Filmmaker David Lowery pulls back the sheets on his new film, A Ghost Story
If David Lowery‘s name doesn’t immediately have your interest piqued, you might be the one that has already passed on.
Finding critical acclaim with his stylish 2013 drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery went on to helm last year’s fanciful Walt Disney Pictures tale, Pete’s Dragon. Now, he’s reteaming with Saints stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck for this Friday’s A Ghost Story. A truly unique work that moves at a pace all its own, A Ghost Story is best enjoyed knowing as little as possible going in. As such, we recommend returning to this interview after having seen the film as there are a few spoilers involved in the discussion.
In pulling back the sheets on A Ghost Story, Lowery explains the importance of his artist-driven philosophy and why this one was simply a story he had to tell. Lowery’s next film, The Old Man and the Gun, has already been shot. It reteams him with Pete’s Dragon star Robert Redford for the true story of a septuagenarian bank robber. Lowery has also been attached to Disney’s live-action Peter Pan movie, but he explains why he isn’t entirely certain if he’ll be directing that one yet.
CS: “A Ghost Story” really feels like a marriage of your last two films, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Pete’s Dragon.”
Lowery: That’s great! I love that! I have been asked so many times, “What was it like to jump from ‘Pete’s Dragon’ to this?” Not that different! To me, they feel very similar. There’s a lot of the same thing going on, even though they’re modulating on slightly different levels. I’m glad that kinship comes through.
CS: Can you take me back to the origins of “A Ghost Story”?
Lowery: Absolutely! It kind of just came out of nowhere. I was thinking about this fight that my wife and I had had about moving back to Texas. She wanted to stay in LA and I wanted to move back to Texas. We had, for us, a fairly large argument about that. A pretty decisive one where both of us drew lines in the sand that neither of us wanted to cross. I started writing that argument down as a scene in a movie. I was thinking about my own attachment to physical spaces. So many of my films involve houses or homes that have been abandoned. People trying to get back home. That’s an idea that I keep dealing with. Here it was coming up in my life in a very profound way. I just felt like digging in and trying to deal with that a little bit. Somehow, in the process of all that, this ghost showed up. I had been wanting to make a movie with a guy in a sheet for a while. I just loved that image. I love taking something that is understood to be funny or charming or sweet or naive and instilling it with some degree of gravity. I still want to acknowledge that it’s a goofy image, but I like the idea of giving some emotional heft to a symbol like that. That is all I recall. I remember both of those points of instigation. I remember the fight and I remember thinking about the ghost. Both of them existed before I sat down and started to write, but when I wrote, I wrote both into a ten-page script that was this movie. That script quickly grew to 30 pages. That process was just over a couple days. That’s what we shot. We didn’t really change it much after that first draft. It’s weird to say that this was a movie made on instinct because everything in it was so intentional and meant to lead to the next in a certain way. There was a great specificity in that very short script. At the same time, I didn’t sit down with an agenda, nor did I have an end goal in mind. I just wanted to go exploring. I wanted to go exploring amongst this ideas and these event that I had had in my own life. It’s weird to go back and think about because it was so fast.
CS: The ghosts communicate with subtitles, which winds up being such a simple and effective trick. Where did that idea come from?
Lowery: No, it’s funny you mention that. That came about in post-production. In the script and when we shot it, they just waved. We spent so long shooting this character who could not communicate. It was frustrating shooting his scenes, because you just wanted him to reach out and communicate with Rooney or whoever was in the house. He was always unable to do so, at least in a production fashion. To finally have a moment where he’s acknowledged by someone else in a peaceful fashion was really satisfying as a crew shooting it. We kept shooting so material for that little exchange and we loved it so much that, when I started edited, it played longer. I just wanted more communication between the two of them. Obviously, they couldn’t speak. I mean, they could have, but it would have broken the mood. I felt that we were already playing with the rules of cinema just enough that subtitles would make perfect sense. I tried out a couple of longer versions of that first scene but, ultimately, a little went a long way. That went so well that we added more and it becomes a nice little through line through the rest of the plot with what we call “The Grandma Ghost” showing up and kind of providing some degree of clarification about the journey our hero ghost goes on.
CS: The film is, on the one hand, a supernatural fantasy, but then, on another, it almost feels like there’s an almost science fiction level of rules to the way ghosts work.
Lowery: Even that portal to another dimension that opens up in the hospital is meant to evoke classic haunted house movies likes “Poltergeist” or “Beetlejuice” or movies that do have hard and fast rules. Because those rules were going to exist. We shot a great deal of material defining the rules to a very literal degree. We have this entire sequence that will never see the light of day where the ghost is just moving around the house, figuring out what doors he can and can’t go through, trying to pick things up and make physical contact with things. A huge part of the movie is him scratching, to try peel at the paint on the wall. We had a lot of material that was trial and error as he tried to actually make physical contact with something. Ultimately, it just sort of felt redundant. Audiences have seen movies with ghosts before and those rules are sort of understood, so we could just let him never leave the house and people would understand that he can’t. I wanted to kind of throw the physical contact idea away and let that just be what it was. He’s unable to get the note, but he’s able to make contact here and there. It didn’t feel like you needed a lot of exposition for those rules to still feel functional. I think that’s just the language of haunted house movies. It’s strong enough that we could just rest on it. I think our rules are exactly the same as the rules in “Ghost,” the Patrick Swayze movie. We kept joking that we were just remaking “Ghost.” As long as people have seen that, they’ll understand exactly how that universe functions. I haven’t gone back to rewatch “Ghost,” but I believe that’s true.
CS: Did you re-immerse yourself in any films about ghosts?
