A Ghost Story - An Interview with Director David Lowery
The beauty of the poetic film is its ability to wash over us, to whisk us away to transcendent places where we can view the universe through a new set of lenses, a fresh perspective that eclipses our mundane understanding of our visceral, earthbound expressions of what it means to be human. We have been programmed to read narrative into film, but just like the spiritual experiences provoked by classical concerts at symphonic halls, there are sublime encounters we can have with soulful cinema in the quiet dark of the movie theatre. Transcendent films are immersive experiences that force us, not only to forget the screen, the popcorn, and the other audience members around us, but to expose ourselves to the transcendent beauty that resides in the higher planes of our humanity.
A Ghost Story is a visual poem that celebrates the eternal nature of the human spirit.
A beautifully transcendent film that gives voice to our connection with nostalgia
and our longing for meaning in the smallest of things.
With a muted palette and limited canvass, director David Lowery masterfully establishes an unpredictable rhythm and pacing that keeps audiences leaning forward in one of the greatest transcendent films of the year, A Ghost Story (distributed by A24).
A Ghost Story is a meditation on life, death, time, space, history, nostalgia, meaning, and the cosmos. The story is set in rural America where husband and wife, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) drudge through the everyday struggles of a young married couple figuring out their own identities while establishing a collective life together.
Early in the story, C meets his untimely death in a tragic car accident just outside their family home. He spends the rest of the film as a ghost, clad only in a simple bed-sheet with cutout eyes, wandering through the microcosmic world of his old home unbound by time. M lonesomely mourns her husband’s death while C’s ghost watches helplessly from the shadowy corners of their home.
As M heals and regains her courage, the world that C once loved begins to fall apart as his wife moves on with her life (and out the house), and tenant after tenant move in. The home that once was the center of his universe becomes a prison.
But as the narrative progresses, time falls apart; yesterday and today become one in the same, and the full breadth of the history of C's tiny rural home – a history that spans multiple centuries leading up to his death and countless centuries afterwards – washes over him.
Director David Lowery unflinchingly stares death in the face and considers the sobering prospect of a soul being left eternally cognizant of his postmortem impotence to effect meaning into the universe. His themes and questions haunt the narrative and fill every frame.
Lowery refrains from rote patterns of timing, rarely executing the same cinematic device twice. He forces us to wander the halls and linger in doorways, just like C’s ghost. Andrew Doz Palermo’s “just off from reality” cinematography (the film is shot entirely in the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio) and Daniel Hart’s evocative score symbiotically play off of one another adding complex nuances to A Ghost Story’s underlying thematics and soul.
This films hints at the cosmic connection we share with the universe but keeps the story grounded in very relatable human themes. The film explores the collectiveness we share across the vastness of space and time yet never devalues the worth of our own unique and deeply personal experiences in the present.
A Ghost Story is a visual poem that celebrates the eternal nature of the human spirit. A beautifully transcendent film that gives voice to our connection with nostalgia and our longing for meaning in the smallest of things.
A Ghost Story is a mirror that gives us a rare, unfiltered glimpse of our true reflection and hints at where we belong within the context of the indefinable complexity of all things. A film for audiences who dare to ask bigger questions. Don’t just watch A Ghost Story, listen to it.
Hot off of his success with Disney's live-action adaptation of Pete's Dragon, David Lowery took a break from big budgets and embarked on an incredible (and very rapid) journey of shooting a small, independent passion project. I had the chance to sit down with David Lowery, the writer, director, and producer of A Ghost Story and discuss the process of crafting such a personal film after being caught up in the grinding wheels of the Hollywood film industry. Our conversation covered everything from life, death, fear, and everything in between.
I’ve seen the word “transcendent” used in multiple reviews of A Ghost Story. I know it’s not the easiest world to define, but what does it mean to you?
That’s a great question. I suppose I feel that transcendence defines something that achieves a state higher than the state it was initially conceived in. Whether the work itself is aspiring to some higher realm of existence or not, transcendence defines a process that manages to get us there. I don’t really like to use the word because I feel it’s a word that has great power and meaning and is a word that is overused.
I don’t like to assign my own goals or aspirations or hopes or dreams to a project. But I do always hope that my projects are greater than what I initially set out to do, which does involve some version of transcendence, I suppose. But I try to remain more earth-bound in my aspirations. Because I feel it’s dangerous to aspire too high for something like that. But I’m grateful that that word is being used in reference to A Ghost Story. That means a lot to me.
