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One-On-One With Writer-Director David Lowery

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Photo by Bret Curry. Courtesy of A24.

Currently playing in San Francisco, A Ghost Story is the latest feature film from acclaimed writer-director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon). The film follows a white-sheeted ghost, C (Casey Affleck), who returns to his home, seeking to comfort his wife, M (Rooney Mara), following his death. As time passes, C continues to haunt the residence he once shared with his beloved, while new occupants come and go. Shot in 1:33:1 aspect ratio, this intimate portrait of love and grief speaks to the importance of connection, while bringing up life’s big questions to the audience.

Academy Art U News sat down with Lowery during his recent visit to San Francisco, where the director spoke about a variety of topics regarding the film, including the decision behind reuniting his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints co-stars Affleck and Mara, how the director’s own existential fears influenced the film, and what advice he has for Academy students pursuing filmmaking.

I read that initially this project started out as possibly being a short or an installation. What got it to the point where you decided it was going to be a feature?

I always hoped that it would be a feature-length film, but it had these aspects to it that reminded me of an art installation, so in the back of my mind, I wondered if that would be the appropriate form it would take. Or I was also open to the idea that if it just didn’t quite need to be feature-length, I could cut it down to a short. Because the script was only 30 pages. While I felt that it would support a 90-minute film, I didn’t want to force audiences to sit through a feature because I needed it to be a feature. I wanted it to take the form that it was meant to take, and I was open to whatever that might be. 

This film was quite different from anything I’ve seen before. I was still thinking about the film after I left the screening and on my way home. In today’s political climate, some people use film as a way to escape, but I felt, with this film, it was important to be present. One of the things that I took away from the film was how important it is to observe, to take in your surroundings and to have connection. Are these the kinds of reactions you’re looking for from audiences when they watch the film?

Definitely. Especially in some of those scenes that just last a long time. They’re meant to be meditative. And whether you are focused on the scene for the entire time or whether your mind wanders and circles off to some other place and then comes back, both of those reactions are fine, but that was definitely what the movie was designed to facilitate—an experience that can encompass that. So much of the movie is about the passage of time and the way in which time moves differently. And for great portions of it, it is moving very, very slowly. And that is beautiful to me. I love finding peace in the passage of time and being okay with just being alone with your thoughts and feelings for a little while. This movie is designed to give space to those thoughts and feelings, while also watching a story unfold. So when you have a scene of Rooney Mara doing very little for five minutes, you definitely might be focused on her, if you’re attuned to her performance, but you also might drift off to some other place. Both of those reactions are ones that I welcome. And when I watch a movie that uses a similar form, my mind almost always wanders and I find that a peaceful and beautiful experience to have. I wanted to offer audiences a similar experience.

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Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story. Photo by Bret Curry. Courtesy of A24.

Thinking about the [pie-eating] scene with Rooney. It only lasts four minutes, but you get that feeling of, “Are we supposed to be watching her the entire time?” It almost feels like we’re actually invading her process of grieving and maybe we shouldn’t be watching.

That was exactly the [intention]. I wanted to find a very private moment for her that we shouldn’t see and neither should Casey’s character. And I wanted to spend an uncomfortably long period of time with her in that moment. And so it’s only four…four and a half minutes long, but in the context of a movie, we’re not used to sitting and looking at one thing for that length of time. There’s so much stimulation that we’re used to from motion pictures, that to be given so little is a shock to the system, but it’s a good shock to the system. It’s provocative in the right ways and it makes you ask questions. And that discomfort ultimately, I think, sows dividends in the ultimate experience of watching this film, but it’s definitely meant to be uncomfortable. And it’s meant to be a very gentle invasion of her privacy.

A Ghost Story reunites Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who were in one of your previous films, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. What made you want to bring them back together for this specific project?

The easy answer is that I wanted to make this movie with friends, because it was so different and so unusual and challenging, I didn’t want to have to explain to anybody who didn’t already trust me. But more so than that, I knew that we would have very little time with the two characters together before the husband dies, and I wanted to make sure that we felt like they were a couple. And I wanted to ensure that the love they felt for each other in the complexity of their relationship was ringing loud and clear before we yank him out of the movie. And I knew that they could do that. Their chemistry on our first film was so strong that we wound up writing more scenes for the two of them together because we wanted to see them together on-screen more, and that movie wasn’t meant to be a love story but turned into one because of what they brought to it. So I knew that, within the space of five to eight minutes, they could convey the sense of two people who have spent a long time loving one another and that would provide a platform for the audience once Casey dies and becomes a ghost. A platform for understanding the grief that Rooney feels. And they did it. I mean, all they had to do is lay in bed and make out with each other for five minutes on camera, and you’re like, “That’s a couple who love one another,” and it’s very palpable and very, very electric and I love utilizing them. Someday I’ll make a movie where one of them doesn’t die or go to jail, and we get to watch them together, because they are just wonderful together. 

I found the image of the ghost on-screen very reminiscent of old Charlie Brown and Garfield cartoons, which was very different and at moments, very striking.

And being that Casey spends the majority of the film as the ghost, acting under a sheet, did you find directing to be more of a challenge in getting what you needed on film? 

Initially. Everything involving that ghost was a challenge at first, because it didn’t work the way I thought it would. It was meant to evoke the things you mentioned, like Charlie Brown and Beetlejuice, sort of this charming naïveté to the costume that I thought would extend the performance. And I wanted audiences to recognize Casey under the sheet. I wanted him to be able to perform under that sheet and to use body language to convey things in lieu of dialogue or facial expressions, but that just wasn’t working. So over the course of the shoot, we started to just remove that performance and go back and reshoot things from the beginning of the movie to remove that performance, and ultimately, the ghost worked best when he was doing very, very little. So in terms of what the directing process was like, it was often more about where he’s going to stand or sit in the scene and then beyond that decision, which was a big part of it, I would just explain as we were shooting what he needed to do. I would just call out the actions, one at a time. It was a very mechanical thing, it wasn’t an emotional experience, but we needed to do that for the actual finished product to have the emotional volley that it does, because if we did anything more intuitive, or instinctive or even just me letting him be himself under that sheet, the illusion would just fall away almost immediately.

