ST. NICK--Interview With David Lowery
I'm late in my praise for David Lowery's first feature length film St. Nick. Emergency surgery and my subsequent convalescence kept me from writing it up in time for its South by Southwest premiere. I now join the fanfare in process, as chronicled by Dave Hudson at The IFC Daily.
Michael Guillén: First of all, David, thanks for taking the time this morning and congratulations on St. Nick's recent win of the Grand Jury Prize at AFI Dallas.
David Lowery: Thank you very much.
Guillén: Let's talk a bit about your festival experience. St. Nick premiered at South by Southwest, went on to AFI Dallas and the Sarasota Film Festival. Anywhere else?
Lowery: That is it so far. We're going to Maryland in a few weeks and then we'll be at Rooftop Films in New York towards the end of summer. We finished the film just three days before South by Southwest, so--now that it's finished--we're sending it out and hoping that other festivals respond to it as well as the others have.
Guillén: I'm sure you're no stranger to the festival circuit, having worked on several other independent films, but--being that St. Nick is your first feature film on the circuit--can you speak to your festival experience so far?
Lowery: It's been really wonderful. I've been on the circuit with shorts before and with other people's films. I've made a lot of friends and met a lot of people at the festivals and they've become fans of the short films I've done. People have been looking forward to whatever I could come up with as far as feature films go. It's been great to bring this stronger work, this bigger work, and let people see what I can do within this context. It's been satisfying. It's a confirmation that I can actually pull it off. People seem to enjoy the film. It's been gratifying to get the audience reaction we're having.
Guillén: How have your Q&As with your audiences run?
Lowery: At South by Southwest and AFI Dallas the two kids in the film--Tucker and Savannah Sears--attended the screenings and Q&As. The fun thing about that was that the kids monopolized the Q&As, cracking jokes and winning people over. It was almost a safety net to have these two kids at the Q&As afterwards. People would ask them questions like, "What was it like to make this film?" and "Did you know what it was going to be like doing it?" People could see the film from their perspective and for me it was well-deserved that they should answer those questions. But then we took the film to Sarasota and it was the first time I screened it without the kids being there and at the Q&A. It was really different, very adult. We got into the psychology of what was going on in the film in a way I hadn't expected. The people who stayed for the Q&A strongly wanted to talk about it. They wanted to know why I did things. There were people in that audience who didn't like what I had done but they wanted to talk about it. That was thrilling to me because I take greater pleasure in knowing that I made someone think about something rather than just pleasing them. Even folks who did not enjoy or were frustrated by St. Nick, it stuck with them and they wanted to get to the bottom of why I did things the way I did. That was incredibly satisfying; just to be able to talk to them and explain why I felt it was necessary to make certain creative choices. Also, the people who got what I did and were touched by the film, wanted to get deeper into the emotional reasons I had for making the film.
Guillén: You're certainly speaking to the value of the Q&A. Have you learned anything specific from that interaction with your audience?
Lowery: People do bring things up. They make connections I haven't made. They'll have readings of the film that I've never considered; but, which are definitely valid. Another thing I've learned and which I've taken away from it in a more general sense is confidence. I'm nervous when I talk to people. I've never been good at speaking in front of crowds. But I've learned that--if people are not feeling your film, if they're not getting it--you can turn that around if you go up there afterwards and demonstrate that you know what you were doing. I've learned through several bad Q&As that it's important to be there with the film. Especially if it's a film that audiences might perceive as difficult. It's important to be there afterwards if you can with confidence and the courage of your convictions to face the crowd and convince them that you made the right choices. Having been in situations where I've gone into a Q&A nervous, stuttering and not quite sure of what I want to say--I have trouble putting my thoughts into words--I realized that if I could control that and speak reasonably about what I was trying to do, I can actually make people appreciate the film more. I can actually get them to change their minds about it.
Guillén: [Laughs.] That's a God-given talent, David! Will you be bringing St. Nick to the Bay Area? It deserves to be seen on a big screen.
Lowery: I hope so at some point. The first time I saw it on a big screen was at South by Southwest. I know that these days most films are going to be shown on TV at best and on an Ipod at worst; but, I love the big screen experience. I wanted to make a film that works best on the big screen. I explicitly designed it so that it would work really well on the big screen with a great sound system. We spent a lot of time working on the sound and--when I first heard it in the theatre at South by Southwest--I was like, "Good!" The culmination of all that work was coming through the speakers and it was a beautiful thing to hear. I was excited to see how well it worked in context. I hope it continues to be shown that way.
