Here’s a concept that shouldn’t work: a haunting meditation on life, love, death, and time starring Casey Affleck as a ghost in a bed sheet. That’s the film that writer/director David Lowery delivered at this year’s Sundance film festival and somehow ended up being an acclaimed hit of the fest. Lowery isn’t a stranger to taking bizarre premises and turning them into almost inexplicably moving genre flicks. Just last summer he updated the poppy 60’s Disney movie Pete’s Dragon into a tearful ode to childhood imagination. It was a blockbuster that shouldn’t have been nearly as resonant and satisfying, yet somehow Lowery pulled it off. For his follow up, the guy returned to his indie roots and delivered something even more unexpectedly poignant in A Ghost Story.
The film stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a struggling couple trapped in a dying relationship and a tiny house. One morning, Affleck dies in an accident and returns as a ghost. However, it’s not some glossy Hollywood special effect of a spectre. Nope, it’s the poor man’s Halloween special: a bed sheet with eyeholes. Obviously, that looks ridiculous and Lowery has some fun with the absurdity of his presence. Yet as a the film marches on through it’s poetically haunting images, that sheet ghost doesn’t seem so silly. Affleck’s spectre stands by Mara through her grief, and then continues to haunt the house through new generations. He does the usual poltergeist routine (both spooky and goofy in the costume), and lingers longer to observe lives and time pass through his presence. Shot in a series of beautiful long takes and a nostalgic square shaped aspect ratio, the film sneaks up on viewers to deliver one of the most profound and haunting ghost stories in years—all that with a bed sheet ghost. This Lowery guy is something else.
After a successful bow at Sundance that built hype, A Ghost Story is finally opening on Toronto screens this weekend and audiences can expect to see something that they’ve never seen before in this genre. CGMagazine got a chance to sit down with David Lowery before A Ghost Story’s release to discuss bizarre motivations and techniques behind the project, as well as how he was openly terrified about whether or not he could pull it off. So, please read on for a chat with a man who is quickly becoming one of the most fascinating genre filmmakers of his generation.
CGMagazine: First off, I have to tell you that with A Ghost Story and Pete’s Dragon, you took two images that I couldn’t imagine having a deep emotional connection with and somehow made me cry. So, thanks for that, I think.
David Lowery: *laughs* You’re welcome, I guess. I hope it was a good cry.
CGMagazine: Absolutely. I was curious if both of the movies came from a similar place, in that you took something easy to dismiss as silly and found ways to make it resonate.
David Lowery: No, I wasn’t challenging myself to turn something impersonal into something personal. But I did see the opportunity in both films to do something that mattered a lot to me. They are both personal in different ways, but they are both quite personal. I can’t make a movie unless it’s personal in some way. I think that’s why they resonate with audiences; it’s easy to pick up on that sincerity.
CGMagazine: Did A Ghost Story start with some sort of personal fascination with an image of a bed sheet ghost and wanting to reclaim it?
David Lowery: Well, I didn’t necessarily want to reclaim it, but I felt that image had a lot of potential. I felt there was a whole lot going on there. I didn’t know how I’d use it, but I always knew I’d make a movie with a bed sheet ghost in it. This was the movie that I ultimately made and I think it was a perfect use of that image. But it was definitely something rattling around in my head for a while.
CGMagazine: Was there something in particular about that image that stuck with you?
David Lowery: I just liked the image, honestly. It made me laugh but also had a naiveté to it that was very sweet and melancholy. I wanted to use that, I just didn’t know how or in what way. But I knew there was enough there for a movie.
CGMagazine: How did people react when you started sharing that idea?
David Lowery: Everyone got it. The script was only 30 pages—which threw people—but I sent it out with some photos of very simple, beautifully lit locations that I photoshopped a bed sheet ghost into. I included that so that everyone had an idea of what the movie would look like and I think it helped. They got it. You’d see that image and regardless of any practical concerns, they understood the intent.
CGMagazine: I enjoyed how you played with that image, as well as what the ghost is and what it represents as the film rolls along. It’s hard to predict where you’ll go or how the tone will shift. Was that a process of experimentation when writing or something that came naturally to you?
David Lowery: It was in the script. I wrote that largely in one sitting, so I can safely say it was all there from the beginning *laughs*. But I didn’t really know what it would be when I started writing. I just kept writing and writing and it took that direction. I’m usually a writer who doesn’t write much. I get paralyzed by my own expectations while writing and will get a word or two out every day and then get stuck. When I find myself in the opposite situation, where the words are flowing out, I just keep going. I don’t want it to stop until the movie is done. In this case, since the script is so short I did it all in one sitting and I didn’t go back to figure it out until it was all there on the page. Very little changed from that first draft to the final film, so it was all pretty much baked in.
CGMagazine: How did Casey Affleck react to spending most of the movie under a sheet? That’s such a weird thing to ask of an actor.
David Lowery: He and I have a relationship at this point where I can just text him and say, “Hey, I’m making a ghost movie in Texas, you want to be in it? You have to wear a bed sheet.” And he said, “Sure.” He found that text recently and showed it to somebody. I pitched it in such a nonchalant way that I doubt if he took it seriously. Then a few weeks later, I sent him the script with the costume. I wouldn’t be surprised if he never read the script until he got to Texas because he just enjoys making movies with me and he trusts me, for better or worse. There was never a moment where I had to sell it to him. He was just down for the cause.
CGMagazine: Did you do ghost movement rehearsal to see how that would work with the sheet?
David Lowery: Yes, but while we were shooting. We threw out a lot of material where it didn’t work. The more that he performed, the less it worked. The solution as you see in the finish filmed was very little movement and the few movements there were had to be very deliberate. Casey, as it turns out, has a very particular walk. You don’t notice on the street, but put a sheet on his head and it stands out. It didn’t feel like a ghost, so we had to plan all of his movements very carefully and subtly.
