"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is one of those cryptic titles that needs explaining.
And that's exactly what director David Lowery did at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Saturday night, where the movie screened and was followed by a Q&A with Lowery and some of the cast and crew, notably stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. The movie originally premiered at Sundance.
"The title is something that in some ways predates the movie," said Lowery, explaining that he'd kept note of the phrase after hearing it in lyrics in an old folk song. Or at least thinking he'd heard it.
"When I went back to try and figure out what that song was, it wasn't similar at all; two of the words were accurate but the rest were made up," he continued, laughing.
Regardless of accuracy, he was trying to achieve a certain mood in the title. "Titles can bleed into the rest of the movie and lend a certain cadence and a certain tone," Lowery said, "I wanted the film to have a feeling of an old folk song ... an old piece of Americana."
The film opens in the soft, dusky light of a 1970s Texas field where Ruth Guthrie (Mara) announces to Bob Muldoon (Affleck) that she is pregnant with his child. Bob, an outlaw, is put in prison shortly thereafter, and the movie skips ahead to when the child is now 3 or 4, and Bob escapes from prison. He encounters both conflict and moral dilemma on his journey home to Ruth, his absence and escape complicating the life he left behind.
"Thematically [the title] spoke to the idea of consequence, and to the ideas of aspiring toward goodness that I feel all the characters have," Lowery said.
An atmospheric and romantic drama, the film has a definite "look."
"We used still photography as a reference more than anything else," Lowery said. "We found this amazing archive of old photos from Texas, and we used a lot of that."
The director said he and cinematographer Bradford Young "always talked about how we wanted the movie to look like an old piece of wood, or look like we were shooting it through a burlap sack."
"There are some directors that try to convince you to do only what they've envisioned," Affleck said. "David is one of those people who finds a way to incorporate everyone's ideas while still keeping his original vision."
Affleck and Mara make a handsome pair but share very little time on-screen, and perhaps this was a good thing, as Affleck noted, laughing, "Rooney uses the first three takes to memorize her lines."