Guillén: With regard to the deep sound work you've put into the film, along with its evocative cinematography, the consistent compliment paid St. Nick that I've detected in the critical response to date is an appreciation of your filmmaker's toolbox and how you continue to give the best with what you've got.
Lowery: I agree. We didn't have a lot of money. What we did have were a certain amount of tools that we knew how to use. We employed those to the best of our abilities. But also, understanding how film works, film grammar, can carry you so far. An understanding of how sound and picture can work together to make a film is something that a lot of filmmakers working on these low budgets aren't using to their full advantage. Just concentrating on how two shots can create something, or how--when a sound doesn't quite fit the picture--the juxtaposition of those two elements is like alchemy. You can create wonderful effects. You can turn a bunch of low budget ones and zeros into pure gold. That's what I love about movies. I love film language. You can create something emotional and ephemeral out of two disparate images. When I started to film St. Nick, I wanted to employ those tools to the fullest extent I could because I knew we wouldn't have a lot of money for fancy crane shots. But I knew that--if the film were put together soundly--no one would notice that we didn't have any money or that we were as low budget as we were and that it would work as a film. Ultimately, I don't think budget even matters. It allows you to do certain things--like work longer and pay people--but, if the film is sound to its core in terms of cinematic language and design, people won't notice the means by which you achieved that.
Guillén: Or, on the other hand, appreciate the means by which you achieved that. The abiding strength of St. Nick is that you've done a masterful job with the tools on hand. That's what I wanted to stress. I don't feel a need to cover the territory explored in your informative interviews with Filmmaker's Alicia Van Couvering and Spoutblog's Noralil Ryan Fores, but I would like to tease out some of my own responses to St. Nick and play with some of the images, if that's okay with you?
Guillén: First off, the title St. Nick: I'm curious how you're conceiving St. Nicholas and why you used him to entitle your film?
Lowery: I've talked about this a lot in the Q&As because people always bring it up. I was raised Roman Catholic. We celebrated St. Nicholas day [December 6] and we always got presents on that day, in addition to Christmas. There was a certain sensibility to it that heightened my childhood. It was always a special day. No one else that I knew celebrated it and so it set our family apart in a way; it was something that we got to do on our own that was unique. I don't ever sit down and try to think of a title for a film. When I'm working on a project, eventually it happens for me. Very often it's not literally tied to anything in the film. It's not like it's tied to a line of dialogue. Titles are usually words that I feel work well with the film and that lend an emotional quality to what I'm trying to create with the film. I like titles to comment on a film. When I started thinking of a working title for this film, I wanted something with a little bit of Catholicism [chuckles], even though the film itself is not religious in any way. So I named it quickly and randomly. Later on, I decided to look up what the patron saint Nicholas represented and it turned out that he's the patron saint of children, which perhaps I already knew and subconsciously retrieved. We studied these things when I was young so I'm sure I came across that at some point and my subconscious helped me make the decision. But it was a nice moment to realize that St. Nick was, indeed, the perfect title.
Guillén: St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children but in a specific aspect; i.e., training children how to behave, how to be good and not bad. In other words, introducing them to culpability through a system of rewards and punishments. When we think of St. Nick or Santa Claus and his elves at Christmas, we think of the good side of that dynamic: being rewarded with gifts for being good girls and boys. But the truth is there's a flip side: the lump of coal in your stocking and nothing under the tree for you. The truth is that for a child out in the world good comes with bad; there are gifts given but also gifts taken away or withheld altogether. St. Nick powerfully depicts children in a situation of negotiating the good and bad things that happen to them out in the world. But I want to be clear about that situation. When I was reading Darren Hughes' Long Pauses review of St. Nick, I took note of his "irrational bias against 'child in peril' stories"--he's certainly not alone in that bias, irrational or not--but, I didn't consider St. Nick to be a "children in peril" story. Karina Longworth's description at Spoutblog that St. Nick was a "lyrical kids-on-their-own indie" felt more exact. For me, St. Nick is an evocative survival story where survival is a positive, affirmative action and the survivors are far from victims. I didn't see the children as victims.
