"This is the first time I've ever been paid to direct any movie," David Lowery says. "I got hired to do a music video and we just put all the budget toward making the music video. Maybe there was a salary in there that got spent on something else, but this is the first time I've ever actually, officially been paid for something."
Completely bald and supremely mustachioed, Lowery, 32, is having a career year, the culmination of over a decade of couch surfing, penny-pinching, and hustling. His second feature film, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, earned two awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival and a nomination for the Grand Jury prize, and best of all, finally earned him a paycheck.
"I edited corporate videos, I shot weddings. I did as little of that as possible and I got used to poverty," he remembers, during a chat with BuzzFeed last week. "I spent probably two or three years just living on friends' couches, because I didn't want to have a full-time job that was paying for all the amenities of a normal lifestyle, but taking away from the time I needed to spend time making films."
For subsistence cash, Lowery edited movies and worked on advertisements. He also made 12 short films, all of which led up to his $12,000-budgeted debut feature, Pioneer.
"I lived as cheaply as possible, worked on as many movies as possible — sometimes they paid, sometimes they didn't — and every now and then I would actually make a good check doing a commercial or something like that," he says. "But I didn't actually pursue that. I think that was important, because as difficult as it was to survive in those years, I was really able to dedicate myself that I knew that this mattered to me and I was willing to go the distance."
Starring Casey Affleck as Bob, a young and desperate outlaw who takes the legal bullet for his pregnant wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) after she shot a cop in the middle of a post-crime shoot-out, Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a gritty period picture painted in deep, dark colors from the Texas horizon. Bought out of Sundance by IFC, it represents what is actually the third major independent movie on Lowery's résumé this year alone.
Having learned to edit movies in high school, Lowery first earned his reputation by cutting indie features. As part of a circle of cooperative filmmakers, he was entrusted with piecing together Shane Carruth's critically loved, audience-challenging movie Upstream Color, as well as Amy Seimetz's superb, sweaty drama Sun Don't Shine.
Like both of those directors' films, Lowery's own movie leaves it to the audience to imagine some of the plot points; we never find out what crime, exactly, Bob and Ruth were caught committing, which is not the only question left lingering by what's seen on screen.
"With this movie, I wanted to make a movie that functions sort of, not only in the realm of American history, but film history," he says. "If there was ever a question that I thought could be answered by referencing another movie or a piece of film history, I felt that it was best to leave those answers out of the movie. You don't see all the crimes that lead up to Bob getting arrested, because we have a whole history of lovers on the run movie to kind of fill that in... You've seen Bonnie and Clyde, you've seen Badlands, you get the idea."
Carruth, in particular, is an incredibly meticulous filmmaker who has a hand in all aspects of his movie — down to distribution — and editing one of his projects could have been a rigorous and stressful task.
"I was really nervous at first. I sent him an email and said, 'The minute I stop making you happy, just cut me loose, because I don't want to get in a situation where I'm frustrating you. I'd rather have a good relationship with you outside of the world of the movie,'" Lowery says. "And for whatever reason, I think just because I've been able to train myself to be able to look at footage and understand the intent of the director, and because in this case he was making a movie that was very much in line with the way my brain was thinking about narrative filmmaking, I just instantly knew what he wanted with the footage... More often than not, he'd look at it and go, 'That's exactly right.'"
Lowery also just signed on to produce another independent film, Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip, which concerns the rise of an artist in New York. All told, his is right now one of the more prominent names in indie cinema, a movement with a future about which he is at least fairly optimistic.
"I feel like it's always going to be tough. It's always going to be hard. There's always going to be a lot of people who are going to make movies and a lot of them will make movies and those movies won't get seen, but I think perseverance is the key to it," Lowery says. "I certainly made my share of short films that never saw the light of day, and there's a reason for that: They weren't that good. I think there are plenty of movies that aren't getting seen, and that's a sad fact of the business. It's always going to be hard to make a living doing this. But at the same time, it's easier than ever to make a movie. So it's the best of times and the worst of times."
Though his own movie is clearly intended to be seen on the big screen, with its sweeping rural vistas shot on 35 mm, part of Lowery's optimism comes from digital cinema and VOD; Ain't Them Bodies Saints is also available on demand. Maybe that's not entirely ideal, but life is good, either way.
"It's a shocking turn of events to realize that I'm being paid to direct my own movie," he says, laughing. "I don't know how to handle that."