So many of the stories that we see in cinema today are very ego-driven stories, stories about characters who go on some kind of a journey to either become better versions of themselves or to learn some black-and-white lesson about life, but I felt like A Ghost Story did so much more than that. Transcendent stories tend to present more questions than answers. What kinds of questions would you love for audiences to be asking as they are walking away from watching A Ghost Story? Or what kinds of questions were you asking when you were making the film?
Well, you bring up the ego, which is a big one for me. I really wrestle with the concept of the ego, and even my own ego on a personal level. But I am also aware of our ego’s existence, aware of its value, but also aware of how it can get in the way of things. This film was very specifically about a lot of things, and it’s distilled out in a lot of different ways, but one of the chief ways that I would describe the film is, it’s a film about the subjugation of the ego, or the letting go of one’s ego. And I would encourage audiences to engage with their own ego after seeing this movie and how their egos affect the way they see their own place in the world and the universe around them.
So much of how we define what we do or how we live our lives is all ruled by the ego, and sometimes that can be very productive and necessary, but other times I feel like it is a massive distraction. I have found that it’s necessary for me to be aware of those moments when my ego is kind of taking over. One of the best examples of that, which I think is very common place, is when you think about yourself dying, and you imagine everyone reacting to it. There’s no greater illustration of the ego than that. And if you’re focusing on that, when it comes to your own death, you are focusing on the wrong thing.
You know, obviously with your family, you want to make sure they are provided for, and you want to make sure you’re leaving things behind, to make sure you’re not leaving loose ends untied. The fear of death is so pervasive in our culture; it’s so universal, but the fear of death is very ego driven. And once one lets go of that, even to the smallest extent, it becomes a lot easier to accept the inevitability of death. Those are some of the things that I thought about while I was making the movie. And hopefully audiences find it provocative enough or engaging enough that they’ll leave the theatre with some of these ideas just kind of trickling around in their brains.
I often tell my readers as well as my screenwriting students that, in the creation process, if they encounter fear - if they are terrified of what they are creating - that can be an indicator that they’re writing something that is really worth reading. A Ghost Story, by pop-culture standards, would be considered risky filmmaking. Did you experience any fear during the creation process?
The writing of the screenplay was so swift and quick that I didn’t have time to feel anything but confident. Normally with most projects, it takes me months if not years to write a single screenplay. And I go through every possible crisis of confidence in that process and throw draft after draft in the trash and convince myself that they’re all worthless. But with this project, because I wrote it so quickly, that wasn’t a problem. And that’s one of the great benefits of writing quickly; you don’t give yourself room for that self-doubt to gnaw away at your time and energy.
But once we got into production I lost every bit of that confidence almost instantly, and I completely convinced myself that this was a disaster and that someone should pull the plug on it, because it was just going to embarrass everyone. Fortunately, I was producing this movie, so I was the only one who could pull the plug. But something within me compelled me to keep going. And I was just in too deep. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t admit failure, and so we just plugged ahead and did the best we could. I felt everyone was operating on really a phenomenal level, the entire crew and cast; they were bringing everything they could to it, and I certainly felt like I was letting everybody down by enlisting them to expend all of their energy on such a goofy idea that I was certain was not going to work.
But, it did start to work out. Even while we were shooting it, at a certain point I realized that it actually was going to work, or at least work better than I had initially thought. And bit by bit, my confidence came back. I look back now, and I’m really glad that I was that scared, because as you said earlier, when you feel worried about something or you feel you’re stepping into territory that’s uncharted or you feel unsure of your footing, that usually means you’re on the right path, and I felt that way every step of the way. But I do feel that on a subconscious level, I must have known that it was going to work. Otherwise I would have stopped, because I was definitely terrified every single day. I recognize all of that as a good thing now. I’m terrified about being terrified again, because it was such a grueling experience. But I know I’ll inevitably put myself through it again on another movie.
One of the main portals through which we as humans can experience transcendence is by going through loss and pain, but it seems that so many of our popular stories today are about characters who suffer just a little but ultimately end up getting everything they wanted. I’m curious, do you think artists and filmmakers deal with human pain honestly in cinema?
