Time Waits For No One: David Lowery on A Ghost Story
Most readers of this magazine will recognize David Lowery as the director of the breakout picture Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Malickian, modern-day Western containing a beautifully spare, elliptical romance between Casey Affleck’s Bob and Rooney Mara’s Ruth. More mainstream moviegoers will recall Lowery from last summer’s multiplex, where his fantasy drama Pete’s Dragon, a remake in name only, pulsed with both wide-eyed innocence and emotional heart — two qualities often lacking in blockbuster entertainment. But more perspicacious viewers will go back further and remember two earlier works. The first is Lowery’s micro-budget 2009 debut feature St. Nick, a tale of suspended innocence in the form of two children — a mysteriously abandoned brother and sister — who find a home for themselves in an abandoned countryside farm. The second is his sublime SXSW-winning short Pioneer, in which Will Oldham is a single dad spinning a darkly personal bedtime fable to his transfixed 4-year-old son. And while Lowery’s steady escalation in budget and use of name talent through these works might portend another linear progression in the form of a larger studio film for his fourth feature, his new picture, A Ghost Story, again starring Mara and Affleck, is a smaller-scale, near-experimental philosophical romance that rewardingly takes its storytelling DNA from his two earlier, sparser works.
In A Ghost Story, Affleck and Mara play young couple “C” and “M,” who live in a small Texas house. “C” is a composer, recording his Bon Iver-esque songs at home into Pro Tools on his laptop. In the film’s opening minutes, he dies in a car accident. “M” visits him in the hospital and takes one last look at his body before “C” is covered with a sheet and sent to the morgue. Moments later, though, his body rises, exits the hospital and goes home — an almost ridiculously archetypal ghost, swathed in a white sheet with holes cut out for the eyes. Meanwhile, “M” has numbly returned to that same house, now quieted by his, absence and begins to grieve as “C” invisibly — to her — watches. Eventually, she moves on — literally and figuratively — but “C”’s ghost remains, unable to leave the structure that architected their love. Others move in, including hipsters who throw a party visited by Oldham, who spins another harrowing, homespun monologue — this time about the inevitable death of our planet. With the exception of Oldham’s words, the preceding is told with virtually no dialogue and shot, by DP Andrew Droz Palermo, in arresting 4:3 compositions, complete with rounded corners suggesting not only nostalgia (a series of old picture frames) but also a kind of retro-modernity (a “vintage” Instagram filter).
And then, like the universe itself, A Ghost Story expands, revealing its true themes to be not just mortality but time in all of its harsh beauty and cruel poetry. To say more would ruin the emotional realizations viewers will individually find in this beautifully philosophical work, a film that’s thrillingly balanced on the razor’s edge of absurdity (that white sheet!) and profundity for its 90 increasingly impactful minutes. To interview Lowery, we asked fellow director and friend Amy Seimetz, whose feature Sun Don’t Shine Lowery edited. Taking a break from both of their new works — for Lowery, shooting his heist movie Old Man and the Gun, and for Seimetz, season two of The Girlfriend Experience — they spoke about inspirations, on-set adjustments, death and making a guy under a white sheet into a profoundly moving metaphor about our place in the cosmos. A Ghost Story is out this July from A24. — Scott Macaulay
So because I know you and [your wife] Augustine, my big question is, emotionally, what was the impetus for the film? What made you want to make it? I might be projecting too much, but the film is so personal, and it deals with the domestic side of living. I think a huge part of it was an argument that Augustine and I had in December 2015 about where we were going to live. I remember thinking that everything we were saying sounded like a big, climactic argument scene at the end of a second act of a movie. I made that mental note at the time — to remember all of this and write it down and use it for a movie. Shortly after that, that idea combined with the idea of a ghost movie, a haunted house movie, and it all came together very quickly. That was the emotional core of it. But the reason I wanted to make the movie probably was far more complex and multifaceted. Definitely that argument was the personal hook and the seed for the idea around which a lot of other ideas accumulated. And, you know, that argument is in the movie. I wrote it down as best I could remember it and had actors perform it. It was very strange, watching actors basically play me and Augustine, reliving a moment in our own lives. That was a first for me to have that degree of verisimilitude in terms of my own personal connection to the film.
