Filmmaker David Lowery tells ‘A Ghost Story’

by Andrew Parker

As soon as Texas based filmmaker David Lowery competed his first big budget studio picture – the outstanding 2016 Disney reimagining of Pete’s Dragon – he immediately wanted to make another movie. Getting back to his independent roots, Lowery launched into production on the austere and borderline experimental A Ghost Story mere days after the massive production on Pete’s Dragon was completed. While the budgets and narrative structures of the two films couldn’t be more different – not to mention that A Ghost Story goes for long patches without uttering a word of dialogue – the films still share a unique visual sensibility and both are moving depictions of loss and grief, making the two films perfect fits into Lowery’s growing filmography.

Born from almost stream-of-consciousness fashion out of an argument writer-director-editor Lowery had with his wife about potentially relocating from Texas to California, A Ghost Story (which opens in Toronto and Vancouver this weekend before expanding across the country in the coming weeks) begins as a subtle story of a husband and wife (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who previously starred together in Lowery’s breakthrough feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). It’s told almost in snapshots of life, some of lingering and some fleeting, but all of them pointing towards a rift in their relationship. Things go unresolved when Affleck’s character is killed in an automobile accident. From his deathbed, the man rises as a bed sheet clad ghost that goes unseen by the world of the living. Desperate to reconnect with his wife for unspoken, but perhaps obvious reasons, the ghost silently haunts his former home even long after she has moved on, moved out, and has started a new life.

It’s a fascinating film to talk about with Lowery, who recently swung through Toronto and Montreal on a promotional tour, because there are so many facets to its construction. A Ghost Story could be read in countless different ways, and by the filmmaker’s own admission a lot of those readings could be emotionally and narratively correct. There are no definitive right and wrong answers to Lowery’s latest, and the filmmaker seems energetic and enthusiastic to do interviews for it because no two interviews are likely to turn out the same exact way if the journalist has engaged with the film.

We caught up with Lowery earlier this week over an afternoon coffee at a downtown Toronto hotel to talk about the look and feel of A Ghost Story and the film’s unique themes.

Your films are very subtle, even something like Pete’s Dragon, and they can be read in a lot of different ways, and, for me, while A Ghost Story could be seen as a tale of grieving, loss, and anger, I find it more compelling as a look at how we perceive nostalgia and how we perceive history. Here’s this ghost that’s hanging onto only the memories that he wants to remember, while conveniently forgetting or losing sight of all the events that led to the erosion of his relationship. Was that something that was on your mind while you were coming up with the idea for A Ghost Story?

David Lowery

David Lowery: I don’t want to say that it was on my mind while I was coming up with the story because so little was actually on my mind. There were so little intentions that I had with making my movie, but what you brought up is something that I have definitely thought a lot about in the past and has fascinated me. It certainly had an impact on this film, and the reason it comes out in this film is because that has always been a longstanding fascination of mine.

I think the idea of conflating history and nostalgia is something people always wrestle with and think about, and I have always liked the idea of rupturing that conflation. When this ghost goes back in time and sees what used to be on his land, there’s an equal embrace of nostalgia, but at the same time, a complete shattering of it. That was something that I enjoyed doing and that matters to me.

I always find myself falling into the trap of nostalgia. There’s a great deal of comfort in it. There’s a lot of value in it, too. But it can also be a trap, and it’s important to recognize that and to not fall too heavily under the sway of all things sentimental.

Well, it’s certainly dangerous if you don’t learn from it, and I think that’s something the main character in this film hasn’t done. And it’s fascinating how the main character is this mute, wordless entity because it makes it seem like nostalgia can rob not only a person of their voice, but it also takes away from the memory of a person in return.

David Lowery: Exactly. You end up saying the same thing over and over again, and you’re not progressing.

It’s also interesting to note how this film transitions into its more fantastical elements by way of a car crash, which is unseen except the aftermath here. You made this film right after Pete’s Dragon, which also finds its plot set into motion by a much more vivid and horrific looking auto accident. Were you thinking about that link between the two projects when you came up with this one?

