David Lowery on When He Felt Confident that People Wouldn’t Laugh at ‘A Ghost Story’
A Ghost Story was shot lost year on the outskirts of Dallas in secret by Pete’s Dragon filmmaker David Lowery. For Lowery it was more than a return to indie production after a large-scale Disney adventure—it was also a reunion with his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints leads, Casey Aflleck and Rooney Mara. The film (which won raves at Sundance; read Matt’s review here) concerns the passage of time via a couple and their house (Affleck and Mara). When Affleck’s character dies, he appears in his old home as a ghost in a thick bed sheet with vacant eyes. He observes his wife’s depression from his demise, various new occupants, and glimpses both the future and the past of his surroundings.
A Ghost Story is two sides of a coin. On one, it’s a sparse experience, with very little dialogue (though it added ghost sign language!) and numerous long takes that enhance the stillness and solitude of this afterlife. On the other side, it’s quite expansive, viewing Affleck’s lived experience in the house as but a mere speck of dust in time; time is cruel and reinforces our near irrelevance. Recently, I got the chance to sit down and talk with Lowery about how and why he kept the film a secret while shooting, which pie Mara chose to eat for her now Sundance-famous scene of eating a whole pie in one take of grief, the practical effects, the assistance from Weta and how magicians helped with that bed sheet.
COLLIDER: When did the project begin as an idea and how long did it take for it to turn into something?
DAVID LOWERY: There were seeds of it that predate the day that I wrote it last spring, but it really began at some point around late February of 2016. I wrote it largely in one sitting, which isn’t that impressive because the script was only 10 pages at first [laughs]. And then it gradually became 30 pages and never got much bigger than that. Then I sent it to Toby [Halbrooks] and James [M. Johnston], my partners in crime, and I told them we should make it that summer. That was just barely over a year ago, so it was a very fast process.
Was it your hope from the start to kind of make it a secret that you were making this?
LOWERY: We intentionally didn’t tell that many people about it because we wanted to have the opportunity to fail. You know? It was so high concept in so many ways that if it didn’t work I didn’t want to have the weight of expectation putting pressure on us; making us feel bad for not accomplishing what we set out to do. The other aspect of it is that it’s just fun to keep secrets [laughs]! It’s not like we were trying to do anything like a J.J. Abrams mystery box sorta situation, but it just made us feel like we had more room to be creative because no one knew about it, and there was something fun about that. I think everyone involved in the project – because you know, if you were in Dallas last summer and going to certain movie theaters or restaurants, you would see us and know that we were making things – people were aware in a very limited sense that there was something going on, but no one knew what it was, and I think most people assumed that we were making a music video or a short film…
Because of Kesha.
LOWERY: Exactly, yeah! I kept waiting….like when’s the news gonna come out that Kesha’s in Dallas for something that we’re making? And no one ever talked about it. You know the London tabloids have photographers all over the world, I guess, because I remember some photos of her in the DFW airport showed up in a London tabloid, but they had no mention of what she was doing there. It was nice to just be under the radar and feel like we were just doing our own thing without anyone waiting to find out what we were making.
You said you kinda wanted to do that to make sure you didn’t fail. What was the very first cut that you were putting together where you felt very confident about what you were making?
LOWERY: Oh [laughs]….it wasn’t until it was done that I felt truly confident. We showed it right before we went to Sundance and I watched the whole movie straight through and felt like we had actually pulled it off. But prior to that there were two points where I felt okay. One was about two weeks into the shoot when I cut together the first 20 minutes of the movie and watched it and I felt like there was indeed something there.
Then, at some point in the editorial process that fall, I watched the whole thing in a very form and I felt like it was kind of a movie [laughs], and that was a nice feeling….and then I guess a third one was when my agent, Craig Kestel, watched it and told me it was really good. He was the first person outside of my own circle of friends who had watched it, and he had no idea what it was, it was a secret to him as well; he didn’t know we were making it. And so when he saw it and liked it that gave me the confidence to send it to Sundance and to push it out a little further and faster than we initially expected. But the flip side of all that is that every day of the shoot, for the most part, and all through post, I was definitely worried that we were going to completely fail. That it wasn’t working and the whole thing was a ludicrous joke that everyone would laugh at. That worry was deep and intense and made me sick to my stomach almost every single day that we were making the film, but in hindsight that is probably a good thing because if I had felt confident every day or felt like I knew what I was doing, it may not have turned out the way it turned out.