CGMagazine: I’ve read that every day on set you were petrified that this wasn’t going to work and didn’t feel comfortable until you saw it cut together. What kept you going if you were so worried?
David Lowery: There were little moments here and there that I knew worked. I have to give credit to my producer Toby Halbrooks, who was completely convinced this would work in spite of my own lack of confidence. He kept me going. And people were really dedicated to it. As a director, I had to respect their commitment despite my own doubts. I had to keep persevering because everyone around me was doing their best and I owed it to them. So even though I had my doubts, I kept them private. That’s what you have to do with every movie, but this one was just a little more risky than previous projects. This one had something in the centre of every frame that terrified me because it could have fallen flat on its face—and literally did sometimes. So it was challenging, but if you get deep enough into a project at a certain point you can’t stop.
CGMagazine: I was pleasantly surprised that you did use humour to acknowledge the absurdity of the whole concept. Was there any concern doing that might prevent you from going to the more serious places that you intended?
David Lowery: Oh I felt that humour was necessary. It’s such an absurd concept that you have to let people laugh at it. So I sprinkled little release valves throughout the film where you could laugh and it was obvious that was the intention. So that wave between the two ghosts was an important bit of comic relief. That was important to me. I think humour is a wonderful gateway that allows you to open up emotionally and facilitates other emotional experiences. That was very important.
CGMagazine: There are some genuinely creepy sequences as well. Do you have any interest in doing a more straightforward horror movie?
David Lowery: Very much so. I get scared very easily. Even whatever Paranormal Activity movie people consider to be the worst made me cover my eyes. I went to see all of them and they terrified me. I love getting scared. I love horror films. I see almost every one of them. I’ve seen all of the recent ones except for Lights Out because the trailer scared me too much. So my goal is to make a horror movie where I would be too scared to sit in on the soundmix. That would be fun. I want to have that experience. That’s on my bucket list.
CGMagazine: It must have been such a relief when this premiered in Sundance and everyone responded so well.
David Lowery: I wasn’t in the room. I can’t sit through my own premieres; it’s too nerve wracking and anxiety inducing. I learned my lesson two films ago and now I just don’t do it anymore.
CGMagazine: Really, I figured it would be the opposite, where being by yourself not knowing what was happening in the screening would get you thinking about all the worst-case scenarios.
David Lowery: Oh I still go through all the worst-case scenarios, don’t worry about that. Watching it is just a worst-case scenario in its own way. Every atom in your body is fully conscious and yet it feels like a dream. I get more out of it to wait in another room than to sit there.
CGMagazine: Because this was such an experiment, did you have any sequences that you had to cut because they didn’t work?
David Lowery: There are a handful of things that we dropped. We had a few scenes explaining the rules of the world and the way in which the ghost participates in the world around him. We shot lots of scenes of the ghost trying to leave the house and not being able to, running through walls, that sort of thing. Basically, we did our version of that scene in Ghost where Patrick Swayze learns how to pick things up. All of that just ended up feeling redundant. Other than that, it’s pretty close to the script and there weren’t a lot of discoveries along the way. It was a fairly organic and simple process to put the movie together. We had happy accidents but no unexpected discoveries.
CGMagazine: What was your thinking behind the square aspect ratio?
David Lowery: I like that aspect ratio and wanted to use it for a while, but I wanted to wait until I had a project that warranted it so that it didn’t feel like a simple affectation. This film felt appropriate because it was about a character stuck in a box. I felt that I could combine the thematic subject matter with the aspect ratio, and I also just liked the aesthetic of it because it feels like a home movie or an old photograph…
CGMagazine: Or a slide show…
David Lowery: Yeah, that’s actually what I think about the most because slideshows have those curved edges that I had. No one will ever sit through a slideshow again, but for those of us who were forced to sit through our aunt and uncle’s vacation slideshow every holiday, that image will go beyond just being an Instagram feature and feel like something sentimental and nostalgic.
CGMagazine: Were you influenced by Gus Van Sant’s Elephant at all? Because I felt both films had a similar tone as well as the use of that aspect ration and style of shooting.
David Lowery: Yeah, that was the first time that I saw a modern movie in that aspect ratio and I remember him saying in interviews that he liked the way in which that aspect ratio towered over an audience as opposed to enveloping them. That statement stuck with me. I liked the idea that the image could tower over audiences and that was definitely the first time that I ever thought about that aspect ratio and the ways in which I might use it. That was also my introduction to slow cinema. Those movies were very influenced by Bella Tarr and it was only through Van Sant talking about them that I even heard of them. That was a very formative experience as a filmmaker for me.
CGMagazine: Did you finish your script for Peter Pan?
David Lowery: No, we’re still working on it. I should be working on it right now to be honest *laughs*. It’s taking a back seat to A Ghost Story at the moment and we shot a movie with Robert Redford over the spring. So we had to finish that too. Now that I take a break on all of that over the fall, I’ll be turning my attention back to that and trying to make it work.
CGMagazine: What’s your take on Peter Pan? Because what you did with Pete’s Dragon was so far from what I was expecting, I’m very curious to see what you do.
David Lowery: It’s tough. Pete’s Dragon I had free reign from Disney to do whatever. But with Peter Pan, you can’t really do that. So I’ve got to find a way to make it personal (which I can do because I care about it), fresh (which is hard to do because there are so many versions out there already), and respectful to the original (which is important because there are so many Disney fans out there and ultimately you’re making it for them). So I’ve got to balance all of those things and ultimately that makes it a more challenging project than Pete’s Dragon and there’s a higher risk for failure. But as proved by A Ghost Story, I’m always up for a challenge, so we’ll see what happens.