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Director David Lowery tells a new kind of ghost story 

Writer and director David Lowery's "A Ghost Story" is bound to be one of the more divisive films to be released this year. It tells the melancholy tale of life and death, as experienced by a married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. When Affleck's character unexpectedly passes away, he returns in the form of a ghost (complete with white bedsheet and holes cut out for eyes) to silently observe his wife as she grieves and attempts to move on.

Where the story goes from there is best left for the audience to discover, but suffice it to say, things get existential. The film becomes a sort of cinematic Rorschach test, with some seeing a profoundly moving exploration of love, the afterlife, and the enormity of time itself. Others will just see Casey Affleck standing around in a bed sheet for 90 minutes, watching Rooney Mara look sad and eat a pie.

Those willing to open themselves up to the experience, though, will find some of the most audacious filmmaking -- and one of best movies -- to reach theaters this year. CITY spoke with David Lowery by phone for a conversation that touched on how he went about bringing such an unusual story to the screen, finding ways to straddle the line between independent features and big-budget studio filmmaking, and what it takes to create a killer ghost costume. An edited transcript of our chat is below.

click to enlarge David Lowery on the set of "A Ghost Story." - PHOTO BY BRET BURRY, COURTESY OF A24
  • PHOTO BY BRET BURRY, COURTESY OF A24
  • David Lowery on the set of "A Ghost Story."

CITY: "A Ghost Story" is such a different take on the haunted house story. I'd read that the idea originated from an argument you had with your wife. Can you elaborate on that?

David Lowery: I've lived in Texas most of my life. I feel like it's my home, and part of my identity. But at a certain point a couple years ago it made sense to move to Los Angeles, and I really didn't want to go. It was an upsetting move to me, like I was leaving part of myself behind. In particular I'd attached myself to the house we were living in, and did not want to move out of that house. And once we did decide to move out of it, I didn't want to let anyone else move into it. I wanted it to be a house we could return to in the future, because I felt so comfortable there. I felt at home there.

That inclination I have to lay down roots and plant myself in the homes that I've lived in is a longstanding tradition that I have. I naturally make homes wherever I go and that one in particular felt like I belonged there, and I didn't want to leave it behind. So when I did leave and move to LA with my wife, that led to -- you know, it wasn't like it led to a gigantic, marriage-ending argument, but at a certain point I floated the idea that we might move back to Texas. And my wife at that point was very happy in LA, she liked it and she didn't want to leave. So we got into an argument, and that argument felt big for us because we never fight. I remember thinking it felt like the scene from a movie. And more so than that, I recognized in that argument some inherent flaws in my way of thinking, and my way of living. The things that mattered to me -- the values I had. I wanted to rectify those flaws and also understand them more thoroughly. So part of the reason I made this movie was to dig into those issues in my life and kind of come to terms with them.

The film reunites your "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" stars, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Did you deliberately cast actors you already had a working relationship with? Were you writing with those two in mind specifically?

I did not write the movie with them in mind, but as soon as the script was done and as soon as I decided that it was a movie I was going to make, I reached out to both of them. Partially because we're friends and it was easy to just call them up personally and ask them if they'd be interested, but also because they have amazing chemistry together. They really have a sense of ease with one another that suggests a longstanding relationship.

Because the characters in this film get to spend very little time together before one of them passes away, I wanted to make sure we were able to get the most out of that time, and get a sense, very quickly and efficiently that these are two people who love each other and care about each other, and have a history with one another. Casey and Rooney were able to do that. I knew they'd be able to do that from having worked with them before, so it was a natural fit to reach out to them and see if they'd be interested.

The central image of Affleck walking around in a sheet is incredibly striking, but I have to imagine seeing that on set was a different experience entirely. At what point were you like, "OK, I think this will actually work"?

It took a couple weeks of shooting. [Laughs] Or I guess a week -- 10 days or so. Our shoot was only 19 days initially. And by day 11 or 12 I think we finally figured out how to make the ghost work. Preceding that moment of realization, there were plenty of stressful mornings where it just felt like the bed sheet was gonna be a disaster. And there was a lot of, you know, hemming and hawing and a great amount of trial-and-error in achieving the simplicity that we were really after.

What was the design process like for creating the ghost costume?

My costume designer, Annell Brodeur, began by putting a bed sheet over someone's head and cutting holes in the eyes, and realizing that would never in a million years work. [Laughs] You know, it'll work for a 5-year-old on Halloween, but it does not work for a movie.

