In the Spirit: David Lowery’s 'A Ghost Story' takes an unconventional approach to mortality and the nature of time

Movies Features

“Time has always been a big deal to me, both in life and in film,” says David Lowery, the writer-director of A Ghost Story, opening on July 7 through distributor A24. “I wanted to make a movie that dealt with time.”

Lowery, whose Ain’t Them Bodies Saints premiered in Sundance in 2013 and put him on the map of major directors, reunites him with its co-stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, for a small, personal film (or rather, “experiment,” as he once referred to it) about mortality, grief and the irreversible nature of time, which lands on something deeply profound and strangely meditative. Shot secretly after Lowery wrapped Pete’s Dragon for Disney and debuting at Sundance last January, this is the “Casey Affleck floats around in a sheet” and “Rooney Mara eats an entire chocolate pie in one take” film you might have heard about. In Lowery’s small-scale but conceptually immense film in which a young woman loses her life partner unexpectedly and copes with the aftermath, these peculiar ideas cut through the human experience in a cumulatively heartrending, transfixing way and tangibly capture a state of unspeakable melancholy. “You’ve never seen anything like it” is usually a phrase thrown around all too generously, but in the case of A Ghost Story, you’ve really never seen anything like it.

Joining me for a conversation recently, Lowery says he is still in disbelief that A Ghost Story, an abstract film he didn’t even know he was going to be able to pull off, went this far and is about to come out in theatres through the efforts of an inventive distributor that recently opened up a pop-up shop called “A Ghost Store” in downtown Manhattan. It’s a surreal place where you can have an out-of-body experience, get custom-fitted for a ghost sheet (upon answering some spiritual questions about yourself to a consultant) and find “the fabric of your life,” as they call it. “I can't believe A24 made that happen,” Lowery joyfully marvels. “They told me about it, and I thought they were joking, and then they were like, ‘No, we're really going to do this.’ The fact that we went from making the movie in secret last summer to this is unbelievable to me. I thought five people would like this movie, and I thought because of Casey and Rooney it would get some sort of release, but I felt it would just be too strange to ever really catch on. And maybe it will be, but the fact that A24 has gone the distance in putting it out there for people to see, if they want to see it, is just so cool to me.”

Below is our conversation where we talked about time, eternity and fears around mortality, among other things.

You play with the idea of eternity, and not just time in A Ghost Story. They are of course related concepts, but perhaps a little bit different to me.

I don't know if I was thinking about it in concrete terms when I was writing it. Initially it was going to be very intimate and very small. As I was writing, it kept getting bigger and grander and more encompassing. I don't know if I had my sights on eternity, but I did hope that this would address some sort of existential dilemma that I was having. I wanted to give myself some degree of relief from my own fears of mortality and the meaningless of existence. In trying to deal with those ideas, while also telling a story that played with time in a way that I found fun and enjoyable and novel, I suppose I might have tapped into something about eternity. It wasn't until I finished the movie and watched the finished product all the way through that I realized how expansive it might actually be.

Do you believe in an afterlife? Are you a spiritual person?

I don't believe in an afterlife in a literal sense. I'm open to the idea, but I don't take any comfort in the possibility. But I do, paradoxically, believe in ghosts. I don't know if I believe that there is a literal spirit that can hang around after a person passes away, as I represent in this movie, but I do like the idea that when you leave a room, you leave a little bit of yourself behind, that your energy transfers from your body when you die, and can exist in the space you're in. That makes sense to me. And maybe there's more to it than that. At the very least, I do think that there is some transference of energy that could be defined as a haunting or as a spirit or as a ghost.

I'm a very pragmatic person, and I do subscribe to some degree of spirituality. A lot of it comes from being raised very, very Catholic. My father was a theology professor. We were a deeply Catholic family. That still infuses my life to a certain degree, even though I'm not part of the church anymore. It laid the groundwork for where I am now. Even though I don't actually believe in spirituality the way I did when I was a child, it still is certainly a part of who I am.

How did you sell this idea to Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck?

I'm lucky enough to know them as friends now. I think they trust me to a large degree, because if they didn't, they would have said no. I just texted Casey and said, "Hey, I'm making a ghost movie this summer. Do you want to come be in it? You have to wear a sheet." And he said, "Sure." I sent the script, but I don't think he read it until he got to Texas. With Rooney, I sent her the script, she read it and we had a conversation about it. She spent a little more time thinking about it, because her schedule was busier. Ultimately, she found it compelling enough an idea, and a big enough challenge, and a fun enough concept that she went for it.

They liked the idea that we were doing it in secret. They're celebrities, they get photographed walking down the street. The idea that they’d get to make a movie no one knew about and to have the opportunity to just try things out that are outside the norm was refreshing.

