David Lowery on Risking Silliness and Achieving Beauty in ‘A Ghost Story’

The director offers up guidelines on how to make a highly evocative sheet-ghost.

Pete’s Dragon/Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story requires a lot of openness from the audience in order to succeed: an openness to, as many early reactions revealed, watching Rooney Mara eat a pie for five minutes as an uncomfortably sustained and viscerally slow depiction of grief and shock. It then requires the audience to spend most of the film with a ghost who looks like that time your parent got lazy with your Halloween costume. It also requires them to grapple with the disorienting notion that “thanks a lot, mom” costume holds the very talented — but also fraught-by-reputation — Casey Affleck, who’s doing a lot by very deliberately doing nothing, as he stoically watches time transform what’s known, and what’s home, into incremental forms of alienation. It requires an openness to a half-serious “the universe is vast, yet cruelly finite, man” unsolicited pontification delivered by Will Oldham (incidentally, at a party where Kesha also makes an appearance) in a pair of overalls.

There are so many factors that, if you go in not feeling particularly generous, could lead to you thinking A Ghost Story is pretty ridiculous. Which is part of why it turns out to be remarkable. Because the level to which it can (at times with its own strategic dashes of irony) overtake one’s skepticism and turn it to quivering mush is a sign of something special here: predominantly, Lowery’s willingness to dare to go to the cusp of silliness, and almost always venture somewhere unexpected, uncomfortable, and beautiful. All of this is done on a micro-budget, shot with actors who agreed to hardly get paid, and who, as Rooney Mara told Indiewire in January, didn’t even know if the experiment would turn into a feature length film.

The film’s plot is simple: a couple moves into a house. They settle. They argue. They make up. The husband dies. His body leaves the morgue, draped in a shroud, and drifts back to his home, and begins (mostly passively) observing as life stops for his spouse — and then slowly, then quickly, continues. The character enables the film to exhibit time as it might be experienced by an object — a house, or anything more permanent than a human being. And what if something so permanent also had an emotional life, and a vaguely human sense of infinite longing? Slowly, as the film shifts from hyper-focused extended periods of nothing in particular to wild fast-fowards, you start to feel the tragedy of longevity — to feel the disparity between the expansiveness of time and change versus the intimacy and repetition that keeps the human psyche content in its brief existence.

In the offices of the film’s distributor, A24, Lowery explained to me how he approached his own script’s many daunting transcendently-beautiful-or-goofy-as-fuck choices, and even more importantly, how to meticulously prevent your sheet-ghost from bunching.

Flavorwire: I saw “A Ghost Story” on my own. There’s something about the film that taps into some childlike emotional affiliations — particular with the crude design of the ghost, and the feeling of time being vast. It felt like a good film to experience alone, where you’re less worried about whether the person next to you is or isn’t having that experience, so you can really connect to it. 

David Lowery: This is true of all of my movies, for better or worse, but there’s so much sincerity in what I do that particularly with this film — because it’s incredibly sincere but mixed with such a high concept idea — if you approach it with any cynicism it might fail horribly. When you’re around other people, you’re going to be more guarded, and less sure of yourself, and less open to letting that sincerity work. Also if you see it alone you’re not distracted when the inevitable walkouts happen.

They’ve been happening a lot?

I have not watched the movie since we finished. I can’t sit through my movies, but I always ask people, like at Sundance — and it’s not as many as I thought — but it does happen. I imagined there’d be mass exoduses, and there’d be two people left, and those two people would love the movie, but that’s all we’d have. But luckily it’s been the opposite: it’s usually two people who walk out.

S0 much of the movie is based on projection, because you have a main character who’s a literal blank canvas. Some children anthropomorphize stuffed animals and really connect to them and others don’t because they see them straightforwardly as inanimate objects. Have there been varied responses based on how much people are willing to project onto the ghost? 

