Director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story demands a lot from its audience. The film “stars” Casey Affleck as an unnamed composer, who shares a ramshackle home in the country with Rooney Mara. When Affleck unexpectedly dies in front of their home, he re-appears as a sheet-covered ghost, complete with the traditional eye sockets.
What transpires next expands through time as the ghost trails his previous home through its various incarnations, caught in a circle of decay and rebirth as he is forced to watch time move on without him. Filmed in long, slow takes (including the already-infamous scene where Kata Mara sits and eats an entire pie) and featuring long stretches with no dialogue, A Ghost Story is not your typical summer blockbuster fare, which makes it all the more refreshing.
A haunting meditation on love and one’s relationship to home, the film persists in a state of deep melancholy, even as the audience recognizes the sheer absurdity of assigning emotions to a walking bed-sheet. It’s a difficult balancing act, but Lowery manages to get the tone of the film just right, allowing us to emphasize with Affleck’s timeless longing for Mara, while leaving room for some much-needed levity.
We caught up with Lowery following the film’s screening at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal to discuss the process of directing someone under a sheet, why he had to shoot the film in secret, and the importance of Kesha.
A Ghost Story is in theatres now.
Bad Feeling Mag: As someone who just moved, I could really relate to the film — what about moving stuck with you? The movie was spurred from an actual move you did from Texas to LA, what about that move made you think it would be a kernel for this film?
David Lowery: Well in very specific terms, my wife and I had an argument about that move, and we don’t argue that much. And so it felt like a very seismic event in our relationship, and to be honest it felt like a scene from a movie [laughs], it felt like dialogue from a film, and as someone who tries to notice those things in my life when they occur and makes no bones about pulling from real life events to provide material for my movies, I quickly seized upon that argument as fodder for some movie further down the line. And so that was the actual incident that made me think that this theme might be worth exploring further.
What I began to unpack about myself in a very therapeutic fashion, was that I have been very attached to every house I’ve ever lived in, and that has to do with the way my parents raised me, and the home that they established for me and my siblings, and the tendency I have to try to re-create that home wherever I go…sometimes at the expense of progress in my own life. So, recognizing that was both valuable for me as a human being, but also something that I wanted to explore further, and it just felt like the kind of thing I wanted to make a film about, particularly because all of my films usually wind up dealing with home and very often empty houses [laughs]. So it was something that I just wanted to dig into a little further.
You’ve said you had to make this film in secret, what about the film pushed you to make it in that fashion?
Well, I wanted to make it quickly for one thing. I knew I had a limited window in which I could make a movie if I wanted to, and that quick window necessitated a small budget, an vice-versa. I knew that this would be a risky endeavor, I knew that this was a film that would be challenging not just for me as a filmmaker but for audiences, and I didn’t want to put that on anybody else’s shoulders. I also didn’t want to have to spend time going and trying to explain to other people why they should invest in a movie like this. I wanted to be able to put my money where my mouth was and just make it on my own terms. And luckily I was in a position where I was able to do that. I was able to get it up and running very quickly, and I did not have to ask anyone’s permission, and that’s a luxury as a filmmaker.
So the secrecy came second, it wasn’t directly related to that, but once it was up and running and I hadn’t told anyone else about it other than my close collaborators, I felt that it would behoove us not to have any expectations or anticipations attached to the project in advance. I wanted to function in a vacuum. I wanted it to be a completely free, creative experience, and to do that in this industry, one has to keep it completely secret because everyone talks, everyone talks about everything. And I’ve had the experience with all my films of seeing them announced in the trades far too early. And that’s fine, that’s the way the industry works, but when that happens people start to look forward to your movie, or to assign certain expectations to them, or to build preconceived notions as to what they might be. And it’s not a large number of people, but just some people, whether it’s just agents or people reading Variety, or movie fans who look for news online. And I didn’t want to have that experience with this film, I wanted it to exist in a vacuum until it was ready to be seen.
Going back to what you said about challenging the audience, there’s a lot in this film that will challenge traditional movie audiences — for example, you have these very long shots and very little dialogue — why was that interesting to you now when most new films are cut so fast? Were you worried that audiences would want to pull out their phones?