When the ghosts talk to each other and what they are saying is in closed caption, did you play around with multiple types of conversations, or did you stick to the one that is in the film?
LOWERY: I zeroed in on that one really quickly, and tried out a version that was a little bit longer and more expository where they introduce themselves to each other a little bit more, but ultimately it felt like keeping it simple was better. That was something that wasn’t in the script; that came about in the editing. Initially it was just the wave. It was so nice to see him connecting to someone else that I just wanted that moment to last longer. The subtitles initially made me laugh. I thought maybe it was too much of a joke, and I wanted it to be funny the way it was meant to be funny already. I felt like we could kind of get away with it, but I was not sure if it would be too much, but I felt ultimately it works wonderfully.
That came from the editing? Like you didn’t have a direction like this is “hi” and this is “hello”? [Laughs]
LOWERY: [Laughing] It was all just physical! I mean it was one of those moments where, you know, it’s an inherently goofy image, and I wanted audiences to be able to laugh at it at times. That was meant to be a moment of comic relief. And then the dialogue just makes it incredibly sad, so….can’t keep it funny for too long.
What was the budget?
LOWERY: We’re still kind of keeping under wraps, but I will say that it cost less than one day of production on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
LOWERY: But it’s all immaterial. Because my version of making a movie on that budget is different from everyone else’s, you know? No two people who make a movie on a certain budget scale are going to achieve the same thing because it just depends on what sort of favors you can call, and what sort of dynamics you can pull in the play. Because obviously if you watch the credits for this movie you see Weta listed in the credits, and that’s because we just made a movie with Weta so we were able to get them to help us out a little bit, and that’s certainly not always what you can achieve on a movie of this budget. It’s definitely something where everyone is in it for the love of it, and we definitely made it for ourselves. It was within our own means to make this film.
Did Weta come aboard kind of late in the process? Or was it something where you had already talked to them prior while making Pete’s Dragon?
LOWERY: When they came on we had already shot most of the movie, and we tried to shoot the sequence where he was on top of the building, and it hadn’t worked out. I asked them if they could help us with that. So we reshot it on a green screen, and they made that sequence what it is.
Did they also do the collapsing sheets as well?
LOWERY: That was practical. Toby, my producer, is a magician, and he is very tied into the magic world; the community of magicians around the world [laughs], and so we had a number of magicians working on this movie. The pioneer, dad, is a very famous magician named Rob Zabrecky who’s an amazing performer. Then we had a number of other folks helping us execute certain gags that we wanted to do on camera. So that collapsing sheet was a classic stage trick from hundreds of years ago that we employed. There’s a few others in the movie that you would never know, but we needed some magic to make this movie work.
Yeah, that was probably my favorite visual….
LOWERY: That was great. In the moment on set you’re just like….wow. There’s something about magic that is, you know, it’s hard to communicate….There’s this scene in the movie with Kesha where Jared, the magician who helped us to execute that illusion, he’s performing a magic trick for her and it’s a really amazing magic trick. He’s doing it for real, but on camera it doesn’t work because you assume there’s a trick to it. But that one does work and it was really stunning to see in person and holds up on film.
What was the process of creating the sheet? Because it’s not like a standard bedsheet, it is much larger and almost looked like canvas.
LOWERY: There are three stages, and initially the fabric is basically a big bed sheet, but we had to have it custom-made because even a king size bed sheet won’t cover an entire human form the way we needed it to. So it’s a big piece of specifically cut fabric that’s a certain size and length that has room for arms to do what they needed to do and for that trail to come out behind him. I can’t remember what thread count it is, but that mattered because it needed to be weighty enough to hang and drape in a very specific way.