Lowery: First of all, let me say that your reading of St. Nicholas is wonderful. That's the kind of thing I love to hear from other people; things that enrich my own understanding of what I'm doing. Second of all, I agree that it's not a children-in-peril story. In the act of trying to survive, they may have put themselves in peril; but, I don't believe they were in peril to begin with. They are trying to survive in a classic storytelling sense, much like Swiss Family Robinson. There's a joy and excitement to that in addition to the hardship that was true to my childhood. I was always trying to go out and make it on my own in the woods--I built forts--but, there was never any anger attached to that as there is with the boy in St. Nick. I loved the pragmatic side of overcoming hardships. There's also something nostalgic for me in the film about the strange game of playing adult; of removing yourself from all the niceties of your suburban life or what have you and going out to try to live this rugged lifestyle that, perhaps, you read about in books? Or--even more primal than that--trying to establish yourself as an individual outside of what's provided for you.
Guillén: Survival forms identity. Survival forms--as you say--individuality. As someone who has had his own share of childhood abuse, when I went through therapy as an adult I had to work out my own shame about surviving. It took years of therapy to understand that shame is the flip side of pride and that survival was nothing to be ashamed about. Survival is the good part of the personality. It's the strong part. It guides you away from being a victim to becoming who you have the right to be. That being said, however, I remain curious--as I'm sure many have been--about the boy's motivations? This is his game at playing adult in which he's involved his sister and, clearly, it stems from some kind of anger or resistance?
Lowery: When I set out to make St. Nick, I never allowed myself to put into literal terms what it was that's eating at the boy; what he's going through. I was basing it off of emotional instinct and my own emotional past. I was trying to work from the gut, as it were. Over the course of showing the film to people and discussing it with them through the Q&As, I've realized that I can say that I don't know but I really can explain why he's going through what he's going through. It's something that is literal in the text of the film, even though it's never directly stated. It really is that he's angry and depressed. Some people have said he's afraid of growing up but I don't think it's as simple as that. He's feeling that he's growing up. He's changing. His position is such that the only way he can express himself is by just leaving. He's trying to say something that he doesn't quite understand yet by running away from home. The reason he brings his sister along? Maybe he thinks he's doing something for her own good? But also he's just afraid to be alone because he's still a child and is used to having someone his own age to depend on. That only complicates the situation because--even though he's just two years older than her--he's at that stage of life where he's very much older than her. When you're 12 years old and then you turn 13, there's suddenly a huge gulf between someone who's two years younger than you. I'm the oldest of nine children and I remember playing with my younger brothers because we were all the same age and all of a sudden one year I had a completely different set of friends. It happened just like that. It was frustrating and upsetting to all of a sudden be set apart like that. Suddenly everything you're dealing with is different than what they're dealing with. It's a combination of all of those things. It's so easy for people to categorize it as something that happened when what's important in itself is the fact that there is nothing that has happened. There's no need to explain or to limit the film by saying, "Something bad happened" or something like that. How he reacts in the film is an abstraction that he's trying to figure out for himself and the only way he can do that is by leaving home.
Guillén: One might argue that his is a heroic impulse, precisely for being transgressive? You made a comment in one of your interviews that you became aware that things were going to be difficult the day you started kindergarten. [Laughs.] All of a sudden, life becomes a clock, a regimen. Until that moment, children have a wonderful organic freedom. Perhaps the boy was resisting the loss of that?
Lowery: I completely agree. That's one of those things that's hard to put into words in literal terms; but, I remember so vividly the realization that all of a sudden my life would be defined by these rigid terms. That was so upsetting. It was the first time I was ever aware of the future laid out in front of me and that these rules of society were all of a sudden stretching the entire way, as far as I could envision. I knew that I was never going to get out of that and that these were the terms by which my life was now going to be defined. Realizing those terms and realizing just how far they were stretching was disconcerting to me at the age of six.
Guillén: It's still disconcerting to me at the age of fifty-five! [Laughs.] Several reviewers have also commented upon how eloquently you have rendered the environment of the Texan plains. Are you familiar with an author named William Goyen who situated many of his narratives in East Texas?
Lowery: I'm not.