So she created this costume that looks incredibly simple and looks just like a bed sheet, but is in fact incredibly complex and has a lot of moving parts under that exterior fabric. And that fabric in and of itself isn't a bed sheet at all but a custom-built piece of cloth that is a very specific size and shape and weight. She dyed it a specific shade of white, and the thread count really mattered because it had to drape in a very specific fashion to get those wonderful folds that sort of define the character's face. So all of those things went into the design of the costume and there's a whole lot of pieces that went underneath the sheet.

But the real work then rested on Casey's shoulders, and all of our shoulders collectively, of having this costume that in a sense worked. We had to figure out how to make that presence function on screen, in front of the camera, with a person inside it. And that had its own set of challenges.

How was it directing an actor without any of the basic tools an actor typically has to work with -- you can't see his eyes, his body is covered. I have to imagine that made things challenging.

The only difficult thing was realizing how un-difficult it needed to be. Once I realized it needed to be a very simple process, it was easy. But initially, I approached it as if I were directing Casey without a sheet. We talked about letting his instincts and body language define the character in a very prominent way, but that just wasn't working. When we looked at that footage, it just didn't quite work -- it felt like an actor wearing a bed sheet.

The solution turned out to be having him do very little. He had to stand either very, very still or turn his head very slowly. Whatever he had to do in a scene, we just had to remove the personality from it, remove the instinct; to remove the "performance" from the actual performance. And that became a series of mechanical movements that I could just literally call out on set, where I could just tell him as we were rolling what I wanted him to do. That's when the ghost began to take on the qualities that we wanted. It just required being very simple and direct, as opposed to getting all hung up on the performance and the emotion, and all the normal things you'd work with if you were directing an actor who had all those tools at their disposal.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BRET BURRY, COURTESY OF A24
  • PHOTO BY BRET BURRY, COURTESY OF A24

You've worked previously with musician and composer Daniel Hart. What conversations did you have about the sound of the film, since it juggles between several tones and includes a song that plays a pretty significant role?

One of the wonderful things about working with someone multiple times is that over the course of your collaborations, you don't need to have conversations as much. So we actually had very few conversations about the score for this film beyond some initial jumping-off points that I gave him. I'd suggested that we move away from the folk-tinged soundtracks that we've collaborated on in the past, and try something a little different. I suggested the John Carpenter scores from the 80's as a point of reference.

And of course there was that song he had written, which pre-existed. That was a song he had written right as I was writing the script, and he played it for me, and I loved it so much I wrote it into the script. That was a good jumping-off as well. But I'm at a point now in my relationship with Daniel where we don't have to talk that much. He comes to the set, he looks at the footage. I usually do an entire cut of the movie without any music at all, so I can just make sure the movie's working, and I give that cut to him and he goes to town. Nine times out of 10 what he gives me is gonna to be exactly what the movie needs.

One of the ideas the film explores is what we leave behind when we're gone. There's a monologue at the center of the film about the legacy of art on humanity. As a filmmaker, how much of those ideas do you apply to your own work?

I definitely think about it a lot. And I'm also aware that I shouldn't think about it that much because it's a perhaps unfair standard to hold one's own work to. But at the same time, you do want your movies to matter. Or if you're writing a book, you want those books to matter. If you're a musician you want your songs to mean something to somebody.

It helps for me to think about things not in terms of the legacy I'm leaving behind, but the connection I'm building with the people who engage with what I'm making. And that's a legacy in its own right. It's an important one, but it's helpful for me to break outside of the box of my own ego. I don't want to think about my body of work as an extension of my ego -- even though it sort of is -- but I want to think about the way in which it's able to be appreciated by others. Because that's the true test of time. That's the truest standard to which I can hold myself.

Hopefully people do engage with my work, and hopefully they do like it and push it forward. But I can't get too caught up thinking about whether or not my movies will exist after I'm gone. Or whether the stories I'm telling are gonna matter to anyone this time next year. I just need to try to make something that will mean something to people in the moment they watch them. And if they do, that's its own form of permanence.

You started work on this immediately after "Pete's Dragon." Did you deliberately set out to make something on a smaller scale after spending so much time with something that large?