My costume designer, Annell Brodeur, did a lot of experimentation just trying out different sheets. She dyed them all, she tinted them, just trying to find the right form. When you put a sheet over someone’s head it just looks like a sheet over their head, and on Halloween that works, and you understand that that’s supposed to be a ghost, but for a feature-length film it needed to have a more refined quality. It needed to have some elegance to it and a higher degree of simplicity. To achieve that simplicity we really had to create this entire costume that is far more than just the fabric that you see but is an entire, you know….there’s a whole series of petticoats you have to put on that builds out that shape, and then there’s a helmet made out of felt that keeps the head in place and the eyes symmetrical and circular. And then beyond just wearing it, there’s the puppeteering aspect of it. If you want those folds to all fold the in right place and for the draping to remain consistent while the ghost is in motion, there had to be someone right outside the frame always holding the sheet and sort of moving it just the right way. It really was a feat of mechanical engineering to make it work and feel as simple as it does [laughs].
When it starts getting dirty I’m sure that’s the prime thing for the script supervisor to worry about [laughs].
LOWERY: Oh, we didn’t actually have a script supervisor, but yeah there were definitely times where we spilled stuff on it. Luckily, we had three sheets: we had the clean sheet, we had the stage 2 sheet which was a little mustier and dirtier, and we had the final sheet, which is meant to feel more like a burial shroud which is hundreds of years old at that point and all frayed and dirty and was very specifically painted to look that way. But that clean one was hard to keep clean. Shooting in Texas during summer, there were a lot of sweat stains that needed to be cleaned up [laughs].
What percent of the movie is actually Casey [Affleck] in the sheet?
LOWERY: A large percentage, actually, but I’m not putting it in numbers because I feel like it’s best to just not think about it.
Was there a situation where Rooney [Mara] had to eat a number of pies?
LOWERY: Just one. We knew that she would be able to do that scene in one take. She’s an amazing actress. All we had to do was set the camera in the right place and I knew it would be the type of thing where if she went all the way through it and did what needed to be done we wouldn’t have to do it again, and that was certainly true.
Did she have a choice in the pie?
LOWERY: She did choose it. We made three different pies. My producer is a vegan chef – my other producer. I’ve got a magician and a vegan chef as producers [laughs]. James M. Johnston is his name, and he owns two vegan restaurants in Dallas-Fort Worth. So he made her gluten-free apple pie, pumpkin pie and chocolate pie. She chose the chocolate and said that was the last time she will ever eat pie in her life.
[Laughs]….Going back to something we were talking about a little bit before; there is a little bit of a mini-movement of established directors who have these films that they are shooting in secret that are announced just before they premiere at a festival. Would you recommend that approach? What does it say about the industry that indie directors want to go that route like Noah Baumbach and yourself?
LOWERY: Oh yeah! I forgot that Noah did that.
Joss Whedon even did that once, and Adam Wingard, well with him it was a little more of a….
LOWERY: It was a game, yeah, because we all knew about it but just didn’t know what it was. I think it just depends on what you need for your film as a filmmaker and what you want to do. Because there’s no aspect of it for me that’s trying to pull one over on anybody or surprise somebody. It’s not a stunt. It’s not a trick that we’re pulling on the industry or on audiences. For me, it’s all part of what allows us to make the best movie. In this case being able to function anonymously in this little town outside Dallas and make this movie without anyone expecting it allowed us to do the best work that we could and take the time to do it right because no one was asking us question, no one was waiting for it, you know? When you’re making a movie and there’s an announcement in the trades about who’s in it and what it’s about, that automatically curates a series of expectations, and people start making assumptions.
That is fine for certain movies. It is great for certain movies, because for certain movies it really helps to have a built-in awareness of it early on. But it can also be damaging because you start thinking about what people are gonna think about it before you should be thinking about that. With this movie I didn’t want to be thinking about that at all.
