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David Lowery comes home
Writer-director recalls growing up in Waukesha; speaks about first major feature film, 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'

By TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut

October 17, 2013

WAUKESHA - A Waukesha native took center stage - literally - at one of the bigger events of the recently concluded Milwaukee Film Festival.

On Oct. 9, when his film “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” had its local premiere, Waukesha-born writer-director David Lowery stood on the Landmark Oriental Theatre’s proscenium and answered moviegoers’ questions. 

Judging from applause and comments among the scores who came out to see the crime and love story that’s being compared with “Bonnie and Clyde,” Lowery’s movie was quite well-received. “Ain’t,” insisted festival artistic and executive director Jonathan Jackson, “is a major film production.”

Lowery, who engaged in an onstage dialogue with Jackson before the screening and responded to audience questions afterward, introduced his grandmother, Mary Sackett, who took him to movies at the Oriental during his childhood. “It’s awesome to be here,” the filmmaker, now in his early 30s, said.

Lowery spent his first eight years in Waukesha, moving when his Milwaukee-born father was hired to teach theology at the University of Dallas. One of nine siblings, young David would return to southeastern Wisconsin for summertime visits with his grandparents. He seemed to have trouble adjusting to Texas early on, but eventually “grew to love” the state that’s been his home for more than 20 years.

The polite, personable filmmaker hasn’t forgotten his roots. Following the question-and-answer session, Lowery told The Freeman about his Waukesha days - living across the street from Dopp Park, swimming in the Hebron Springs Park pool, attending classes at what was then St. William Elementary School. He said he drove around his old hometown the day before the premiere.

In the Lone Star State, Lowery studied literature for two years at his dad’s university (he never went to film school) and his comments before and after the screening indicated “Ain’t” had been informed by literary tradition. The film’s characters, Lowery pointed out, include “classic archetypes”: an outlaw, his girl, a sheriff. There are also three “figureheads” who serve as “symbols of wrongdoing. We dressed them up like they were from the old West” - despite the movie’s being set in 1970s Texas hill country (yet filmed in Louisiana because of preferable tax breaks there).

“The key influence on this movie was certainly Robert Altman,” Lowery told his Milwaukee audience with a nod to the figure who helmed such movies as the revisionist Western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” “Ain’t” also owes to Michael Cimino’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” starring Clint Eastwood, Lowery said. Both “McCabe” and “Thunderbolt” were produced in the 1970s - a period of what Lowery called “impactful, influential films.”

One post-screening questioner lauded Lowery as “an amazing storyteller” and asked about the source of that skill. “I credit my family, (in which) storytelling was a big thing,” the filmmaker responded. In a house with no TV, “my parents read me a story book every night before I went to bed.”

For his first major feature film, Lowery said he “couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator” than cinematographer Bradford Young. The two clicked so well during the making of “Ain’t” that Young was able to “finish my sentences” after a while, Lowery said.

“We really wanted this to be a movie that had a strong mood to it,” he said; thus the use of old lenses and fluorescent lighting. Lowery noted the story “starts at sunset and gets darker and darker and darker as it goes on.” The intention is for “the look of the film to reflect the characters” and their situations.

Rooney Mara was cast because the filmmaker wanted a relative “unknown” for the female lead, he said. The more familiar Casey Affleck was Lowery’s first choice for the outlaw. “I love to hear him talk,” the writer-director explained of the “tremendously talented” Affleck. Lowery spoke about the onscreen chemistry between Affleck and Mara, who didn’t know each other before working on “Ain’t.”

The filmmaker said he wanted a “nice guy” to play the sheriff - and got one in Ben Foster. Keith Carradine, an actor affiliated with the groundbreaking cinema of the ‘70s (including “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”), is also in the cast, as is Lowery’s wife, Augustine Frizzell.

The movie was made at a comparatively modest cost of about $3 million. Its title, a sentence he mistakenly thought came from a certain folk song, is “idiomatic, distinctly American,” Lowery said. The plot is uncluttered. Affleck and Mara portray spouses who find themselves on the wrong side of a shootout with lawmen. Mara’s Ruth shoots one of the cops; Affleck’s Bob takes the rap and goes to prison, only to escape and attempt to return to Ruth and also meet the daughter born during his incarceration. The film is 105 minutes long and the recipient of an R rating.

“I don’t play an instrument,” Lowery said. But he wanted “to make a movie that felt more like a song.” With its prevalent background music, camera work clever enough to capture a cinematography award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and a story line emblematic of American folklore, “Ain’t” is David Lowery’s song. 

“Ain’t” was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize; reviews of the movie, which has played to the general public on both coasts and to patrons at a number of film festivals (including the nonpareil festival at Cannes), have been generally favorable; and no less a cinematic legend than Robert Redford will be starring in Lowery’s next picture. A recently up-and-coming director has now, apparently, arrived.

“I still don’t quite know how it happened,” the Waukesha native said at the Oriental last week.