David Lowery : (laughs) I mean, if I read this objectively, I wouldn’t believe it, but the truth is that I didn’t even think about that connection, and the fact of the matter is that I just think that car crashes are wonderful inciting incidents, apparently. (laughs) I’ve used it twice now, and I’ve never even been in one in my life, so I can’t even say that it’s something I have experience with – knock on wood. I think it was on set when we were shooting A Ghost Story, which, again, was right after Pete’s Dragon, where someone pointed out the similarities, and I was just, like, “Yup! There I go repeating myself again.” (laughs) It definitely was a hopefully happy accident, despite both films literally starting off with unhappy accidents. It’s so obvious that I can’t believe it now, but I didn’t even think about it going into either of these projects.

The film stays quiet about any sort of grander meaning until late in the film when you have Will Oldham show up and deliver a monologue at a party happening inside this house that’s essentially about the meaninglessness of life, and it’s fascinating because he delivers only one very specific point of view, and it’s one that I think a lot of viewers will want to argue against. Will’s character is one where he inhabits a headspace that I can certainly understand and have felt, but not one that I would want to live in or agree with all the time. It’s very defeatist in its tone, and I was wondering if it was a deliberate choice on your part to only have one character theorize on screen what the film could be about and have that character display such a negative viewpoint?

David Lowery: You’re right. It’s absolutely defeatist, but my hope is that people disagree with it, but see the truth that he’s ultimately after that seems to be escaping him. There is a point of view in there that I am sympathetic to, and I think everything he’s saying is part of a process that I was going through as I was trying to find meaning in my own life and the world around me, but he stops short of getting to a place that’s not nihilistic. He just finds a stopping point in his syllogism that I don’t agree with and that I think most people don’t agree with, although some people do. My hope was that by having someone who was not the protagonist of the film espouse that point of view it would subconsciously indicate to audiences that they don’t need to take this as a mission statement from me. This is a third-party presenting one perspective, but that perspective is illuminating to the film as a whole. To that point, we’ve been stuck in this house and we’ve been engaging with the story in a very earthly fashion. That monologue allows the film to get a bit cosmic in both a literal and existential sense, and that just helps broaden the perspective as to what the movie’s about, and hopefully the movie itself completes that argument and contradicts it in an appropriate way and brings it to the proper culmination.

Again, I am saying all of this now after having already made it, but when I was writing it, none of this was on my mind. (laughs) It just felt like the right thing to do. I always feel like I’m backing out of a question when I say that, so I always like to investigate further, but when I was writing this, every single decision just felt like the right thing to do, and I didn’t think too much of it beyond that.

If you were to boil down what this character is saying to its core, it’s that in a roundabout way, he’s saying to live each day like it’s your last, which is good, but I don’t think that’s the only way in which one should live. I think there’s a need for hope and aspiration and mystery in life that is not easy to define or grab hold of, but I find those feelings hopeful. I find it hopeful to maintain a sense of optimism that might extend beyond the quotidian nature of my daily existence. I want to believe in something more, and I don’t necessarily mean religiously, the afterlife, or in terms of the future of our species, but I do want to believe that there’s more out there, and that there’s greater meaning to everything than the fact that we’re alive right now and in this particular moment. I want to think there would be something lost if we were to evaporate in this very instant. I wanted the ghostly character to temporarily subscribe to the tenor of that monologue, but then, through no act of will other than his wishing that he wasn’t in that space, to refute it and add onto it. That monologue should end with an “and then,” and it’s up to the main character to find that.

I read in the press notes, and you can correct me if I’m wrong on this, that you don’t believe that a presence or spirit can reach out across space and time to reconnect with someone or something, but when you walk into a space that you’ve never been in before, can you feel the historical weight and significance of that space? The film definitely depicts history as something that extends far past our own knowledge and experience.

David Lowery: Definitely. I think back a lot of times to a moment where I visited The Lorraine Motel, which is where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I was wandering around Memphis with a friend, looking for a place to get coffee, and we saw this diner from down the road, and thought, “Let’s go there.” It just instantly felt like something was wrong, and the diner was closed. The diner was attached to a motel, and we walked around and noticed that it was THAT motel. We didn’t even realize what part of town we were in or where we were standing, but the sense that something was wrong about that place preceded that realization of just what place in history that location held. That was remarkable to me. It was so noticeable and profound, and once we realized the ground upon which we stood we felt history weighing down on our shoulders. We felt it even before we knew what it was, so that’s something that I definitely remember feeling. Maybe it was circumstance. There wasn’t any traffic that morning – because it was a Sunday morning – and the way in which there were no people around fit into the feeling that it was slightly unusual. You could break this all down into very practical terms, but I also don’t like to limit myself to those practical terms. I like to believe – and I do believe – that when you enter that or any other space, you pick up on something. I don’t know how to quantify or qualify that, and the fact that I can’t is one of those mysteries in life that I want to hang onto.

