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.