David Lowery shares my pain.
The writer-director of the elegiac period drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and I both share a name with a musician much more well-known than us.
“It’s just something that over the past five or six years has become a frequent thing,” he said in a phone interview from New York City a couple of weeks ago. “I had to change the bio on my Twitter account to read, ‘Not the one who sings.’”
Lowery has never met his namesake, although, based on the reaction that “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is getting, maybe someday the Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman will have to change his Twitter bio to read “Not the one who makes elegiac modern Westerns that have been compared to Malick and Altman.”
“Saints,” which opens in Madison this Friday at Sundance Cinemas, is a love story in which the lovers are only together at the very beginning and very end of the film. It’s also a crime story that takes place after the crimes have already occurred.
The film opens with husband-and-wife outlaws Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) cornered by police in Texas and eventually captured. Bob pines for his wife, who is pregnant with her daughter, and years later finally breaks out to reclaim his family. But while he has stayed in a state of romantic swoon, Ruth may have moved on, with the help of a kindly sheriff (Ben Foster) who was involved in their capture.
“Saints’ has been compared to Malick’s debut “Badlands” and Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” for its tale of lovers on the lam, but Lowery’s film is more interested in the moments between the ones we normally see in these films. Frequently the action happens off-screen, and whatever action we do see has an odd, contemplative rhythm to it.
“I initially start to write a movie that was more of a strangeforward genre film,” Lowery said. “I was writing action scenes and I couldn’t think of a way to do it – we’ve seen the jailbreak scene already, and there have been some really great movies about bank robbers. I found myself really interested in what would happen after that.
“There’s nothing you haven’t seen in other movies, but the way in which we tell it is hopefully what makes it vital,” he added. “The thing that I can bring to it is that sense of rhythm and juxtaposition that are distinctly mine.”
Lowery entered the world of filmmaking primarily as an editor, working on the movies of his friends (he edited Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.”) He made his first film, “St. Nick,” in 2009, and the short film “Pioneer” in 2011.
“Saints” feels like a whole order of magnitude larger, both in its star power with Mara and Affleck and in its ambition. But Lowery said that while the scope of the film was bigger, the essence of making a movie remained the same.
“I was really surprised on the first day of shooting how it felt like everything I made before,” he said. “My first feature was a $12,000 movie and you’d think that making a $3 million movie would be a seismic shift. It’s really not. There’s a lot more people and there’s rules you have to follow. But at the end, you’re sitting there with a camera and you’ve got some actors and you’ve got a scene you need.”
Lowery especially wanted to retain a feeling of intimacy and improvisation on the set, allowing the actors to experiment and be alive to unplanned things that might happen in the moment.
“One of the ways that you do that is you plan a lot in advance,” he said. “You create a very tight structure and you have your shot list. And then you don’t feel beholden to that. You know that if things get tricky you can fall back on this plan, but you’re creating an environment in which you can be alert to changes.”
His experience in the editing bay turns out to be an asset as a director and even as a writer, as he’s always thinking about how one moment or shot will line up with the others.
“I looked at the shots that I imagined getting and thinking really hard about what I really needed. I tried to simplify and find the most concise and direct way to get the heart of the scene.”
With the success of “Saints,” Lowery’s name has been attached to a number of projects, including writing the remake of Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” to writing and directing “The Old Man and the Gun” with Robert Redford. Lowery said he wouldn’t rule out going back and editing someone else’s film sometime. But not in the near future.
“I’m immediately excited about directing,” he said. “I just had so much fun making this movie.”