The Unexplainable Energy of David Lowery
DAVID LOWERY IN NEW YORK, JUNE 2017. PORTRAIT: TESS MAYER.
Filmmaker David Lowery has an intriguing conception of what a ghost is: In his words, it’s “a spirit that refuses to move on.” His understanding of the term—more figurative than it is literal—may be a key part of why his odd new movie, A Ghost Story, works so well. Considering that he himself was the inspiration for the namesake phantom in the film, it’s funny, too.
Lowery’s breakthrough film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), paired Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as Bonnie and Clyde-style Texan outlaws. The 36-year-old’s new movie, which he also wrote and edited, reunites Affleck and Mara as a young couple whose shared life we glimpse only briefly. Affleck’s character dies in a car accident, and A Ghost Story chronicles his existence after he becomes a ghost. Mara gives a soulful and volatile performance as his widow and Affleck deftly manages the tricky task of embodying a haunted spirit. Unable to communicate with Mara’s character, Affleck’s ghost can only observe her grief and watch her slowly move on, spurring him to journey through memory and history and to meditate on time, meaning, and existence.
We recently met with the dynamic filmmaker—who also adapted the Disney movie Pete’s Dragon (2016), and who recently wrapped production on a movie starring Robert Redford that was adapted from a New Yorker story—at an office in New York. A Ghost Story, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is decidedly different in spirit and form from the more commercial Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Lowery, who made his name as a film editor before developing the script for Saints at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, sounds curious and a little wistful about the possibility of watching the two movies for the first time, back-to-back. Then he tells us about the genesis of his unconventional new film.
DAVID LOWERY: In terms of the script, the movie spontaneously combusted in one sitting. It was a bunch of ideas that had been circling my subconscious or conscious mind for years in some cases, but I’d never done anything with them until I sat down to write this. One of those ideas was a haunted house movie starring a ghost with a sheet. I’d always loved that idea, and I wanted to use it. I’d seen it elsewhere and wanted to do my own spin on it. Then, on a personal level, the root of it came from a move I made from Texas to L.A., and the house I’d left behind, which I’d grown incredibly attached to, even though it was just a shabby old farmhouse that we were renting. It was the first house my wife and I lived in after we got married. I’d, for better or worse, laid down many roots there, emotional and otherwise—I actually planted a garden for the first time in my life—and I didn’t want to leave it when we had to leave. I was really upset and kind of heartbroken to move out of it, and I wasn’t sure why because, on a pragmatic level, it made no sense to stay there. I had suggested that we just kept paying rent there, so we had it as a place to go back to, and that made zero sense whatsoever.
So that was a lingering thing throughout the latter half of 2015 as we laid down new roots in Los Angeles. That Christmas, I went home to visit my family for the holidays, and my wife and I got into a huge argument while we were there because I suggested we move back to Texas when our Disney movie [Pete’s Dragon] was done. She had a very vehement reaction to that. She was done with Texas. It was one of those arguments where, in the moment, I felt like I could see a potential end to our relationship, and the idea that our relationship could come to an end over something as trivial as where we were living, was very strange to me. Also, I recognized that I was the problem in that situation—because I was the one holding onto something and not wanting to let go. That tendency that I have—that unwillingness to let go, that obsession with sentimentality and nostalgia and attachment to physical things in my past were all to blame for that problem we were having. That was where a lot of this movie came from.
JULIA YEPES: It’s interesting that you mention your attachment to physical things from your past and your sentimentality toward them, because you have letter-writing in both Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and this movie. Is there something that’s poignant to you about the act of letter-writing or even that of people simply trying to document their feelings?
LOWERY: Completely. My wife and I, we knew each other back in 2001 but had fallen out of touch. One day I had a dream about her and wrote her a note on Facebook—I was living in L.A. at the time—and that turned into six months of just letter-writing. It started off with Facebook messages and turned into emails and eventually became actual hand-written letters. We got to know each other very well through that, and when we finally met up in person, we were basically already in a relationship, and six months later we were engaged. I attribute a great deal of it to the tactile and patient qualities that letter-writing demands, and the degree to which it’s a personal act. It’s almost one of the ultimate personal expressions because you’re doing it by hand. I take a great deal of value in things that are done by hand, or executed by hand.
