By Danny Peary
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” fits my category “Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.” Its writer/director David Lowery says he always wanted to make a movie that captured the feeling of the songs of unique singer/songwriter/harpist/
It takes place in Meridian, Texas in the 1970s. Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) have loved each other since they were kids, which is when they began their life of crime under the auspices of Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the morally-ambiguous man who raised them. Bob takes the rap when Ruth shoots one of the lawmen, Patrick (Ben Foster), who arrest them. After Bob is sent to prison for a long stretch, Ruth gives birth to their child, Sylvie. Looked after by Skerritt, the reformed Ruth lives a tame, solitary life with their daughter, feeling guilty she stopped writing to Bob but still hoping he’ll return. Four years have passed and Patrick, who doesn’t realize Ruth shot him, starts courting her. Bob escapes from prison and heads home. Three bad guys–the type who try to do in Warren Beatty in “McCabe in Mrs. Miller,” an influence on Lowery–come to town and wait for Bob to turn up. And, you guessed it, it all leads to a big climax that includes gunfire.
I was recently in New York City at the press junket for the film. Below are my questions to David Lowery, followed by a roundtable with Rooney Mara (who inhabits her character as she did Lisbeth in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and another with Ben Foster. I note my questions.
David Lowery (left) Q&A
Danny Peary: Why did you set your film in the 1970s?
David Lowery: I was born in 1980. This takes place right before then so I felt it was separate from me I didn’t want it to feel too old-fashioned but to have some degree of currency. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be identifiable as one particular time period. Especially as we were doing location-scouting in all these small Texas towns, I was thinking that Meridian had changed very little since the town was built, at least what I saw. Because it’s a rural farming community, everyone has things that are made to last. All the clothes are old, and the trucks, like those in the movie, are from the ‘50s or ‘60s. It’s timeless, not in the Norman Rockwell sense but more elusive. I felt that if we set the movie in the ‘70s, we could include things that were more modern, and create this weird blend of time periods.
DP: While watching the film, I was thinking the whole time of Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” with one of your stars, Keith Carradine, and that your subject matter also fit the 1930s, the Depression-era, or even now during the recession, when characters like Bob Muldoon wouldn’t have many options in life.
DL: That would have tied it to a specific time period when I really I didn’t want to have any reference points, like having a Depression, or a particular war going on, or a movie title on a marquis at a local theater. I didn’t want any reference to the real world.
DP: Obviously this film was made by somebody who loves movies. I see Altman, Arthur Penn, Nicholas Ray, Terrence Malick. The style at the beginning, with all the jump cuts speeding along the story, reminds me of “Breathless” and other French films of the ’60s.
DL: Yeah, exactly. My background is as an editor, so I wanted to shake things up a little bit in the beginning. Rather than starting with a lot of exposition or having a big preamble, I wanted to rush through a great deal of content. The prologue covers a tremendous amount of ground very quickly and very fluidly, establishing this rhythmic quality. Every cut has a percussive hit, and the film kind of flows from one shot to the next in a very rhythmic fashion. I wanted to just kick the movie off in that way, and get you caught up at that pace, and then just hit the brakes. Then it cuts to four years later, and the whole movie slows to an almost glacial pace. I really wanted that beginning to express the exuberance of youth and for viewers to get caught up in that. Then all of the sudden, real life hits. Ruth grows up and everything just slows down and we really have to deal with the circumstances at hand, rather than skipping from one circumstance to the next.
DP: Did you have all those jump cuts in the script?
DL: There were even more in the script. There was actually a version of the script which covered twenty years in the same amount of screen time as we cover now cover a few months. What we have on the screen now is pretty much what it was in the final script.
DP: In Western movie tradition, two characters grow up together and one goes good and one goes bad. That’s essentially what happens in your modern-day western with Casey’s Bob and Ben’s Patrick. Were you intentionally following tradition or did this just happen naturally with these two characters?
DL: It was intentional. I started off just trying to honor these archetypes, trying to do right by them and let them exist in that realm of classic movie narrative technique. The idea was to start off that way, and at some point Patrick would have to turn the other in or something like that. But I wanted to have that be the point where I subvert things a little bit, so that at the end of the movie the sheriff still faces the outlaw with a gun drawn, but it doesn’t go the way it normally does. He has a chance to catch him, but he doesn’t catch him.