Guillén: One of Goyen's main narrative devices was of a purposeful exile from home, a running away from home, followed by a constant longing for home, such that one's life becomes a displacement, a tension between what's lost and what's sought. Or as I'm fond of saying: a longing for one's own life as one is living it. I sense a thematic affinity with St. Nick. In his novel House of Breath, Goyen also used a house as a means of understanding psychological individuation. The house, in essence, becomes a symbol for the Self. I'm intrigued by this element in St. Nick of the kids leaving home to find a house that they can live in; a house they can call home. Is this something else that happened to you as a kid? Did you find an abandoned house you could claim as your own?
Lowery: I never found a house such as they do in the film; but, the idea of fabricating or making a home out of something that wasn't my own home was an idea I was drawn to. I liked old structures or shacks or anything that provided a sense of shelter. I loved forts or club houses in the back yard or off in the woods. Everywhere I've lived, I've always done that. When we first moved to Texas, the house we moved into was on an acre of land. We had this little club house in the back yard that just happened to be there among the trees and I instantly seized that as my space. I formed a club with the neighborhood kids. Then, when we moved again to a smaller house, within a month we had collected all this old wood and we made our own version of a fort that was incredibly dangerous--there were planks of wood with old nails--but, that stuff didn't matter to me. I was trying to establish my own domain, this miniature kingdom, that was mine. In the act of going around the neighborhood and finding old furniture to bring in, I was trying to create a domestic situation that was entirely on my own terms at that age. That's what kills me about it. There was a sense of adventure about it--we built draw bridges and giant crossbows and traps--but, we were also trying to create a mirror image of what you've grown up with. We were conscious. We made it as nice as possible. There was this weird mix of rustic conditions and strange niceties. We kept dusting the china that we brought into the fort.
Guillén: Your childhood sounds as imaginative as mine! All those forts, all those domains as you call them, are the way that children magically conscribe space in a nearly ritual fashion. I loved watching it in your film and it made it all the more poignant when the kids are busted and the guy is asking them, "What are you doing here?" and the boy answers, "We live here." That was a wonderful moment in the film.
Lowery: That scene had more veracity to it than anything else in the film because at that point we were shooting in the house, practically living there, for about two weeks. It was a short but intense shoot. The two weeks felt a lot longer. We let the kids have free rein with the house. They were able to do what they wanted to it. We learned that early on when we were filming the scene where they make the tent with the sheets and blankets. We had actually gone in there with our art department and made a version of that tent ourselves. We thought, "We'll make it the way kids do it." And we made this really stupid sheet board thing. It was horrible. We shot that scene the next day and the tent we built looked so stupid and terrible and awful that we tore it down knowing we would have to reshoot all that stuff. We reshot it a few days later and we let the kids build the tent themselves and filmed the whole thing. That's the time I realized how to make the movie, which was to let the kids do their own thing. It was an important stage in the production early on. But when we came to the scene where the kids are excommunicated from the house, we brought in Barlow Jacobs. The kids saw him on the set but Barlow would not talk to them. He would walk off in the other direction. So the kids knew he was there and they knew that their characters were going to have to leave the house; but, they didn't know how it was going to happen. I didn't quite know how it was going to happen either. In the script it literally says, "Guy comes in and makes them leave." I wanted it to just play out; to see how it happens. Barlow did research with some guys who flip houses in Louisiana, where he was working at the time, and heard stories from them about how they dealt with that kind of thing: people living in these abandoned houses. He had a couple of different ideas of how to handle it; but--when it came down to shooting it--we talked about the different approaches he could take and he went in there and did it on instinct. We shot it in one take. We shot it three times and most of the footage we used in the film was from the first take. The kids were incredibly upset. They didn't anticipate the intensity of that moment. They had developed an attachment to the house and really made it their own so that--when they were being told to leave--they were upset. Being forcibly removed from what had become their home shocked them. At the end of the scene when Barlow's on the porch admonishing them, you can see on Tucker's face exactly how upset he is. It was stunning to me to see that happen. I was thinking, "Whoa, what are we doing here?" Because I wasn't expecting that to happen. It makes that scene authentic. When Tucker goes around to the back of the house and starts throwing rocks, that wasn't acting. He was really back there doing that. He carved swear words into the side of the house with his pocket knife, which I hope the homeowners weren't upset with after the two weeks of shooting.
Guillén: Let's talk about your imagery. Were you initially a still photographer?
Lowery: No. I always focused purely on cinema.