It wasn't deliberate that I made something small. I guess the thing that was deliberate was I just wanted to make another movie. And to make another movie quickly, that movie by design has to be small. I'd spent three years at that point working on "Pete's Dragon," and that movie needed every one of those three years -- needed every day that we had to work on it. And needed more time than we had to work on it. [Laughs] We had to stop at a certain point, because that's the type of movie it was. But after having spent all that time making the movie, I was really excited to make something new and I wanted to get something going quickly. And by default, if you're going to do something quickly, it can't be huge. So the scale was sort of imposed on me by my own desire to execute the film quickly.

"Pete's Dragon" is obviously a big budget film, but it maintained your specific sensibilities as a filmmaker. How did you make sure that it ended up still feeling like a David Lowery film?

I just was very clear with the studio every step of the way what my intentions were. It started off as a screenplay that I wasn't gonna direct. It was just a screenplay I was hired to write, but over the course of writing that screenplay it became very personal to me -- as any writing project does if you see it through to completion. And the studio really liked what I was writing, so it was easy for me to make it personal because they were responding very favorably.

When the time came to hire a director, and they asked me if I wanted to do it, I realized that yes, I do want to make this film, but I want to make sure that it's still the personal story that I wrote. I wanted to make sure that it didn't change as we brought it to the screen. And so to ensure it would maintain that integrity, I just was very clear with every single decision I was making throughout the entire process, so that the studio would never be surprised by anything they saw.

I give a great amount of credit to my producer, Jim Whitaker, who helped facilitate that. He was very clear to me early on that the best way to succeed is to just be transparent, so if at any point the studio had seen something they didn't like or were worried about my approach, they would have let me know with enough time for me to either agree to disagree or for us to part ways harmoniously. But luckily they liked everything I was doing, and every step of the way they were engaged and they appreciated my intent, and they wanted to make the movie I wanted to make. The important thing was I was clear about that from day one, and never once tried to pull one over on them or get something by them. It was a collaboration every step of the way, and that's why I was able to make the movie I wanted to make.

In addition to writing and directing your own films, you've also taken on various roles for other filmmakers -- either as producer, or editor for "Upstream Color" and "Ciao," as a writer on "Pit Stop." How has that influenced your process? Is that something you're trying to continue?

I would like to do more of that in the future. I think being a producer is easier than being an editor because I can sort of produce from afar. Rather than be the "on the set, on the ground, in the weeds" producer, I can take a step back and be one of those producers who just is there as the filmmaker might need me. And I love doing that. I love being able to help my friends and other filmmakers I admire get their stories out in the world. But because I've always wanted to be a director -- that's been my goal all along -- while I have the opportunity to do so, I'm gonna keep focusing on that.

But that's not to diminish the immense amount that I've learned working with other filmmakers when I was in the weeds with them, either on set or in the edit suite. I've gained so much from the filmmakers I've collaborated with, and just seeing stories through their eyes helped broaden my own perspectives. As an editor, you get to see all of the mistakes that a director has made and you learn from those -- although they don't prevent you from making all the same mistakes yourself. But more valuable than that are the perspectives that you gain. You get to really put your own instincts aside, and subject yourself to someone else's point of view. And that's a really enriching, healthy, and valuable thing for any artist to do. It has contributed enormously to my own perspectives and helped me define what I want to do as a filmmaker when I'm behind the camera.

You started on "A Ghost Story" immediately after finishing up "Pete's Dragon," and I believe you're already in the process of editing your next film ["The Old Man and the Gun," with Robert Redford]. Is that pretty typical of how you work: immediately jumping from one project into the next?

It wasn't intentional. It just kept working out that way. You know, after "Pete's Dragon" was done, I could have taken a two-month vacation. But I looked at those two months and thought, "Oh, I can make a movie in that time period." [Laughs] So now we have "A Ghost Story." And right now I'm helping "A Ghost Story" get out into the world, and I'm editing "Old Man and the Gun," and I don't have anything immediately in my future to direct. That is both sort of nice, because it allows me to focus on just one thing right now -- or two things, as it were. But also I'm starting to feel a little anxious. I feel like I need to get another movie up and going.

I feel like I'm in a luxurious position where I'm able to make movies for a living, and I don't take that lightly. As long as I'm able to do that, I want to take advantage of it and keep making those films. Hopefully I'm able to continue doing so, and hopefully people will keep seeing them and allowing me to make them. But at some point maybe I'll try to take a vacation instead of trying to make a movie in the period in which I have to take a vacation. [Laughs] That would probably make my wife very happy.

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