David Lowery is an award-winning film editor, screenwriter, and director. His most recent feature as writer-director, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, premiered to significant acclaim at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Mr. Lowery also co-wrote Sundance hit Pit Stop (2013) with director Yen Tan. In addition, he served as the editor of two widely praised 2013 releases: Sun Don’t Shine from debut filmmaker Amy Seimetz, and writer/director Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, amongst others. Mr. Lowery took time from out from an increasingly busy schedule to speak with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about his near-ubiquity in the independent film scene, the value of an audience’s patience, and how the most acclaimed indies of the year have influenced Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. This interview has been transcribed, compressed, and edited from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: You had several projects premiere this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Did you divide your time between Pit Stop, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Upstream Color, or take each project in chronological order?
David Lowery: It’s hard for me to remember these days. *Laughs* [Co-writer/Director] Yen Tan had been working on Pit Stop for a number of years and asked me to help him with a rewrite, but since he lives in Austin and I live in Dallas, it had been tough for us to make plans to get together. After I had completed a version of the script for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and had come back home after our first location scout for it, I spent two weeks writing with Yen. Once we had that draft, we just exchanged things over e-mail.
SM: Do these projects line up so closely because they beget one another, so to speak? Would you have had the financing, the scheduling freedoms, and the necessary preparative elements for Saints without Pit Stop, for example?
DL: I think my short film, Pioneer (2011), had more to do with my being able to make Saints than anything else. Pit Stop was something I did as more of a good friend. Yen and I had been friends for so long, and I had always intended to edit the movie for him. Doing the rewrite with him was supposed to be a jumpstart on the editing process, but ultimately, because they were in production the same time as us, I was not able to edit it. I did not have any career expectations with Pit Stop other than excitement that Yen wanted me to work on it with him. On projects like his, I just feel like I’m hanging out with friends.
SM: Ever since the Sundance premiere of Saints, which you wrote and directed, there’s been rampant speculation about what your follow-up(s) will be. How has the division of time been in your work recently?
DL: Today, I am working on Pete’s Dragon for Disney, which I’m co-writing with Saints producer Toby Halbrooks. And I’m nearly done with a draft of the Robert Redford movie The Old Man and the Gun.
SM: Since receiving a hearty reception at the festival, do filmmakers trust you more to help edit or work on their films knowing that you are also a filmmaker with a particular vision, or is that a hindrance to them?
DL: I think it’s the former. After a filmmaker has written a script all alone, and then shot a movie with many other people on set, editing becomes the one opportunity to collaborate with someone in a one-on-one fashion. They are exposed – the process is very open and sensitive. As an editor, you get to see all the mistakes they have made as well as all of the good things they’ve done.
SM: Is something lost in the process, then, if you edit your film after writing and directing it?
DL: Yes, which is why I worked with two other editors [Craig McKay and Jane Rizzo] on Saints. That was a difficult process for me because editing is something that comes so naturally to me; at this point in my life, I MAKE films to be edited together in a certain way. It is one of the three most crucial parts of the filmmaking process and my favorite one. I was expecting to walk into the editing room each day, see that everything looked perfect, and not have to do any other work. But the process was so rushed that, even though they are both great editors, it was incredibly difficult to make the film without that psychic connection between us. It became such that I would divide my time working with them during the day and then go home and edit myself at night and on the weekends. At the same time, though it was not as smooth as I would have liked, I wanted to have the experience that I like to give other people: a great partnership and collaborative experience with new perspectives. I hope that all of the films I’ve worked on I had made better through my contributions. So I wanted to be open to that with the film.
SM: I interviewed a noted editor for a piece in Cinema Editor Magazine last month who told me that what makes each editor different is a “magic bullshit detector sense.”
DL: That’s such a great way to describe it.
SM: I bring that up because, in the context she used it, she was describing how projects can lose their quality without the application of that sense. If an editor works as more of a hired hand or a technician on a project, sometimes that magic detector stops functioning properly, in her opinion. The editor, or several, can be pulled away from whatever instinct governs their best work.
DL: That can be extremely tricky when it comes to the writing process. Because I think in terms of editing, you start to write in such a way that you can fake that [magic] instinct. I’ve noticed it in myself. I’ll be writing something, and imagine a really strong cut, and begin stacking strong cut after strong cut on the page. You want to show that you have a perspective and a vision in the screenplay, but in trying to edit in advance and be too judicious on the page, it becomes mechanical. You box yourself into a corner in an attempt to demonstrate on the page that you know what you want to see in the finished film.
However, once I start editing, I basically throw the script away. I think you should do that even if you were not involved in the film’s production. With Yen’s film, Ciao (2008), I cut that without ever looking at the script; I only looked at the footage that came through.
SM: Looking back, was that the right decision?