I wasn’t worried about it, because I knew that the audience for this movie was going to be smaller than for Transformers 5, you know what I mean? I knew going into it that there was a huge portion of the movie-going public that would just have no interest in this, and wouldn’t go see it in the first place. So I was relatively confident that we would find the right audience, and a lot of that confidence stems from my own taste as a movie-goer. This is the kind of movie that I would be delighted to go see [laughs]. I made it expressly for myself as a movie-goer and I know that I’m not alone in my tastes. So I knew that the small, or hopefully not too small, but probably relatively small number of folks who go see movies like this and find them to be wonderful experiences would appreciate what I was doing, and maybe, if I was lucky, there would be a few stray folks trickling in from the multiplex who might not know what they’re in for, but who would come away pleasantly surprised, and who might have their understanding and perceptions as to what cinema can be slightly expanded.
How did you settle on the tone for the film? It could diverge into comedy or despair very easily — how did the image of the sheet tie into that? Was it difficult to maintain the tone that you wanted?
The sheet was always there, from before this movie existed, I knew I wanted to make a movie about a ghost in a bed-sheet, because I just loved that image. I love seeing it in other films, and I love seeing it in Halloween. My brother dressed up as the ghost for Halloween once, and I was such a big fan of Halloween that my costumes were always very complex, and the bed-sheet was a little too simple for my tastes, but there’s something about it that’s definitely tied to nostalgia, whether it’s E.T. when E.T. dressed up as the ghost, or Charlie Brown’s Halloween special.
The very first movie I ever made when I was seven was a remake of Poltergeist, which I had not seen myself yet, but I made my own version of it, and it starred my brother in a bed-sheet. So it’s something that’s been around in my subconscious for a long time, and it’s an image that I love because it is so child-like and naive, and so tactile, and yet it still is understood to mean a very specific thing. It’s representative of something very specific and very sad and melancholy, and I love the dichotomy between the inherent humour of that image and the underlying sadness of it. And I thought that was enough to hang a movie on.
That tone that we were after, was inclusive of the laughter that most audiences experience when they first see that ghost sit up — it’s a funny image, and we are 100% embracing that…but the important thing for us was for that laughter to fade at a certain point. And there are certainly built-in release valves where people can laugh again later on, but at a certain point, hopefully within the first five minutes of meeting this ghost, you stop laughing at him and begin to engage with him on a very empathetic level. And that tone was difficult to achieve on-set, primarily because the ghost consistently thwarted our efforts to find that empathy and that pathos and that gravity. It was a very difficult costume to wear, it was very cumbersome and lugubrious to photograph, and there is a lot of footage of Casey and the other actor who wore it from time to time tripping over that sheet, and that would make us laugh on-set, but of course that was the wrong kind of laughter. We could have made the Abbot and Costello version of this movie very easily, but finding just the right balance of humour and pathos was a constant tightrope walk.
How do you direct someone under a sheet? Most of Casey’s performance is under that sheet — people at the screening last night were saying how much emotion they felt radiating from him. How much of that is due to his work, and how much is just having a blank shape that we can project emotions onto?
It’s largely due to the blank canvas that that ghost is, because while I initially thought that I wanted Casey’s performance to come though loud and clear underneath the sheet, I realized within a few days that that wouldn’t work. The more he acted under the sheet, the less the sheet felt like a ghost and the more it felt like an actor with a bed-sheet over their head. So we just removed the performance, we ironed it out, we minimized it, and the simpler the performance got, the more the ghost started to come into his own as a character. So at the end of the day, most of the acting was very subtle body language, a lot of very slow movement, and a great deal of patience, because it involved a lot of standing still for long periods of time. I’m sure he was asking himself, “What the hell am I doing here?!”
How difficult is that for an actor? First of all you’re telling him we won’t see his face, and also you don’t want him to do barely anything — was that a steep learning curve? You’re basically eliminating all of an actor’s assets.