A Ghost Story — I’m sorry, but I always want to call it Ghost Boner because I know — Oh, yeah, people still call it that. There was a scene where the ghost had a boner. I thought everyone at Sundance would know that that was our working title, but it never quite went mainstream. So maybe this is the place where people will find out.
Tonally, Ghost Boner doesn’t fit, but it’s interesting to know that that was what you guys were originally calling it. The film is so much more emotional and heartfelt that you couldn’t call it Ghost Boner. You can’t even imagine that working in the movie anymore, but it was there at one point.
You did a Disney movie and then you decided to go do this very DIY sort of movie. Why did you want to go backwards? Or, not backwards, but what was calling to you to make something small after making something so big? I’ve been very resistant to the idea that this was a response to making the Disney movie, because I loved making the Disney movie. I had a fantastic blast, and I’m very proud of the finished product. But there’s a degree of spontaneity I’ve always loved about the creative process that you lose when you spend three years on one thing that you just get to know way too well. And so, I had the urge to make something quickly again, to kind of rekindle that love of doing something fast and seeing what comes out of the process — what comes about when you have very little means and very little time and how those two shortages can yield wonderful things. I wanted to just see if I could still do it, or to see what had changed about me since the last time I made a movie on that scale. I wanted to just get something out — express something quickly. I wanted to shout, basically — make a cinematic shout that would be heard loudly and then fade away, or whatever may come of it.
Do you feel like your directing style changed when you did Pete’s Dragon versus what you were doing on A Ghost Story? As you grow as a filmmaker, as a person, your directing style is going to adapt and change. But by and large, it was the same. What I realized, doing A Ghost Story, though, was that my sense of ambition had gotten a little bigger. I went into making A Ghost Story thinking, “Oh, I’m going to make something like St. Nick,” where we had $12,000 and that was it. This time around I went into it with that mindset of, “Okay, we’ll spend 20 grand and shoot for 14 days.” That used to be enough, but now I was thinking, I also would really like to have an 80-foot dolly track for one shot. Or, let’s do some digital effects that I wouldn’t have been able to pull off back in 2008. After doing Pete’s Dragon, I know what I can accomplish with those tools, and I don’t want to deprive myself of them.
Even though you’ve learned to play with all these toys, I love how restrained A Ghost Story is, and how focused. Was that part of your thinking? As I get to direct bigger and bigger things, I find that I don’t necessarily want all those toys because I just want to focus on the emotions in the scene. Some of these toys make it really distracting, whereas the simpler it is, the more I can focus in on the emotional side. Was that something that you were thinking about — the simplicity of just two people and this sense of loss? Yes. I mean, the simplicity was at the core of the whole project, even down to the choice to make the ghost look the way he looks. But I have to admit, I did find myself getting distracted by things I knew that we could pull off that were a little bit more fancy. A good example of that is the ghost coming home the first time. We re-shot that three times. The first time was too fancy, the second time was a little less fancy, but it still had some tricks in it — we broke out some green screen. And then, the third time we shot it, we finally figured out how to make the movie. We figured out what the movie needed, and it was just the most simple solution of all. What took us an entire day to shoot the first time took us about two hours to shoot a third time because we knew what it needed to be. Even though I went into it thinking, “This is going to be a very simple movie. It’s going to be very austere. It’s going to have a very nuts and bolts elegance to it,” I still got a little bit carried away with trying to do more. And once I stopped trying to do more, the heart of the movie really came out.
I find that I always over-shot design. And then, on the day I get to set, I’m like, “Oh, I need these three shots. That’s it.” And sometimes, I under-shot design, too. I wildly expect [a scene] to be really simple, but then I realize, “Oh, I under-estimated the emotional beats, and it needs a cut here and a cut there.” Exactly. It’s like, “Oh, this line actually does need to have a close-up.”
