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A Ghost Story’s David Lowery on Finding Peace in Purgatory

on July 14, 2017, 1:01pm

As we sit down to chat with David Lowery and record the conversation on a smartphone, the perceptively loquacious filmmaker even has something to say about our preferred interview tech: “You know, every movie I’ve made, including Pete’s Dragon, has ADR that’s been done on an iPhone. The quality that you get from this is surprisingly high-def.”

Since arriving on the independent film scene with authority on the strength of 2013’s revisionist Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery has already established himself as a more subtly ambitious filmmaker in an era of film where even the most modest-budgeted films are increasingly gravitating toward high-concept ideas. Last year, Lowery’s remake of Pete’s Dragon became a late summer hit because of that same subtlety and elegance, and Lowery rode that wave of momentum into this year’s Sundance film Festival, where he debuted his most striking feature yet: A Ghost Story.

ghost story A Ghost Storys David Lowery on Finding Peace in Purgatory

To some, A Ghost Story has already become (reductively) known for being that movie where Casey Affleck walks around in a sheet with two coal-black eyeholes, basically resembling a child’s rendering of what a ghost would look like. But in Lowery’s hands, the premise builds into a devastating opus about love, loss, time, and the inexorable pull of death and futility. As our chat with Lowery would come to express, it’s not an entirely humorless film, but it’s easily one of 2017’s best and most devastating cinematic experiences.

The film tells the story of C (Affleck), the ghost of M’s (Rooney Mara) dead partner, who goes through an existential purgatory that eventually becomes untethered from time and memory entirely. As his spirit wanders through different moments and encounters with later residents of his former house (and beyond), A Ghost Story becomes an aching, frequently wordless meditation on what it is to be truly, irreparably adrift in the endless expanse of existence.

Recently, Consequence of Sound had the chance to sit with Lowery to discuss the mechanics of a proper ghost costume, the film’s influences, temporal dialectics, and much, much more. It should be noted that the following interview contains numerous SPOILERS regarding the film, so consider yourself warned before reading ahead.)

You know, one thing that I wanted to ask you about is, I’ve read of you talking about influences like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and [Tsai Ming-liang’s] Goodbye, Dragon Inn. It’s wild how much of Goodbye Dragon Inn you can see in this film.

That’s great. I love Tsai Ming-liang’s work, and he was my introduction to what’s now called “slow cinema.” And Goodbye, Dragon Inn was a particular favorite of mine, because I spent so many of my formative years as a projectionist at a movie theater, and so the experience of just being in a theater while a film is playing, and just living your life while images are flickering on a screen for someone else in your vague periphery is something that I felt very connected to. It felt very personal to me.

Between the second and third times I watched A Ghost Story, I also caught Cemetery of Splendor, Weerasethakul’s latest film. It’s been interesting thinking about them in conversation, and how they both play with death in these similarly understated ways.

Yeah, I’ve seen that. His version of death and the afterlife and the communion of spirits with the living is really beautiful to me. It’s very sweet and tender, and that’s something that … even though I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife, his movies make me want to. The version that he presents is just so lovely, and comforting.

You at least came from a Catholic upbringing, and if you’re less subscribed to that traditional notion of an afterlife, how did being raised in that environment inform how you perceive the afterlife in A Ghost Story, if at all?

It didn’t really inform it that much, other than that there is (in the movie, at least) the idea that an afterlife does exist. If you take the movie literally, at face value, which I intend for viewers to do, then there is definitely a life after death, and who knows what that is. But there’s a glowing doorway that leads to somewhere, and it’s presented in a very literal fashion. By choosing not to go through that doorway, our protagonist winds up in a purgatory, which is in and of itself a very traditionally Catholic concept.

So I think it sort of ends there, and this movie does not represent my true beliefs about the afterlife in any way, shape, or form. As much as I mean for audiences to take it literally, it’s also purely a metaphor, and also just storytelling. But the tenets there, the ideas there, were certainly formed by being raised in a family that definitely believed in a heaven, and hell, and a middle ground that you might get stuck in.