DP: Patrick and Bob respect each other..
DL: Absolutely, especially Patrick towards Bob. Bob isn’t aware of who this guy is, but Patrick is deeply aware of who Bob is and has a great deal of respect for him.
DP: You have said Patrick is a surrogate for you, particularly in the scene when he leaves Ruth’s house but immediately goes back inside and opens up to her.
DL: All the characters are surrogates for me to a great extent, but Patrick was definitely a version of me that always hoped I could just speak my mind. I was the guy who’d walk out of the house and then think the next day that I should have gone back in. Patrick is a guy who goes back in and speaks his mind.
DP: I imagine your title Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was a hard sell but I like it because it sounds like something the Coen brothers would write (as does your last line). Is it a title that conveys themes of the movie?
DL: Absolutely. I could break it down to my being raised in the Catholic Church and around the idea of sainthood. But on a very basic level it just suggests to me that everyone has the potential to do the right thing. I think every character in this movie is good, aside from the three man who arrive in town and are clearly bad. Everyone else in the movie is trying to do the right thing. It’s likely that everyone has a different definition of what the right thing is, but they’re all trying to make the right choice and to do good by ourselves and others. That was something that was really important to me. It’s easiest to have characters make wrong choices, dramatically speaking. It’s easy to make that interesting. But it’s hard to actually have people being good. I really wanted to have a lot of people who made bad choices but are now trying to fix those mistakes and to do the right thing.
Rooney Mara Roundtable
Q: From your perspective, does Ruth stay loyal to Bob because he took the fall for her shooting Patrick?
Rooney Mara: Ruth has a lot of loyalty to Bob and to her daughter, and she certainly has a lot of guilt. She feels both things very strongly, but I don’t think that one has to do with the other. I don’t think she’s staying loyal out of guilt.
Q: Ruth has a lot of resolve, which is something we’ve come to expect of your characters. But are you trying to show more vulnerability than you have before? Mara in a still from the film.
RM: I never think of it as, “Oh, what do I want people to see?” I don’t ever think like that when playing a character, but certainly Ruth does have a lot more vulnerability. Maybe when I chose that role, I was feeling more vulnerable and that was what I responded to. I’m not really sure.
Q: Was being vulnerable a challenge for you?
RM: No, it was never a problem that I needed to be more vulnerable. It’s just who the character is. Ruth’s life is very complicated and she is just very vulnerable, physically and emotionally.
Q: What was it about the character and the story in general that you responded to?
RM: David Lowery just has a unique voice, and his script was so beautifully written. Ruth, in the first script that I read, was definitely the most underdeveloped of all the characters. But he knew that before I’d even read the script, and it was something he was working on. I could still see all the potential there, and I found Ruth’s relationship with Bob to be just so beautiful and interesting. I also really loved the love story between her and her child. In most scripts, a mother is protective of her child and that’s it. Ruth is protective but much more. I liked how the mother-child relationship is much more complicated than that.
Danny Peary: What would Ruth be like if she never had a baby?
RM: I’ve never thought about that but it’s a very interesting question. I can’t imagine where she would end up. It’s very sad to even think about.
DP: Would she be in jail too? Obviously her baby changed her from being a criminal.
RM: Maybe she’d end up in jail. I think having Sylvie was the best possible scenario of her life.
DP: I think she’s surprised by how much having a child changed her.
RM: Definitely. I don’t think Ruth is necessarily excited when she finds out she’s going to have a baby. It’s not exactly what she planned on doing. We talked about how up until when she looks at the baby for the first time, she’s kind of fighting it. It’s not something she feels ready for, it’s not something she wants. She wants her life with Bob, she wants back her childhood with Bob until the moment she’s actually holding the baby and sees it for the first time. I think it did change her tremendously.
DP: In a good way.
Q: In the film, Bob says a line about how people don’t know things the way they think they know them. Is there something inaccurate about how the public sees you?