When you were done with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, did you, in the back of your head, think, “I want to make another movie with these guys?” Or was it like, “They’re available, and we’ll make this movie,” as soon as you came up with the idea? After Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I definitely wanted to find something else to do with both of them, whether it was together or not, because it was a pleasure to work with them, and they made the material better. That’s all you can hope for when you’re working with actors. So when I started to work on A Ghost Story and knew that there was going to be a part for a couple in the film, I just texted the both of them and asked them if they’d be free for two weeks in June to do something crazy and weird in Texas.
They’re really wonderful together and very believable. I don’t know if that would have come across if you had cast people who weren’t familiar with each other, or that you weren’t familiar with. It definitely would have been different. I mean, the funny thing is that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was not meant to be romantic or a love story until they did their first scene together, and all of a sudden their chemistry was just so incredible. And I was like, “Oh, no, we need more of them in the movie together.” And so, I, for better or worse, kind of reoriented the emotional scope of that movie because they connected so well together onscreen. And then the same thing happened with this film. Initially, there was going to be this 10-page dialogue scene between the two of them, and then Casey would die and he would be under a sheet for the rest of the movie and Rooney would disappear after 45 minutes. We were shooting with them for like four or five days, and I just wanted more. One day we were going to shoot this entire sequence that’s not in the movie anymore — I just scrapped it and came up with a bunch of new scenes for [Affleck and Rooney] to do, a bunch of which are in the movie. They just have a connection that is electric onscreen.
Do you change stuff on set? Is the script your bible or are you much more loose, much more natural — sort of let the actors do whatever they’re going to do? I kind of let people do whatever they want to do, but I’m trying to get better about trusting my own writing. I always tell actors, before we start working together, that one of my favorite things is to be surprised. But I have also become aware that part of that is also just a lack of confidence in my own writing. In A Ghost Story, when Will Oldham came to set with his giant monologue memorized to the syllable, and he knew how to perform it, I all of a sudden felt, “Oh, maybe I do know how to write decently. Maybe I should stick to the script a little bit more because there’s stuff in there that actually matters.” I’m trying to find that balance between flexibility and finding the value in what I wrote.
When somebody close to me passes away, when I lose them — for instance, my dad — what kills me is thinking about how all of their “alone moments” are now gone. I’ll always have my memories of them, but this person, who was a living being, had all of these alone moments. One of the simple scenes in the film that kills me is Casey’s character being alone — writing his music and then just making coffee. It’s so sad and so spot-on. Was that scene something you scripted or did you find it when you were shooting? It was scripted, and it was scripted even more than it is in the movie. The coffee-making scene was originally going to be 10 minutes long. I loved the idea of someone having a mundane, private moment that is just 100 percent ordinary and that that’s the last time you see this person alive. I wanted to take the time to have something as mundane as waiting for the water to boil, and then waiting for the pour-over coffee to drip, and then the things you do while you’re waiting for those things, like checking your email and watching a video on YouTube. I wanted to have the space to luxuriate in something and let it move from the mundane into the profoundly personal, because that’s what those moments are, even though you don’t think about them that way. That [scene] didn’t survive the final cut of the movie — ultimately, the pace of the movie kind of dictated that we not do that — but there are pieces of it still in there.
But, yeah, with our friends and loved ones who are gone, it’s so easy just to think about the moments that you shared with them. It becomes more egocentric. It’s all about you. It’s so easy to not think about those moments that are just theirs. You don’t know what they are, but if you know someone, you have enough information to kind of guess what they may have been. Thinking about those moments is incredibly sad but also incredibly illuminating because they are more of who that person was than the moments that you immediately grab onto because those are the moments that define you as opposed to define them. When you think about what might have defined them — and it’s always a “what might have,” because you never truly know — that’s when you really start to understand what has been lost.
The ghost in the sheet, I applaud you, because in the beginning it just seems so absurd. It’s almost like a Rubber sort of situation. Like, how can you emotionally care about a tire? Yes, exactly.