I don’t doubt that there are some filmmakers and writers who are just trying to use techniques to give audiences a cheap emotional thrill. That’s fine; that exists. There is such a thing as manipulative cinema, and there has been manipulative cinema since the beginning of cinema and manipulative art forms since the beginning of art. But I do feel that there’s a responsibility on the part of filmmakers and all artists, whether they are painters or novelists, to strive for some truthfulness and emotional honesty. And I appreciate it when I detect that in any given work. I love it when a film engages with me in a way that feels truly honest.
There are filmmakers and writers and songwriters who are just going to make stuff that appeals to base emotions, and that’s fine. I can either listen to that or choose not to, but as a filmmaker I certainly want to engage audiences on a deeper level than that. I strive for some degree of emotional truth and honesty. I want to provoke emotions in people. I want to provoke people in general, and I want to elicit reactions that are perhaps uncomfortable or unsettling but also reveal something to the viewer about themselves. That is what I enjoy when I go to the movies; I enjoy getting that kind of provocation. I feel that there’s a responsibility on the part of artists to at least recognize that they have the capacity to do that. If they’re going to do that, they should do it with some degree of sincerity. I do think that it is disingenuous to just capitalize on the audience’s susceptibility to manipulation.
A lot of my readers are writers as well, and they are always interested in other writers’ processes. Do you approach every script differently? Do you have any tried-and-true methodologies? What sort of process do you go through as a writer?
I usually wait until I have enough accumulated energy behind any given idea before I write it. I don’t write down ideas; I don’t write down fragments. I don’t have that box or that drawer of potential ideas. I kind of keep everything in my head. And if it sticks around in my head long enough, eventually I’ll write it down and start writing the script. And if the script makes it past twenty pages I’ll usually try to make it all the way to the end. I’ve got a graveyard full of screenplays that haven’t made it past that point.
I don’t have a set routine, although I wish I did. I would love reading about other writers’ routines, because I’m always hoping that by reading about someone else, I’ll discover that key to getting good work done every day. But I also know that part of my process is procrastination, and I’ve embraced that. I am a massive procrastinator, and most of my good work is done after a long day of doing nothing.
Sometimes I start with an image; sometimes I start with a scene or a line of dialogue. I’m working on a script right now that’s one of the rare scripts I’ve written that’s based on a dream, even though I’m not using any of that dream in the script, but the dream gave me an idea. I have all sorts of inciting points for my scripts. Sometimes a script is an assignment; Pete’s Dragon began as an assignment. That was a case of, how do I make this story new again.
With A Ghost Story, it really came down to having this feeling that I wanted to explore that was based on some things that were going on in my own life and having an image in my head of the ghost in this space; it was something that I was really intrigued by. It was one of those ideas that had been floating around in my head for a long time, and the script just reached that point in my head where it had enough cumulative mass that it was time to just write it. It was one of those rare occasions where I just sat down and wrote the script from start to finish. Granted, the first draft was only ten pages, and the next draft was only thirty pages, so it didn’t take very long.
But it was a refreshing change of pace, instead of the usual six months to a year that it takes me to write a script. It all came out so quickly that it’s hard to find any one point of origin, but nonetheless it just happened very quickly. I wish more scripts worked that way for me. Usually I get hung up on the first line of dialogue, but thankfully this script had so little dialogue that I didn’t let that happen. Usually I’m just working on the dialogue and working on the dialogue, and before I know it a whole year has gone by, and I’m only on page sixty.
So, the film was a response to some personal things you were going through at the time?
Yes, there was a lot of existential angst on my part that I’m sure is common to everyone, to one degree or another. There were some very literal inspirations. For example, my wife and I just moved out of our house in Texas, and I was really upset about that. I was feelings all of these things just enough to where they became issues I felt I needed to explore further. And as a writer that’s what I do.
I’m never able to make a movie that’s not about me in some regards. We talked about the ego earlier; that’s really the biggest part of making a movie. I mean you are literally exploring and entertaining and paying tribute to your own ego when you’re writing a movie, or at least I am.
A Ghost Story was very personal; it was a movie that cut close to the core, but it’s hard for me to really quantify because, again it was such a fast and seamless process. And not just the writing, but the making of it as well. We wrote it and then we made it and then it was done. And now it’s out there. I mean, just a year ago we were getting started on production. That’s very fast for me. And I like that, but it’s hard for me to parse out all the little points of inspiration that lead to it, because it just came so quickly and swiftly. Usually I have so much more time to think about things like that, but because this one was so fast, I sort of lumped it all together in my head. It was just one burst of inspiration.
A Ghost Story is in theaters now.