I wanted to talk to you about the relationship you had to your cinematographer on this film, Andrew Droz Palermo, who has shot a lot of great looking films, but he also co-directed one of the best documentaries of the past few years, Rich Hill. When you’re dealing with subject matter that unfolds in long, observational takes as it does here, did you know you needed someone as a cinematographer who could display that raw sense of intimacy?

David Lowery: I definitely did, but I love that you mentioned Rich Hill because I hadn’t thought of this film from a documentarian’s perspective. I didn’t think about my needs as being documentary-like, but now that you mention it they definitely were. Andrew would love to hear that because I think it’s a beautiful and true sentiment. I definitely knew that the challenge for the cinematographer here would be to create images that endure, both across time and length. Images in this film need to last longer than a normal image is usually allowed to appear on screen. I knew in that sustenance there would be a verisimilitude that would emerge simply because the shot lasts for a normally longer period of time.

I went to Andrew for two reasons. One was because he has a background in micro-budget, independent film and he could roll with the punches that micro-budgets always deal you. (laughs) But the other reason was that because I knew he had an eye that was well refined and leaned more towards fine art. I wanted this film to have the appearance of fine art. I wanted the imagery to be more akin to still photography that you might see in a museum more than an average motion picture. I knew his tastes would lean towards that style while also adhering to the needs of a film that had no time or money. It was that balance that I was looking after, but now that you mention his background as a documentary filmmaker, it makes perfect sense that he’s far more right for this film than I initially intended because he knew how to watch real life transpire and capture it in ways that’s beautiful or meaningful. Even in something bigger like You’re Next, which he also shot, you can see that eye. I joke and say that I could stand staring at a doorway for hours, and he could probably do the exact same thing. He could make that doorway that I want to stare at aesthetically and dramatically pleasing. (laughs)

Something that ties into the film’s raw, naturalistic feeling is the subtle sound design. I know how hard it is to make a film out of so many long takes as you’ve done here, especially in your given choice of a full-frame format, to marry an appropriate soundtrack to the image. It’s so delicate to capture bugs in the summer air or the sound of a passing train whistle in the distance when making this kind of film, and even more so when your film doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. After shooting, how much consideration was given to the sound design?

David Lowery: We paid tremendous amounts of consideration to the sound design, and more than anyone might expect because we shot a lot of this film without sound. A lot of it was designed in post-production. Even the scene you see early in the film where Rooney is carrying a lot of baggage and garbage to the curb of her house had to be done in post. For various reasons, the sound from that scene wasn’t usable, and our sound designer rebuilt all of it from scratch. A lot of the material where the ghost is alone in the house was shot at a different frame rate, so naturally that just had no sound to begin with. Almost everything you hear in the film is a result of a decision that either I made or my sound designer Johnny Marshall made from sitting together for many, many, many hours last fall while working on this.

Eventually, I just told him to over-design everything. I said to put a sound to everything. If there’s a mood to a scene, make sure we hear that mood. If it’s scary, make it sound scary. If he had to make it sound like a James Wan horror film, I wanted him to do it. (laughs) I wanted him to design the sound to the hilt, and then we would pull everything back. The cut of the film with all the amplified sound is kind of fascinating. The best example of how the film changed is when Casey and Rooney get up because they hear a noise in the night, and they get up to investigate, there were so many scary sounds, and when they turned on the light over their piano there was this shock stinger that was ridiculous, but it was funny to look at. (laughs) That version of the film was just exhausting to watch, though, so we had to just cut everything back to basically nothing. That was the best way to sculpt it and make it flow. Everything was intentional, but very little of it was what we captured on set. If we had dialogue or something specific like plates being thrown around, we would record that sound, and all of that is in the movie, but then we augmented it by adding and subtracting from it. We built all the sound, even the silences and room tones, and it was a process for which I give Johnny all the credit because he really went to town on it.

A Ghost Story opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Varsity Cinemas in Toronto and at International Village in Vancouver on Friday, July 21. It opens in Halifax, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Victoria on July 28 and in Montreal on August 4.

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