At their best, film festivals such as Sundance and South by Southwest function as something of a farm system for young talent, helping filmmakers develop and grow. After a rapid rise on the circuit, Dallas-based David Lowery is poised to step up to the major league, with his second feature as writer-director, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," arriving in L.A. theaters this weekend.
Starring Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Ben Foster, "Saints" is the story of a reckless young couple who are captured in a shootout after a crime spree. With a budget close to $4 million and a cast including Oscar nominees, "Saints" represents a rather quick leap from Lowery's $12,000 first feature, "St. Nick," which played at Austin, Texas' SXSW festival in 2009.
"Saints" takes place in a slightly unspecific time period that might best be described simply as small-town Texas, also placing the film within a landscape of mythic Americana storytelling, a contemporary fable. Bob Muldoon (Affleck) goes to jail while Ruth Guthrie (Mara) gives birth to their child. When Bob breaks out after four years, he heads straight to Ruth. A deputy (Foster) who has a history with the couple has inserted himself into Ruth's life, though whether to win her for himself or because he's lying in wait for Bob is uncertain.
Since it premiered at Sundance in January, "Saints" has drawn frequent comparisons to the poetic works of Texas-based filmmaker Terrence Malick.
"To be honest, it all happened so quickly," Lowery said of seeing his new film snowball in size. "One day I was going to be making a movie that was a small step up from 'St Nick,' and the next day it was something else, and then not long after that we were shooting it."
Lowery's story shows how the chance encounters and relationships made on the festival circuit can propel a career and influence one's style.
Lowery skipped film school, instead finding work as an editor in the commercial industry based around Dallas and beginning to make a series of his own short films. He would become something of a go-to editor for small-budget indie films such as "Bad Fever" and "Sun Don't Shine."
Though "St. Nick," a story of a brother and sister on the run, was a full-length feature, it was Lowery's 2011 short film "Pioneer" that really grabbed attention. "Pioneer" won a prize at the 2011 SXSW festival, where a member of the jury was producer Jay Van Hoy.
Lowery collaborators James Johnston and Toby Halbrooks then encountered Van Hoy, his producing partner Lars Knudson and producer Amy Kaufman while at the Sundance Producing Labs in 2011. After Lowery also took the script for "Ain't Them Bodies" to the Sundance Screenwriting Labs, the fledgling project found new financial backers and went from ultra-low budget to something more ambitious.
"As our discussions on this project grew, we decided to keep the same attitude about making films as if we were making it for $12,000. Ultimately, we have the same goals no matter how big our films are," said Johnston.
Before he shot the film, though, Lowery took time to work as a co-editor on Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color," finishing last summer. He says his collaboration on that movie emboldened him to use his own film's editing as a part of its storytelling, creating fugue-like passages of overlapping images, words and music, what Lowery has referred to as "slipstream storytelling."
"David's language is super poetic," said Mara. "I think the way that he edited it was able to bring it back to the experience of reading it."
"Upstream Color" premiered alongside "Saints" at Sundance in January. (Lowery also was involved with a third project that unspooled at the Utah festival this year; he co-wrote "Pit Stop" with director Yen Tan.)
Lowery said he was "honored but also surprised" by the frequent comparisons "Saints" has drawn to Malick's work, though it wasn't something he specifically thought about in making the film. Still, he continued to hone "Saints" after leaving the festival, and his film is now 10 minutes shorter than the version that screened in Park City.
Lowery said he actually put back in a scene and some additional dialogue, while noting, "The things I took out were just 10 seconds here and 10 seconds there. I was surprised it actually added up to 10 minutes.
"When we were at Sundance, it was still very rough. But we were getting there. It was a very organic and amorphous movie that just kept turning and changing. It's such a tonal movie."
Foster said he was drawn to "Saints" by its distinctly American imagery. To prepare for his part, he drove a pickup truck around Texas, pulling into small towns to go on ride-alongs with third-generation rural sheriffs.
For Foster, the story was "grounded in traditional American values: hard work, respecting other people, trying to uphold the law, trying to do the right thing. I don't think anyone in the picture is trying to get away with anything. They are trying with all their heart to do the best that they can. And I like that kind of folk tale."
Though the film has been somewhat divisive with critics, few viewers have been left unmoved one way or the other by "Ain't Them Bodies Saints."
Affleck called Lowery a real storyteller, "despite the sort of esoteric and elliptical way he told this story. I think he's got a Steven Spielberg in him as well as a Terrence Malick. I think he cares about connecting with the audience. He wants to tell stories that really move people."
With "Saints" now in theaters, Lowery is about to move onto new projects. Since Sundance, he has signed on to write a remake of the children's film "Pete's Dragon" with Halbrooks and will be adapting the New Yorker article "The Old Man and the Gun" on an elderly bank robberfor a film set to star Sundance founder Robert Redford. Lowery, Halbrooks and Johnston are also preparing to go into production as producers on "Listen Up Philip" for writer-director Alex Ross Perry.
At the same time, Lowery is still unraveling the enigmas of "Saints" for himself.
"I remember going to Sundance and having no idea what people would think of it," he said. "I was still processing how I felt about it. And in many ways, I still am. I'm surprised on a daily basis we're done with it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun