“ST. NICK’”S DAVID LOWERY By Alicia Van Couvering
There is almost no dialogue in the first half of David Lowery’s feature debut, St. Nick. A young boy and a girl enter an abandoned house, clean it up, build a fire, forget to open a window and fill the house with smoke, figure out a chimney and watch the embers turn into flames. They sleep, they forage for food; somehow they survive, until reality starts bearing down on them. It’s not clear why they ran away, or if anyone is looking for them. The film is stark and the house feels haunted, but you can’t stop thinking: this was my fantasy when I was a kid. This was all I wanted, to run away and survive on marshmallow sandwiches and sleep in pillow forts.
Texas-bred Lowery is no stranger to SXSW, having showcased his short A Catalog of Anticipations here. He is credited as “Right Hand Man” on Joe Swanberg’s latest Alexander the Last, a title that describes his work as a ubiquitous d.p./Everything on most of Swanberg’s latest films as well as dozens of other for-the-love projects. Funded by Texas non-profits, Lowery and his skeleton crew shot for 18 days in the coldest time of year, exploring that moment in life right before the moment you accept that you’re growing up.
FILMMAKER: How did you find the kids, and how did you describe the film to them?
LOWERY: At our first auditions, we didn’t have them read lines or anything; I just talked to them. “If you were to run away from home, what would you do?” Very pragmatic questions about the process they would have to go through to run away. I got a lot out of that. In call backs, I went deeper, like, “What would make you do it, why would you run away?”
FILMMAKER: How did Tucker and Savannah Sears, the siblings you ultimately cast, respond?
LOWERY: Savannah likes nature, she likes animals, so she was like, “I just want to be out in the woods.” That was reflected in her character – at one point in the film her brother says, “What would you do if I wasn’t here?” And she says, “Oh, I’d just go back home.” She’s there because he brought her. Tucker’s answer was about going away, about being alone, not wanting to be around anyone. I think he feels that way sometimes. What ultimately sealed the deal with Tucker was that I sat him down with the camera facing him and I said, “There’s a scene in the movie where you get arrested for shoplifting. The cops try to find out who you are, and you don’t tell them anything.” I interviewed him as a cop for thirty minutes, trying to get him to give me an answer. The way he dodged the questions, what was going on in his face – I was like, OK, that’s him.
FILMMAKER: And they’re really brother and sister?
LOWERY: We got so lucky. They would just start doing things that brothers and sisters normally do, such as fighting. We came up with code words we would say when we wanted to surreptitiously film them and everyone should get quiet, like, “Ninja.” But they totally caught on. By the end it was just a joke’ we had ridiculous words: “Rhododendron.” But we did catch some amazing scenes of them taking jabs at each other – very few of which are in the movie.
FILMMAKER: How much was improvised – like how specifically did you direct their building of a sheet fort?
LOWERY: The tent – that’s a funny story. That’s in the script that they build a sheet fort, because all kids build tents. One night, the art director and I stayed late to build this tent; we were like, let’s build the perfect tent that kids would love. And it was just retarded. It sucked. We shot scenes in it the next day and I just hated it, it looked so stupid. I said to James M. Johnson, my producer, “We have to reschedule this and reshoot it.” So we tore down the tent, and a day or two later we gave the kids all these sheets and said, “OK, build a tent, we’re just gonna film it.” And it was awesome. It’s beautiful. That was a turning point in the movie for me, because when I realized that we should just let them build it and film them, I think that’s when we really hit our stride. It was about three days into filming and it was the point where I let go a little bit. The next morning we had a quick production meeting and we were all like, let’s start rolling secretly and stand back and let them do their thing, and let’s do that a lot.
FILMMAKER: It brings up one thing about your movie I think is rarely portrayed accurately – kid play is not fun. It’s not a game. When you make a fort like that, it’s serious business.
LOWERY: Right, exactly – and there’s a very pragmatic thrill when you finish it. That’s what I wanted to see, the pragmatic procedural aspects of playtime, hammering sheets to walls and figuring out the best way to do something. Afterwards it’s not like, “Now let’s play,” it’s more like they’ve finished a hard day’s work. They’ve accomplished something and are maybe a little bit older and more mature.
FILMMAKER: Personally, I thought the whole thing was a metaphor for building adult relationships.
LOWERY: It could be. That’s not what I set out to make but that’s valid. I did want to make a film about how the emotional side of childhood involves dealing with very adult things, which is my memory of being a kid.
FILMMAKER: How did the script develop?
LOWERY: It was like shooting a documentary. The script was 30-pages long, and some of the scenes were just one line – “the kids walk through a field.” Some of the script was very specific, and a lot of it was incredibly loose and we threw away. You’d be hard pressed to find sides while we were shooting.