The act itself is something that fascinates me, almost more than what the contents might say, which is why you don’t see what’s on the note in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. There was the scene where she’s writing the letter, and it wasn’t until the final stages of post-production, I finally gave in and said, “Okay, let’s hear what she’s writing.” Up until that point, I was always going to just leave it a secret, not because I wanted to keep it a secret, but just because I felt it was unnecessary to show it.
YEPES: I know that Harvey Weinstein gave you notes for that movie. Was that something he suggested?
LOWERY: No. We’d done some test screenings and people were like, “What does it say?” It was a long dolly shot pushing in on her writing. And people were like, “What does it say? We should know what it says.” And I was like, “You know what, you’re right. Let’s hear what it says.” So I wrote a letter and people loved hearing it, and it was a very emotional moment for the movie and probably was the right thing to do.
YEPES: It’s a release for the audience.
LOWERY: Yeah, exactly. It was probably a week before we showed it at Sundance that I added that in. Rooney went to a studio and we just recorded it over the phone and dropped it in, so it was literally last minute.
YEPES: The argument that you had with your wife is interesting because the movie is pretty spare with the dialogue between Casey’s character and Rooney’s character, and it feels consequential when she says, “What is it you like about this place?” And he says, “History.” And when she says, “We’re supposed to be making decisions together.” Both of those exchanges felt really real and I think the audience connects with those snippets of conversation immediately.
LOWERY: Those were literally things my wife and I said to each other. Casey and Rooney, in those scenes, are playing us, and my wife was there when we were shooting them, and I remember her rolling her eyes. She thought it was really cool, but at the same time very strange, and knowing me, she felt it was probably just a little too on the nose and obvious for me to literally put our entire discussion into a movie.
YEPES: It’s also funny when you see Casey Affleck who looks a little bit like you…
LOWERY: Yeah. We have vaguely similar cheekbones. Every now and then, it’s just so obvious—
YEPES: It’s comical, some of the images of the two of you standing side-by-side.
LOWERY: Yeah. If only he shaved his head.
YEPES: I want to hear about how you worked with ghost iconography and ghost mythology in this movie. I read on your blog how you really liked the title of this children’s book, Gus Was A Friendly Ghost (1962)—you liked that the title referred to the ghost in the past tense.
LOWERY: I’ve always loved ghosts, ever since reading those books. That might have been my first introduction to ghosts as a child because my parents had those books on our bookshelf. It was one of my earliest memories, them reading them to us. And they were never a scary thing to me—until I got a little older and understood the potential for them to be scary—and I never dressed up as a ghost for Halloween because it was too simple and I always took Halloween way too seriously, but my brother did, so that image is something that is deeply rooted in my childhood. I liked the idea now of taking what is basically the universal symbol for a spirit who refuses to move on from this realm of existence and unpacking it. Because it is a common symbol—it’s Snapchat. Snapchat’s logo is a sheet ghost.
YEPES: Oh yeah, that’s funny.
LOWERY: And if you write the word ‘ghost’ on your iPhone, the emoji pops up of a little ghost with a sheet. It’s an image that is very commonplace, and one which we take for granted, and one which has a lot of potential to be charming and goofy and childlike, but which also packs a great deal of meaning into its very simple form. I wanted to tap into that a little bit. My fascination with tactile objects and handmade materials comes into play as well because I love the idea of taking something that is very ethereal and meant to be phantasmagoric but rendering it with the most handmade approach possible. I also have to admit that I liked the challenge of trying to take what is an inherently silly concept and imbuing it with some degree of gravitas.
YEPES: Right. The line between the supernatural and the mundane is blurred in the movie in an interesting way. There was a scene where it seems like somethingsupernatural is happening inside the house, and it’s actually a bulldozer coming through the roof.
YEPES: But you think it’s something spiritual—
LOWERY: You think it’s the Rapture. Later in the movie, there’s a giant bang on the door, but it’s just Rooney scaring Casey.
