“I still am dumbfounded that I’m actually here talking about it,” director David Lowery told The A.V. Club when we spoke to him in New York last month about his new film A Ghost Story. Making the tiny project in lieu of taking a vacation after finishing his Disney remake Pete’s Dragon, Lowery wasn’t even sure he could pull it off.
A Ghost Story casts Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as a couple unnerved by the strange noises in their home. When Affleck’s unnamed character dies, he returns as a ghost that looms in a white sheet—your typical Halloween-costume spirit. The image is absurd, yes, but Lowery imbues it with eeriness as his tale unfolds.
The A.V. Club: Why are you “dumbfounded” that you’re talking about this movie?
David Lowery: When we were making it, we weren’t sure if it would work. We were certain that even if it did work it would not achieve this level of release. We were like, “Okay, this will be something we release online and maybe five people like it.” So the fact that it’s happening in the way that it is happening is amazing.
AVC: Why did you think it wouldn’t work?
DL: I thought [the ghost] would be laughable. In my mind he had the right qualities. I knew that we could make this ghost feel less like a cartoon character, or less like a stunt, and more like a really meaningful presence. And it was a very profound and powerful image in my mind. But as we started to shoot it, it just looked stupid. Consistently. And it wasn’t until the second or third week of production we started to finally figure out how to shoot the ghost the right way, how to make him move the right way and how to achieve that haunting quality that we were after. But in the early days, I just was devastated every single day because it felt so silly.
I’m very good at maintaining a stiff upper lip and being a director who inspires confidence in the crew through my own confidence. But this one was really hard. I had so little confidence that I just would look around at the crew and think, “Man, they all think I’m an idiot right now for persevering. We should really quit right now before we get too far into this.”
AVC: What changes did you make to how you shot the ghost and its movements?
DL: We had to remove the actor from underneath it. So the initial idea was Casey would be under the sheet and you would know it was him. You would recognize the body language and he would be able to perform. And that was an incorrect way to approach this character. So in the early scenes we shot with him you can very clearly can recognize his walk. He has a very specific walk. And when you put a sheet over his head it’s even more clear that it’s him. You notice it in a different way. It just felt clunky and silly and, no offense to him, it just looked dumb. He was trying his best. We kept trying that.
I wanted to have the ghost entering and exiting rooms a lot. I wanted it to be a very physical presence because we went for a very physical costume. But as we went on, as we kept shooting, we started to have him move less and less. And then we started having him move more slowly, and then we started shooting him at a different frame rate so he would have a more ethereal quality. And by the last week of production, we sort of realized that he functioned best when he was completely still and when he had to move those moves needed to be incredibly deliberate.
He couldn’t use any of his own intuition. What had to happen was I had to be there on set giving verbal cues as we were shooting, saying, “Turn your head to the left, very slowly. Hold it. Hold it. Now walk forward very, very slowly.” It became a situation in which I was just basically puppeteering him and he was responding. Then we wrapped. We started putting the movie together. And we still had a lot of the early material that had that clunkiness to it, and we went back and reshot all of that and eventually managed to make a ghost that functioned the way it was supposed to work.
AVC: So was Casey under there the whole time still?
DL: No, because by the time we realized the performance didn’t need to carry through we also realized we could put someone else under there. So when we did those reshoots or those pick ups, it was our art director, David Pink, who was the same height and size. He selflessly assumed that role and did a great job as well. It was remarkable how seamless that was. Once you remove the actor from the role it really doesn’t matter.
AVC: Who this ghost was before death is everything and in some ways it’s nothing. Did your conception of how you’d be dealing with identity in the film change when you realized that the ghost shouldn’t recognizable as the person playing him?
DL: None of the human protagonists have names because I wanted to make their identity less specific. I didn’t want Casey and Rooney’s characters to be more defined than the ghost. So when I wrote the script, initially they had names and I felt that I was connecting to them too much because of those names, so I just removed them. And that helped maintain an elusive quality that added a malleability. You’re able to set aside those attachments that you would have had if you had understood who [Affleck’s character] was as a human being more.