Guillén: You have a penchant for interstitial imagery that reminds me of Japanese cinema where images of nature are used to bridge and connect separate scenes. Throughout St. Nick you've sifted in beautiful, nearly still-life images, that strike me as images you found during shooting. Clearly, these were not in the script and were edited in later?
Lowery: It's true. I spent a lot of time wandering around the locations with the camera getting images that felt appropriate. I did this on off days when the actors weren't there. Or--even when they were there--if I saw something that struck me, I would make sure to get it because capturing those things are important to my form of narrative storytelling.
Guillén: There were two in particular that popped out for me. One was the gradual shifting of light on the floorboards and the other was where the kids were climbing underneath the house and there's a spider in a web. Those images can't have been scripted?
Lowery: No. For that image of the spider, I literally crawled underneath the house with the camera. We were getting ready to shoot that scene and I was trapped under the house with the camera. I wanted to get out of there. I was waiting for the actors, but then I saw the spider and I thought, "Film that." As for the light on the floorboards, after we had wrapped the movie I spent a week hanging out at the house, which was about to be refurbished. They were just about to finish it up and make it suitable for living. Before they started working on it, I wanted to spend time in there to capture everything I loved about it, all the textures, all the compositions within compositions that I could find in the architecture and the dilapidation. I spent several days with the camera in there getting imagery. I could probably make an entire feature film just out of those shots. The ones that spoke to what I was trying to accomplish are the ones that ended up in the film.
Guillén: Why is the usage of these interstitial images so important for you to create the fabric of your film?
Lowery: You can convey so much with environment. Capturing close-ups of the wood, for example, or that spider, the textures and the density of life in a room, anything which is more abstractly narrative. Including those elements is important to me because they define the feel and the pace of the film. In planning a production, you look for things that feel like the characters to you. A film is defined by characters, but--in trying to find images that correspond to who they are--that goes a long way formally to establishing what the film is about. By focusing on these textures, or the wood grain, I was trying to hit home or hammer home the makeup of what the film is, who these characters are and what they're feeling. I operate so much off gut instinct when I'm making a film. If something looks right or feels right, I'll shoot it. When I'm editing it, if it feels right I'll put it in there. Ultimately, I've learned to trust myself. I try not to look at a film through the eyes of a critic. I could argue the purpose of everything in my films. The interstitials effect the tone and help build the characters. Also, as an editor--which is one of my strongest suits--interstitials help define the pace. The shot of the light passing on the floor establishes the pace by which their day is going to proceed and the environment they're going to be inhabiting. It sets the stage for what's to follow regarding pace and environment.
Guillén: I'm sure I won't be the first person to mention that the tone of your interstitial images--along with reminding me of Japanese cinema--likewise remind me of the films of Terrence Malick, as specifically as the children wading through tall grass.
Lowery: Thank you.
Guillén: Malick frequently situates his narratives within the tone of environment. He defines characters within their relationship to their environment. Speaking of resemblances and influences then, I'm aware you've acknowledged the influence of Night of the Hunter on St. Nick. What is the value of cinematic citation for you? How much do you like to use citation in your films?
Lowery: I try not to use it because it's going to be there anyway. The one overt citation to Night of the Hunter that we made was when Tucker finds the girl playing guitar on the porch. After he leaves her, you can hear her singing "Leaning on Jesus" in the background, which is the song Robert Mitchum sings in Night of the Hunter. I couldn't ditch that. There's a certain thrill when you make these references. It's a little bit like showing off that you know film history; but, I think it's all going to be there anyway and a lot of the references that people bring up are unintentional or are from films that I haven't even seen. People have pointed out or have assumed that I've drawn a lot from Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, which I've honestly not seen even though I love Morvern Callar. Spirit of the Beehive is another one that's frequently brought up at almost every screening and I haven't seen that one yet either. I think there are cinematic traditions and ley lines that filmmakers will follow if their instincts are of a certain kind--it's like film brethren--but, I don't try to overtly cite anything.
Guillén: This morning I was watching both of your films--St. Nick and A Catalog of Anticipations--which proved interesting because I was spotting similar motifs in both films. The first was the image of dead animals. The skeleton dog that the girl is enamored with in St. Nick and the collection of bones and dead animals referenced in A Catalog of Anticipations; what's going on there?
