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SxSW '09 Interview: "St. Nick" Director David Lowery

St. Nick - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

ďSt. Nick is a film about a brother and sister who have run away from home and are trying to survive on in the plains of the Great Southwest. Itís about a lot more than that, but Iíve yet to figure out how to succinctly use words to express it. Itís an adventure film.Ē Director David Lowery on the film ďSt. NickĒ which screens at this yearís South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?

I love SxSW Ė I wouldnít dream of missing it. Texas is my homebase anyway, so that makes it easy. I had a short film, A Catalog of Anticipations, in the program last year and Iíve been involved in various capacities in other films that have played in years past.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

Iíve wanted to make movies since I was eight years old, and like so many other twentysomething filmmakers, it was Star Wars what done it to me.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question ďWhen I grow up I want to be a ÖĒ Finish this sentence, please!

Prior to filmmaking, I wanted to be Pinocchio or Dracula and, more practically, an astronaut.

How did this whole project come together?

The film actually began as a web series I was doing with Joe Swanberg. I shot five episodes in the spring of 2007 with my younger brother and sister, and managed to edit one of them before I realized that this was something Iíd rather be exploring on a larger canvas. So I decided to start over from scratch. I applied for a production grant from the Austin Film Society, got it in August of 2007 and began shooting in February of 2008. In between those dates, I managed to write the script for the film, which was only 30 pages long. It changed a lot over those months Ė not so much in terms of specific content, but in terms of tone. It went from being a fun and slightly bittersweet movie about kids being kids to something quite a bit darker, although its still about kids being kids.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

Casting was a big challenge, and finding the right kids. I was pretty sure I knew from the moment that Tucker and Savanna walked into the room that they were the ones, but I spent a long time mulling it over and doing screen test after screen test and asking people if I was crazy or not. Once we settled on them, though, the entire process was remarkably smooth. One always could use more time and money, but I think we had just enough to make the film we wanted to make. We shot the film in 18 days, and those were short days because we were working with children; but somehow we got more than enough material. The film could easily have been twice as long, although that would have made it less than half as good.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the filmís cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

Clay Liford, the cinematographer, is a good friend of mine. I knew heíd be able to work wonders with the limitations that we had, and he makes me laugh a lot, which is equally important. We shot on HD, with the HVX 200. If weíd had more money, weíd have shot on a better camera or with better lenses Ė but there are lots of things one would do with more money, and as it was, I tried to style the film to fit with what we had to work with, and I think it looks gorgeous.

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?

This is the premiere. More than anything else, I hope the film sticks with people; I hope that it doesnít go down easy and disappear.

Who would you say is ďthe audienceĒ for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?

I make films for audiences, and I want them all to like it, I hate the thought that anyone might feel excluded from what Iím trying to do; at the same time, I know this style of filmmaking isnít necessarily mainstream. Iím very into formalism, and some of the choices I make and the answers I refuse to provide might frustrate a lot of people. The film is very slowly paced; but what I hope people realize is that itís paced correctly. Thereís a rhythm to it. And itís told from a childís perspective, which I think makes it universally accessible, once people pick up on that.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

Claire Denis and Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick are three filmmakers whose work I can always turn to when I need confidence and reassurance, but most of my inspiration these days comes from music. I drew a lot for St. Nick from Bill Callahan.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

This is all I do; thereís no particular plateau Iím striving for. I just want to persist, and to learn and to grow as a filmmaker and a person. Iíll do it until it donít love it anymore; if I get to make a big budget studio movie, thatís terrific. There are certain things that would be easier if I had lots of money and support, and many other things that would remain exactly the same. I donít really think about it much. Actually, I do. But I just try to keep moving. I would like to make an action movie. One of my friends told me they could see me becoming the next Michael Bay. I donít know about that, but Iím a fan of Armageddon.

If you werenít in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

Iíd be high and dry, thatís for sure. I donít yet have the discipline to be a novelist or the right sized hands to be a musician, so I make movies. Itís just how my brain works.

Please tell me some filmmakers, actors or other talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

There are so many people who I think I would love to work with, and I can only hope that my perception of them is accurate. Iíd love to work with Tilda Swinton, and by work I mean anything from directing her to just having coffee with her. Iíd love to do something with Brad Pitt someday. Ludivine Sagnier would be great too.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

I think itís very important. A great review is terrific for a film, and a bad review can be just as valuable for a filmmaker. But moreso than that, I think criticism Ė good criticism - is an art form unto itself, and one I hold in very high regard; Iím encouraged by all the great work thatís being done online, even as it continues to vanish from traditional journalistic sources.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

That amazing, inspiring, now-defunct illegal cinema housed in the catacombs of Paris.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

I donít think I could. All I could do is hope that they like me enough as a person to be interested in hearing more of what I have to say. I can only hope that shambling affability is somewhat as good as steely-eyed conviction, but deep down I know that it probably isnít.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while youíre watching a movie.

Heaven help me, Iíve texted at movies before.

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

I love so much about it, even the parts I hate. Itís hard to quantify anything. The only thing I donít love is that I canít pay people more to help me bring these things to life.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Donít stop learning.

And finallyÖwhat is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

It fluctuates. These days Iíd say that The Brown Bunny might be the right answer.

This is one of the many films that is screening at this yearís South by Southwest Film Festival. For more information on this film, screening times and for other information on SxSW, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 03/10/09 05:00:06
last updated: 03/10/09 05:00:41
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