MovieMaker’s Editor’s Weekend Pick is Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, written and directed by the multi-talented David Lowery, also starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints tells the tale of Bob Muldoon (Affleck), a Texas outlaw who escapes from prison and immediately heads out to reunite with his wife, Ruth (Mara), and the daughter who was born after his untimely incarceration. Lowery’s western drama is doomed from the start, beginning with the couple’s run-in with the law, a la Terrence Malick’s first full-length feature, Badlands.
Below is just one of five chapter introductions written by Lowery for MovieMaker’s 2014 Complete Guide To Making Movies (out on stands at the end of this month!). Here Lowery interviews none other than himself in order to “stay true to the [private] process” of screenwriting. So enjoy an amuse-bouche of our upcoming guide and catch Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in theaters this Friday!
Screenwriting Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Screenwriting is the one part of the moviemaking process that, at least in its early stages, is private. Later, other folks will weigh in, bringing to bear on your solitary work their myriad creative perspectives. Thus, your original idea, in varying degrees, explodes. When the time is right, I welcome that detonation. Collaboration is my favorite part about moviemaking and, in the later sections of this magazine, I’m excited to fold into these pages the wisdom of some of the people I work with most closely. But as long as we’re talking about writing, I’ll stay true to that process. So, here I am, talking to myself.
DAVID LOWERY (DL): You’re sitting down right now to write about writing. What is there to say about something so insular?
DAVID LOWERY (DAVID): Writing is the least interesting part of moviemaking that I always want to know the most about. It’s an intensely personal process, and perhaps it’s out of some latent voyeurism that I’m so fascinated by how other people do it. I love reading about other writers’ routines, their methods, their struggles. Also implicit in this curiosity is some will towards self-help. I’m always looking for the miracle cure, the path of least resistance, the quick and easy solution to something that will never be either of those things.
DL: That being said, what is your routine right now?
DAVID: I write at home. I have a little office but it’s usually too messy, so I like to work in the living room, spread out all over the couch—which is exactly where I am right now. When literal progress needs to be made, I’ll be at it all day long. The amount of quantifiable work that takes place over the course of such a day could probably be compressed into about an hour or two, but that’s just how it goes. I’m no longer alarmed or embarrassed about my procrastinatory ways. I do try to keep them in check. The work always winds up being done. Almost always, at least.
DL: Talk about writing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
DAVID: My memory of writing it encompasses the six or eight months it took to complete the first 20 pages, and then skips ahead to the script suddenly being done, as if of its own accord. I know there was more to it than that, but I can’t quite recall how I finished it. I can look for clues in what I’m writing right now. I’m on page 37 of my new script. The first 27 took a few days, the next 10 a few weeks. Good days involve a lot of writing, mild fretting, much in the way of deleting and copying and pasting and saving things for later. Little by little, the story creeps forward. On bad days, I will measure progress by that most devious of barometers: page counts. It’s easy to make an inconsequential scene play long if I’m nervous about really getting into the ones that truly matter.
DL: How many drafts do you do?
DAVID: I’ve got about 24 or so Final Draft files for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Sometimes there are only a few words of difference between them. I’d say the movie went through three major drafts, during and after which there was a laundry list of smaller changes and random vacillations.
DL: You were an English major. Do you approach screenplays as literature?
DAVID: I love the written word and take great pleasure in writing good scripts. I work hard to make them perfect in their own right. I obsess over words, and whether or not one might be better than the other. I make judicious use of punctuation and try not to waste a single sentence. Ultimately, no one will care about any of this. The frustrating and wonderful thing about screenwriting is that it is an intermediate art form—the middle ground between an idea and its realization as a movie. On the most practical level, it doesn’t need to engage the reader as literature. But one traditionally wants a script to read well, and so deference gets paid to style, to language, to the usage of technical terminology like shots and angles. Writing a good script that functions as both literature and a template for a film is somewhat akin to translating a poem. Amongst languages, few words are directly equivocal to each other—and even those that are function syntactically in different ways—so one finds words and phrases and conjunctions that are not direct transpositions, but which approximate the original form and content as closely as possible. Writing a script is a similar process, only you’re working in reverse. You aren’t translating a text, but preparing it for translation. You’re using the wrong medium to evoke the right one.
DL: Your first feature, St. Nick, wasn’t written at all, and you’ve also collaborated with moviemakers like Joe and Kris Swanberg, who generally avoid scripts.
DAVID: I did spend some time a few years ago figuring out how to make movies without a screenplay. That isn’t to say the films weren’t written—only that I did not break down the process according to the traditional ordering of things. I was writing with a camera, on set, with the actors. You might call this improvisation, and in any given moment that might be accurate. But how do you stitch one improvisation to another and keep it true to the story you set out to tell? That’s where writing comes into play, and learning how to craft a narrative without the safety net of sides in my back pocket was an invaluable learning process. You learn to trust the form. You learn to trust your gut. You learn what has certainly proven to be the case on the movies I’ve made since, which is that writing isn’t a process that has a natural end. You get it as good as you can on the page, and then you keep writing while you shoot, and you take what you shot and keep writing while you edit.
DL: You’re not being entirely abstract there.
DAVID: That’s true. I was literally writing new dialogue for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints two weeks before we premiered at Cannes. It may have been a bad idea.
DL: Would you direct something you didn’t write?
DAVID: I’m glad you asked that. I’m wrestling with that right now. It’s more a matter of perspective and efficiency than anything else. I think I would have to do a rewrite on any extant property I loved enough to take on, regardless of how good it is. Just to get the patois of the dialogue right, at the very least. And then, of course, I’ll rewrite it again on set, and in the editing room. Maybe it’s not so much a matter of whether or not I can direct someone else’s script as it is whether a writer would relinquish her baby to me. I’ll raise it well, but it would be a rough upbringing.
To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.