RM: Maybe everything the general public thinks they know about me is not accurate. There are very few people in your life that you truly know. It’s hard to really know someone because people are very complicated. I think we try to simplify people and put them in these little categories of being this kind of person or that kind of person and it’s just simply not true. I don’t see the world that way. I don’t see people as being this type of person or that type of person, I find people to be incredibly complex and interesting and different. I’m sure that most people who don’t know me think things about me that are not true. Same goes for me with other people I know only from their interviews with the media. I probably don’t really know anything about them.
DP: Ruth says two things to Patrick, that she doesn’t need anything and she can’t sleep. What could make her sleep?
RM: The think her not sleeping goes back to the guilt. Bob has been writing her letters the entire time he’s been in prison, and I think she started off writing him letters, too. But as soon as she had Sylvie, it was kind of like: How do you write about the first time you look into your child’s eyes? Or her first birthday? Or the first time she walked? Or the first time she said Mommy. How do you write about those things in a letter and make someone understand? So I think as soon as she had Sylvie and she started to feel that way, she stopped writing to him, because there was no way to express those things. She hasn’t slept in four years because she’s been wondering if he’s okay and having all this guilt that she’s not writing to him after he has gone to prison for something that she did.
DP: Is it just a matter of having closure? Will she sleep after the movie is over?
RM: I think it’ll probably take her a lot of time, a lot of healing, but I think she’ll sleep. [Laughing] Then Sylvie will turn into a teenager and she’ll not sleep again.
Q: I found it was when Ruth admits she’s not really able to sleep that I really liked her for the first time.. What did you try to put into your performance that would make her more amenable to the audience?
RM: I think that before the movie begins, Ruth was a very different person. Her relationship with Bob was very passionate and fiery, and there was a lot of fighting and making up. She was this wild, stubborn, feisty young woman, and then she has this child, and it changes who she is. She is walking about with all of this guilt and responsibility, and it’s hard moving on and finding happiness and something great in her life when the person she loves isn’t coming back. I can imagine that would be very difficult. I really like my character so I never really thought about what I’d have to do to make her more accessible or likeable to the audience. I already find her to be a really vulnerable, interesting, likeable character.
Q: David says he wanted this whole movie to be like a song. So did he send you music to listen to?
RM: He sent me a bunch of songs. I liked and appreciated them, but after I listened to them I just kind of never listened to them again. I had my own songs that made me feel like the character. God, it was such a long playlist I’d listen to. A few of the songs he sent me were on there, but there was a lot of Loretta Lynn, a lot of sad songs. I constantly am listening to music when I’m working and I have different playlists for each character. For Lisbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there was a lot of angry music. There was a lot of Nico Vega on my playlist and a lot of stuff that David and Trish Summerville, the costume designer, sent me.
Q: What’s your perspective about how Ruth feels about the love triangle with Bob and Patrick, who clearly loves her, too.
RM: People ask me about that and I feel terrible because I didn’t see the movie as a love triangle between Ruth, Bob, and Patrick. I see it as a love triangle between Ruth, Bob and Sylvie. Ruth is never choosing between Bob and Patrick. She is always choosing between Bob and Sylvie. I think Patrick is the guy Ruth wishes she’d want to date but she just doesn’t. She doesn’t have those kinds of feelings for him but wishes she did because her life would be much easier and better if she wanted him. She thinks Patrick’s is a lovely person and that he is so sweet to her, and she knows they would have a really nice life together. But she’s grown up with Bob and she’s had an amazing life with him. I don’t think she can go from that to a relationship with Patrick because that’s now how they know each other. It would never work out, I don’t think.
DP: If Bob came back and they could be together, would she want Sylvie to meet him? RM: Oh, yeah. At least I thought it was like that and played it that way. For most of the movie, she’s totally planning on going away with him and actually thinks it’s the right thing to do. When you are in love with someone you can be quite delusional and convince yourself that [the wrong thing to do] is the right thing to do.
DP: With Bob bleeding to death, Patrick takes Sylvie outside, denying her the one chance she’ll ever get to talk to her father. Would Ruth agree to that or tell Patrick to bring her back to see Bob?