And he gradually, I think, devolves as a character to a certain extent. The first time that David, our art director, wore the sheet, was in the scene where Casey and Rooney come to visit the house for the first time because they’re all in the scene together. So that was the first time we needed someone else under there. He said, “I don’t think Casey would recognize himself at that point. He doesn’t even necessarily recognize who he is in the scene.” I was like, “That’s a really interesting idea.” I hadn’t taken it that far, but after a couple 100 years, yeah, your personality probably just fades away. Especially when you’re not interacting with someone.
AVC: It’s like the other ghost in the house across the way essentially saying, “I don’t know who I’m waiting for anymore.” Was that in the script to begin with?
DL: That came later. As those themes started to emerge, that dialogue came to fruition. It was originally not even in the script. That exchange was limited to the wave. And part of that was I thought it was sad and haunting but also funny. It made me laugh. So that was meant to be a little release valve for the audience. To let them know that it’s okay to laugh. In the edit, I kept making it longer and wanting there to be more than that wave. And I was like, why can’t they just talk to each other? That makes sense, that at least these spirits could talk to each other. And then the dialogue became a way to underline those themes a little further. And to take what is initially a very funny moment and add an increasingly bittersweet quality to it.
AVC: There are moments of humor throughout the movie. You hear the log line and you might expect silliness. What intrigued you about the idea of having a ghost represented as a sheet, which does have this childlike quality to it?
DL: I won’t lie. Part of it is that it makes me laugh. I thought the idea of doing a traditional haunted house movie, with a ghost that looked like this, was just really funny. And we kind of go into that with the Spanish-speaking family. I was like, “Let’s just remake Poltergeist, literally, but have the ghost be visible and have it be someone wearing a sheet.” So that symbol makes me laugh.
But I also love that it is such a naive and childlike image, and yet it means something so sad. If you unpack that image, you are left with the concept of a human being who can’t let go and is stuck in one place for all eternity, and is haunting people or terrorizing people—whatever that ghost might be doing, there’s a lot going on there. It’s meant to represent someone who is dead, which is a heavy thing for a kid to be wearing on Halloween when you really think about it. So I like the idea of taking this symbol and not just relying on the sight gag that it inherently is.
AVC: How did you approach the sound design and getting those creaky, haunted-house moments?
DL: The sound designer was Johnny Marshall, who I worked with on Upstream Color. He’s really great. He’s got this little home studio in Dallas, that he does all of his movies out of. He really just digs in deep. So with this movie I wanted it to have a lot of the tropes of a classic haunted-house movie. Part of that we got just from picking that house, which was very creaky already and made all sorts of scary noises all on its own. In fact, the opening scene, when Casey and Rooney are on the couch, and she says, “There are weird noises in this house,” that was just a noise that happened and she just responded to it. So we had a lot of that stuff going on already.
And then when we started the sound design process I told Johnny to just dig in, make it scary, just go 100-percent horror movie with the sound design and we’ll use that as a starting place and then we’ll pull it back and make it more restrained and find the peaks and valleys so that when something scary happens, like they get awoken in the middle of the night, we can let that be scary and have it be a very unsettling sound that hangs over that whole scene in the way that you would expect from a horror film. But then that shot doesn’t cut, it’s just her standing there and him exploring the house, and over the course of that shot, the scariness just decays and falls away and carries you into a much more intimate, quiet moment.
AVC: How did you settle on that Dark Rooms song “I Get Overwhelmed” to use as an emotional theme?
DL: Well, Daniel [Hart] was doing the score for Pete’s Dragon with me and at the same time he was working on that album. So he was sharing music with me as he was writing it and he played that song for me and I got 100-percent obsessed with it—I could not stop listening to it. And it was right around the time when I was putting this movie together and I just wrote it into the script. Casey and Rooney are basically playing me and my wife so his character was an undefined artist of some sort and it wasn’t really defined in the script. And then I was like, “Let’s just make him a musician and he’s going to play this song for her.” And I wrote in a scene where Rooney just listens to the song on headphones and we just hold on her face for five minutes, because I knew that that song and her face would hold that scene together and it would justify its duration. Daniel, thankfully, was kind enough to let us use it.