Did keeping it a secret take a certain pressure off? Perhaps you felt a bit freer?

When you don't have the weight of expectation on your shoulders, you're able to create more, because no one is judging you in advance. If this movie had been announced in Variety before we started shooting, people would have been expecting it and they'd be wondering if we'd be at Sundance, and they'd be wondering what it was about. That's fine for some movies, but for a movie like this, that's so strange and challenging. I just didn't want to have that pressure. I also didn't know if it would work or if this would be a movie that would be worth watching, or if it would even be finished. I wanted to have the freedom to fail, and to fail in private without people being aware of it. That was a very necessary thing for me, and I think that was an appeal to the cast as well. We didn't sign oaths of secrecy. Even on Instagram, the crew was posting pictures. Everyone knew we were making something, but I think everyone thought we were making a short film. No one knew that Casey and Rooney were in it. There was a sense that we were all in this big experiment together.

Was Casey Affleck a good sport about being under the sheet the whole time?

He loved it. I was expecting him to complain a lot and to be miserable because it was so hot, but I he enjoyed subjugating himself to the needs of that costume. At the end of the day we had to do some reshoots and some pickups, and we had to have someone else play the ghost because he wasn't available, and he was really upset about that. He really wanted to be there for every shot. Like the scene where he comes home for the first time, we reshot that scene three times because we just couldn't get it to work. Ultimately, in that scene where he first comes in and is standing in the room, that's not him. There's a couple others scattered throughout the movie, some of the stuff at the party. You can't tell, because the performance is so defined by that costume. But for Casey, it was important to lay claim to that character, so I know it broke his heart a little bit.

Regarding the ghost costume, it’s the most universal and basic interpretation of what people picture when they think of a ghost: a person under a sheet. So it could’ve turned out perhaps a bit generic and silly. But then it didn’t, as it looks and feels a lot more than a sheet with two holes like in Beetlejuice. There is volume to it, and then there is the train. You definitely feel a presence underneath it. It’s a pretty specific costume design.

Yeah. It was just a lot of trial and error, because our initial thought was, we would put a sheet on Casey's head and cut holes in it, and that would work. That instantly proved to not be the case, because a bed sheet, even a king-sized bed sheet, doesn't cover you entirely, and if you cut two holes in a sheet, they just kind of fall into a slant. They don't stay circular. What I realized we needed was a physical representation of a drawing of a person wearing a sheet. If you were to draw a picture of someone wearing a sheet, it would be a very simple arc, a very simple line with two symmetrical circles for eyes, and that's what we needed.

We had to take this very simple concept and make it physical and three-dimensional. So, that required getting fabric and cutting a very specific shape, and putting space for arms in there so that the arms could move, and making a trail that would trail behind it so you would never see feet. And then building out the shape underneath the sheet required a layer of petticoats. It sort of looks like a wedding dress underneath the sheet. There was a lot of tulle and a lot of other fabric, and then there was also a helmet made out of felt that kept the face intact. The eyes were sewn into this helmet so they would stay circular. There was a heavy scrim behind the eyeholes, so that whoever was wearing it could always see out, but we, as the audience, could never see in.

Well, let’s talk about that key pie scene. It is the kind of scene you could build a whole film around.

It is a touchstone; we knew that would be the case. I just wanted there to be a really profound and sustained depiction of grief to root Rooney's character in, because she doesn't have much dialogue, especially after Casey dies. She isn't in the movie that much after he dies. She leaves the film 45 minutes in, and is gone. I wanted her presence to feel like a central part of the film. I knew there needed to be one scene that really let her take center stage. I wanted to feel the sense of loss, the sorrow that she was feeling, and I wanted it to be a feeling that was tangible enough that audiences could hold onto it and engage with it on a more meaningful level than if we were just to show her crying her eyes out in bed.

I find that grief is a very physical thing. You feel it all through your body. You feel it in your stomach, and I wanted our depiction of it to be physical, so eating just felt like the right thing. It felt like a private thing that we would be seeing, and I knew that it would last a while. I wanted to make people uncomfortable with that. I wanted it to last well beyond your point of comfort, because if it did that, if it endured past that point, if audiences stuck with it, I felt that we would be able to understand what she's going through on a very palpable level.

Watching it, I felt her anger and submission and hopelessness—it's almost like she was taking revenge. It just kept building, emotion after emotion.

[Rooney] brought most of that. She knew the scene was meant to be an expression of grief. We talked a lot about grief, and we read books about grieving and death. We talked around the scene a lot, but we never really talked about what she needed to do, other than the fact that she needed to eat that pie.