YEPES: Yes, you play with stock moments that we’re familiar with from scary movies.
LOWERY: Exactly. I love horror films. I love ghost movies and haunted house movies. I wanted to be able to use those tropes, not to turn them on their head, but to use them in a different way than one would anticipate, so it’s a haunted house movie that’s not scary, except at times when it is—but it’s not the ghost that makes it scary.
YEPES: How did you figure out that you needed the scene where Rooney eats the better part of a whole pie as a way to show grief?
LOWERY: When I initially conceived of the idea of this movie, I wanted the whole thing to be a series of tableaux—one tableau for each scene that would represent the entirety of what that scene was about, and for that one I knew that it was about her grieving for a lost loved one. I wanted it to be very physical because I find that grief is very physical. You feel it in your stomach and you feel it through your whole body and you can show someone burying their head in a pillow and crying, which we do one scene later, but that doesn’t convey the depths to which grief reaches.
So I wanted there to be a physicality to it, and I wanted it to be a very private moment that was almost uncomfortable to watch, and so eating seemed like the natural thing. I’d read Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)—I shared it with Rooney too—because I thought it was a really good window as to what goes through someone’s mind when they’ve lost a partner, and she describes the ways in which grief manifests itself the most profoundly in the most mundane activities, and the most unexpected, everyday, quotidian activities are the source of some of the deepest sorrow she felt after her husband passed away. Eating is about as mundane as it gets, and I felt that that was something that would be powerful and uncomfortable and also incredibly relatable, and it was also something that I knew would be memorable because I knew that Rooney doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in the movie. After that scene, I think she has one line in the whole film, aside from some of the flashbacks, and it needed to convey quite a bit. I felt that that was an appropriate vehicle to do that.
YEPES: Right. And it’s very expressive in a way that actually registers, whereas if she was just hysterically crying, we’ve seen that so many times that—
LOWERY: You sort of check out.
YEPES: Yeah. Why did you choose to have the Spanish speaking family inhabit the house and not to have subtitles for those scenes?
LOWERY: I love the Spanish language. I don’t speak it very well—I don’t speak it at all, really, but I can get by if I go somewhere and I need to—but as a language, I just think it’s absolutely beautiful, and I found while we were shooting that scene, that I could understand like every fifth word. I’d written all the dialogue in English and had it translated into Spanish, so I knew what was going on, but it was easier for me to just tap into the emotion of the scene and direct it on an emotional level rather than to articulate what I wanted for a certain line of dialogue.
I just loved that experience. It was a really profound experience for me. It made me realize that even though all the dialogue was written with a great degree of originality and what she’s saying in every scene matters, to some extent, it’s more of an emotional sequence than it is a literal sequence. So removing subtitles allowed audiences to participate with it on a purely emotional level, similar to how I was participating with it as a director.
At that point in the movie, I wanted to have a classic ghost story sequence that was similar to Poltergeist (1982) or The Haunting (1963), and to work with a lot of traditional haunted house material. If I really wanted to go all the way with Poltergeist, I could have had another suburban family move in and really riff on that, but I thought it would be really cool for it to be more reflective of society, especially in Texas where it’s so multi-cultural, and every other person does speak Spanish, and that gave me the opportunity to have part of the movie in another language that I love listening to.
YEPES: I love that the kids can see the ghost.
LOWERY: Yeah. It’s just like classic Spielberg. We’d do those shots of them gazing at the ghost and be like, “That’s us ripping off Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).” I love also that the ghost throws his temper tantrum and tries to scare them out, and they don’t leave. She picks up the plates and looks at the ghost with the same kind of maternal gaze that she looks at her kids—even though she can’t really see him, there’s that moment where they appear to be looking at each other that was just really beautiful to me as well. It put Casey’s character in his place after throwing that ridiculous temper tantrum.
YEPES: I know that you are an atheist and you say you don’t believe in the afterlife. Have you ever seen a ghost? Also, you have the scene where the ghost seems to commit suicide, but then you’re like, “Is it a dream?” Can the ghost die, or maybe he can’t because he’s haunted?