DL: I made that decision purposefully. I did the same thing for Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine (2012), I never read a script for it. Even for Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), I read the script very early on, and then only consulted it once or twice when I began working on it; more often than not, I ignored it. That’s a useful way to approach projects because at that point, the script is basically irrelevant – all you have is what has been captured on film. Those are the only pieces you have to work with, and ultimately, I think that footage speaks volumes more about what the director is looking for than what’s written.
SM: When you are not the editor on a project, as with your work on Pit Stop, do your ideas for what would cut well or how something should appear visually make their way into the finished film?
DL: I do try to write visually and will, for example, sometimes include camera angles in my writing. But more often than not, I try to be more suggestive, which can actually be quite simple. You can communicate linguistically the need for a wide shot without having to write, “Wide Shot On…” That can get in the way of the emotion and make the language feel too technical. Yen and I had such similar tastes in film that we never got into any arguments on Pit Stop about how the camera should be positioned or how someone should be in close-up instead of a wide-shot. We both wrote those scenes knowing instinctively how they should be portrayed. At this point, we’re on the same aesthetic wavelength.
SM: In many capacities, you have worked with filmmakers who are, like yourself, unique visual stylists and auteurs. Do the looks and styles of the projects you work on with people like Carruth, Yen Tan, and Seimetz bleed into the films you write and direct?
DL: Yeah, I think they really do. When I work with Yen on one of his films, and get to watch him process his own influences and bring them into his work, I will then go and do the same thing. But I will also process HIS processing those influences in the course of using them on my film. It is even easier for me to speak about Shane’s film because I was editing it right up until I left to shoot Saints. I am a big fan of visual fluidity; when I’m cutting scenes, I’m often looking for little segues in them to create match-actions. Like at the end of Upstream Color, when the dialogue goes away and the action begins flowing in a very smooth, almost soothing way… *moves hand in slow waves* It has a musical feeling that I love and had been using in my work up to then. Sun Don’t Shine has a particularly similar slipstream quality. So Upstream was a perfect opportunity to push that feeling as far as we possibly could; it just lent itself to that [style.] For that reason, it was a treat to cut, and it was so exciting for me that I began envisioning parts of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints going further down that path than I had originally intended.
As I began to edit Shane’s film, the two projects came to a head at the same time. The figuratively (and literally) musical experience of Upstream bled to a large degree into Saints. The first fifteen minutes of the film covers a great deal of time and information, which is precisely what I wanted: as much content, as quickly and as emotionally as we can possibly squeeze in. My first film, St. Nick (2009), was composed of these austere, long shots in which not much happens, some of which last minutes at a time. I love that style of filmmaking and Saints was going to be like that. But as I wrote it, it began to accrue more narrative data and information, and the story became more compact. Even though I was already moving in that direction, the influence of Upstream Color on the film is undeniable.
SM: That slipstream quality can be a deterrent for current audiences who are looking for a more immersive or less quiet experience. Despite great acclaim, Upstream Color polarized some as an exhausting, rather than calming, film.
DL: I had that same problem with St. Nick at first. Once people began to stay and watch it past a certain point, however, they would be completely on board. It was almost always the same point in the film, and if they didn’t get there, they would walk out. I think people aren’t always willing to give a film that chance, even if it is what I find entertaining. I don’t know that you could call a Bela Tarr film entertaining, but it’s a similar moviegoing experience – it can be laborious and impossible for some people for the first couple of hours. But once you’re past that second hour in a seven-hour Tarr work like Satantango, the time starts to slip away and the world of the film becomes quite beautiful. These films require the audience to meet them halfway, or maybe three-quarters of the way depending on the length of the movie *laughs*. The wonderful thing with St. Nick was that those who gave it a chance would have an experience with it. By that same token, there is so much information in Upstream and Saints coming at you at such rapids rates that they can be ‘exhausting’ in their own rights, where I find them invigorating, actually.
SM: I think that going with what you find invigorating in movies is what has led you to the position you now hold in the industry. Have you ever worked, as a filmmaker, writer, or editor, on a project where you followed your instincts exactly, and nailed what you were searching for?
DL: From the conception to the execution of Pioneer, I think we were remarkably sure footed. The film was self-contained enough that there weren’t a lot of variables, but the variables we did have to deal with, we got right. That’s a movie in which I feel that I did what I set out to do, and I wouldn’t change a frame. And although every thing else I’ve made has been more unwieldy, that’s kind of the point. I wanted Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to be more unwieldy and I didn’t want it to go down as easily. The self-criticism I have is no surprise to me because I wanted to do something strange as well as classic. It does play on the tropes of the Western, and it’s extremely compacted with information. I wanted it to satisfy both sides of myself, and that required me to walk a tightrope. Now, I’m just interested to see what people will get differently out of the movie.
Editor’s Note: First still image provided by Karlovy Vary Film Festival site with permission. All other still images provided with gracious permission by David Lowery. We would like to thank Mr. Lowery for contributing them to the article.