She knew what the reasoning behind that scene was, and she understood the emotional intent. So I trusted her. You always trust an actor when you work with them. I told her that unless there was a horrible accident, we'd only do one take of it, and that whenever she felt like she was done, she could bring the scene to a close on her own volition. My job was to give her that context, and then to set up the camera and step back and give her the space to do the scene as she saw fit. So I give all that credit to her.

Sometimes I find myself trying to imagine that kind of grief prematurely. I look at my husband, or a family member, or at my dog—well, especially my dog because I’ll lose her in my lifetime if I live long enough—and I wonder how or if I could cope with their loss. I sometimes cry thinking along these lines. I connected so deeply with A Ghost Story, because it evoked all these thoughts and fears I regularly have. Do you experience the same fears around the mortality of others?

Oh, completely.

Looking at them and imagining, "What if they're not here one day?"

Yes, even down to the pets. I have two cats and I can't handle thinking about them dying someday. And I know it will happen. They're four years old now, so if I get really literal, I'm like, "Okay, I've got, at most, ten years with them." And that breaks my heart. My parents are getting older, and it's all too easy for me to imagine the day in which they will no longer be around. Through that I can also start to imagine my own eventual passing, although that's less meaningful to me. That's more of an abstract. Thinking about the people that matter to me no longer being around is difficult. I think it is for everybody, but I definitely get very upset about that. It's all about me. It's about me not having them. It's an extension of my ego.

Isn't that a part of grief anyway?

It is, yeah.

It all comes down to you in the end.

Completely. Especially with pets, because they have no concept of it, really. They don't care. It's purely your own projection and your own fear of moving on without them. It's a profound thing and a sad thing, but it definitely occupies way too much of my time, and this movie was definitely a way for me to put those thoughts and fears into some sort of form that I could reconcile myself…or at least have some degree of dealing with it.

Strangely enough, watching Pete's Dragon made me think of this a little too, probably because I kept looking at that dragon as if it were a misunderstood pit bull. Reminded me of one I once fostered.

I love that, that's so wonderful.

I assume Elliot’s dog-like qualities in Pete’s Dragon were intentional.

Completely, that's why he's furry. I love animals, all animals, and I wanted him to function on that level. I wanted audiences to connect to him the way they connect to pets. I made him like a dog, because that's the easiest way to communicate, because dogs are so communicative, and they speak without speaking. But I also put a ton of my cats in there. I have a bunch of scenes where it's literally just based on videos of what my cats do. I basically made that movie as a love letter to my pets, and that is what it's supposed to function as.

Everything he does is based [on pets]... Like, the animators who animated Elliot, all came in with videos of their own animals, their pets, and based a lot of it off their own personal pets. So, everyone who worked on that movie was able to say, "Oh, that's my dog" or "That's my cat." I think it makes it, on a very subliminal level, that much more personal, because everyone put their own love of animals into the film.

I was looking at your blog recently, and you had a list of things that you learned from the last movie you just wrapped [Old Man and the Gun]. If you were to put together a list for A Ghost Story, what would be the top learning?

A Ghost Story was so intense and such a weird process that I don't know if I can succinctly say what I learned, other than that I learned the same thing on every movie, which is to trust myself. I always forget that going in, and by the end of the movie I'm reminded that that is the number-one thing to take away from every experience. Just trust yourself every step of the way. The one I just finished, I did a better job on that because I made it so quickly after this one.

But I lost confidence so often in this movie, and just felt it was a failure, and really relied on my friends that I was making it with to convince me to keep going, because I thought we were just digging ourselves into a hole that we would never get out of. At the end of the day, it worked. The ideas that I initially had were the right ones, and we made a movie that worked as we intended it to, but I lost sight of that so quickly while we were making it, and lost my own faith in my own abilities.

The other thing is, I really found a great deal of value in getting personal. I always try to keep myself at arm’s distance when I'm making my films. I'm a little scared of getting intimate and personal. With this one, I found that it got better the more personal it got, and that it was okay to do that. I didn't feel like I was navel-gazing, or that I was being self-obsessed. I felt that I was just finding a better way to communicate something that felt true and sincere to me. I guess the third big lesson is to just always make movies with your friends, because it will always turn out better.

Anything you can say about Peter Pan, your next big Disney film?

Not really, we're writing it still, and we've been working on it for about a year now. It's a tough script to get right, because it's been done a lot before, so you want to make it feel fresh. For me, I want to make it feel personal. It also needs to do what Disney movies need to do, which is make a lot of audiences happy, and by doing that, make a lot of money. So, it is a balancing act that we're figuring out. Right now, we're in that happy stage where it's just a script. We don't have any pressure or expectation. If we can get the script right and everyone's happy with it, it might become a movie, and if not, we'll make something else, because I love making Disney movies.