Lowery: I don’t think I watched anything directly beforehand, other than “The Conjuring Part 2,” because it was opening around then. But I’ve loved those movies for as long as I can remember and I feel like I’ve steeped myself in them to a huge degree. Amongst the lexicon of great haunted house movies, there are very few that I haven’t seen and that I don’t have at my immediate recall to reference them. Even though I didn’t go back and rewatch “Poltergeist” or “The Innocents” or “The Shining” or “Ugetsu,” they’re all there in my head the entire time I’m making this.
CS: There’s definitely an Ingmar Bergman sensibility to “A Ghost Story,” too.
Lowery: That’s a great point! He wasn’t a direct influence, but I went through a point in my early twenties where he was the be all end all of great directors to me. I’ve wanted to revisit his work since then because it has been years since I’ve seen anything. I can’t remember the last time I saw something of his. I just bought the Blu-ray of “Cries and Whispers,” which I really wanted to revisit. I haven’t had the chance yet, but I’ve seen all of his movies. I read his autobiography. I read his screenplays. I was very, very steeped in all things Bergman for a very long time. Then I stopped. I think I exhausted myself of his canon of work. I’m glad you see that there. That means that I ingested something and it’s kind of hanging around in there in my head, even though I haven’t thought about those movies in a long, long time.
CS: There’s something inherently cinematic about the idea of ghosts.
Lowery: Oh, for sure. Even going into the trickery of capturing ghosts on film. The Pepper’s ghost illusion is the classic and it’s an inherently cinematic illusion because it’s using a lens.
CS: And there’s also something ghostlike in just the process of watching old films.
Lowery: 100 percent. You’re watching the flickering remnants of people who have died long ago when you’re watching old films.
CS: You’ve already finished shooting your next film, “The Old Man and the Gun.” Have you actively sped up the rate at which you work? It feels like we’re getting a lot of features from you lately.
Lowery: I’m trying to, while I’m lucky enough to be able to make movies, keep making them. I love movies. I can’t participate in my love of movie making fully unless I’m producing it. I want to keep making them and I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to make them back to back to back. Part of that is scheduling working out and part of it is by design. Now, it’s the first time in about three years that I don’t have an imminent movie heading into production. That both feels like a relief and a source of anxiety. Making movies is hard for me. Being on set is very trying. I’m not good at being that communicative for that long. Editing is where I’m happiest. So the actual production side is very hard and then, when I’m done, the rose colored glasses go on and I’m ready to go again. I’m a glutton for punishment and I just want to keep making them.
CS: Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to direct Casey Affleck in the costume? Is there any leeway for him to change his performance?
Lowery: It was really weird. Casey is someone who is a very intuitive actor. When you’re shooting with him, he wants to try new things. He’ll always ask for a take where he can try whatever comes to mind. Often, those takes are brilliant and great and they yield wonderful, wonderful things. Initially, I thought that we would let him perform under the sheet and that his physical traits would be pronounced. He could use his body language more than he usually does. We tried that at first. That scene where he wakes up at the hospital went on much longer and you could tell that it was Casey under the sheet. It just wasn’t working. It took us several days to figure out what wasn’t working. For this movie, that’s a lot of time to realize that what we were shooting wasn’t working. We found that, if he’s recognizable under the sheet, the sheet doesn’t have the same illusion. It’s just a sheet draped over an actor’s head. We needed the ghost to function as an entity unto itself. Even though it’s intangible, it had to have an ethereal quality to it to succeed. So we had to iron out the performance 100 percent. It became a very mechanical process where I would just have to say, “Turn your head 90 degrees to the left” or “step forward.” You can’t really see in that costume, so he couldn’t engage with what was happening around him. It was 100 percent mechanical. It was puppeteering while wearing the puppet and also having a costume team that is constantly holding the sheet to keep the face from going askew or to keep the folds from turning into a bunch of cloth. But that yielded something that felt very organic.
CS: Have you had any supernatural experiences yourself?
Lowery: I’ve had a couple of things happen that I could probably explain. I could probably boil them down to a surge in the electrical wires or something falling off a shelf. Maybe the foundation of the house was settling. But I’d rather not. I’d rather not explain them away because I love the possibility that there might be ghosts in the world. It makes my nights alone in old houses scarier and I value that. I feel that life is better with some things left unexplained. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in ghosts. I know there’s a paradox there, but I’m happy to embrace it. I hope that someday I see one in a very quantifiable way.
CS: You have also been attached to Disney’s live-action “Peter Pan” movie. What’s the current status on that?
Lowery: We’re working on the script. It’s exciting, but it’s also a very big challenge. We set the bar pretty high with “Pete’s Dragon” when it came to making a film that they wanted to make as a corporation and one that I wanted to make as a filmmaker. I mean, the people at Disney are filmmakers, too. It’s a studio run by great filmmakers. I respect them all so much that, the next time we collaborate, we’re seeing eye to eye in the same way that we did on “Pete’s Dragon.” “Peter Pan” is a beloved property. Not that “Pete’s Dragon” isn’t, but no one at the studio wanted us to remake that movie. They wanted a new movie with that title. “Peter Pan” is something that everyone takes very seriously. It’s a big movie for them. They have to get it right and I have to get it right for myself. We’re just beginning to sit down and ask what a Peter Pan movie made in this day and age should look and feel like and what makes it relevant. That’s the process for every movie, but I feel like the stakes are a little higher this time because this is one of the crown jewels of the Disney animation empire. It’ll take the time it needs to take and, if it feels right, we’ll definitely make it.
A Ghost Story hits theaters this Friday, July 7.
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