Yeah, you’re yanking their toolbox right out of their hands. But I don’t know if every actor would be as willing to do this as Casey was, but he certainly was excited by the challenge and understood what we were trying to do, and felt possessive towards the character, to the degree that — I’m sure while he was wearing it, sweating in the hot Texas sun, under this ridiculously heavy ghost costume, I’m sure he was asking himself, “What the hell am I doing here?!”
“I just won an Oscar!”
He hadn’t yet [laughs] but the campaign was in his future. But at the same time, I feel like he’s the type of actor who probably relishes that, or almost certainly relishes that. I think we saw that when he was out doing his Oscar campaign while simultaneously directing a very arduous, survivalist drama in the woods. And that is the worst possible decision an actor can make, while trying to wage an Oscar campaign, but he is a glutton for punishment, and will always choose the hardest of any possible path, and this movie certainly was inclusive of that.
What about his relationship with Rooney Mara made you want to reunite them for this after Ain’t Them Bodies Saints?
They just have a wonderful chemistry together. It’s a very natural chemistry that is very easygoing, they just fit together in a beautiful way, and because there are so few opportunities in this film to establish the relationship between the two lead characters, I wanted to have an on-screen couple who just radiated that chemistry from the get-go. I didn’t want to have to spend time convincing audiences that they loved each other and had a history together, I wanted that to be present on-screen from frame one. And it’s helpful that they have been in a film together, so there’s meta-history that runs through the relationship in this film, but they also just like each other, and you can see that, that they enjoy spending time with one another and care about one each other. And we noticed that on day one of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and wound up shooting a lot more material of the two of them that was initially in the script, because I just wanted to see more of them on-screen. So my new goal is to make a movie in which one of them does not die or go to jail within the first 10 minutes, because I would just love to watch a relationship between the two of them develop over the course of 90 minutes.
The score is this great mix of a classic horror soundtrack with the Dark Rooms song underpinning everything — what about that song brought to mind this film when you heard it?
That song has a yearning to it, and a desperation that I wanted the film to have. I wanted the movie to exist in the same key and register as that song. It’s so wistful, it’s so beautiful and emotional and sensual, but at the sae time it has this yearning that is so almost painful. And those were exactly the qualities that I wanted to find in the film itself, so it just felt like a natural fit. It certainly influenced the score, in the way that pieces of that song were used for every track of the score, but when discussing the score with Daniel [Hart, who performs as Dark Rooms] I didn’t have too much reference material to give him, we didn’t use a temp score for most of the film — I never do, I try not to use temp scores — but the one thing I did tell him was that I felt that the movie had room to get scary, and that the tone of that terror could be potentially be similar to a John Carpenter 1980’s synthesizer score, so that was the one direction I gave him. And the movie does use that, it goes there a little bit, but he always takes my jumping off points and jumps in his own direction from them, and I love that. I love that I can give him a little potential seed of inspiration and he’ll take it at face-value and use it or not use it, and go off in his own direction. And what he brings back to me is always exactly what the movie needs.
How did Kesha end up in the film?
I…just love Kesha, it’s as simple as that. There’s no greater meaning or no greater answer than that, but it began as an attempt to license one of her songs for the soundtrack, because I thought it would be fun to have a Kesha song playing at that party. That turned into an attempt to get in touch with her, because we thought rather than licensing one of her songs, maybe we could get her to write an original song for the film, and that turned into her coming to Dallas and just hanging out on set for a day. And we added a little beat to make sure we were making use of her, and hopefully audiences who know who she is pick up on the fact that that is her, but it’s a blink and you’ll miss it cameo, and it’s important to probably no one other than me and other Kesha fans that she appears in the film, but it adds something to me. It adds this spirit that she has, and adds this joie-de-vivre that she brings to everything, and it was just a luxury for me to be able to work with her, however briefly, in the one day that we shot that scene, and to have her music on the soundtrack, even though it’s not her singing the song. And more than anything, I hope that it’s the first step in future collaborations, because I would love to keep working with her and find more for her to do in future films. But the short answer is that it just makes me happy.
A Ghost Story is in theatres now.