Low and Slow: David Lowery on the Simplicity of ‘A Ghost Story’

Following up last year's family-friendly Pete's Dragon, director David Lowery returns with ambitious indie A Ghost Story, a movie that revels in intimacy and the passage of time.

“It felt much more like puppeteering than directing.”

Southern gothic romance Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (Lowery, 2013) was one of the most singular, cinematic independent movies of 2013, and its director, Texas’ David Lowery, seemed primed to do big things. His next gig turned out to be as big as anybody could expect: Under the Disney banner, he directed Pete’s Dragon in 2016, a remake of the 1977 children’s classic that is decidedly more family-friendly than his previous offerings, but no less inspired.

Without question, Lowery could have chosen to stay in the big-budget world for the foreseeable future, but instead, he chose to make his next feature an ambitious, micro-budget indie starring his friends Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who played the outlaw lovers Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. A Ghost Story takes Lowery’s fluid, ethereal aesthetic to new levels of beauty and poignancy, following a white-sheeted ghost who haunts his own house to keep an eye on his grieving wife (Mara).

Ambitious in its pacing and thematic depth, the movie feels both uncomfortably intimate and breathtakingly grand in scope. It stands as the best hangover cure for those overdosed on popcorn movies this summer with its minimalistic, thought-provoking, experimental style, though it is dotted with a few modest scares and laugh-out-loud moments to make it a wholly satisfying moviegoing experience. We spoke to Lowery this week in San Francisco about his career trajectory, the film’s one-line premise, his unconventional approach to storytelling, and more.

David Lowery on set (Credit: Photo by Bret Burry, courtesy of A24)

I remember chatting with you a few years ago for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and how you were experimenting with black levels in your little indie movie. Since then, you’ve directed a huge Disney movie and now have the freedom to pretty much make the movies you want to make.

That’s a luxurious place to be in, and I’m happy to be doing that and keep doing it. That’s part of the reason why I don’t stop working — I’m afraid those opportunities will go away.

I feel like the best cinematic experiences often arise from simple premises because you as a filmmaker aren’t burdened by a complicated plot and can extrapolate from the main idea and go in any direction you want. Was it your thinking from the beginning to keep the story as bare-bones as possible to facilitate more cinematic experimentation?

Yeah, it was meant to be as simple as can be. In every single scene, we were thinking about how to present it in the most simple fashion possible. Initially, when I first wrote the script, I was thinking every scene would be a single shot, and we’d just hold that shot, and when it was over, the scene would be over. I quickly realized that that wasn’t the best way to make the movie, but nonetheless, that was the idea I had going into it.

Some filmmakers are great at making complex things and films with a lot of moving parts, and I’m just not that way. I can’t solve a puzzle for the life of me — my brain doesn’t work that way. But I can take a very simple idea and extrapolate from it and spend time with it and pull things out of it. When I’m writing a story, I try to reduce it to the barest possible components and go from there.

It’s like jazz musicians choosing a simple groove and riding it out, trying different things but never straying too far from the backbone of the song.

I love that. You can go so many places, and you’re never that far from where you started off. It provides you a lot of support but also a lot of opportunities to really go exploring.

A Ghost Story is incredibly singular, but while I was watching, other filmmakers and films came to mind. Chantal Akerman, Kubrick… even Au Hasard Balthazar.

I hadn’t thought about that one! The donkey and the ghost are probably pretty similar. [laughs]

Right. It’s that silent protagonist who simply observes the world around him. What filmmakers and films were in your mind while you were making A Ghost Story?

There was a lot of stuff. Jeanne Dielman was certainly there at times, knowing there’s a way to achieve an almost transcendent stillness if you let a shot last for a certain amount of time. The movies of Apichatpong Weerasethakul were definitely a source of inspiration for us, though we decided not to go back and watch them because we felt we might rip them off too thoroughly if we did that.