Lowery: That's just me. I've always collected and been fascinated by dead things. When I was four or five I remember having a funeral for a dead bird. I made a little coffin and had a very Catholic funeral for it. But then I wanted to dig it up afterwards. I never did that but later we had a rabbit that we buried and I dug that up much later and had its skeleton. I'm sure there's something that can be said about a child's fascination with death and that--one way to understand it--is the physiological side of things; the artifacts of death. I don't remember when I first became aware of dying; but, I remember the first time my mother ever tried explaining it to me. It's a realization that comes very early on that children don't quite comprehend. But it's such a mystery that it's fascinating. For me, personally, it played out. I went through a goth stage in high school. I loved Nightmare Before Christmas (and the ghost dog in there) and Tim Burton's other films so much. It's getting to the real heart of the matter. A Catalog of Anticipations is explicitly about a child becoming aware of death for the first time.
Guillén: In St. Nick, the girl's attachment to the skeleton dog "Doughnut" was rendered all the more poignant by contrast to the film's final image of her playing with her live dog. I felt good for her. I felt she should be playing with a live dog rather than a skeleton dog.
Lowery: Very much. All throughout the movie it was a sort of happy accident that Savannah in real life loves animals. Anytime there'd be an animal around, she'd go out and play with it. There's a scene of her barking at the real dogs behind the house and then there's a scene where she's walking down the street, she sees a dog, and she just runs up to it to pet it. That was all spontaneous and I realized that she used to have that at home. Someone else brought up the point that the ending--though there's melancholy to it in that the boy leaves again--but, ultimately, in a way it's a happy ending because both children are where they need to be. He may not be where he needs to be; but, he's working things out and--in that sense--it's a positive. And she's back home. She's with her dog, with her family, and things are good for her at that point.
Guillén: I agree there's a positive cast to the boy's running away again in the end of the film. I identified with him. When I was a kid my grandfather worked for the railroad and we lived near the railroad tracks. I was always playing by the railroad tracks. There's something about the vanishing point of railroad tracks that speak to time, both past and future, but mainly the future: the promise of some imagined future to come. Some place to be. To go towards.
Lowery: What a past. It ties in so richly to American heritage. Those railroad tracks have been there for hundreds of years. When you look down the tracks, you're literally looking down the past. It's such a rich image embedded in the American landscape.
Guillén: Another image I spotted in both films was that of repose. In A Catalog of Anticipations, the film begins with you slumbering underneath the earth, waking up, and emerging. In St. Nick you film the children sleeping. What's your interest in that state of repose?
Lowery: Maybe I'm just really lazy? [Laughs.] I don't know. That's a good one.
Guillén: The way I read it, when I look at your images--let's say of the light on the floorboards or the spider in the web underneath the house or the wind in the trees or the way smoke comes out of a window slightly shifting on an air current--all of these images are not necessarily symbols, specifically in the sense that Darren Hughes objects against imposed symbolism: "St. Nick avoids being the typical 'child in peril' film ... by observing the thing-ness of the objects without reducing them to symbols. Symbols require a doubled perspective--that of the filmed world, where a cigar is just a cigar, and that of the author, who winks knowingly at the audience, thereby inviting us to feel superior. It's a recipe for sentiment and pity, neither of which, thankfully, are of much interest to Lowery." As we discussed earlier, your interstitial images are of nature or the environment by which not only your characters are defined and the tone of your pace is set, but also through which your audience invests into the image. The same thing could be said of watching the children asleep. The audience either cares for them while they're asleep or you're wondering what they're dreaming or you're breathing a sigh of relief that they're getting some rest and seem relatively protected. But their repose pulls a visceral response from the audience, if that makes sense.
Lowery: It does make sense. On a more simple level, I love looking at people in their environment co-existing with everything around them. Showing people in repose is an easy way to do that because they're passively participating in their environment. The less movement there is, the more they become a part of that environment. That's something I love capturing. Even though there are scenes of the characters sleeping in St. Nick, there are also scenes of them just sitting or standing or doing very little. I like to let those moments breathe because the characters become one with their environment. When the boy is making sandwiches or peeling paint off the wall, it was important to hold on those seemingly inconsequential moments because that's when they're really participating in their environment, which is such an important part of what they're doing and who they are.
Guillén: I suspect an important part of cinema literacy is being able to sit in an audience and look at a film and participate in those moments of breath and invest. An audience breathes along with those moments.
