I’m a little nervous,” David Lowery admitted on the day his feature film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints opened in New York and Los Angeles. “I was more nervous in the days leading up to this, but now the movie’s out in the world, and it’s out of my hands.”
Lowery’s career, too, is now out in the world in a way it hasn’t been before. From making films on tiny budgets in Fort Worth a few years ago, this Milwaukee native who grew up in North Texas is now set to work with the likes of Robert Redford and the Disney Corporation. All this has happened since Ain’t Them Bodies Saints debuted to glowing reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Now playing in Dallas, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints screens at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on the weekend of Sept. 13. The film has even inspired a graphic novel prequel that was released online at Entertainment Weekly’s website.
The events of the last few months have been a bit overwhelming for the 32-year-old Irving High School graduate who wasn’t sure even 18 months ago what form his project would take. All in all, he estimates that he has spent only two months of 2013 in North Texas, though he has repeatedly said in interviews that he has no intention of moving away from his home in Dallas.
“I’m just trying to take it as it comes,” he said.
Even as a little boy, Madeleine Lowery said, her oldest child was determined to go his own way. “He always learned so much on his own,” she said. “It was almost impossible to get him to do something he wasn’t interested in.” And one of the things he was interested in was movies.
However, David found it difficult to concentrate in school. “I always enjoyed learning,” Lowery said. “I just don’t seem to absorb things in a classroom setting.”
Madeleine’s own views lined up with David’s. A Fort Worth native, she had misgivings about public education, and she and her husband Mark, then a high school teacher, couldn’t afford to send all their kids to private schools. (There are nine Lowery children; Madeleine said she always wanted a big family.) The solution was home-schooling.
“Public schools take too much of a factory approach,” she said. “Each child is unique and learns in a unique way.”
Mark Lowery was teaching high school in Waukesha, Wis., and also working toward his doctorate in theology at Marquette University. As a full-time homemaker, Madeleine had time to educate the kids at home, and she kept it up after Mark was hired as a professor at the University of Dallas when David was 7, and the family moved to Texas.
David began making vampire and zombie films (co-starring his brothers and sisters) while he was still in elementary school. The budding filmmaker started out using the camera of a relative who visited a few times a year, then a camera borrowed from a friend, and finally, in high school, one he bought with his own money.
“He never had to coerce or bribe people” to appear in the movies, his mother said. “He’s a nice, easygoing person, but when he sees something he wants to do, he goes after it.”
He also had an impish sense of humor. Madeleine remembered David bringing home a cardboard cutout of Chris Rock from a job at a movie theater and putting it in unexpected places around the house for people to discover.
Lowery credits the experience of growing up in a large family with making him a good collaborator on movie projects. He started out as a shy kid with a lisp who “had no idea how to communicate with other people.” But he got over the lisp and learned to get along. “When you have eight siblings, you have no choice,” he said. “You have to learn to play with others.”
Eventually Lowery got cabin fever and asked his parents to send him to a regular school. Two years at a private junior high school didn’t take, but he tried again in high school and found more success. Choosing Irving High School because it was in walking distance of his home, he graduated in two years.
By that time, he was going through a Goth phase –– long black hair and black clothes, eyeliner, and nail polish. “I didn’t know I was Goth,” he said. “I liked Tim Burton’s movies, and I gravitated toward the Edward Scissorhands look, and then later I became obsessed with [Alex Proyas’ 1994 thriller] The Crow. It all seemed like an organic way to express myself.” (“Organic” is one of Lowery’s favorite words for things that seem to arise naturally.)
The phase ended — without having led to drugs or other trouble — when he was 18 and found a Goth club in Dallas full of teenagers dressed like him.
“It suddenly ceased to appeal to me,” he said wryly.
He admits that his current look — naturally bald with a prominent, neatly trimmed mustache — might be an adult extension of the same impulse to look distinctive.