RM: She probably wanted the three of them to have more of a moment than they have, but I don’t think she’d want Sylvie to stay there for that long because it would be quite scary for a child. Also Ruth probably wants to be alone with Bob in his last moments.
END SPOILER ALERT
Ben Foster (left) Roundtable
Q: What does Patrick see in Ruth that makes him want to get involved with her.
Ben Foster: I don’t believe they knew each other, but she contacted him with the bullet she shot. I believe that once you’ve been touched by somebody, you think about them. And you have a lot of time to think after there’s been a close call with your life. What he says toward the end of the picture is essentially what love ought to be, which is “absolute forgiveness.” He essentially tells her, “No matter who you’ve been in the past, I see goodness now. So please don’t carry this around the rest of your life.” In terms of a love triangle, he’s very respectful of the complicated situation she’s in. For all intents and purposes, she’s a single mom. Her man is out of the picture, and then he starts to come back into the picture. Patrick remains a gentleman throughout. There aren’t many gentlemen, it seems, in films today, so it was nice to explore that.
Danny Peary: So you don’t think he ever saw her when they were growing up and had feelings for her?
BF: It’s left to our imagination. David and I talked about that, but what’s there in the script is what’s there. It’s complicated when you care for somebody and you can’t go after her because of your own ethics or job restrictions. Love is curious that way, and he’s contemplating what he imagines to be a right action. He’s a good Christian in his mind; and like all these characters, he’s just trying to figure it out.
DP: Patrick tells Ruth that when he sees her with her daughter, all he sees is good. So if she hadn’t had the daughter, would he have fallen for her?
BF: Are you saying he fell for her because she had a daughter?
DP: She became a good person because she had a daughter, I thought that was what Patrick is implying.
BF: I think you’re touching on something that we discussed about his back story, which is only suggested by Patrick’s wedding ring.
DP: What do you think?
BF: Who’s to say? I think kids can affect a person’s sense of responsibility, because you have to take care of something bigger than yourself. With a kid, you can’t live a selfish life, you have to sacrifice yourself for the greater good. I understand that logic. But I’m not going to say that in an alternate film, had she not had the daughter, he would not have been attracted to her. Ruth is an attractive lady and she’s spirited.
DP: So it wasn’t just the goodness that drew him.
BF: Who knows why people fall from someone? He sees goodness in her, and I imagine he too is haunted like we all are by our own ghosts, the things we regret. He’s telling her, “Just let it go, because you’re good now.”
Q: There’s a lot of chemistry in scenes between you and Rooney. Did you two have conversations about developing it.
BF: It’s hard to talk about chemistry. It’s a unique balance. My whole goal was to make Rooney smile! She’ll smile, but you need to sneak around to get it. She’s a wonderful actor with an almost translucent vulnerability and an equal measure of strength.
DP: Did you feel that Bob and Patrick were two sides of the same coin, one who put on a badge and the other who became an outlaw?
BF: I never saw that the two were parallel. I know that in personal circumstances you can’t help but compare yourself to the other guy and see how you’re alike or different. I think what’s important to Patrick is an old-world value, which I saw and experienced while researching the picture and spending time in Midland with the Sheriff’s Department. They’ve got third generation sheriffs there and they respect the people they protect, whether or not they care for them.
DP: You mentioned the wedding ring he wears. I didn’t notice it but I recognized he’s a lonely character. Does he think Ruth is his only hope for a full life?
BF: Well, the imagination is funny that way. We can’t help but fantasize every day. For years. Whether or not we act on it is up to our own ethics. I think we’re all trying to be saved, during our darker moments, from our miserable lives. We think someone out there is going to fix our life and give it value. Is Ruth the one for Patrick Wheeler? I think he thinks about it.
DP: Ruth says she doesn’t need anything but I think he sees that she does and that he can provide it.
BF (laughing): They’re just a bunch of co-dependents in this movie.
DP: He sees himself as a good influence on her, a positive in her life.
BF: I think he sees a good woman who’s struggling, and is probably conflicted with his own profession, her circumstances, and his male genetics.
DP: Speaking of male genetics, Patrick has a mustache as ostentatious as David Lowery’s!
BF (laughing): We did a lot of handstands to get it that way!