AVC: Can you elaborate on this being you and your wife?
DL: Ultimately I think the movie’s about transition. It’s about moving on from anything and letting go of whatever you need to let go of that’s holding you back. In my life, I’m an incredibly nostalgic person, a very sentimental person, and I find that those attributes, while they are helpful and comforting in some regard, also do hold me back. And in one particular instance it was causing a lot of friction between me and my wife because we were needing to make some big life decisions about where we were going to live and I was throwing a temper tantrum because I didn’t want to leave the place that we were in for purely sentimental reasons—there was nothing practical about it whatsoever. But my sentimentality was getting the better of me.
So that’s sort of the seed of where this movie came from, but I didn’t want it to just literally be that, to be about that, and so I like the idea of movies that transform as you watch them. Movies that reveal themselves gradually and so, because there are certain tropes that I could lean into with the idea of a ghost haunting the people who are close to him in his life, I knew I could set this movie up in such a way that you think it’s going to be about the two of them, and then I could pull the rug out from under you 45 minutes in and start to reveal what the movie’s actually about.
And that would, in a way, create a sense of a journey. You don’t know what the destination is at first and the movie is going to gradually reveal that over the course of its running time, whereas if I had laid that out as my thesis from the beginning I don’t think it would have sustained itself. So we definitely were always joking that for the first 45 minutes of the movie we’re just remaking Ghost, and then you bring that story to a close and the movie keeps going and it keeps going and it keeps redefining itself and every time it redefines itself it gets closer to being about what it’s actually about.
AVC: You went to make this after Pete’s Dragon. What was that transition like, from doing your first huge blockbuster to doing a film you didn’t even know would get this kind of release?
DL: It was meant to be far more relaxing than it turned out to be. I knew that Pete’s Dragon would finish on a certain date, because we were out of money. Disney movies do run out of money sometimes. And I knew I would have to go start promoting it at the beginning of August so in that window I thought, “Oh, I could either take a vacation or I could go make this movie I’ve been thinking about.” And making a movie seemed like a great idea. And I thought that if I gathered a group of my closest friends and left the door open for everyone to be completely creative and intuitive and keep it small and keep it simple and if we paid for it ourselves we would be able to just have a really fun, liberating summer movie-making experience. Instead, it turned into the most stressful experience of my life, because it was so personal and it was so high concept and because it seemed every day like it wasn’t working.
I was compelled to keep going, and so it was actually much harder than Pete’s Dragon for many reasons, but the one thing that was different, and that was a refreshing change of pace, was that it was quick. I have a very short attention span. It’s hard for me to focus on one thing for very long. Pete’s Dragon took three years, and I had to focus on it very thoroughly for three years. At Sundance it was like, “Oh wait, [A Ghost Story] is done. That’s insane. Didn’t we just start shooting this?”
A year ago today we were shooting the pie scene, and the fact that it’s now coming out in theaters all around the country to this degree, it’s still shocking to me that we are done with it. Because it happened so quickly. That was the biggest, tangible shift was that we were moving quickly. And that was the extent of it. Everything else kind of felt the same, except that on Pete’s Dragon, Disney was paying for it and also had the final say. We had complete creative freedom on that movie, but at the end of the day, it was a movie for Disney and for their audiences. In this case, it was all up to me and my producers, and we definitely felt the pressure in that regard, to a greater degree than we ever had before.
AVC: The pie scene got so much attention out of Sundance.
DL: I knew that it would be galvanizing. I kind of figured that was a scene where the audience would all walk out. I know some do. But I expected everyone to leave, and two people to stay and those two people would like the movie and I’d be happy because at least two people like it. I knew it would be a scene that defined not the movie but at least the type of experience that it is. It’s an easy touchstone to grab. You can distill it down to three or four words. And I’m okay with that.