Carlos Reygadas with Post Tenebras Lux was a big inspiration, especially in the latter half of the movie, when the camera starts being more expressive. And then other things like Beetlejuice and Poltergeist were definitely a huge part of it — that was the root idea, to make a movie using the language of classic ghost movies, whether it be comic or truly terrifying.

It doesn’t take a lot to scare me, and The Conjuring 2 totally terrified me before I started shooting this. All of that stuff kind of gets synthesized into whatever part of my brain takes things and uses them. We tried not to mimic anything too much, but we definitely thought about a lot of those movies.

I love Jeanne Dielman, and I’m glad to talk to a filmmaker like you who has also utilized those extraordinarily long, stationary shots of mundane activities. When I see shots like that, I have my initial interpretation of what’s going on. It’s usually simple and a little underwhelming — there she is, making chicken cutlets. But that interpretation evolves as the shot plays out and gets longer, and I start to feel something else.

And then my perception evolves again, and now I’m seeing something completely different going on. And then you, the filmmaker, cut at what seems to be the exact right time, when I feel I fully understand the scene. I don’t know how you know when to do that.

I think that’s evidence that you were in sync with the movie. When I’m editing it, I’m trying to find that rhythm myself. Some of those shots could easily last longer. We rolled long enough for them to keep going, but you want to find the right point at which to cut. So when I’m editing, at the point at which I feel like the shot is done, I hit the spacebar. Then, I’ll watch it again, and I’ll find I have to make it a little longer or a little shorter and iron it out to just the right edit point. It’s intuitive.

If you’re a filmgoer who appreciates that kind of cinema, watching it over and over isn’t that big of a deal. You know what you’re after, and once you find it, you’re able to make that edit, and it feels right.

But I’m glad you said what you said because it means I’m not crazy in terms of finding those cut points! [laughs] I’m always like, well, this makes me happy, but I always hope other people feel the same way. Those shots transform as you’re watching them, and I found it very difficult to achieve those very simple, mundane moments that sustain themselves for a long period of time. It proved to me how masterful a film like Jeanne Dielman is, because that’s all that movie is.

I enjoy physical acting, when an actor can tell a story with her or his body without dialogue. I imagine this movie was an exercise in that for Casey — I don’t know if this is like any gig he’s ever had.

I doubt it. [laughs]

What was your experience directing his physical performance?

It was very rigorous. There wasn’t a lot of acting going on, though he might say differently. From my perspective, we didn’t approach each scene in the way we would if he was just a human being. It felt much more like puppeteering than directing. I was just telling him what to do, very literally. As the camera was rolling, I’d give him very loud verbal directions because it was very hard to hear under that costume. Those directions were always very specific and very technical, and there wasn’t any emotion behind them, at least for me.

We’re doing that to achieve an emotional response, but the performance itself is not emotional — it’s a very mechanical one that requires a lot of specificity and a lot of endurance. Wearing that costume is not pleasant. It’s very hot, it’s hard to hear, you can’t see that well. The movements had to be very, very robotic — if he felt too human underneath that sheet, it just reduced the sheet to a costume. But when his movements were less human and more robotic, ironically, paradoxically, the sheet started to turn into something much more ethereal.

We realized that through trial and error. Initially, he would just walk around the way he normally would, and it looked stupid. It looked like a human wearing a bed sheet, and we didn’t want it to look like that even though that’s what it was.

I feel like most people, looking at your catalogue of movies, would draw a direct line between A Ghost Story and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints because they’re dark indie movies and Casey and Rooney play lovers in both. But I felt that the storytelling was quite elegant and almost otherworldly in Pete’s Dragon, and I feel like A Ghost Story shares more in common with that movie to me, at least in that way. Do you see that similarity?

Definitely. Part of it is just getting better as a filmmaker from one film to the next. The stories all have similar shapes. Each one of those films has a prelude, and then the title hits, and then the movie begins. They all have a very similar structure, and I’m getting better at utilizing that structure and pushing it in new directions.