I just wanted to be thinking about the movie, what I was trying to do with it, and what my collaborators and I were trying to achieve. So for us it was important to do that, but I’m sure Joss Whedon had a different reason for doing that with his Shakespeare film, and I’m sure Noah Baumbach had a different reason for keeping his secret. I remember reading an interview with Noah about whenever ‘Frances-Ha’ was coming out, and he said it wasn’t intended to be a secret, it just took a lot longer to finish than they anticipated and people forgot they were making it, and it just ended up eventually coming out of the blue, but he hadn’t intended that to be the case. For us, we didn’t know if the movie was gonna play at Sundance, if it would be ready, if it would be done, or anything….so we just didn’t have people waiting for it. If it hadn’t been ready for Sundance or it hadn’t gotten into Sundance, I didn’t want to have a point where it’s on some “most anticipated titles at Sundance” list and then it doesn’t show up there and people are wondering why it didn’t show up. You just have all of these questions that come about when people are aware of your project.
And again, sometimes that’s great. Like with Pete’s Dragon, I wanted people to be aware of that from the beginning to sort of set up the idea that we were doing something interesting and different. But with this movie I just wanted it to fall into the world at the right time, fully formed, and as soon as people found out that it existed all of those questions and anticipations and expectations do come into place, but by that point the movie is what it is and they’re not gonna have any bearing on what that movie is. That interaction is entirely on them at that point, and I don’t have to take part in it, and that’s important to me as a filmmaker. I’m always making movies for my audiences, but I’m not trying to meet their expectations. So it is very helpful on a movie like this to be functioning under the radar because it allows you to make the best movie you can.
It seems like there’s something practical about that approach. Even for mid-budget, like 10-15 million or 20 million dollar productions, the distributors come in at the end anyways, and the audience learns about these through film festivals, so it does seem practical to also have that freedom to announce when the film is ready to be seen.
LOWERY: Yeah, completely, because it doesn’t ultimately change the trajectory of the movie that much. Certainly, if people would have heard about this before we started shooting, we would have been getting phone calls from distributors, from sales agents, and you would just have to brush that off until the time is right, but it was certainly nice to not have any of that.
In the scene where Rooney Mara is driving away and there’s a composition that was playing, it was driving me crazy while I was at the press screening because I felt like I knew that song! It was driving me nuts, and then I remembered that the night before, I re-watched The Naked Kiss, and it sounded exactly like the song that the kids sing in the hospital, just set with strings….
LOWERY: Really? I have to admit, I have not seen ‘he Naked Kiss, though that is on my list. Jules Dassin, right?
Samuel Fuller. I think you’re thinking about The Naked City.
LOWERY: The Naked City! Right. Yeah, have not seen either of those movies [laughs]. I would be willing to bet that (composer) Daniel (Hart) hasn’t either, but that’s a beautiful allusion. Now I really wanna see it.
Yeah, you should! There’s a like 6 minute scene where children sing and it’s a very sad song about a mother crying, and it’s just so appropriate.
LOWERY: [Laughs] That’s amazing. I can’t wait to see it [claps]! There was a screening this morning that I did a Q&A for, and somebody told me that the score reminded them of a part of Stairway to Heaven, the Powell and Pressburger movie, not the Led Zeppelin song.
Right, which actually concerns a station for the recently deceased.
LOWERY: Right! They were very moved by that, and I loved it! That wasn’t intentional either, but that’s beautiful. Anything that I can make or Daniel can make that reminds people of something truly great that’s great even if I didn’t intend it.
The Will Oldham scene, was that what was scripted or did he have any type of input? Because it is kind of like a big artist’s statement. Was a little bit of that Will, himself?
LOWERY: It was 100% scripted, and he performed it to the letter. So what he brought to it was an immense amount of respect for what was written, which was a gift to me as a writer, and also a investment on a personal level with the writing.
I think he made it very personal and something that sounded right coming from his lips, but every word and ellipses was in the script and he handled it verbatim. It was an amazing thing to watch because I’m very open, normally, to actors throwing the script away and doing whatever they feel like within reason, but he comes from a different school of acting, which is that the words on the page are there for a reason, and he treats them with a great amount of respect and puts a great deal of energy into figuring out how to translate the intent behind them. So sitting and watching him deliver this monologue which was very personal to me because it was very much me rationalizing my own way forward as a filmmaker and as a human being, watching him perform it was breathtaking and also gave me a lot of confidence, which is a nice bonus.