As far as being stuck in a sense of purgatory, when you imagined what C’s purgatory would be like, was there ever an inclination to ever go more fantastic with it? Or was it always meant to feel like he was wandering back into the life he knew before?

On a technical level, there was a brief period where I thought about maybe adding some sort of mystical quality to the old world that he was re-entering. Much in the same way that in Stranger Things, when they’re in the Upside Down, it’s the world that you recognize from the show, but you have flakes of ash in the air everywhere. I was thinking that maybe we would try something like that. And that came to mind because I watched that show immediately after I finished shooting this movie, so I was like “Huh, wonder if I should rip that idea off!” [Laughs]

But ultimately, it felt unnecessary. I didn’t need to emphasize the supernatural through any means other than the presence of the ghost in that world. And the concept of purgatory was meant to be … you almost don’t realize that it is a purgatory at first. At first, it represents something that we all kind of wish we could do: be present at our own funeral. There’s something very comforting and pleasant about that idea, and it’s not until you spend a lot of time thinking about it (or in the case of the character in this movie, actually being there and partaking in it) that you realize how hopeless and dull and potentially frustrating such an existence would be.

a ghost story rooney mara A Ghost Storys David Lowery on Finding Peace in Purgatory

You also start to see the humanity erode from him, little by little.

Completely. Our perspective was that by the time he sees himself and Rooney’s character come through the door to see the house for the first time, he’s suddenly forced to remember that that was him. You would never know this from the movie, because there’s no dialogue or subtitles to explain it, but he’s been sitting on the floor for 200 years and he’s forgotten who he was. He’s not the same person who’s currently coming to buy that house.

And you see that parallel with the other ghost, in the adjacent home. You’ve mentioned before that you originally didn’t include those dialogue exchanges [between the two ghosts]. I was curious where those came from, because every time I’ve seen the movie, they get a huge response from the audience.

There were originally only two scenes with that ghost next door, who we referred to as the “grandma ghost” because of that floral bedsheet. And initially, in the screenplay, it was meant to be comic relief. It was a moment to just have a little laugh. To go back to Apichatpong’s movies, one of the things I love about them is that they’re funny. They’re very intellectual, and they’re very artful, but there’s a lot of humor in them as well. I wanted to make sure that audiences knew that it was okay to laugh with this movie, that there is humor implicit in this ghost, and I wanted to provide a few release valves in the narrative to let people know that it’s okay to laugh. And so the ghost next door was initially one of those release valves, it was a moment of levity that I thought would be helpful to audiences as they moved through the story.

But when we shot it, we just kept shooting it. It was just supposed to be the wave, and that was it. But we just kept shooting that sequence and finding new pieces of coverage, even though it was a very limited exchange occurring across these two houses, we shot the heck out of it. I think what we were responding to, as we were shooting it, was what I later discovered in the edit, which is that it was immensely satisfying to see him actually achieve a connection with another character. At that point, there had been 15-20 minutes of the movie in which he was unable to connect with anybody, trying and failing to achieve a point of contact with Rooney. Actually seeing him communing with somebody else was thoroughly pleasing.

The idea of subtitles came to me, and once again, it almost felt like a joke. I didn’t know if I could get away with it. But I tried it out, and it just felt appropriate. I very quickly figured out what they would say, I didn’t spend too much time writing dialogue, I knew less would be more. The one thing that instantly happened was, as soon as you put words into these ghosts’ mouths, the scene goes from a moment of comic relief to something very, very sad.

On the point of the ghost, it opens up this notion that there are other souls just like C’s wandering through this purgatory, and there’s something kind of horrifying about that idea of all these displaced beings traveling through this world at any given time.