LOWERY: The idea there is he’s trying to find a way out, but it’s not time for him to move on yet, so he just winds up unstuck in time, and having to relive certain events to get back to where he needs to be.
But I do believe in ghosts, even though I don’t believe in an afterlife, and there’s an inherent paradox there, which I can only explain as the result of my faith in the mysteries of the universe. I think that there are things we can’t explain, there’s energy around us that we haven’t been able to quantify, and within those mysteries lies my ability to believe in ghosts. I’ve never seen anything, but I’ve had circumstances occur that are strange—noises, lights turning on, rooms that feel like they’re the wrong temperature. I’ve had phenomena that I could technically explain logically, but I allow myself not to, because I’d rather believe that maybe there’s something supernatural afoot.
YEPES: With A Ghost Story, did the actors come up with any good ideas that helped shape the movie? Did they have the instincts to do that, or was it too hard to do because the movie is so experimental?
LOWERY: There was a little bit of that because we shot a lot more with Casey and Rooney prior to his character’s death than is in the film. We spent two days—which really isn’t that much time—just filming them in domestic situations and digging into their characters. I’d written 10 pages of material that we filmed almost like a stage play, and we spent a day doing that, and there’s a little bit of that in the movie. I wrote ideas for a bunch of other scenes, and the next day, we just jumped in and out of the house, and some of it was recapitulations of dialogue they had done the previous day, but just in a new context. Other things were brand new pieces of information or brand new ideas or just moments for them to share together. Within that exploration, they were able to come up with a lot of material on their own.
The scene that opens the movie, where Casey and Rooney are lying on the couch together, that was an idea he had, and we didn’t know what he was going to do. He said, “Hey, I want to shoot a scene where the two of us are on the couch together and we just finished watching a movie, and I’ll take it from there.” And so the first line of the movie is Rooney saying, “I’m scared,” and she’s laughing, and the reason she’s saying that is we’re about to start shooting and she doesn’t know what’s going to happen. That was 100 percent just her anticipating whatever curveball Casey was about to throw at her. Ultimately, we used a lot of that. Yet if I hadn’t let Casey have enough creative input to propose a scene, we wouldn’t have had that opening scene and I don’t think the opening of the movie would have been as strong, so I did let them bring a lot to it, but obviously the movie was much more rigid and much more formal than Saints, and much less narrative. And of course without dialogue, it often comes down to body language and that is a much more rigorous thing.
YEPES: Right. And then there are these stationary shots in this movie.
LOWERY: But even in that, when Rooney comes home from the funeral and is eating pie, she had the idea to sit down on the floor. That was all her. We had planned the scene differently and intended to shoot the scene differently. But when she suggested that, that redefined the scene in terms of how we were going to block it out and how we were going to execute it, and it made it a million times better. And that was all her. So even in those very restrained and minimalist scenes, I did count on and court their input, and I value that. But I am also learning to value my original instincts more and to give myself a little bit of credit for the amount of time I spend writing dialogue, so I’m not changing gears so much. There are times I’m less willing than I used to be to just throw everything out the window for any random reason—because sometimes I’ve realized it’s more important for me to convince an actor why I wrote a thing a certain way than to just let them change it.
YEPES: You also kind of suggest in the film that there are ghosts all around us.
LOWERY: I don’t know if it’s ghosts or what it is, but I do believe in the burnt toast theory, as elucidated in The Shining (1980), which is that when you leave a room, you leave a little bit of yourself behind, and I don’t know what that is, I don’t know if it’s quantifiable or not, but I do subscribe to that idea. Out of that subscription, I am able to believe in… well, let’s call them ghosts. But whether they’re presences, whether it’s just leftover energy, whether it’s an actual spirit that is stuck in the space, I think they are all around us, whatever “they” may be.
Beyond that, I have no idea. Beyond that, I don’t pretend to have any clue how these things work or what the rules might be or whether it’s actually real or not, but I like to believe it is.
A GHOST STORY OPENS TOMORROW, JUNE 7.