About the previous tenants: was there any specific reason that you kept their dialogue in the home always in Spanish?
LOWERY: I love the Spanish language, for one thing, and when we were shooting it, I had written everything in English because I don’t speak Spanish well enough to communicate it very well. I can tell what someone’s saying, but I can’t speak it. I can read it well enough. So that was already English translated into Spanish, and then on set they were just performing it, with a fair amount of improv on the mother’s part; she was wrangling the kids as if they were her own children. And it was a surprisingly profound experience to direct a performance in another language. I really, really enjoyed it. And I enjoyed listening to it without knowing what every word meant. Because it’s a very musical language, it has a great deal of beauty just in the phonetics.
One thing I also thought about was that I had gone to film festivals a number of times in Europe and I just kind of stay and watch. Like, sometimes you go and sit down and expect there to be subtitles and there aren’t there, and I just watch it anyways and usually I’m able to follow pretty well. It’s always a nice experience because language takes on a different meaning when you’re not understanding what the words are literally saying. In this case, every word in there, if you do speak Spanish, is there for a reason. The dialogue all has a purpose and every line counts for something, but the experience of that whole sequence is not tied to what the characters are saying. So it functions perfectly well without it and allows the dialogue to just become a poetic element of the sound just by nature of Spanish being a very poetic language, and I just really liked hearing it and not having to think about what each word meant or translating it in my mind.
But if you were stuck in the house for years it would probably drive you nuts if you didn’t know…
LOWERY: Or you’d probably just figure it out, you know? Did you ever see that movie Eaters of the Dead or rather they retitled it The 13th Warrior from way back when?
Right, Eaters of the Dead was the book title; a studio wouldn’t release it under that name! [laughs]
LOWERY: Exactly! By Michael Crichton. I’ve forgotten almost everything about that movie, but it has the most amazing sequence of Antonio Banderas figuring out the viking language purely by spending time with them. The way John McTiernan do that cinematically has always stuck with me because it’s a really beautiful representation of how your brain begins to make sense of things.
Out of curiosity, I know you’ve edited a number of films, and Upstream Color is for me one of the best edited films in the past decade or so, and I’m wondering now that you’re much more established as a filmmaker, is there any filmmaker that you would maybe drop a personal gig in order to edit with them?
LOWERY: I would do it for Shane [Carruth] again in a heartbeat. That’s a really good question because I have to separate my fandom of certain filmmakers from what the experience of working with them might be like. It would be easy to say, yes, I would love to cut up a Paul Thomas Anderson film, but I also would kind of be worried about doing that because it might get in the way of my enjoyment of his movies, being part of the process. So I don’t know….I probably would say that I’m more likely to do it for a friend than for a filmmaker I admire. I’ve got lots of friends who make movies and I would love to help them out. Shane is, of course, someone who if he wanted me to go back I would drop everything to go make his next movie with him. It’s really weird. I would love to go help James Gray edit a movie, or help Paul Thomas Anderson edit a movie. There’s a certain echelon where I would love to participate, but I think, more importantly I would just love to be a fly on the wall and watch it happen because if I was actually doing it I would feel that would just get in the way of my own fandom of their work [laughs].
What is next for you?
LOWERY: Speaking of editing, I’m editing this movie The Old Man and the Gun that [I wrote and directed] and just finished shooting. Casey (Affleck)’s in it. Robert Redford is the star, Casey’s supporting. Casey did just direct a movie. But I will finish that up. I’m sure it will come out next year some time. Beyond that I’m just writing and trying to figure out what the next one will be. It’s a nice, lucky, luxurious place to be in where I’m just returning to raw material for the first time, because for the past couple of years I’ve just had one movie after another ready to go, and right now nothing ready to go and I’m able to just go exploring.
Maybe that exploration will start by watching The Naked Kiss [laughs]. I took that down, thanks.