By Liam Lacey
In director David Lowery’s new film, A Ghost Story, the thrills are more thought-provoking than hair-raising. One of its stars, Casey Affleck, spends most of the film as a mute ghost, covered by a sheet with cut-out eye holes, while Rooney Mara, as the ghost’s grieving widow, eats almost an entire pie in real time. No wonder the film is poised to be the indie hit of 2017.
Lowery, 36, is no newcomer. The eldest of nine children and son of a University of Dallas Catholic theology professor, has been working on film since he left high school and has previously made three features including St. Nick, about two children on the run. His second feature, the moody, modern Western, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, also starred Mara and Affleck.
Last year, he co-wrote and directed the Disney children’s film, Pete’s Dragon, with a (U.S.) $65-million budget. But despite the film’s popularity, he didn’t pull up stakes and move to Hollywood. Instead, during the post-production, he quickly wrote the script for A Ghost Story and last summer, shot the low-budget film (U.S. $100,000) near Austin, Texas. The shoot, much of which took place in a soon-to-be-demolished house, was secretive, partly because of Lowery’s fear the idea would fail.
Although A Ghost Story is such a distinctive experience it’s effectively spoiler-proof, the following interview reveals many plot points. So be warned. Original Cin spoke to Lowery at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto.
Liam Lacey: You’ve written and spoken about your love of various Asian directors, especially the Taiwanese director, Tsai Ming Liang. I’d like to read you something he said in an interview a few years ago which I felt was applicable to A Ghost Story:
“The movies that we know today are so dominated by storytelling. My question is: Is film really only about storytelling? Couldn’t films have different kinds of functions? Of course my films have something like a story. But I direct my attention to daily life and living. In our own lives, there’s no story.”
David Lowery: I completely subscribe to everything in that quote. I like to go to movies that have a well-told story but I don’t know that’s necessarily my forte and while I sometimes aspire to that but I like to separate myself from that as well. I find that narrative incident is just a bunch of clutter sometimes. Rather than a conventional mystery, I’m more interested in, say, someone knocking on the door but someone can’t come to the door because they’re in the shower. Just finding those quotidian details you can focus on and regard with empathy or sympathy or humour or whatever might be appropriate to the given film is wonderful to me.
L.L.: With a ghost providing the point-of-view, we know who is doing the sympathetic watching.
A. Completely. I’ve talked about this a few times lately — this sense of watching that is free of voyeurism, that’s not tawdry or sensational. You’re just an objective participant in a moment. Let’s not even call it a scene. Let’s just call it a moment and recognize the value of being able to participate however inactively or without articulation and appreciate that. With film, you can look at the same image that a photograph can capture but have a different experience because the director, or storyteller, is the one imposing the sense of time, how long you look before the image changes to something else.
L.L.: I like the moments when the audience is sort of in on the joke, as in the sequence when the ghost, after a drawn-out delay, rises up from the corpse on the gurney.
D.L.: Sure. You know what’s going to happen but you enjoy the sense of anticipation. We had a lot of fun with that — finding just the right boiling point before the ghost sits up, and it’s incredibly satisfying how it works.
L.L.: When you decided to abandon conventional cause-and-effect and chronology, aren’t there an overwhelming number of possible directions to go?
D.L.: It was actually pretty straightforward, partly because I wrote so fast. The most I can say about it is that, as I wrote, I asked myself ‘What would I like to see next?’ I wasn’t thinking so much of a story, though it does have three acts and a beginning, middle and an end. Looking at it now, I’m almost petrified by the different potential directions I could have taken.
L.L.: On a practical level, didn’t you think ‘I’d like to go into the future but that could get extremely expensive.’
D.L.: I’ve never limited myself during the writing process. I’ve always assumed I can pull it off. The futuristic city — I knew enough about visual effects I knew do it myself and pull it off. Far more daunting was the prospect of finding someone to let us tear down a house for the home destruction scene. We didn’t have enough money to buy a house so we had to get one for free.
L.L.: There’s that startling comic scene when the ghost tries to end it all, which triggered a strange resonance for me. It recalled some episodes of the cartoon series, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Casper, after being rejected by human children, attempts suicide by lying on the railway tracks, or jumping off a cliff.
D.L.: That’s really weird you should mention that. In the early scene when Casey and Rooney are lying on the couch, originally the TV was playing watching a Casper cartoon. They were in the public domain and it fit but I decided it was a bit too on the nose. Also, it got me thinking about how Casper is really a dead child which is very unsettling and disturbing.
L.L: You’re mining a strange area, between grief and comedy, without directing the audience how to react. Can you tell me a little about walking that tightrope?
D.L: There’s that scene where there’s a second ghost and the two ghosts communicate. Originally, there was just a wave between them but we loved the scene so much we kept shooting, much more than we ever could use. And then in the editing, I wanted more and we added subtitles, which was both funny and sad. But if there’s too much humour, it ceases to work. We shot scenes where the tail of the ghost’s sheet got caught in door and he would turn around and look at it. It was funny but in a slapstick way. The image of the ghost was so distinct and, within the frame, so monumental, we had to let it just be itself.
L.L.: Now that you’ve got this out of your system, can you go back to more conventional filmmaking, or will A Ghost Story haunt you?
D.L.: Definitely. I found I was in my comfort zone here. It won’t be appropriate for every film I make but I think you’ll see the repercussions in whatever I do. I certainly feel like this is a high-water mark in terms of the kind of filmmaking I want to engage in, something I’ll surely return to.
A Ghost Story. Directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Opens July 21 in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Varsity Cinemas, and in Vancouver at International Village. Opens July 28 in Halifax, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Victoria; August 4 in Montreal; and other cities throughout the summer.
Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather.