And Now, A Conversation With A GHOST STORY Director David Lowery

In which we chat with the director of one of 2017's best films.

David Lowery's A Ghost Story hits the Alamo Drafthouse this weekend. Get your tickets here.

Caution: this interview contains one or two very mild A Ghost Story spoilers.

A few weeks ago, I caught a screening of David Lowery's A Ghost Story, and - as expected - the film left me a weepy, overly-thoughtful mess. And so, when the chance to speak with Lowery arose just days later, I immediately jumped on the opportunity. Here's a guy with something to say, with a very specific viewpoint and (after the one-two punch of Pete's Dragon and A Ghost Story) a demonstrable talent for making audiences cry. 

When I walked into the room, the PR handler introduced me as "Scott Wampler, from Birth.Movies.Death.", prompting Lowery to say...

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David Lowery: Ah. So, you must be here to talk about Prometheus.

BMD: I'm always ready to talk about Prometheus. Did you like Prometheus?

I mean, it’s got a lot of stupid script things in it.

Well, yeah.

But it’s compellingly - I think the mythology is fantastic. I think Alien: Covenant has a lot of stupid stuff in it too, but it's also really good and I hope he finishes that trilogy.

I really hope so. I dunno if he’s gonna get that chance, the way Covenant performed. But let's see how it does in China.

Is it open there yet?

No, not yet.

Well, that’ll be the answer. They just announced XXX 3, pretty much because of Chinese audiences.

This is true.

Oh, wait, is it XXX 4?

I think so, there was one I didn’t see.

The Ice Cube one.

Yeah, the Ice Cube one. I actually enjoyed XXX 3. I mean, it is ridiculous.

(XXX 2) will be an airplane movie in the future for ya.

In XXX 3 a man drives a motorcycle on the water. You gotta appreciate that.

Yeah, totally.

But, um, we’re here to talk about your movie, which does not feature any motorcycles on water.

No.

What you seem to be exceptionally good at is making people cry.

(Laughs)

One more time and we’re gonna have to start asking if this is a kink. Like, Pete’s Dragon--I’ve never heard an audience sob in a movie theater like Pete’s Dragon. Hell, I cried, and I’m hard to provoke to tears.

You’re welcome.

Yeah, well, I’m happy to have any emotional reaction to a movie.

Same here. I have the same issue, where I don’t often outwardly emote and if a movie can get to me in that way, I really value it and appreciate it.

Right.

Makes me feel like a human being.

Yeah, right. And there’s so much stuff where you’re just kind like “Eh, that was good.” So I feel thankful every time I have a legit emotional response like that. Do you cry easy at movies?

No, not really. But sometimes I go through phases, I guess, in my life, where they affect me more. Like, I cried at Wonder Woman and The Big Sick recently and I’m like, alright, two movies in the same two week span, like maybe it’s just the movies and maybe it’s somewhere I am in my life, I don’t know. I don’t.

I think there’s a lot of outside contributing factors that would…

Probably so, yes, yes. Exactly.

As I’ve gotten older, I find that I do it more. I think it’s an empathy thing. I think that when I was younger, maybe I didn’t…

You feel a little bit more emboldened to cast emotions aside when you’re younger, perhaps.

Eh, maybe.

Or you’re more confident in your grasp of the world and as you get older you realize that so much is out of your control. You’re more emotionally vulnerable.

Yeah, it’s true. By the way, I read an interview with you where you said you were atheist, but believed in ghosts.

Yeah.

That’s interesting. Have you ever had an experience with a ghost?

I don’t think so. I had some questionable experiences…

Like what?

Just like, I mean, it’s the silly things, like being in a haunted bed and breakfast where you hear noises or where lights turn on.

Right.

And it’s probably just the electric wiring being weird or the owner is knowing that people are waiting for this to happen. You know, arranging for that to happen. Who knows?

Like old psychics would do, where they had people behind the--

Precisely. Like in the Ouija board movie..  

Did you stay at a place that was specifically supposed to be haunted?

I was working on a movie. I had just started off working as a PA on a movie, and I started working this short film that was shot entirely at a haunted bed and breakfast in Marlin, Texas, outside of college station.

Right on.

And it was supposed to be haunted and we all stayed there when we were shooting it. And that’s where I feel like things happened. I could rationalize it, but I would rather believe that there was something going on there.

It would be really cool, I think, to have that experience, but at the same time, I would have to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt. Like there were no other possible explanations.

Yes, exactly. You’d actually have to have that situation where you see something. You see an apparition, or...I dunno. People always talk about going to the Overlook Hotel.

The Stanley Hotel.

Right, the Stanley Hotel, and that things really...that feels like a place where enough people have said that they have seen, like, physically seen something that’s unquestionably beyond belief.

One of our writers said they saw something there.

