“Everyone’s Had An Existential Crisis”
Writer/director David Lowery on his haunting new film, A Ghost Story
A ghost stands poised over the side of a skyscraper, looking out at a futuristic skyline. It looks into the expanse and jumps. In David Lowery’s visionary and, yes, haunting film A Ghost Story (playing now at TIFF Bell Lightbox), we see what happens when a ghost tries to commit suicide.
A small, handcrafted portrait of a bereaved couple (Rooney Mara as the newly widowed wife; Casey Affleck as the ghost, garbed in classic Halloween costume fashion) finding a way to make peace with the pain of death, Lowery’s film finds humour and vulnerability in the mundanity of grief. While the Texan filmmaker has made intimate small-scale features before (his 2013 breakthrough, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, is a Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque story about a con artist couple, also played by Mara and Affleck, ripped apart by the law), he’s also responsible for 2016’s Disney blockbuster Pete’s Dragon. Going back his roots in independent film, Lowery says that when it came to his fourth feature — which astonishingly started filming just days after Pete’s Dragon wrapped — the same rules applied.
“Going from a big summer Disney movie like Pete's Dragon to a tiny, handmade, independent film like A Ghost Story was not as drastic a change as I was expecting,” said Lowery, sitting in a hotel suite during a hectic day of press in Toronto. “It turns out all movies are exactly the same. They are all eminently scaleable, and making a tiny handmade movie is just as hard as making a giant studio movie. They just get done faster.”
And yet, for one of the smallest and Sundanciest movies of 2017, A Ghost Story tackles arguably, the largest themes imaginable in cinema. They’re the ones you wrestle with late at night, tangled in your own bedsheets: What is the point of existence? Why will everyone I love die? And when I kick the bucket, is anyone going to remember me? The centrepiece of the film is an extended monologue at a party, beautifully delivered by indie rock icon Will Oldham (also in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy). He’s the classic dude pontificating at a party about how nothing really matters because the universe is going to explode in 10 billion years. And yet there’s a ghost quietly standing in the back of the frame, in the midst of its own existential crisis. Lowery’s script is full of keenly observed and bitterly ironic moments like these, and it’s all the more impressive since it was written in a single day.
“When I sat down to write this movie, I didn't have a story in mind,” admits the writer-director. “I started with an image of outer space, then I dropped down to a house, and I knew that this ghost would get introduced at some point.”
“The themes that emerged are the things I care about, things I'm afraid of, things I worry about,” continues Lowery. “A lot of this movie is just a way for me to address my own personal fears about my day-to-day existence and also the enormity of time, which I think a lot of people are worried about. Everyone’s had an existential crisis.”
A Ghost Story is also a love story, full of tender, bruising moments between Mara and Affleck. (A long take of them cradling each in other bed, filmed from above, as we hear the palpitations of Mara’s heartbeat comes to mind.) Lowery calls the film a tribute to his marriage.
“I haven’t had any direct experiences with grief in the way the characters in the film do,” he says. “I'm sure I will some day, and I'm fearful of that, but I’m married and I love my wife. Our relationship is the grounds in which I find stability in my life, so I wanted that to be a part of this film. Casey and Rooney are playing very close versions of us, which was my way to make this story very personal, right from the outset.”
With sustained long takes (including a controversial nine-minute scene in which Rooney Mara eats an entire pie), A Ghost Story has an unusual stillness that’s rarely cultivated in American independent cinema. The filmmaker cites the films of Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Malaysia's Tsai Ming-liang as inspiration, where the duration of a shot is just as much a function of a scene as the lighting and the camerawork. (Lowery also loves Poltergeist and The Conjuring.) And yet, with A Ghost Story’s sumptuous magic-hour lighting and ambitiously existential themes, it would be remiss not to bring up Tree of Life with a fellow Texan filmmaker.
“Well, I feel like if you go outside with a camera in Texas and shoot an image, it's gonna get compared to Terrence Malick,” jokes Lowery. “At the same time, particularly with Tree of Life, Malick was trying to encompass the entirety of human existence and beyond.”
Regarding that aforementioned pie scene though, it begins when Affleck’s character has just died and Mara returns home, dressed in black. She finds that a friend has dropped off a handmade pie for her, stares at it for a moment, grabs a fork, and sits down on the floor and begins to eat it. In a single, unrelenting nine-minute take shot in profile, we watch the actor attack the pie, gorging herself, and crying. Her husband’s ghost observes her in her most vulnerable and private moment.
“Grief often manifests itself through the most mundane and quotidian day-to-day activities,” says Lowery. “I thought there was nothing more mundane than eating, so that felt like a way to make grief palpable and make it physical. That scene was in the script, and I always knew it would be an important part of the movie. Hopefully it feels true and sincere, because the reason we don't cut away, the reason why it lasts as long as it does, is that we wanted to be honest.”
Related to that idea of honesty was the challenge of figuring out how to turn an actor with a sheet over his head into a palpable symbol of grief that the audience could identify with. In a revealing interview with Vulture, Lowery admitted that the experience almost broke him: “I was just feeling the pressure of the idea. The conceit, the risk of failure … I just lost it. I felt like it was just not gonna work and I put on a happy face and kept going every day and kept trying, but I was just so convinced that it was too high-concept to succeed.”
When asked how he feels today as the film enters wide release, Lowery says it all came down to urging his lead actor, who had just won an Oscar for his appearance in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, to take the performance out of his performance.
“I had doubts about the ghost from day one,” relates Lowery. “At first, I thought that the ghost needed to move around a lot so we could tell that Casey was there. But it felt goofy, a stunt that clearly wasn't working. The very first scene we shot in the film was the scene where the ghost wakes up in the hospital, and we threw all that footage away.”
So how did Lowery rise to the occasion of directing an actor under a sheet?
“I initially thought Casey would be able to use physical movement in a way he hasn't been able to in his performances before,” says the filmmaker. “I wanted audiences to be able to recognize him under that sheet in his movements, the very particular moments he has as a human being. One or two days into the shoot, I realized it just wasn't going to work.”
“It was a very rigid, very mechanical process that required a lot of patience on his part, and a lot of trust. The way that I directed him eventually became much more akin to puppeteering, where I would just shout out directions: ‘Move your head, very, very, very slowly to the left — now stop.’ The stiller the ghost became, the less identifiable, the more, paradoxically, his performance came through. The ghost's identity became noticeable, recognizable, and rather profound. And suddenly, it ceased to be an actor with a sheet over their head, and an actual entity on screen.”