So how did you deal with something that is so absurd, that is so like, Casper the Ghost, when you’re directing and composing shots and thinking about scenes emotionally? What was your idea behind the absurdity of a man in a sheet and how you would deal with that narratively? The idea of it made me laugh, and at the same time, I also believed that there’d be a great deal of potential in its haunting qualities. So I just wholeheartedly went into the idea that this absurd, funny concept could also be emotionally affecting. I didn’t really think about it that much more until we were on set because I thought it would be very easy to find that balance. And instead, it was incredibly difficult. It was gut-wrenchingly, agonizingly tricky to make that tone feel right. You have this idea of a ghost that looks like a Halloween costume, and that has all of the charming, handmade qualities that you would associate with a Halloween costume, and at the same time, a haunting, innocent, naïve, sort of real quality to it. And then you put a sheet on someone’s head and cut two holes in the eyes, and you realize, actually, no. It just looks dumb. Like, it doesn’t actually work the way you think it’s going to. And so, we found out in a couple of early tests that we needed to spend more time figuring out how to make that image work. And then, that process of discovery never stopped.
I know that you guys went through variations of costume design. What was that process? We wanted it to look more like a drawing of a ghost rather than an actual ghost. So we had to create a shape that still felt like a bed sheet with two eyes cut in it, and that shape needed to be consistent when he was moving. So there was a lot of mechanics underneath the sheet that Annell [Brodeur], our costume designer, came up with to keep the shape intrinsically there, regardless of whether the ghost was standing or sitting or moving around.
The next step was seeing that costume on camera, which once again changed everything for us because you look at a room through a lens and think, “Okay, we’re going to put the ghost in the doorway, and it’s going to be great.” And all of a sudden, you put this ghost in the doorway and because it’s such a striking image, your initial ideas of composition just go right out the window. And then, you think about how you want to maintain a sense of humanity with this ghost, even though it’s just a sheet with some eyes. You think, “We’ll have the actor underneath the sheet move about the way he normally would.” Casey has a very distinctive walk, and when you put a sheet on him, all of a sudden that walk gets amplified and looks dumb. It doesn’t look human at all. It doesn’t feel like a movie anymore. It feels like a prank or a practical joke.
And so, the final realization, and the one that I think took us the longest to settle on and come to an understanding of, was that we needed to actually remove the humanity from the ghost in order to make him feel more human. I think the classic idea in certain schools of acting is that the best way to convey emotion for an audience is to be a blank slate and allow the audience to project their own emotion onto you. We ultimately took that approach with the ghost and just removed most of his human characteristics and body language. And when we started to do that, that’s when he really came alive as a character and as a human being, when you really started to feel what he was feeling. We gradually realized we needed to iron out all traces of personality to let the personality come through, paradoxically. That [process] took a while, and it’s why we did a lot of reshoots.
You shot 4:3. Did you shoot that format in camera or did you crop it in post? And the second part of the question, what made you want to shoot 4:3? We shot it in camera. We used the ALEXA Mini, which we were able to shoot full frame on, and we chose that camera because it would lock us into that choice. I discussed that with Andrew [Droz Palermo] a lot, prior to shooting, and we both acknowledged that shooting widescreen would be the smart thing to do because then we would have options in postproduction. We could reframe things, if we needed to, or even back off on our decision to make it 4:3. But we felt strongly enough about that decision that we decided to just lock ourselves into it and shoot on the ALEXA Mini, at full-frame native resolution, and not give ourselves any leeway. I wanted audiences to know right away that this is not going to be a traditional moviegoing experience, and I felt that confronting them with a relatively unusual aspect ratio would be a great way to do that. I also love the idea of the claustrophobic nature of the boxy frame — giving them a sense of being trapped, just like the ghost is trapped. And I loved the challenge for myself as a filmmaker to find a way to make the film feel epic while removing the usual tools that give films that epic-ness, which is usually a rectangle image. I think rectangularly — that’s how I’ve been trained to think as a filmmaker. Andrew and I both had to rewire our brains to sort of figure out how to compose images in this aspect ratio. So it was trickier than we thought it would be, and once again, we found ourselves reshooting things because we had not used the aspect ratio properly a couple of times.
Well, it gives it a nostalgic sort of feeling. It definitely does. And we did this thing with the rounded edges of the frame, which I had done once before in a short film, that makes it almost feel like a home movie, or a slide projector, being projected on the wall, and that adds to that degree of nostalgia. It’s funny, I made this little short animated film that’s just a bunch of drawings. I hadn’t even thought about it at the time, but I made that film in the same aspect ratio with the same rounded edges, and there’s a ghost in a sheet in it as well. So evidently, these ideas have been kind of circulating in my head in conjunction with one another for a long time.
