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Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck on Sundance, Cannes and Those Terrence Malick Comparisons

A few months after world premiering at Sundance to great acclaim, David Lowery’s “Badlands”-style love story “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” had its European unveiling at Cannes, following in the footsteps of last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which went on a similar journey before going on to become an Academy Award-nominated indie sensation. Whether the drama has “Beasts”‘ legs remains to be seen. All we can tell you is that the buzz is warranted. Lowery’s drama is the real deal. See for yourselves when IFC Films releases it in theaters this Friday and on VOD August 23rd.

[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published during the Cannes Film Festival.]

The morning following its Cannes bow in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar, Indiewire sat down with the film’s two stars, Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, to talk about the Cannes reception, revisiting their own work and whether the Lowery-Terrence Malick comparisons many critics have made are valid.

Has the film changed since Sundance?

Rooney Mara: A little bit, but I’m not sure you’d notice.

How did last night go compared to Sundance?

Casey Affleck: It’s so hard to tell in that environment because you’re just thinking about so many things. To accurately gauge what everyone in the room was thinking is pretty tough. I mean no one walked out, which was good (laughs). I guess here in Cannes they kind of let you know if no one liked it. They boo and yell and throw shit at the screen. “I’m bored!”

Mara: Do they really?

Yeah, it’s been known to happen.

Mara: What would you do, seriously? If they booed, what would you do?

Affleck: I don’t know. I would like to see someone talk back though.

Mara: [To Affleck] Remember how all the cameras came up at the end? If people booed, would that have happened as well? We would have just been sitting there with our heads down (laughs).

Affleck: Probably. They probably hate it.

“The Killer Inside Me” must have been booed somewhere, no? That film was so divisive.

Affleck: Yes, there were people who hated that movie, who were angry about it. That’s an easy one to be angry about. Someone stood up at a screening and said something, but it wasn’t directed at me luckily because I wasn’t the director. This movie would be a little bit harder to hate. You might not like it, but there’s nothing to stand up and be like, (in a French accent) “We hate this!”

Mara: Yeah, it’s hard to have a strong feeling against the movie.

Did you watch it again last night?

Mara: Yeah, I watched it last night.

The ending of the film left me pretty devastated —

Mara: It did?

I was pretty shaken up. Can you two ever remove yourself from your memories of making a film and just experience it the way an audience would, the way a director intends it to be experienced?

Affleck: I don’t know, it’s impossible for me. You can’t see clearly, you can’t see what it is because you have all your own memories attached to it.

Mara: I mean I was devastated by the ending when I read it. And then I was devastated by it when we did it. But watching it last night I felt nothing just because I’m so disassociated and zoned out. When you’ve seen all the pieces, you can’t watch a movie knowing everything about how it was made.

Have you ever read a script and gone, ‘I don’t want to do this because I want to experience it as a viewer’?

Mara: No (laughs).

Had you heard of David before coming onto this project? Although this marks his second feature following “St. Nick,” he’s been pretty active on the editing front and had a short premiere at Sundance.

Affleck: I hadn’t no. I never heard of him.

Mara: You weren’t paying attention.

Affleck: Once I met him he told me all the stuff he was doing which was pretty cool. But I had never heard of him.

What about the script specifically spoke to both of you?

Mara: A script you can either see it and feel it or you can’t. I just kind of knew within the first few pages — it just had it’s own voice. I knew it was special. I loved the world that it took place in.

About that world, the period it takes place in is so evocatively conveyed in the film. What kind of prep work on your part went into delving into the 70s?

Affleck: Indirectly he was just very specific about each little part of the movie. He knew he wanted the clothes to look like, he knew what he wanted the music to be. You just get hypnotized by that and fall under the spell of what he’s doing. But he never said, “Listen, this is the era.” He was deliberately vague about some of that stuff. There would be a car from the 1980s.

Mara: No, there were no cars from the 1980s.

Affleck: There was a truck from the 1980s.

Mara: No way.

Affleck: He didn’t want to be super specific about the time and the setting, but it was set in Texas, shot in Louisiana. If you’re from Texas you can tell that there’s no part of Texas that looks like that. He was just trying to create a very kind of fuzzy but evocative image.

Mara: He was sending me pictures of what he thought Ruth’s house looked like and felt like — all kinds of stuff like that.

Now Rooney, you were the first actor he met with for the part and he didn’t meet with anyone else after meeting you. What happened in that room?

Mara: I don’t know. They sent it to me knowing they wanted me to be in it. I read it and loved it, watched his short “Pioneer” and loved it. I really wanted to work with him. It was very easy.

So many critics have compared David’s directing style to that of Terrence Malick — the long takes, the fascination with nature and the overall “Badlands” vibe. Given that you’ve worked with Terrence now how would you compare the two?

Mara: I wouldn’t. There’s nothing similar about working with the two of them. Like nothing. I think David has his own voice that stands on its own. I think they’re both very poetic and they’re both very romantic, and they have a similar aesthetic, so maybe that’s where those comparisons are coming from. But in terms of actually working with them, there’s very little that’s the same. But I feel that way about any two directors I’ve worked with.

Speaking of the directors you’ve worked with, ever since you worked with David Fincher you’ve managed to cultivate this amazing resume of auteur driven titles. Did you create a checklist of who you’d like to work with after working with David? Or has it just been happenstance?

Mara: (Laughs) I mean I guess it’s just been happenstance. I have a list somewhere in my head of people I respect and want to work with. Yeah, I don’t know. That’s just how it happened. I don’t have a rhyme or reason to what I respond to. It’s just kind of instinct. It’s not something I can really define.