Lowery: Yeah. I tried to cut out anything that was extremely overt conflict. There are some moments of that which the film requires; but, I was more interested in watching these kids sit quietly than watching them fight, which they often did and we had plenty of footage of that. [Laughs.] Those quiet moments are when an audience can slow down and realize there is something going on there. They're not waiting for the next thing to happen. There's something happening in the moment. That's something I try to instill in my work. Quiet moments build to something, they move forward, but an audience deserves to luxuriate in them. It's something I value when I watch movies.
Guillén: That's what I would describe as your poetic aesthetic. That's precisely what makes your films so poetic and beautiful. Poet Mark Doty once wrote something about images that I have long admired. Though he was speaking specifically about paintings, his comment holds true to the power of the image in general. Images have power over people. Maybe one image has more power over someone than another. But images have a gravitational field and--if those images work for you--you are drawn into their orbit and you circumambulate around them because they trigger some response in you. That's what you've accomplished with your films, David. You've created images that pull audiences into their orbit. You linger on them just long enough, luxuriate in them--as you say--just long enough that they elicit emotion and memory. To be pulled into the gravitational field of a cinematic image is a wonderful process. It's a talent and a tool you possess.
Lowery: Thank you. That's a beautiful quote. I've never considered it in that way before. It's a wonderful statement and a wonderful way to consider what I'm trying to do.
Guillén: My final question. Are you familiar with Barry Jenkins and Medicine for Melancholy?
Lowery: I love Barry.
Guillén: Mike Jones just wrote an interesting article for Film in Focus on how indispensable the internet was for Barry in helping him to create Medicine for Melancholy. It's the first in a series of articles Jones is drafting for Film in Focus. You're a filmmaker who has a strong online presence through your website Drifting wherein you've chronicled much of your filmmaking. Can you speak to the role of the internet in your filmmaking?
Lowery: They've progressed hand-in-hand. When I first got out of high school, I started up that web site. I've been keeping a blog before blogging even became a word. I've always loved reading the accounts of other filmmakers and their films and I always felt that was something I wanted to do; I wanted to provide that. In those early days it was definitely more beneficial to me than anyone else. It helped express what I was trying to do. But somewhere around 2003 or 2004, all of a sudden I realized that--because I hadn't gone to film school--there was a tremendous amount of film history and cinematic understanding that I completely lacked. Up until that point I had been going on with what I thought was kind of cool. [Laughs.] It was through reading other blogs like Girish Shambu's blog and Matthew Clayfield from Australia--he hadn't been blogging about film in as much detail back then but we got into some incredibly in-depth discussions about film that propelled me forward--and so I intensively participated in the film blogosphere, and found Netflix and got caught up with all these great filmmakers whose work I'd never seen before. I got into the theory of cinema engendered by the blogosphere, which has been critical. I didn't get my film education until I was ready for it and I was ready for it then. The internet happened to catch up right around the same time with all these film blogs coming out and so much on-line writing. I couldn't get enough of it. That was important and defining as far as my own filmmaking goes. I didn't stop making films but I did take a little break to study film history and film theory through online writing and I was writing about it myself and becoming a better writer, understanding what I did and what I wanted to do so much better. When I finally got around to making movies again, I realized I wanted to put these newly-learned ideas into use. I was able to show them to these writers I'd developed friendships with and they helped by critically responding to my work. Analog Lines was the first film I'd made after having gone through that and that film belongs on the internet. In tandem with all of that, it's been great to build an audience through my writing. When the word got out that I was filming St. Nick, in a miniscule sense there was anticipation among certain people for it. They were excited that I was making a film. That made me excited to keep making it. I realized there was an audience out there that was waiting to see it. Maybe the audience was only five people but knowing there were people out there that wanted to see it and wanted to see what I was going to be doing had the effect--on a grander scale--of making me step up to the plate and put my all into it. When I made the film, my one rule was: "We're not going to stop until we have it exactly right." I didn't want to compromise. Filmmaking is all about compromising anyway and you have to do that at some point; but, I wasn't going to film anything that I was not happy with myself. Knowing that people were going to be watching it because of the internet and I have all these friends online and knowing that the film already had a presence whether I wanted it to or not, helped me to keep the bar set as high as I possibly could.
Guillén: Well, St. Nick is just right and, I assure you, will have more than an audience of five. Thank you, David, for being so generous with your comments. It's a delight to talk to you about your lovely poetic film and I really do hope it comes to San Francisco soon.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.