In this monthly column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about the scenes that stood out most for them while making their movies. This month, we talk to David Lowery about his debut feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (out December 17).
One of the must-see titles from this past Sundance Film Festival, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is an intimate Southern yarn set in 1970s Texas that follows the star-crossed love of Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) from their flirtatious youth to their dramatic split when Bob is hauled off to jail.
As Ruth waits for Bob, with child in tow, she begins to find solace in a policeman named Patrick (Ben Foster) who’s grown fond of her. But they soon get word that Bob has escaped from prison building to a dramatic and heartfelt reunion at Ruth’s house in the film’s conclusion.
But the finale for Lowery was one of the most challenging scenes to bring together and went through numerous versions both on the page and in the editing suite. Here he explains the difficult evolution that included a major readjust from how it showed at Sundance and assistance offered by an unlikely source… Harvey Weinstein.
“Let’s get nonlinear…”
“It was always a case that everything in the last six minutes of the movie was designed to be an epilogue. In fact, at one point I had the words 'Epilogue' on-screen prior to the actual sequence. The initial version I wrote involved Bob Muldoon going back to Ruth’s house and seeing his daughter but not seeing Ruth and decides not to burden her with his presence and he just takes a glimpse of his daughter, the daughter sees him and he leaves. That was the original version that I had written. It was decided that it was just too easy of an ending and nothing was going on. So I wrestled with it for awhile and decided to go ahead and have a more traditional conclusion in which the characters that you saw do in fact reunite and there is some finality to it. So I wrote that and it still didn’t feel quite right. In that version of the movie it was very clear that Bob Muldoon died and that was just the end of the movie. I didn’t want to do a movie where the guy just dies at the end, because that didn’t feel suitable for the journey that he’s been on. Then I had the idea of rather going into whether or not he does in fact die or assume that he does, let’s get nonlinear and jump into the past and have a really wonderful moment between him and Ruth that probably is a happy memory. You could read into that as maybe that’s a memory he’s going back to. But it provided a really nice bit of finality without hitting that nail too squarely on the head.
"So the script we shot had Ruth coming home with Patrick and her daughter and they see the door open and Patrick goes down the hall and sees Bob Muldoon there and pulls his gun. Ruth comes and disarms him and the whole disarmament thing was important, I wanted to see everyone put their guns down, I didn’t want to have anything what you expect, like a sheriff and the outlaw having a shootout. And they have their reunion and Bob sees his daughter Patrick come in and takes her away. So that scene ends and we then fade into this reverie moment where he’s back in the truck with Ruth when they were young and everything was positive.
"When we shot that scene in the truck we knew we were shooting the beginning of the movie and the end of the movie. They were shot in different ways so the shots of the truck in the end are much closer but they include the same dialogue.”
“The movie was much more of a love story than we ever had anticipated.”
“Shooting the end of the movie, that sequence we only had slotted for half of the day. So it was very tight. We shot the movie where we had all of Casey’s scenes for the first two weeks and then all of Rooney’s scenes for the second two weeks and then in between we had three days where we had the two of them at the same time. So we had to shoot one night for that truck scene, then the next day we did the end of the movie in Ruth’s house and then on the third day we did the shoot-out scene.
"I was very nervous about it. They didn’t know each other going into shooting and I was curious how their chemistry would be like. But the night we shot the scene in the truck we realized that the movie was much more of a love story than we ever had anticipated. Their chemistry was so dynamic and electric; they played off each other so beautifully. Had it not worked out I had a backup plan on how to deal with it but luckily they were on fire from the very first take.
"The backup plan was to recalibrate Ruth’s character to not want Bob to come back. In the movie she is torn, she wants him to come back because she still loves him but at the same time knows he’s not the right choice for her daughter. So if there was no chemistry between them the backup plan was to make it feel more like he was an aggressive force in their lives. I didn’t want to go down that road, but I knew if we had to we would. And that would have meant rewriting the ending, I just really hoped they would have chemistry and they did.”
“There were a lot of discussions...”
“The actors and I conversed a lot [about the scene]. As written it was very simple. It was like three or four lines: Rooney lowers Ben Foster’s gun, walks into the room, sits down by Casey and takes him into her arms. It was very, very simple. So we all had long discussions. Is she going to cry? Casey was unsure of how weak he should be [because he had been shot], should he just lay there when his daughter comes in? Does he get up? Does the girl come to him? Ben’s character was supposed to realize that they needed to have a moment alone, but that day Ben didn’t think his character would do that. He thought he would stay in the room. And I was like, 'I understand, but we can’t have all four characters in the room. It has to be just the two of them.'
