarity was great for that. You get in, you get out, and you know exactly what it is and you can move on to this extremely long dialogue scene that’s about to occur. That’s the sort of thing that he brought to the table, that sort of clarity. Around that time that I started to think about the movie in terms of John Ford and other directors who really used the frame as sort of the bounding box of the narrative rather than what I had often been attempting to do which was to sort of destroy that box and let the narrative and let the movie take place outside of it. The instinct of a lot of directors I know, myself included, is to sort of let negative space, or what’s outside the frame, dictate things, and to really use a montage of fragments rather than a single strong image. I had that approach in the shooting, but I was also looking for strong images, so part of the editing was reconciling these two approaches, and that was something Craig was very helpful with.

Filmmaker: Given the subject of the script and the way investors can read scripts differently than you mean them, did you experience any pressure to cut a different kind of film in editing? Or, were you shielded from that?

Lowery: We were remarkably shielded. And, I give credit to that to [producers] Jay [van Hoy] and Lars [Knudsen] and Toby [Halbrooks] and James [Johnston] and Amy [Kaufman], who together formed such a unified front of support and confidence that I think all of the investors assumed that we knew what we were doing — which we did — and they didn’t pressure us to see it.

When you read a script, you can sort of read anything into it. You can read Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and be like, “Well, this is a terrific crime thriller and this will have lots of action in it.” And it does have action in it, but it’s easy to latch onto the things you want to latch onto when you’re reading a script. Then you see the movie, and it’s the same movie that was in the script, but it’s what I intended it to be.

A big goal for myself and for James and Toby is when we first set out was to make this movie as fiscally responsible as we can because if this movie is a financial success, that’s going to help us with our next one. We very intentionally kept things as small as possible so that it has as great a chance for success as possible without having to cater to any lowest common denominators.

Filmmaker: Has working with an editor changed how you think of your own job as an editor when you’re working on another director’s film?

Lowery: It’s really interesting for me knowing that I have been on the other side of that chair and thinking back to the last film I cut and how agonizing it must have been for that director. I probably was just completely oblivious to how miserable he was as we were sitting there getting that first cut together.

Indeed, I checked up on that and it was certainly the case. It was an interesting perspective to gain. And it was interesting to me that I didn’t completely pick up on it. As an editor, and I’m sure you know this, your job is sort of to be that voice of reason and to be that hard line and to be the guy who says, “Yeah, you don’t need any of this. This isn’t working,” and to not fall into that same misery that the director does. I guess it’s the director’s luxury to be miserable and to feel that he’s failed and it’s the editor’s job to say that, “No, you didn’t. It’s working great and here’s what we can do to make it better.”