It is an unpleasant thought, and I do not envy anyone in that position. Not that I believe anyone actually is. But it’s sad, especially if there’s something you’re hanging onto that you’re never going to get. Certainly, in the case of the ghost next door, she is waiting for someone who’s never gonna show up. And probably doesn’t remember who that is anymore. (In fact, that’s what she says, she doesn’t know who she’s waiting for. Just that she’s waiting for them.) And in C’s case, it’s this attachment to the house that he just can’t let go of. There are these things that these characters need to be free of, they need to let go of them, and they’re unable to do so. There’s definitely a tragedy in that inability.

With the physicality of C’s ghost itself, you’ve talked about walking a line between it being this sort of ridiculous, childlike figure and being this more affecting thing. From a formal standpoint, how did you go about trying to conceptualize the ghost and how it would look in these spaces?

The image of this ghost, in this space, was pretty much the origin point for the entire movie. That was the root of the movie, just that image. There was something so beautiful, and sad, and funny about that image, and I really felt that we could hang a whole movie on it. But once we started trying to execute that ghost, and bring him to life, and realize him in a three-dimensional space, we realized that it was going to be a lot harder than we thought. I thought that we could just put a sheet over somebody’s head and get that effect, but what I realized was that what I wanted was a three-dimensional representation of a drawing of a ghost. If you draw a ghost in a bedsheet, you’re just gonna draw a very simple line, like an arc, with two perfectly symmetrical circles for eyes.

When you put a sheet over somebody’s head, and cut holes in it, you don’t get that. You get something much more haphazard. So to create that very simply defined graphical image of a ghost in three dimensions required a costume that was far more complex than it appears. There’s a lot of moving parts underneath that sheet, and the sheet itself is not a bedsheet, but a specifically constructed bolt of fabric that we made from scratch to drape in a certain way, and trail in a certain way, and encompass and enfold the actor’s body in a very specific and very complete way. You can’t see his feet; the second you see his feet, the illusion’s gone. If he moves his arms, the sheet needs to move with his arms in a very specific way. So there were all of these needs that this ghost had if he was going to look as simple as we needed him to look. And it required no small amount of mechanical engineering to make that costume function in a three-dimensional space.

a ghost story still A Ghost Storys David Lowery on Finding Peace in Purgatory

A lot of the details, like the filth on it by the end, are perfect. But it’s also this really expressive costume. You’ve hinted that there was more than one body underneath the sheet [during filming], but when you were directing, how did you draw out those gestures, and how did you go about considering how the ghost would move?

It was largely trial and error. At first, when Casey was wearing it, we just let him be Casey, and we let him move the way he normally moves in real life. But the sheet had a tendency to exaggerate his body language. The way he walks is very specific to him, and when he wore the sheet, that specific gait was far more pronounced than if you were just to watch him walk down the street. And it removed the illusion of the ghost. It made it feel like an actor wearing a costume, as opposed to an actual phantom in the room. And that’s what we wanted, for it to feel like a real spirit, even though it was a very tactile one.

We just had to figure it out. It really was just a process of trying out different approaches until we finally hit upon the right one. And the right one was, again, it was a purely mechanical endeavor. Once we realized what we needed to do, it ceased to be acting, and it ceased to have any intuition or emotion in the process. It became a very rigid bit of puppeteering, both on Casey’s part and the other actor who wore the sheet sometimes [David Pink, the film’s art director], and the costume designer [Annell Brodeur] who had to hold the sheet in place just outside of the frame. And then myself, who was calling out directions while the cameras were rolling, in a very specific and mechanical fashion. I would speak very, very slowly so that I could convey the speed at which he was supposed to be moving, and those directions were very dry and specific and usually consisted of me just telling him to look left or look right, or walk forward or stand still.

Once we realized that that’s all the ghost needed, he really became a character for the first time. He really became the ghost that we had in our minds. But it took a while to figure out that that’s all we needed. We kept trying to throw too much at him, or have him do too much, because we thought more would be more. And of course, as in most circumstances, less was all we needed.

a ghost story time A Ghost Storys David Lowery on Finding Peace in Purgatory

Another fascinating aspect of the film is how you use time, especially from an editorial standpoint. How did you go about determining when you wanted time to feel protracted [in the film] and when you wanted it to feel more expansive? There are a lot of really bold choices as far as how the audience feels time in the film.