The reactions have been so remarkably consistent that I was overwhelmed by it, the fact that everyone that I’ve spoken to was able to connect to this ‘character’ on such a profoundly emotional level. I grew up with a cadre of stuffed animals that were my squad. I remember when I was getting ready to move into junior high, I was still way too old to carry around stuffed animals. I had a meeting with them to explain that I wouldn’t be around as much. I felt really bad I wasn’t spending as much time with them!

I used to apologize to clothing I didn’t buy! 

Exactly, you anthropomorphize the things around you to such a degree that you don’t want to hurt their feelings. You don’t want to hurt a chair’s feelings. There’s a great deal of that going on with this character. He’s a little easier than a chair because he’s got eyes and folds in a sheet that take on certain expressive qualities. But I’ve been amazed that, as many people as I’ve talked to, everyone’s found him to be an incredibly emotional character, and one that’s easy to connect to.

He’s almost easier to connect to than a human character. Because you learn his limited vocabulary of movement, and the simplicity makes the expressiveness more distilled.

That was one of the things I wanted to do going into the script, was to make him feel more like the character than the characters in their human form. That’s why Casey and Rooney’s characters never had names. They had names in the first draft of the script, and it defined them too thoroughly, so I distilled it down to initials, so you don’t connect to them as much.

There’s one scene where the ghost turns his head; there’s this articulation of the neck, and the way the sheet changes, and it takes a shape that it didn’t have before, and it’s oddly emotional. Was there a movement rehearsal period to elicit some of the emotions you get here? 

The movement rehearsal period was production, and it was entirely trial and error. We got the costume working pretty well. We designed it, made the shape work right, and thought that was all we needed. And it turned out that movement was just as important. And a lot of the early stuff we shot didn’t work, because I went into this thinking I wanted Casey’s performance to be very recognizable beneath the sheet. And that proved very quickly to be the wrong tactic. We needed the performance to be entirely mechanical and much less human. We needed the sheet to define the character more than the person under the sheet. We ultimately reshot a lot of the movie several times over the course of the shoot, because we were trying to make it work. So when he comes back home for the first time — that was the first thing we shot. But we reshot that three times before we finally got it working. To get those specific movements it was a collaboration between Casey or in some cases David Pink, our art director, cause he was also under the sheet in pickups and reshoots. It required very slow movement and an amazing amount of stillness. It was also a collaboration with the costume team, who, for any shot that wasn’t a full-body shot, were always hiding down at the base of the costume holding the sheet in place, and putting weight on it, so that when he would do those head turns, the folds would still remain defined. If you didn’t hold it, it’d just bunch up in a weird way. We had these terms — “no, we’re getting too much elephant face,” because the fold would all bunch up around his nose and look like an elephant trunk. And so there were an incredible array of bobby pins and those black document clips — his face was full of those, and there were all these human hands tugging and basically puppeteering it to get that emotional quality out of the fabric.

Within the human realm, you’re not showing the history or plot points of the relationship at the core of the movie — you’re just showing that a relationship existed. And when you’re doing that, you can choose any everyday moment from a relationship, really. So what made you choose the interactions between the characters that you did decided to keep in?

You tapped into something true about the things we picked — it’s not about what’s happening in them, so much as spending enough time with those moments to understand that there is in fact a relationship. So the defining scene for the two of them together was a scene in bed, where they’re making out until they fall asleep. Anyone who’s been in a relationship can sympathize with that moment where that happens. And the entire idea of the two of them being in love could be defined in that one image, and the sustaining of that image. The fact that it lasts as long as it does lets you understand the degree to which they are real people. And it’s the easiest image in the world to draw on as a filmmaker — two people in bed kissing. It’s the most intimate place in the most intimate aspect of our lives you can find. Later in the movie there’s a montage of moments in their lives, where they’re eating or fighting, and we shot a lot of stuff. I’d written this 10 page argument scene that was based on an argument my wife and I had about moving. And we shot that — and a lot of variations of it — over the course of two days. Laying on the couch, arguing in the bedroom, showering in the morning, eating dinner.