In a way it’s such a emotional scene and it’s such a private moment for Rooney and for her character and she’s exposing herself in a way that I’m sure was very uncomfortable for her. Inasmuch as I feel very protective of her, I want to be protective of the scene and not be reductive and not make a meme out of it. I know that’s going to happen. As soon as this movie hits BitTorrent, there will be GIFs all over the internet. And that’s fine, I’m okay with that. But inasmuch as I’m protective of the movie and of her I wish that wouldn’t happen. But I also am glad it struck a chord. No press is bad press, I guess.
AVC: Your distributor A24 actually has its own Giphy page.
DL: Exactly, they’re going to do it. I mean, we’ve actually talked about it. They’ve been very respectful. I think if, had I not been involved, there would probably be pie memes everywhere already, because it is an easy touchstone. I was like, “Let’s be a little protective of it.”
AVC: Because it’s upsetting in a way.
DL: It’s an upsetting scene. It’s upsetting, it’s uncomfortable. Everyone’s mileage varies, but it is an emotional experience. And it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done. So I feel very proud of it, very protective of it, glad that people are talking about it, that it’s become a touchstone, but also wary of the inevitable memeification of it.
AVC: You seem to like putting Rooney and Casey together for brief periods of time and then—
DL: And then killing him.
AVC: Or splitting them up for large portions of the movie. But they have a strong connection in those early scenes. The scene in the bed is one of the most honest portrayals of a couple who is in love.
DL: When we made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, that movie was not meant to be a love story whatsoever and they weren’t supposed to have that many scenes together and the first time we shot anything with them we all just fell in love with the two of them together and their chemistry was just unbelievable. So we ended up writing and shooting a bunch of scenes for them and it kind of changed that movie for better or worse.
So going into this I knew I had two characters who didn’t even have names and there was not going to be a lot of screen time for them, and yet I wanted Rooney’s character to have a profound sense of sorrow. For the extent that she’s in the movie, I wanted her grief to be palpable, and I figured the best way to do that was to have two actors who have amazing chemistry and let that chemistry shine through incredibly brightly before we extinguish it.
I knew that that scene of the two of them in bed would work because of them. I just knew that they would bring everything that scene needed, and it would also be, again, able to sustain itself for that running time. I think that shot’s about three minutes long. And in the script the action was just, “They make out until they fall asleep.” That’s all they had to go on. I was like, “You start off, you feel her heartbeat, she’s scared, and then you just make out until you fall asleep.”
And they really did fall asleep. They literally did fall asleep in that scene. We kept it going. We rolled for another five minutes. And then I toyed with the idea of using the whole thing, but that was too much. We wanted to end at the right moment. Because there’s so little time with them together as a couple, I needed to have some bedrock that’s incredibly strong and could support the love story side of the movie, and support Rooney’s emotional arc, and also that would in a way define for the audience the way in which the movie was going to function. You watch that scene and it goes on longer than you expect, but it lulls you into a certain sense of comfort and peace and you feel like you are there with them in this intimate moment. And that’s the way the rest of the movie works. So it telegraphs to the audience how they need to watch this movie.
AVC: Are you still working on Peter Pan for Disney?
DL: Yeah, I’m still writing it with Toby Halbrooks.
AVC: That’s also a story about letting go of things.
DL: It is and that’s the approach we’re taking to it. There’s been plenty of Peter Pan movies and plenty of versions of it and the one thing that we found as we went back through all of them and looked at the original play and the original novel is that the idea of letting go of childhood has always been there but never been at the forefront. It’s always been more about the adventure and more about the fun nature of flying in through Neverland. And so we felt that we could make a really bittersweet story about that point we all go through in our lives where we realize that we’re not kids anymore and we’re having to let go of all the things that defined us and strike out into new territory. The movie that we’re writing is less about Peter Pan, more about Wendy and more about her coming to terms with her burgeoning adulthood. And we’ll see if… well, hopefully Disney likes it.