The music in the film is also very striking and distinctive, and you’ve spoken before on how Daniel [Hart, who handled the film’s soundtrack], took the main song, “I Get Overwhelmed,” and incorporated pieces of it into the overall score. Was that something you had idealized from the start?

The song was the first thing we had and so that was always going to be there in the movie as a centerpiece—actually, it was originally at the beginning but very quickly we realized that scene would come in the middle—and the great thing about working with Daniel now is that we don’t have to talk about things that much.We’ve done enough movies together at this point, that he just sort of gets what the movie needs and I know he’ll complete the picture. My job is getting the movie two-thirds of the way there and he brings it home. I’m sure we talked about using the song as a platform or as the bedrock for the rest of the score, but it wasn’t a big decision. It wasn’t like a light bulb appearing overhead, where we realized that would be the perfect way to utilize the elements of that song or the perfect way to expand the musical world of the film. It just felt like a natural thing to do. I’m sure we talked about it, but more prevalent in my memory is him just bringing in some music and showing me where the song started in there and saying, “If you listen to the string section very, very closely, you’ll detect the string section from the song but it’s been slowed down and turned into something else.” He would always show me how the music related to the song, but it wasn’t a conscious process...that wasn’t our marching orders when it came to writing the score.

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Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in A Ghost Story. Photo by Bret Curry. Courtesy of A24.

The film isn’t a typical ghost story, in that it’s not a horror film in a conventional sense, but it taps into different element of scaredness. While watching the film, the concept of time and being unstuck in time and not being able to do what you want to do, like C wants to comfort M and is unable to; those can be scary topics to face and think about.

Yeah, it’s existentially terrifying, instead of practically terrifying. And a lot of the movie came out of my own existential fears. Those are big questions that everyone asks themselves, you know, “Where do I go after I die?”; “What is my role in life?”; “What am I going to do to make the world a better place?”; “How am I going to fit into the universe as a whole?” Those are gigantic questions that you can either accept or ignore or they can keep you up at night. In my case, they were keeping me up at night and worked their way into this film. It was never meant to be a horror film, but those ideas are frightening. The idea of eternity is frightening. And dealing with it involves engaging those fears on a very practical level. So I love that it could be described as a horror film, in a way, even though it doesn’t function on the levels that audiences might expect.

You wrote, directed and edited this film; do you have a preference of the three?

On a very pragmatic level, I prefer editing because to me that is what I’m best at when it comes to filmmaking and it’s where the movie really reveals itself and comes together. It’s frustrating but fun in equal measure, and at a certain point, it starts to get more fun. As a movie finally reveals itself to you, it is just one of the most satisfying feelings you can have as a filmmaker. But I try not to differentiate between those steps too much, because when I’m writing the script, I’m thinking about how I’m going to edit the scenes I’m writing together. I think about the transitions, I think about the pace and the rhythm and try to build that into the text from the get-go and when I’m on set shooting the film, all those same questions are in mind and I’m also still working on the script and I usually am cutting things together as we go. Once we get to post-production, once again, as they say, you write a movie three times and that’s the third time you write it, so you’re still writing. I usually am thinking about new things that I want to go shoot, to fix problems or fill in gaps. So each of the three stages of the filmmaking process informs the other and they all, for me, fall under the banner of making a movie. You never feel like you stopped one part and moved on to the next. Each step bleeds into the next, but at the end of the day, I definitely look forward to editing, because I know that’s the part where I get to have the most fun. 

At the Academy, we have a class (MPTV 234) where students that are pursuing filmmaking can try their hand at different disciplines, including both writing and directing. What kind of advice do you have for student writers and directors as well as those that are still deciding what part of the filmmaking process they want to pursue?

I think that’s a great opportunity to figure out what you like about the process, because directing isn’t for everybody. It’s the easiest thing to look at it and decide to pursue, because it’s sort of the figurehead of the filmmaking process, but it certainly is stressful and hard and challenging and can wear you out. And some people will discover very quickly that they don’t want to do that and might want to gravitate towards a different part of the process. So figuring that out is helpful. Figuring out whether or not you truly want to be a director is very helpful and you can only do that by directing and really asking yourself thoroughly, “Do I want to commit my life to this?” Because it takes a lot out of you if you’re going to go down that road. It’s a lot of fun, but it also is really challenging and it’s obviously getting harder and harder to make a living doing it, so you just have to be ready to really commit to it and commit to it fully. You have to be ready to be uncomfortable for a long period of time. [laughs] You have to get used to discomfort, because it never gets comfortable, regardless of whether you’re able to make a living during it or not, it’s a very uncomfortable job to have.

But the biggest piece of advice I can give anyone is to just keep learning and whether that involves making films, or watching films, or reading books and doing things that have nothing to do with movies, just keep trying to figure out how to make what you are making better and never be satisfied with what you’ve made yourself. Because it always can get better, and that pursuit of betterness will allow you to grow, not only as a filmmaker, but as a human being. And I think the key to succeeding is just to keep trying to get better, because at a certain point, people will start to recognize the quality that you’re not necessarily achieving—but hopefully that you will achieve it—but you’re pursuing. And that pursuit is what really counts. 

 

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story opens nationwide on Friday, July 28.