David Lowery is a beautiful artist of cinema. He has made three films, when you behold them in your eyes, you marvel at the sight. His first major feature, Ain't Them Bodies Saints was a portrait of two lovers on the run, while his debut to creating a major blockbuster film- Pete's Dragon, was again a film that captured the beauty of family, with a big green companion. His newest- A Ghost Story is going to flip audiences on their heads and will be the most talked about film of 2017. It is a masterpiece in terms of narrative originality and open for multiple discussions. AMovieGuy.com was lucky enough to talk to David, taking a break from working on his next film in Seattle, and getting to the bottom of what it all means to him about making A Ghost Story:
AMG.COM: Thank you so much for talking to me today, I'm such a big fan. You're coming off the success of Pete's Dragon, a film that I loved, and I wanted to know what would you say you learned working on a film of that scale? Did it give you a bit of confidence before tackling a film like A Ghost Story?
DAVID LOWERY: It wasn’t so much a transition. My one drawback as a filmmaker is I never have any shortage of confidence. I go into everything saying, “alright I'm going to nail this”. Coming off of Petes Dragon, I more than anything else, had the desire to make another movie. I had a great experience making that film and I was excited to get back in the trenches and make something else. Especially because making a movie of that scale, the biggest difference was that it takes a while. It takes time to shoot, get all the visual effects done, so by the time we were wrapping up, I was chomping at the bit to make another film. So that more than anything else was the transition. More than me learning something for myself on Pete's Dragon and turn it into A Ghost Story, it was just a reaction to the fact that I hadn't shot anything in a while and I wanted to make something new. This was the form that it took. With every film I make I feel more and more confident, I feel like I know what I'm doing and then I start shooting and the confidence instantly goes away.
AMG.COM: So, you are 3 for 3, and each one of these three films has their own unique stories, they are in many ways completely different narratives, but to me what is at the core of all of your films is the concept of Love. Is that something that you are fascinated with or want to continue to investigate?
DAVID LOWERY: I hate to say this, but no not at all. It's funny I know exactly what you mean, but that's not where I start or what I'm after. I'm a romantic at heart, so that aspect of my work comes to me very easily. I don't need to stretch too far, where that theme starts to rear its head, but I don't set out to make these movies with love being the idea that I want to address. I usually am dealing with other ideas like home, or time. More esoteric concepts, like the role of archetypes, and cultural storytelling. Weird things like that...that's where I go in. With A Ghost Story think I am making a movie about the passage of time and how it affects us and I end up with a love story. I'm aware that that is what happens, but it is not where I start out.
AMG.COM: You really continue to bounce around with genre styles. Ain't Them Body Saints has a sweaty western feel, Pete's Dragon is a throwback to classic family films, and now A Ghost Story might be one film that audiences can't pin down. Are you going with the flow of what is moving you? Or do you have classic films that inspired you and now you want to make films like your heroes?
DAVID LOWERY: There's all sorts of reasons why I might make one film or another, but I love every genre. And, as someone who has a lot of interest in different type of stories, I feel like I might dip my toes into all of them over the course of my career; if I am lucky enough to keep making movies. In spite of the fact that they are on paper a different genre, to me they all feel the same. They feel in the same world or the same tonality. Even if they are dealing with different subject matters, they all reflect one another in a weird way. Whether or not that is recognized by anyone other than me, I hope people see the similarities, but for me as a filmmaker it's important that they all come from the same place. They are sincere and personal to me. As a result, because they are movies I am making, regardless of genre, they all exist in the same universe. That's fun. When I see another directors work, like Steven Soderbergh, someone who's worked in all sorts of genres, you still walk out saying, “well, that's a Soderbergh movie”. He is his own genre. Someone like Mike Leigh, his films are in a genre, but if he made a sci-fi or horror film it would still be his work.
AMG.COM: You have to give me a bit of background as to how you came up with writing a screenplay like A Ghost Story. Was there something that inspired you? And did you have a lot of fear in showing the screenplay to producers & actors?
DAVID LOWERY: The idea spontaneously generated itself and when that happens I think it's important to run with it. That happened to me once before with a short film I made called Pioneer, I still think it's the best film I've ever made. That film came to me in a flash and the same thing happened with A Ghost Story. It was this idea of a script about a ghost in a sheet, living in a house. I wrote the first draft in one sitting, which was only 10 pages, so that wasn't hard. I then expanded it to 30 pages, which is about as long as it ever got, and then I sent it to my producing partners and said “let's make this”. There wasn't any fear at that point. There wasn't any sense of a reason not to do it. We paid for it ourselves, we didn't have to go raise the money, or convince someone to finance it. Rather than the usual dog and pony show, it was just me and friends. I said I wanted to make this movie and they said let's make it. Same thing went for the cast with Casey (Affleck) and Rooney (Mara). I just texted them and asked if they would be interested in coming to Texas to make a weird little movie over the summer and they both said yes. So, it did not require much convincing on anyones part. The script was very short and explicit to what the movie would be. It changed a bit while shooting, the finished film is fairly close to what that script suggested, which was a movie that would be comprised of a lot of long shots, no dialogue, a 1:33.1 aspect ratio, and all of the tenants of the film were there in the script. I made some photoshop mockups to show people. It was pretty clear what we were doing and once people realized that we meant it, were seriously going to make it, I didn't have to convince anyone to get on board.
