Two things you notice right away about David Lowery: He looks you straight in the eye, and he doesn’t blink. Even-keeled, articulate and soft spoken, the 36-year-old, Dallas-raised moviemaker first made his mark in 2009 with the simple, powerful St. Nick, in which two young runaways get ditched by their guardians. Continuing to write, direct and edit his own and others’ movies, he enjoyed a banner year in 2013 with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a crime/romance drama costarring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara that bore traces of the lyrical, contemplative work of Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick and won acclaim at both Sundance and Cannes. The same year, he brought quirkiness and backhanded charm to, of all things, a big-budget Disney project very loosely inspired by the 1977 musical Pete’s Dragon, turning it into an emotionally affecting non-musical starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford and Wes Bentley.
Now, Lowery has reunited with Affleck and Mara for A Ghost Story, filmed secretly in Texas last summer. The movie is pretty much what it sounds like, only it’s hypnotically slow and meditative; it comes at the themes of death and the afterlife from oblique angles and, in the end, it becomes devastating and universal in unexpected ways. The two stars play a couple identified as “C” (Casey) and “M” (Mara, as in Rooney) who get separated by death. Things get stranger when C, covered in a sheet, rises from the dead, returns to the home he shared with his love and waits, and waits, and waits for the grieving M to notice him. C moves on to another partner and drives away from the house, into which a mother and kids move.
Let us be clear: Affleck spends considerable screen time wearing a sheet with cut-out eyeholes. And at one point the unmoving camera studies M, after the wake, crouching on the kitchen floor and eating an entire pie from start to finish while tears tumble down her face. Although supernatural things happen in A Ghost Story—imagine an art-film version of Ghost—it isn’t a horror movie. Deeply strange, deadpan funny, metaphysical and unforgettable, it pays off magnificently for the patient and openhearted viewer. Lowery, in Los Angeles between bouts of editing on his next feature film, sat down to talk with us about his unique and strangely haunting love story.
Our first glimpse of a spirit in A Ghost Story is Casey Affleck’s character covered in a white sheet with two cut-out eye holes. It’s so ridiculous and simple, it’s almost like a Rorschach test. It’s also very funny because it’s such a Halloween costume cliché, yet it becomes very moving.
In a serious film, you’re right, it’s just comical that we see what we have come to understand is a goofy version, a cartoon version, of a ghost. In comic books and cartoons, the simpler the face gets, the more expressive it is; I felt that this was the ultimate version of that. We’re distilling the human features down to two circles and a blank slate. In the earliest days, I was wondering if we’d have to go in there and digitally make the eyes change shape—to convey the emotion. What proved to be true is the exact opposite. As long as the eyeholes remained consistent and the folds of the sheet weren’t too bunched up, the emotion would entirely be there. Part of it comes from the camerawork, the mise en scene and sound, but having that visage front and center really carries the emotional weight of the movie. A great deal of [audience] emotion is being projected on that ghost visage, and if more expression were on that face, it would have capsized that delicate balance. It worked far better than I intended it to.
Is it always Affleck under the sheet?
Initially, I thought he’d have to do a lot of physical performing under the sheet. But the more he did of that the less it worked, so we just removed the performance aspect. It became a very mechanical process in which I would just tell him to hold perfectly still or to move his head very slowly in a certain direction or walk very slowly to his left. It really was just me calling out action. We shot at a slightly higher frame rate to imbue him with an ever-so-slightly-surreal quality to his motion. Once we’d done that, we realized it didn’t really matter who was under the sheet as long as he was the same height as Casey. Casey wasn’t available when we did pickups, reshoots and additional photography, but we didn’t worry about it because we knew as long as the height was the same, we were fine. I will give him credit for being upset that we did that, because he wanted it to always be him.
Who else plays the ghost?
There are plenty of parts of the movie where it’s our art director [David Pink], who was the right height and had the temperament to put that costume on in 100-degree Texas weather in the summer. He’s doing that for big chunks of the film because we did do a lot of reshoots.
There is more than one ghost in the movie. Your spirits are melancholy creatures, silent, watchful, stuck in the houses in which they were happy, waiting in vain for the people they loved to communicate with them. Sad stuff. Is this your own concept of the afterlife?
I grew up in a very Catholic household. That was deeply ingrained in who I am. My beliefs have changed. I don’t subscribe to any one defined idea of what happens after we die. I’m open to everything; I’m open to nothing. I don’t have faith in any one thing, although I’m open to that returning once again in my life because I had that before. I have concerned myself with finding meaning in the here and now. There’s a lot more of that in the movie than there is about the afterlife.
In this movie, you ask some unusual things of Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. The latter, for instance, has what felt like a four- or five-minute scene in which she stress-eats an entire pie and cries. Having worked with you on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, were your stars down for all of it?
[Rooney Mara] doesn’t want to talk about that scene because it was uncomfortable and personal. She didn’t want to do the scene, and I’m really grateful to her for doing it. But she definitely believed in the project and believed the scene was integral to it. Working again with them both, the alchemy was still there. There was a greater degree of ease in our relationship, a greater degree of trust. If that hadn’t existed, they would never have come to set in the first place. They would never have said yes. But also they would have probably picked up on my own sense of panic during production that it wasn’t working and they themselves would have panicked. On Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, there was definitely this sense I was a first-time filmmaker, for all intents and purposes, and they were putting themselves on the line for me. Thank god they did, and they did beautiful work. In A Ghost Story, I felt we were all approaching it from a level of friends who were endeavoring to make something that mattered to us.
Does it make you nervous that “ghost story” to most contemporary audiences spells shock-‘em thrillers and your movie is anything but?
The Paranormal Activity movies, the Conjuring movies, the Insidious movies—I’ve seen them all, and they terrify me. As a fan of those, I didn’t want to set up audiences to expect that. I wanted to be clear that, with that image of the ghost, it would show people that this movie is going to be slightly unusual. But I’ve been incredibly pleased and pleasantly surprised speaking to journalists at horror magazines and fans of horror films who love it. They feel it functions as a genre film even though, to my mind, it’s not. I love horror films, and in spite of the fact that it’s not a horror film, I do love that it can participate in the common language of horror films—particularly the classic haunted house movies that we all know and love.
Your next movie, The Old Man and the Gun, based on the exploits of a real-life bank robber who was 70 years old, is another about-face.
The movie is the first time I’m trying to make something that’s just fun and light-hearted. Robert Redford is great. From doing Pete’s Dragon and now this with him, I’ve learned that you don’t need to do more than two takes and you won’t see it all on set. Instead, you get to the dailies, look at footage and see how much he’s giving you—and it’s a lot. It’s wonderful to learn that you can depend on that.
Read Stephen Rebello’s interview with Twin Peaks star Mädchen Amick here.