David Lowery talks animatedly about his new film A Ghost Story, smiling as he reminisces about working with his friends Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, as we sit in a bustling hotel bar in London. But our discussion was never guaranteed. The project was shot entirely in secret, just in case things didn’t work out.
“We kept it a secret partially because we didn’t have a lot of time to tell anyone, but also I was very aware that it could fail, so I didn’t want there to be any pressure or expectation,” he says. “I wanted everyone to be free to experiment and express themselves and to feel confident that if the movie failed I wasn’t going to embarrass them by putting it out there.
“The secrecy was a safety net for us, so that we knew we could try something bold and unique. No one wants to fail, we certainly didn’t want to, and I stressed out about it every single day. But I also knew that if this high-concept idea turned out not to be worthwhile, then we could bury it and no-one would be the wiser.”
Having wowed audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Lowery is now keen to spread the word about this fascinating story of a ghost who roams the home he shared with his fiancée.
What made you want to tell such a romantic story?
For me this was an opportunity to deal with a lot of issues that are on my mind, as a filmmaker and as a human being. Oddly enough, none of them were romantic! I knew that the second I brought Casey and Rooney into the picture it would become a love story, because their chemistry is very profound – I counted on it. But, for me, I wanted to make something that dealt with more abstract concepts, like physical space and the attachment we have to it and time. Time is something that everyone worries about to some degree. But I worry about it quite a bit, and I saw this as an opportunity to delve into my own personal feelings on the passage of time and all sorts of big concepts like that, which are vaguely universal but also incredibly personal.
Was the ghost always going to be a guy in a sheet?
Yes, it was always going to be a movie about a ghost in a house. It was always going to be played by a guy in a sheet. And it was always going to be shot in 1:33. There were things in the script that were there from when I conceived it. But the whole thing came together so quickly that it meant that I came up with the idea, brought it to a bunch of friends and we decided to go make it. Casey and Rooney were the first people that we brought it to, but they were also the only people we brought it to. I was working on the script and looking for the house we would shoot it in, so it all came together in one fell swoop. It was a very fast process, we started filming without any pre-production. On the plus side, I didn’t have a lot of time to over-think it or to really contemplate what the movie was going to be about. That also made it quite challenging because even though we had a script, we were figuring it out as we went along.
How did you make sure that the ghost felt real? Was Casey under that sheet the whole time?
Not the entire time, but a lot of the time. We had to reshoot a lot of it and it took a while to figure out how to shoot the ghost. Initially, there was a lot of acting happening underneath the sheet, and a lot of movement, and he almost became a slap-stick character. That felt wrong. Gradually we realised that the less performance there was underneath the sheet, the more he became a character, and the more he became a true representation of a spirit.
We spent a lot of time shooting scenes that kind of worked but never quite gelled, or shooting things that were just too goofy and felt like they were from a different movie. Over the course of the production, we refined the idea and refined the rules for how the ghost would operate, how we would shoot him and how he existed in a physical space. Casey was under it a lot, and if you ask him he would say that he wishes he could have been under it the whole time, but at a certain point we realised that it didn’t matter who was there. There were a couple of scenes in the movie where he was in the frame at the same time as the ghost. Our art director was the same height and build as Casey, so he wore the sheet in those scenes, and when we went back to reshoot things we got him to stand in.
How did you pitch it to Casey?
I texted him and said, ‘Hey, we’re making a movie this summer in Texas. Do you want to come play a ghost and wear a sheet over your head?’ And he said, ‘Sure!’ Luckily we have the type of relationship where I can text him stuff like that, he’ll say, ‘Yes’ and actually do it. The same went for Rooney, although she was a little busier that summer so she read the script and thought about it. We had a couple of conversations and then she said she’d be there. Casey was on board immediately, and we’ve just finished working on a third movie together, so we’ve got a good working relationship going where he trusts me and I trust him.
What is it about the pair that you like so much?
Each one of them is different, I get along with them in different ways, but also the two of them together have a truly profound amount of chemistry. We found that out on Aint them Bodies Saints. That wasn’t initially going to be a love story either, but the second we started filming them – they only had one scene together originally – they were so on fire together that we realised we needed more of them. The movie became a love story after the fact, because we were so captivated by them. I knew I wanted them both for this film for that reason. They’re also both vegan so I guess we get along with each other because of that, and hanging out with Casey reminds me of hanging out with my brothers. I have four brothers and I used to make movies with them, so it just feels like a continuation of that.
The music was also very powerful, especially the song you made for Casey’s character.
I always knew the music was going to be a big part of the movie. Daniel Hart has written the score for all my films. He’s just incredible, he’s one of those collaborators that I don’t ever want to make a movie without. I need it written in my contract that he will be doing the score because he just gets the films I make so well! While he was doing the score for Pete’s Dragon, he played me this song that he had written and I became obsessed with it. I wrote it into this script and then asked him if I could use it. Obviously, there’s not a lot of dialogue and sometimes it was appropriate not to have music at all. But we also needed the music to help guide the audience through the story, and I knew I could count on him to do that. I never gave him any notes, we didn’t have any temp tracks, he just went away and started sending us tracks and we put them in the movie and they worked beautifully. That’s usually the way it works with him.
Why did you want to shoot the film in 1:33, an old TV format?
I really enjoy it, as an audience member, when I see a movie shot in that ratio. All old movies were shot that way, but not so much now. I’ve always admired it and thought it was a way to create a beautiful image. You’ll see a film like Grand Budapest Hotel, which uses a lot of that aspect ratio. When we watch movies at home these days, our televisions are all widescreen, so when you see a square image it’s more profound than it used to be. It’s more of a statement. This is a story of a character who, for all intents and purposes, is trapped in a box. I thought this was a unique opportunity to use that aspect ratio as one of the themes of the film. I also wanted to creatively challenge myself. I think in widescreen, so it was tricky to try and recompose shots that would normally be in a rectangle and put it into a square.
Did you go from Pete’s Dragon straight onto this film?
Yes, we had two days in between! The only difference with this project is that it’s done faster. I thought it would be different, I thought it would be easier, more relaxed, but it was exactly the opposite. It was just as hard and just as challenging, in some ways more so. When you work with Disney there are a lot of safety nets built in, which is why their movies have such large budgets. In this case we had zero safety nets, we had a small amount of money that my friends and I decided to spend and once that was done it was done. It felt very stressful and very difficult but in many of the same ways in which Pete’s Dragon was difficult, it was also very fun and exciting in the same way.
What was the most challenging part?
The most challenging thing was the ghost. Every day was a new challenge, because it was very easy for him to look dumb, silly and goofy. It required constant diligence to make sure that he felt right, and our costume designer did a wonderful job building the costume. She also had to puppeteer it while we were shooting scenes. If there was a shot where you don’t see the ghost from head-to-toe, then she was down there at the bottom holding the sheet in position, and if he turned his head she would turn with him so that the folds would all fall in the right way. It was crazy! But if we weren’t doing that, then the folds would mess up. He would start to look like an elephant and his face would fall apart, so it was very tricky to maintain his composure throughout production. Interview by Roxy Simons
A Ghost Story is released today on DVD and Blu-ray by Lionsgate.