FILMMAKER: That’s pretty amazing to be able to communicate your vision without much of anything on paper…
LOWERY: I’ve kind of developed that as my way of working. I’ve done shorts entirely by myself, and when I’m working by myself the script is entirely in my head. I think my shorts feel structured and precise and formalist because that’s my aesthetic, but I don’t feel the need to put it into words first. For the sake of having a crew, and actors and needing a production schedule, I wrote this 30-page document. It was helpful but I don’t know how much you could get from it as far as conveying what the movie was gonna be. I would just talk to people. The kids never saw that script, not once.
FILMMAKER: Did they know what the movie was about?
LOWERY: They knew what it was about. I told them that I didn’t know why they ran away from home. I told them that it didn’t matter. I would tell them what was going to happen before a scene, and sometimes they’d say, especially Tucker, “That’s stupid, I wouldn’t do that.”
FILMMAKER: What specifically did he think was stupid?
LOWERY: The scene where they get kicked out of the house, Tucker had very clear opinions about how that should go, which was not how I thought it should go. They knew that was going to happen, but they didn’t know how it was gonna happen. Barlow [Jacobs] came to set, and he had decided not to talk to the kids beforehand. Now Savannah is like the friendliest kid in the world and kept trying to like, go hang out with him – “Ooh, the new guy on set.” He just ignored her, which was really disconcerting for her, really made her uncomfortable. Barlow had talked to contractors he knew in New Orleans who had run into similar situations. He was going to be compassionate [but he was going to throw them out with no mercy.] It really upset them. By that point we’d been shooting in that house for at least a week, and they were allowed to do whatever they wanted to that house, and they had sort of adopted it. I think they really felt like it was their own. So getting kicked out of it was not fun. We did three takes of it. Tucker was saying, “I really hate this scene.” After we finished it we did a little scene at the back of the house and Tucker was just throwing rocks at the house and writing curse words on the side of the house in the paint with a knife, about to cry. They were really taken by surprise.
FILMMAKER: How did shooting other people’s films affect your work?
LOWERY: Workign on other films made me more confident as a director because it made me reconsider my own choices. Being frustrated by someone else’s choices made me aware of my own vehement sense of how film structure should be. Oddly enough, working with Joe Swanberg totally confirmed my own thinking, even though our stuff is so different – his stuff is so unscripted and not really production designed. But because he edits his own films – we feel the same way about how composition affects pace, for instance. Joe came down for a few days to shoot 2nd Unit on this, and that worked out great.
FILMMAKER: You let other people shoot when you’re not there, even though you’re a d.p.?
LOWERY: It was partially out of necessity that I decided to have 2nd unit people on board. Because we were working with children, and could only work them a set number of hours per day, I really wanted to maximize the time we had. And I felt free to let other people shoot because I knew I was going to be editing the film myself. But we’ve got a pretty tight knit group. You find people you trust creatively, who have your back — then you don’t need to micromanage them. I can tell Clay Liford, my d.p., what I want a scene to look like, and I can go off and work with the kids somewhere else, and know that when I can come back it will be exactly what I want. I think it’s really vital to have that level of trust with your crew and find people who are on your same page. There wasn’t a shot list. There were shots I knew I wanted to get very particularly, but there were a lot of other things that are all handheld and shot verite-style. That allows other people to capture things and add things, although since I was the editor it’s up to me to put them in there.
FILMMAKER: So there are scenes in the film you weren’t present for?
LOWERY: One of my favorites is the marshmallow sandwich. I knew I wanted to have a scene where the girl would eat one — it was a reference to Calvin and Hobbes, which was an influence on this film. But it was just a marshmallow sandwich. I had to go shoot another scene with Tucker by myself at the next location by the train tracks. So I told Clay, “While we’re gone, why don’t you shoot this scene.” Now I knew she would make a marshmallow sandwich, but she makes a double quadruple sandwich that’s stuffed to the brim with marshmallows, puts the entire thing in her mouth, makes a huge mess of her face and wipes her face off with more bread. It’s just hilarious. She was on a massive sugar high the rest of the day followed by a huge crash, but it was worth it. The moment when she’s outside barking with the dog, that was just a wonderful moment for her character and it was something she and Joe [Swanberg] just went off and shot together.
FILMMAKER: So, am I right, you’ve made five features in the past twelve months besides your own?
LOWERY: Yeah, I’m a little exhausted and burnt-out, actually. [laughs]
FILMMAKER: It gets harder and harder to do it when you know how hard it’s gonna be…
LOWERY: Exactly, like I was talking to somebody else and said, “I’ve hit a wall. I’m tired of movies. I don’t love it anymore.” And my friend gave me a pep talk and said, “Look, you just need a break. And you’ve hit a level of the profession where there’s a certain level of quality you want to demand out of the things you’re working on.”
FILMMAKER: But if your standards and ability are rising and the budgets are staying so small, that must be frustrating. Like, “Nope, still can’t have any lights.”
LOWERY: Yeah. I shot two movies in the last six months each with a light kit comprised of five lights. [laughs] But I wouldn’t trade any of it.