Sundance: Interview with "A Ghost Story" Director David Lowery
Some films aren’t for everyone. This was made clear as I sat by myself at the premiere of A24’s A Ghost Story, watching over a dozen patrons get out of their seats and leave the theater, hearing the man behind me scream-whisper “ah, come on!” while watching the already infamous “Pie Scene”; a scene that I foresee many film students discussing with friends for years to come while adding their own unwarranted grandiosity to the meaning behind those five minutes of film.
I love it when people walk out of movies though. It feels like I become closer to the creators of the film with each body that leaves. In my head I speak to the director and say ‘don’t worry about them. I’m still here. I get you and what your trying to do. I’m in it for the long haul.’ Then the film becomes more and more my own as it goes on. By the time A Ghost Story was finished, this was how I felt about the film - like it was made specifically for me.
It’s a hauntingly poetic love story. It’s also an existential argument made by director David Lowery that mixes theoretically scientific notions of creation, destruction and recreation on an infinite timeline with the idea that ghosts exist. “Sheet ghosts” to be exact.
“I just really like it when you take icons that have become representative of an idea and use them in a very literal fashion.” Lowery explained on the way into the premiere of his film. “Everybody sees that image and understands it’s a ghost even though it’s not scary or not technically supernatural - it’s more of a Halloween costume, but everyone understands it to be a ghost and I like taking that and putting it the middle of a very traditional, serious drama.”
Inserting these dichotomous ideas into the film is what makes it special. It never feels as though Lowery is looking for a laugh inside his film, even with these funny decisions - which almost makes the film more true to life. Showing the absurdity of things even during times of great sorrow. Even when it comes to the afterlife and ghosts, which Lowery both does and does not believe in.
“I completely believe in ghosts! I’m terrified of them. I hope to someday see one even though I am terrified of them. I am also an atheist... so it’s sorta strange that I don’t believe in an afterlife but I definitely believe in ghosts.”
In the film, Casey Affleck plays “C” and Rooney Mara plays “M”. They are a married couple living in a small home that is potentially haunted by a ghost. Even before the potential ghost becomes an issue, M feels like it’s time for them to leave and move toward the city. C, however, is content to stay - that is until he reaches his untimely death yards away from the couple's home. Love (both for the home and for his wife M) stops C from passing over to the other side, and he returns to his mortal residence as a sheet with two eyeholes cut out. Now, as a ghost, C watches M’s future unfold without him - invisible to her but only steps away. Eventually M moves away to follow the dream she couldn’t while C was alive, leaving C behind to meet the residents to come.
Make it that far in the film and I promise you’re in for a fantastically poignant and moving film, of which the soundtrack alone might bring you to tears.
A Ghost Story marks the second occasion David Lowery has teamed up with Mara and Affleck. Since their first time working together to make the slow-building beauty Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, each of their careers have blossomed.
The production of A Ghost Story took place a mere two days after Lowery wrapped his highly-acclaimed film Pete’s Dragon. Yet another instance in Lowery's life of severe dichotomy- following on from such a big-budget film as Pete's, A Ghost Story cost next-to-nothing to produce by Hollywood standards. The majority of the film takes place inside C & M's home and did not rely on heavy effects to turn Affleck into a ghost.
“I just had this idea of making a haunted house film. I also had a lot of personal ideas that were as big as life and the universe, to as small as where I was going to move to when I move. All those ideas just sorta poured themselves into this small 30-page screenplay that could be something tiny that we could make with our friends. So that's exactly what we did. My producer and I just called up a bunch of friends and we spent a couple weeks in the summer making it. It was a completely homemade affair - which was wonderful.”
There is something to be said about Affleck’s acting in the film - since he is in nearly every scene of the film, all while under a sheet. We have seen great performances in the past where big-name actors will act almost entirely in disguise, as was the case for Michael Fassbender in another Sundance favorite, Frank. However, where Fassbender’s character was over-the-top and eccentric, Affleck plays his sheet ghost under restriction. The slow, quiet movements used to show C’s ghostly detachment from real-world time, adding to the somber mood of the film and giving emotion to an otherwise emotionless costume. Affleck’s performance is by far one of my favorite instances of an actor letting go of ego in order to fulfill a vision.
There is also a song that finds it’s way into the middle of the film that Affleck sings and plays piano for that will melt your heart. Also, last give away... Bonnie Prince Billy has the most lines in the entire film, but is only in it for one scene.
“I know this film has very little mass appeal,” Lowery explains. “This film has a much smaller audience. This isn’t meant to please everybody, but that’s important to me - to make things that make me happy. The audience for this is not going to be the audience for Pete’s Dragon and that’s great. That’s a beautiful thing that I still get to make different kinds of films and find new audiences that get this particular side of me.”
Maybe this film won’t be for you. I promise you though, if it is, it will follow you around for days... like a sheet ghost hoping you still remember it.