That’s funny. My DP on season two of Girlfriend Experience is Jay Keitel, who I’ve shot movies with for 15 years. He did Sun Don’t Shine.
Yes. We’ll get to moments [on the show], and I’m like, “Am I ripping myself off?” And he was like, “It’s fine. That’s what filmmakers do.” I’ve realized that all of my movies at this point will end at a body of water, whether that’s a swimming pool or not. It’s just ingrained in me, not even as a filmmaker but as a person. I grew up near the water, and I always thought the answer is at the water. When I was a kid, if I had a bad day, we would go to the beach. And so, even being aware of it, I find myself still writing these repetitive motifs into my movies. I’ve finally consciously become aware of that, too, to a certain degree. St. Nick was about two little kids finding an abandoned house and making their own home. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is about Casey trying to get back to his home. And then A Ghost Story, obviously, is a movie all about home. And so, clearly, I’ve got some issues about domesticity and going home. Now that I’m aware that it’s a theme in my movies, I’m just going to embrace it but not try to overthink it, because that could lead to trouble.
Yeah, and then you’ll start reaching for something that’s not true. Exactly. Like, how can I get a body of water into this movie?
Yeah, I wonder that, too. My fascination with crazy women — I wonder, the more I can get crazier and crazier with them if it cheapens the craziness, you know? Whereas, when you have nothing, just this explosive woman and you, [the filmmaking] is so restrained because you just don’t have the money. I wonder, as long as they keep giving me money, am I going to continue my whole life exploring these crazy women and getting more out of control? Totally. It’s what they say, if you don’t have any money for special effects, don’t worry, because a close-up is the greatest special effect of all. And then, all of a sudden, you start spending money on a Technocrane because you can move from 70 feet away into a crazy, really tight close-up. And you’re like, wait a second, this doesn’t feel the same!
When the location’s not telling the story, just go on a tighter lens and get your actress or actor in the zone, and it’s priceless. It’s better than the most sweeping landscapes that you could ever shoot — the actor in the moment. Back to that argument that my wife and I had: there’s very little of it left in the movie, but when we shot it, the initial plan was to do a big wide shot of the entire house, and you’d see the argument play out over the course of a single take. We did 10 takes of that, and then my instincts were like, let’s go a little closer and see what happens. And by the end of it, we were on a 50 millimeter lens, right in Rooney’s face. And that’s where I finally felt like, “Oh, now it’s starting to feel real.” And then, from that point on, we just embraced close-ups for the entire movie.
The close-ups sell everything. If it was playing wide all the time, it just wouldn’t have the emotional effect. When I wrote the script, I didn’t give the characters names. At that point, I was still into the idea that they would feel like, what’s the word — simulacrums? They wouldn’t feel like real people; the ghosts would feel more real than them. But you can write that and think that’s how it’s going to work — it’s going to feel very dry, and you’re going to have this sort of airy performance that will be all in a big, wide shot, and you’ll never connect to those characters. But then, as soon as you get the actors in the room, you realize that regardless of what your intentions were, unless you intend to force them in performance to remove every element of humanity from themselves that it’s naturally going to be much more alive. And then, you kind of owe it to yourself to take advantage of that.
The response to the movie at Sundance versus what you intended — were you surprised? Or did you kind of know what it was before audiences saw it? I was completely taken aback. I didn’t sit through the first screening at Sundance. I remember going back to our condo and thinking, “You know what? I need to enjoy this 90 minutes because this is the last time I’ll be able to not have in my life the intense dislike that’s about to be sprung upon this movie.” And the fact that people connected with it in the same way that I connected with it made me feel like I maybe have a higher degree of relativity to the human race than I thought I did. I sometimes feel like I’m a robot, or that I’m just off in my own world. But [the reception to A Ghost Story] made me feel very connected to everyone else. The fact that everyone understood what we were trying to do and that, by and large, most people really liked it, was incredibly heartening and moving to me.