Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a '70s-set Western romance (of a sort) starring Casey Affleck as Bob Muldoon, a man who goes to jail instead of his pregnant wife (Rooney Mara's Ruth) after she wings a police deputy in a shoot out. Years after the incident, Bob busts out of prison and heads straight to Ruth and his child, only to find that things have changed and a kind-hearted sheriff (Ben Foster) is standing in his way. Directed and written by newcomer David Lowery, it's an indier-than-indie period piece, all mood and brood and corn fields, leading many to compare it to Terrence Malick's work. Here the two leads talk about hats, scripts and that name…
How did this project came to life? Casey Affleck: Sometimes things happen and movies come together in strange ways but this was just normal. David [Lowery, the writer/director] sent the script out and I think everyone immediately responded to it because one of its strengths is its language so the script already showed what the movie will be. I mean, I could really tell what the film was going to be just in the script. Sometimes you get a script, and if it's not in the script it's going to be in the way guy makes it or whatever... but this one you could see that he really loved language and he used it in an original way. It's just poetic, the dialogue. And Rooney was involved and I said I'd be involved and we were off and running.
Why were you attracted to the project? Rooney Mara: The script! I was sent the script also, and I was sent David's short, Pioneer, and I watched that, and I thought it was really different and odd and interesting, and I could tell that David obviously had his own voice and his own point of view, and when I read the script I really loved it and... it's as simple as that!
When you were making it did you think they'd ever release this movie as 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'? Affleck: I did think that they would change it, yeah.
Mara: I hoped that they wouldn't! They almost changed it - they were just going to call it Saints - but I think the title is great.
Do you prefer making smaller movies like Ain't Them Bodies Saints? Mara: I don't really think of it in terms of wanting to do a big movie or a small movie, I think of it as, 'Who's directing? What's the story? Who are the characters?' So I don't ever think of it in terms of the size of the movie. For me, it's the story and the people who are making it.
They almost changed the title - they were just going to call it Saints – but I think the title is great.
Yeah, I think she's right; it's the material and the people that are making it, the experience that it's going to be... that's the appeal, not the scale. But if you're doing a small movie there is an intimacy that you don't really have with doing much bigger movies. You have more freedom and can change things as you go, although that didn't happen that much on this. It's easier to be invested in it and personally you're all spending time with each other, no separate trailers or anything, and so it gets everybody closer and gets everybody on the same page. It starts to be one creative endeavour instead of lots of different people doing their separate jobs.
Did the short shooting schedule scare you? Mara: Not any more. People do it all the time. We all make movies faster than this one, even, though it definitely changes the atmosphere on set. You're a little more rushed, you're more on top of things, but I wouldn't say I feel scared by it.
Was this the first time you'd played a mother? Mara: This was the first time I'd played a mother. I really enjoyed it. I became very friendly with the children; they're two little twins.
Is there an element of trust involved? You said that you watched David Lowery's short film but this is a first feature, so is it a leap in the dark? Affleck: You never know if it's working out right. Even when the movie's finished I usually think, 'If I like it now, how am I going to feel in 5 years?' There's always a leap of faith, but it was never a question with David. It was very encouraging the way he would talk about other movies and his own writing. His script felt unique and it honoured the traditions and tropes of the genre. It seemed like he had prepared a lot for it and I felt very comfortable with him. Some other director told me that actors are supposed to play for their coach, without asking questions or worrying about your own performance, but I haven't taken that attitude. It was easy with David because he always had good ideas and I felt comfortable.
As a director yourself, have you ever felt like a coach, Casey? Affleck: I've only done one feature and it was such an unconventional process that it made that philosophy impossible. Many of the people in the story that I made thought that they were in a documentary, so they couldn't have been playing for me. As an actor, it's a liberating way of working with a director because it frees you from the responsibility of making the right decisions. If actors want to try it, it gives you a lot of choices later on to put the pieces together.
Are you attracted to dark subjects in particular? Mara: I guess we're really dark. I don't think this movie is really dark... is it? It's a love story! I think characters tend to be more complex and interesting in dark movies, but maybe that's because people don't really think of me for comedy...
But essentially this one's a love story? Mara: Yeah, that's how I feel.
Affleck: It's a tragic love story. There some hope at the end. You can see that she is capable of loving. There's a feeling of spring and rebirth.
What would you consider a prison in your lives? Affleck: Being in a bad movie...
Can you give an example? Affleck: Well, I've been in several...
This film has been compared to Terrence Malick and Rooney, you worked on a film for Malick recently. What was that like? Mara: I think everything you do, you take something from it. You learn what you like, what you don't like. You can learn different things from different directors, actors. Every job I've ever had has taught me something, I've taken something from it and it's changed my life in some sort of way.
Did the period costumes help you to get into character here? Affleck:
There was a little bit of improvisation but I don't think it made anything better.
I think it's true for many people. There's no one way to do it... it can definitively help though. It's not the thing that I rely on or anything, but it can help you get into the character.
Mara: I think it helps, especially for a period movie. Well, if you're in a period movie it would change way you walk, the way you sit. So for a period movie, it is important.
Working with a writer/director here, was there much room for you to put your own stamp on the way things were said? Affleck: There was. David was definitively open to improvisation or rewriting the scene if you gave him some notes. It just didn't happen that much. Not sure why; I've experienced way more of that on other movies where the director was much less open to that kind of a thing. I think David was confident enough to allow for other people's ideas but everyone wanted to make the script. It was one of those unique experiences where everybody was singularly guided by it. There was a little bit of improvisation but I don't think it made anything better.
How did you feel when Argo won the Oscar? Affleck: Very proud.
How did you celebrate? Affleck: I went to a party, mingling and socializing. Helping to keep the good spirits up!
What about your own ambitions as a filmmaker? Affleck: At the time being I really enjoy being an actor, and there are different projects that I'm thinking of working on. I took a lot of time off to do that movie, and now I remember how much I love acting.