A lot of that was written into the script. People always ask me, “What’s your favorite part of the filmmaking process?” And I always say that the lines are very blurred. When I’m writing, I’m thinking about editing. When I’m shooting, I’m thinking about editing and I’m also still writing, and then when I’m editing I’m once again still writing. Writing dialogue for two ghosts talking across the empty houses, or writing new scenes that I want to shoot because I always do pickups. So it all kind of blurs together, and in that blur, the rhythm is always first and foremost in my mind. I’m always thinking about how one scene connects to the next, how the scenes will be paced, how to achieve the rhythm that I’m feeling as I’m conceiving of a project. It’s a very intuitive thing.

On a technical level, when I’m actually editing the movie or on set (if we’re shooting a very long take), I use my own taste as a barometer. If I feel a shot’s going on too long, I’ll call “cut,” or in the edit, if I feel like it’s given me all it has to give, I’ll cut to the next shot. But I’m definitely always looking for that ebb and flow, and when I push that ebb and flow in very strong directions. I want to really utilize it, because time is the one thing that defines cinema. It really is the one attribute that film has that no other artform does, except maybe music, but movies use time differently than music does. I want to make the most of that, I want to make the most of what time can give the movies I make.

As much as I love “slow cinema,” and as much as I love taking my time with a given moment or image or composition or scene, I also love what fluidity can do, and what accelerating that pace can do. I like to slam those rhythms up against each other to create something new, to create a temporal dialectic, to use a very heady term that I just now thought of. [Laughs] I’m sure someone has used that before. At the end of the day, it’s all very intuitive, and I’m just using my internal chronometer to measure that pace and the way in which time is flowing. And I equate it, in this movie, to the way time works in our own lives. When we’re growing up, and we’re children, and we’re waiting for a birthday or for school to get out, time is interminably long and it takes forever for something to happen. A day can feel like it’s lasting for years.

But as you get older, and as you become an adult, and you get into your adulthood, time moves far too quickly. And that’s a cliché, you always hear grownups talking about how the years are flying by like minutes. I find that to be true, and I wanted the movie to function sort of like that. So at the very beginning of the film, time is taking a long time, and as the story progresses, it changes the way in which it processes it, and the way in which the characters process it, and the way that we process it as an audience starts to accelerate. I find that very reflective of how time works in my life.

rooney ghost A Ghost Storys David Lowery on Finding Peace in Purgatory

It also fits the anachronistic nature of the film, and how it doesn’t feel tethered to any one specific era. It’s definitely a more current film at times, but when you went about planning the film, were you more interested in having it exist outside of a specific time and place?

Less so than in my previous films. With Pete’s Dragon and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, that was a rule that we were following on an aesthetic level. We wanted those films to feel very non-specific in their sense of being in the past. They were definitely movies that were period pieces, but we never wanted to explain what period they were. With this film, we didn’t even think about it. I think it’s just part of my general aesthetic as a director, that I will eschew any specific sense of modernity. And so, even though Casey and Rooney’s characters are existing in the here and now, and we see Macbook Pros and modern musical equipment, it still feels anachronistic. They’re still living in this run-down ranch house in a field in Texas.

And that’s very specific to my existence in Texas, I live in old houses and I enjoy blurring the modern with the old-fashioned. So it’s personal to me, and it’s an aesthetic that I like, but it’s something I keep doing. I know that is becoming somewhat of my signature. And since this film deals so specifically with time, and falling in and out of various temporal patterns, it has a nice resonance with the rest of the film. Even though I wasn’t intentionally saying “let’s make these characters’ lives as unstuck from time as the ghost will eventually become,” that definitely paves the way for that to happen in a very satisfying fashion.

A Ghost Story is currently playing in select theaters via A24.

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