"There were a lot of discussions and what we ended up doing first thing was shoot the little girl walking into the room and that would predicate everything else. It was the little girl’s first day of the shoot, first time acting ever, and it was twin girls. So we decided, and maybe this is unethical, but not let her see Casey until the cameras were rolling. At that point she had developed a deep affection for Rooney. Both girls wanted to be with her and follow her around. The girl knew she was going to walk down the hall and Rooney was going to be there in the room. So I kind of just wanted to see what would happen. She comes to the doorway and you can see the look on her face is like, 'Oh my God what is this?' And we did a second take and she started laughing. And then after that she just would not do it again. She started crying and freaking out. So we got her sister and at that point we introduced her to Casey and let her know what’s coming. Once we did that shot we set the stage on how the scene would be shot.”
“…it became a disaster.”
“I can frankly say I was not happy with what we shot. After lunch we should have gone back because we hadn’t cracked it yet. But on a film like this we couldn’t do that. The performances were great, but it was hanging by a thread how we blocked that scene. Ultimately we covered it in performance, it was an emotional scene, we had children on set for the first time, I didn’t think about the most meaningful way to shoot it, I just got the camera in place where you could see what was happening and trusted that that would be enough. In the editing it became a disaster.
"Based on the dailies, outside of a few scenes like Rooney’s hand lowering Ben’s gun, I felt nothing in the scene worked. I thought it’s really going to be tricky. We didn’t give Ben the right coverage. There were a lot of things we didn’t have. This was one scene were the problems that I had with it were in fact problems, there were things we missed. And the first assembly made that clear. It wasn’t a good scene. So we started from scratch, it went through several stages and I think the hardest thing was negotiating entrances and exits in the scene. Ben leaving and the daughter coming in and then Ben coming back to get her, we didn’t really have the coverage to make that work the way it should have. And also Rooney walking over to Casey. We didn’t have that shot. Ultimately we just tried to get it in the best way possible up to Ben taking the girl out of the room.
"So the other ending, the second ending, the one in the truck, worked like a dream. It’s a beautiful sequence, so I was just like we just need to get to this ending. We basically put together the best scene in the bedroom that we could get out of it—she gets down next to Casey, cradles him and then it goes to the scene in the truck. There was no dialogue. On a very technical level the scene doesn’t work, but that’s what we did and that’s what played at Sundance.”
“Of course, Harvey Weinstein always has ideas on how things can be trimmed…”
“The nagging thing to me was it felt like the scene inside the truck was a second ending. Even though we go through that scene in the bedroom pretty quickly it felt like you got to the end, then wait, there’s another ending. It was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King syndrome. We didn’t get any negative feedback at Sundance but we knew we had some room for editing before the theatrical release. That was always the plan.
Then Rooney was talking to Harvey Weinstein about something and she mentioned the movie, which they had for foreign sales, and he said, 'I have a few ideas on how it could be trimmed.' Of course, Harvey Weinstein always has ideas on how things can be trimmed, but because he didn’t have any domestic stake in the movie there was nothing he could do about it. So Rooney mentioned to me that he had ideas and I said I’d love to hear them. And then that led to him saying come to New York and we’ll sit down and watch it. So that’s exactly what happened. We watched it and talked for two days and it was exciting because there were no stakes involved, there was no sense that I had to do anything. And some of his ideas were not right for the movie and others were, frankly, pretty good. His idea for the ending was to reshoot it. [Laughs] He was like, 'If it were one of my pictures I’d have you reshoot it.' But that got me thinking of what I could do to make it work.
"I went back and looked at it and I remembered that way back in the beginning of editing I had the scene in the bedroom and the scene in the truck intercut. But I thought the scene in the truck was so good I didn’t want to mess it up by mixing it up. At this point I thought it was worth a shot and I felt less precious about anything anymore. So I spent one night cutting it almost as a montage and finally I got it to a point where I thought it worked really well. Mixing Rooney crying with Casey’s monologue I thought made it that more emotional. I sent it to people, I showed it to my wife and she started crying. I showed it to Rooney and she loved it. I showed it to Harvey and he liked it. So when it went to Cannes that’s the version that played, and I think people responded more emotionally.
"Originally I didn’t think it was going to be so much of a love story but it came out of Rooney and Casey’s chemistry that night in the truck. I realized everything that this guy is doing is doing to get back to this woman he loves, and honestly in the script that sentiment was more casual. This made things much more potent and the ending does service that. I actually added the line Rooney says, 'I was waiting for you,' in the scene. That was from an ad-lib she did in one of the takes. In the version we showed at Sundance it didn’t feel right but when I went back to look at the scene I was like you know what the way it works and how it comes together that’s something that I would want to hear said.”
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