David Lowery on A Ghost Story
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery returns with a ghost story like you've never seen before
You might imagine most directors coming from a large project would want to take some time off. Not David Lowery. Over the past five years, the Texas-based filmmaker has been directing non-stop. Two days after completing work on his heartfelt reboot of Disney film Pete’s Dragon, he went straight to work on a more personal feature, A Ghost Story, a profound meditation on the nature of loss, love and existence in a story where houses are haunted by ghosts draped in white sheets with holes for eyes, making them look something like a parent’s last ditch attempt at a Halloween costume.
With A Ghost Story, Lowery is once again reunited with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, with whom he collaborated on the modernist Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The story follows a 30-something couple whose lives are transformed by tragedy when the enigmatically named ‘C’ (Affleck) is killed in a car accident a few feet from his home. He awakens on a hospital gurney draped in a sheet, gets up and sorrowfully wanders back to his home to find his girlfriend, ‘M’ (Mara). Wandering across a field in the early hours of the morning, he looks like the sort of cartoonish spook regularly pursued by the Mystery Inc. van.
“I love Scooby-Doo ghosts!” begins Lowery excitedly. “I don’t know where the idea came from, but it has been bubbling in my mind for a long time.”
When he says a long time, he means it. The 36-year-old director recounts old script and short film ideas from years ago that all contained a ‘sheet ghost’ of some sort. “I thought about making a very traditional horror movie, something like The Conjuring or Poltergeist – the idea would be to make it as scary as possible but there would be this sheet ghost in it.”
His new film couldn’t be accused of being scary. You quickly learn that this ghost isn’t the bump-in-the-night, scare you out of your wits type. Instead, Lowery wanted to take the iconic sheet ghost image and produce something more brooding. “There is something about taking the image of the classic children’s costume and using it in a serious fashion that has always appealed to me.”
Lowery is well aware that at first glance the central premise is pretty wacky. “It always made me laugh, we all recognised how goofy the idea was.” Goofy it may be, but how did the director convince Casey Affleck to take a role where he would be hidden for much of the movie? "I texted him saying, 'Do you want to come to Texas and make this ghost movie where you will be under a sheet?' and he just text back, 'Okay'” – it's an exchange that speaks volumes of the pair's close working relationship.
But directing an actor in a large white sheet with a couple of holes for eyes proved to be more of a challenge than Lowery had expected. “It’s a lot more akin to operating a puppet than directing an actor,” he says. In fact, Lowery ended up having to rein in Affleck’s performance. “I believed before we started shooting that we would see Casey’s performance through the sheet, and that was what we pursued early on.” It didn’t work. “[I] had to strip back Casey’s performance. It came down to a great deal of technical specificity and almost zero emotional investment. I would say, ‘Move your head an inch to the left and then stand still for five minutes.’”
Central to the film is the theme of time passing. We see Affleck’s ghost sorrowfully watch as his girlfriend moves on and new residents move in and out of their old home; all the while he's unable to affect what happens before his dead eyes. “I am fascinated by the idea that time is a physical dimension that we have the potential to transcend. The idea of breaking through that and being able to move in any direction fascinates me.”
The director also wanted to make sure there was an emotional response to the grand ideas at the centre of the movie. “On an emotional level, it is incredibly resonant. I’m not fascinated in H.G. Wells' time travel to change things, rather it is the idea – to use Kurt Vonnegut’s term ‘Unstuck in Time’ – to transcend the idea of linear progress or thought. I didn’t want to make a grand statement about those ideas, rather I just wanted to explore it.”
For all A Ghost Story's philosophical concepts, Lowery does inject a great deal of heart into the film. In part, it's due to the choice of music, including the sorrowful single I Get Overwhelmed by Dark Rooms, which is used in a lynchpin scene of heartbreaking beauty. “When I was working on Pete’s Dragon, Daniel Hart, who wrote the score for the film, played a song for me that he had just recorded for his band’s new album. It blew my mind. The lyrics of the song don’t really apply that much to the movie, but the tone of the song is exactly in line with what I wanted to do with the film, and I knew it would become a defining aspect of it.”
Unsurprisingly, Lowery is already at work editing his next project, also featuring Casey Affleck. Based on David Grann’s New Yorker article The Old Man and the Gun, it’s a film that is taking him in another direction. “It is different, it’s mostly a comedy, it’s light hearted,” explains Lowery. “When we were shooting it, I kept on wanting to go in the opposite direction of where my instincts wanted to take me. I wanted to see how far I could push myself out of my comfort zone. I still think that it will feel like one of my movies but it is different.”