A big part of that is getting more confident in simplicity. It takes a lot of confidence to throw everything at the screen. I haven’t watched the beginning of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in years, but there’s a lot going on. I’m just throwing everything up there. I look at the beginning of Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story, and everything just gets simpler and simpler. I’m just going to keep pursuing that. Maybe someday I’ll make a complicated movie with a lot of moving parts, but right now, my goal is to just figure out how to make each one more efficient and more direct and to remove all of that clutter.

We’re talking a lot about simplicity, but the more simple you make thing -the more complex the feelings you elicit.

You can hide a deficit of those feelings in complexity. When you have a lot going on in a scene — whether it be a lot of shots, a lot of coverage, a lot of edits, or just the amount of content — it can cover up a deficit of true feeling. But when you don’t have a lot of material to work with, you really have to be sincere with everything. You really have to mean it, because there’s nowhere to hide.

I’m really playing with that in the movie I’m cutting right now. There’s an opportunity to get really cutty and nonlinear and play with it, and that’s fun. I want to do that. But I want to make sure it doesn’t feel like I’m covering up a lack of something else. I want to make sure the story and emotions still work underneath whatever artifice I build on top of it in terms of the formal language of the movie.

I think one of the key ingredients that make A Ghost Story work is the fluidity of the tone. I laughed out loud a couple of times, and I think the humor gives the movie shape and unshackles it from genre and stereotype.

The entire concept of this movie began with me thinking of a ghost in a bedsheet, and I’d find myself laughing. I just thought it was an amusing idea and It made me laugh, but it also made me feel very sad. There’s an implicit sadness to it. I wanted the film to have both. I wanted it to allow the audience to laugh — I didn’t want it to ever take this image so seriously that people felt like they shouldn’t be laughing. Laughter is an amazing gateway to other emotions.

Hopefully, there are some feelings beyond the chuckles you have when you first see that image. If I succeeded in doing it, people will stop laughing at a certain point and go along with it and react to this ghost as if he was a real character in the film, someone who is completely deserving of our empathy and is rich with pathos but is nonetheless based on this image that has a great degree of humor in it.

If you were to pair this movie with another for a double feature, what would be your pick?

Personal Shopper by Olivier Assayas is my favorite movie of the year so far. It’s an amazing ghost movie, and I didn’t even know it was a ghost movie when I went to see it. It’s a masterful movie — I just can’t stop thinking about it. I hope Criterion puts it out because I want to own it on Blu-ray. I would love to program a double feature of that and A Ghost Story. I don’t watch this movie anymore because I’m done with it, but I would definitely sit through it again to watch it with Personal Shopper.

I feel like the visual effects in Pete’s Dragon were done very tastefully. Every visual effect shot meant something and wasn’t just thrown out there. In A Ghost Story, there are a couple of sequences and shots that are spectacular, moments that caught me off-guard and surprised me in their scale. Talk about making those moments of spectacle count in a movie that’s otherwise incredibly quiet.

I wanted the movie to have an intimacy that eventually gives way to an almost cosmic scope. It didn’t take much to provide that scope because so much of the movie is so intimate that, relatively speaking, we didn’t have to go too far to make it feel bigger. There were a couple of key sequences where that scope was going to be felt, and the intention was for it to be somewhat breathtaking after having been stuck inside this box for so long in terms of the location and also the (1:37:1 square) aspect ratio of the movie. You’re literally beset by claustrophobia throughout the film. I wanted these moments to open up even though the aspect ratio doesn’t change.

The initial idea was to do those scenes completely practically with a little bit of visual effects augmentation, but it didn’t work. We turned to WETA, the same artists who made our dragon for us, and they helped out in those sequences. They understood what the movie was — very handmade, very realistic, shot in real locations with a ghost that is not a special effect at all, just someone wearing a costume. These visual effects needed to function in concert with that. There was a high bar in terms of the degree of verisimilitude those visual effects needed to have. I think the artists at WETA were really excited to work on a movie that was so unlike the fare they normally work on.

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