Casey at one point said, “Are we just remaking Blue Valentine? This feels like Blue Valentine.” And I was like, “Don’t worry. Five minutes after this you’re going to be wearing a sheet.” So any comparison went out the window. And that was more the traditional, “If you were to condense a relationship to a montage, what would it be?” But all of that was secondary to this scene in the bedroom, which was the real crux of the two of them as characters.

We see a bit of turmoil in their relationship. Nothing huge, but the one time they have an argument, and the one way it’s solved is that, pre-ghost, Affleck’s character best communicates is through music. Rooney Mara’s character listens to a song of his and that brings about solace. Was there a tie-in between music and the supernatural for you? 

Music is an amazing unifier — it really can bring two people together in a truly profound way. Most people at the beginning of relationships play songs for one another so that they can get to know each other faster. It’s such an amazing window into someone’s personality or their taste or the emotional level on which they’re operating. And there’s also the fact that Casey and Rooney are basically playing me and my wife. Every bit of dialogue they have in the movie is based on dialogue that my wife and I have exchanged, and it would have been too easy to make Casey a filmmaker — so a musician is the next step. I hadn’t really intended to depict that in a practical way until I heard that song.

The song existed already?

The song existed. Daniel Hart, who’s written the scores for all my movies, was working on his second album with his band at the time he was writing the Pete’s Dragon score. That was the third song he’d written, and he played it for me, and I got obsessed with it. As I was writing the script for A Ghost Story, I was listening to it, and just decided to write it in. And it wasn’t literally what the movie’s about — but the tone is exactly the tone I wanted the movie to be. When I’d written this big argument scene, I wanted them to come to terms with one another and find some solace. The best thing that could happen is that he’d reach out to her musically, share something of his own he’d been working on, and it’d communicate what he was feeling, and she’d understand that. [Rooney] was really listening to it, and whatever’s going on with her face — she’d spent 14 hours shooting this argument scene that’s mostly not in the movie anymore. But we saved [the listening scene] for the end, so that whatever had happened that day, whatever she brought to herself as a character and as a human being, would be resonating as she listened to that song. That was one of my favorite scenes to shoot. Just capturing that amazing moment where people can sit silently with music playing and have a truly well-rounded exchange and arrive at some resolution that’s 100 percent unspoken.

And then there’s the one very-spoken scene in the film. At the center of the film you have this massive monologue by Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy), and it does seem like the anxious internal monologue that any atheist or agnostic might have at any given time, but also sort of the spoken version of a lot of what this film explores. How did you direct him to command that scene — and how did you control the camerawork in it — to prevent it from seeming thesis-y or self-evident? 

We wanted him to take himself very seriously, but for the movie not to take him quite as seriously. That’s sort of the idea — I just told him to play it like you’re a little bit inebriated, and gradually convinced of your own importance. And at a certain point, we’ll deflate it. And we’ll do that partially through the way we shoot it, partially through sound design in the scene. At a certain point the air goes out of his hot air balloon. He’s trained as an actor — I worked with him on a short film and knew he’d be able to deliver this monologue thoroughly. So I didn’t give him that much direction; he’s one of those amazing actors who understands what’s intended when he reads the script. There was little I had to do as a director other than cast him. Shooting it, we wanted it to have more coverage than other parts of the movie, and to let the party in the background sort of affect what he’s doing.

We shot it to have a propulsive quality; we used zooms more than we had elsewhere, and it is cuttier than any other scene in the movie, and also has more speech than any other scene. But despite wanting to puncture his sense of self-importance, what he’s saying is truthful, and it does represent my own attempts to justify my own existence on a day to day basis as someone who was raised incredibly religiously, and then at a certain point in life lost that. I’ve been an atheist for as much of my life as I’ve been a Catholic, but it wasn’t until recently that I found myself coming to terms with it in a very existential way. As you get older, and become more aware of mortality and the passage of time, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, or are agnostic, you have to figure out a new way to define what your purpose is. It’s a troublesome quandary, but this monologue was my way of working through it.

“A Ghost Story” is out Friday in limited release.