AMG.COM: Let's talk about your acting duo, Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, did you know in your head that you wanted to work with them again? I would say most actors would automatically say yes to a director that they have worked with before, but did they read this script and second guess it? Specifically Casey, putting himself in a sheet for an entire movie?
DAVID LOWERY: I hope that it was a refreshing experience for them to do a film like this, because it is outside of the norm. Also because it was done in secret. We didn't tell anyone. We told our agents that we were making a short film, so there was no sense of expectation. There was no sense that we had to rise to any particular occasion, other then goals we were setting for ourselves. That was liberating for me, I'm sure it was for them as well, because normally you have so much pressure on the bigger budgeted movies. With financiers you need to satisfy. get all your scenes done, memorize your lines. This was a free flowing and organic process. It was intimate and small. It was a refreshing change of pace. I know that Casey enjoyed the idea of getting to act in a movie without having to be on-screen every second, he was covered, so that was a liberating thing for him. I know he enjoyed that.
AMG.COM: I don't want to give too much away to my audience, but there is a scene in this film, possibly the most memorable scene, where Rooney Mara eats a whole pie in 1 take, was it just 1 take or did Rooney need to pause ever? And did you think about not putting her through all that eating?
DAVID LOWERY: No, that was always going to be a very important scene in the movie. I know that it was asking a lot of her to do that, but I had complete faith in her to pull through and execute the scene as written. We only did 1 take. That was one thing I promised her. I was telling her, if you commit to it and just go for it, were only going to do it once. That take can be as short or as long as you want it to be. I didn't put a time limit on it. Had it been two minutes instead of five? That's fine. Ten minutes long? Fine. I just knew that it would be as long as she would let it be.
AMG.COM: Let's talk about your work here with your DP Andrew Droz Palermo, his camerawork has moments where it creates an eerie sense of just leering or watching in the corner, was it important to you to create imagery that feels like the audience is the ghost?
DAVID LOWERY: Absolutely, I'm a visual storyteller more than anything. I love to write dialogue, but I typically end up cutting it all out. I care about the images and the conjunction of one image leading to the next. In this case, finding the right image for each scene was incredibly important. That was the entire process. Most of our time on set was thinking about the simplest and most effective way to convey what wanted through an image. It is meant to be haunting, or sometimes funny, or sometimes scary. All of those emotions are intended to be conveyed through the visuals, so there was a long process of me and Andrew talking about the script. Break it down and shot list it. Once we got the location we would use the shot list as a platform, then find the right place to put that camera. That was the biggest decision we had to make on a day of shooting. Where does the camera go? Because nine times out of ten, the actors are going to be functioning in that space without the benefit of dialogue. It's more about watching them living in that existing space. You could shoot that in numerous ways, but if you are trying to convey a specific feeling you have to find the right lens, dolly shot, movement to convey that emotion, without the usual safety nets of dialogue. The actors had to treat the camera as a co-star in a lot of ways. The one thing I can say about A Ghost Story is that every single shot was intentional.
AMG.COM: There is a lot to take away from this when you see A Ghost Story, but would you say one of your goals was to capture the essence of life? I feel like this film has it all, a scary movie, moments of comedy, existential thought like a Linklater film, love, loss, dare I say sci-fi? And religious or reincarnation beliefs. Was a goal to capture it all?
DAVID LOWERY: I can't tell you what the goal was anymore, ha ha. It was something ephemeral. I don't know what I'm after, or if I can describe it, regardless of how literal I get with my intentions. I just hope it amounts to something. There were moments of shooting where I did not know if this was going to work. I knew there was something I was shooting for, trying to encompass something. I feel the movie works and there is a totality to it. There are multiple things you can pull from it and I know that from having shown it to people, hearing the myriad of reactions, which are indeed plentiful and varied. For me, watching the movie, it's the one film of mine where I can watch it and feel like a member of the audience. I can have a degree of objectivity, obviously not completely, but for some reason, more than any other film I made, it gives me that opportunity. What I get is a sense of comfort about all sorts of things, but primarily time and my own existence. That's something that not everyone is going to take that away from it. A lot will look it as a love story or a story of letting go, but I don't think my final answer to it won't be till I'm older and can look back at what it all means.
AMG.COM: A lot of A Ghost Story has been kept as a mystery, I can say I knew nothing about it going in and I was in awe of everything this movie does, because honestly I've never seen anything like it. Is that how you want the experience to be for audiences? Do you enjoy knowing you're going to get reactions out of people?
DAVID LOWERY: Yeah, you don't go into these things with the intent to make a tabula rasa that can be interpreted in different ways, there is a specificity to the intention, but when it is interpreted in so many different ways that's a wonderful thing for me as a filmmaker. I take solace in the idea that audiences can read so much into something, even when my intentions felt so narrow.
AMG.COM: Well, thank you so much David. A Ghost Story is certainly going to be one of the most talked about and memorable films of the year, so congratulations. We can't wait to tell our readers about it.
DAVID LOWERY: Thank you so much. It was a labor of love and I appreciate you telling everybody about it on AMovieGuy.com.