I feel like I read that.

Yeah, Meredith Borders. She went up there one year and saw some shit. I visited the place, not during the (Stanley Film) festival, but, yeah, it’s a creepy joint, man.

But you saw...nothing? 

I was there in broad daylight.

Right, right.

I would expect that if there’s any supernatural shenanigans going on there, they probably happen during the Witching Hour.

Yes, exactly.

Not two in the afternoon. I’ve never actually seen anything like that. I would love to, but I feel like I’m sorta in your boat, where it’s like, “Well, I dunno if I believe in God, but I’d...”

I say all this right now, but cut to two in the morning in my house, when all the lights are off? I really hope I don’t see something.

That’d be insane, though, to have that story, to have that experience.

That fear makes my life better. The fact that I will be scared in my own house at 2AM because I might see a ghost is wonderful to me.

Yeah. Anyway, when you first started filming this...well, look, you’ve got Casey Affleck wearing a sheet.

Yeah.

There must have been a moment where you were like, “I dunno if this is gonna work.”

Every single morning.

Really?

Every single day.

Did you ever come close to saying, “Alright, we gotta come up with something else”? ‘Cause it works. It plays like gangbusters, but...

No, I mean, I just kept saying, “We have to stop, let’s just call the day, and cut our losses.”

Like just not do it completely?

And not finish it! And my producer, Toby, who financed the movie, he was right there like, “No, it’s gonna work, just keep doing it, keep doing it." And he’s wonderful that way. He always knows how to pick me up when I’m down. And it this case I was just constantly down, because I was just so nervous that it wouldn’t work. And to be fair to my own opinion, it wasn’t working at first. We had to figure out how to make that ghost work. Because the ghost in my head that I saw when I conceived of this movie was not what we were shooting at first.

What was it like?

At first it was just clearly a sheet over Casey Affleck’s head, and it just felt like someone wearing a sheet. And I needed - in spite of it’s handmade aesthetic and very physical presence in that house - I needed it to still feel like a ghost. And that took some doing. And part of it was the costume and making the costume work. A lot of it was the performance and realizing that we needed to make him less of a character and more of just a presence. And that the less acting that went on under the sheet, the better the performance got. You know, we needed to remove the humanity from the ghost to make him more human. So, it took a while to figure that out. And it also took a while to shoot it, because we would frame up a shot and think that it would work and as soon as he entered that shot, it would fall apart, because he’s suddenly a commanding presence.

It’s a bold visual…

It is. It's a bold visual thing. And so, like, what would normally be a wide shot of a person standing in a room would work just fine, wouldn’t work when that ghost got in there, ‘cause same height as Casey, but the shape is different. It just, it overwhelms the frame. So just figuring out how to make him feel like he belonged in the images was another work in progress.

What was the impetus for all of this? I think I read that you had a house in Texas that you didn’t want to leave.

Yeah, when we were getting ready to make Pete’s Dragon or to do post production. We had just gotten back from New Zealand and we had a rental house in Dallas, that I had been living it for several years at that point and we knew were about to embark on a long post-production period. It ultimately wound up being over a year, and it just made sense to move to LA. And I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to give up that house. It really was upsetting to me to give up that house. My wife was gung-ho about moving to LA, because she loves California and I like it, too, but I just didn’t want to leave that house. And we had an argument about it and then later in the year, we went back home for Christmas and I was just like, “Let’s move back.” And we had another argument about moving back.

You still wanted to go back after that?

Yeah, and I would drive by that house and see other people living it and -

Haha, what? What was it about that house? That’s so strange.

Well, that’s what I was wondering. I was wondering what was it about that house, what was it about this space that had led me to become so attached to it? And just wondering about that and thinking about it is what led to this movie. And, you know, I realized as I was doing it, that I was...as I was making this and thinking about those questions, I realize I’ve been attached to every home I’ve ever lived in. And I come from a really strong family and the idea of home must be deeply ingrained in me, that I plant roots wherever I go. And so leaving any home is difficult for me, and I get very attached to physical spaces, because I’m a sentimentalist. I’m a very sentimental person. I hang onto all my toys from childhood. I’m a deep nostalgic and that holds me back sometimes. And I recognize that and all these realizations kinda came about as I was working on this.

Was this intended to be a palate cleanser after the size of Pete’s Dragon? Or was there any conscious thought with that?

Only in terms of the speed at which we were able to make it. To me, I loved making Pete’s Dragon, so there wasn’t a palate that needed cleansing, but it took so long to make and I have such a short attention span that I really wanted to move on to something else and have it done quickly. I felt like I had spent...I had spent three years on one thing, and it’s really hard for me to focus on something for that long. And so this was a way to focus on something very hard, very intensely immediately afterwards for a very short period of time and have an end product to show for it. So that is what I wanted to do. You know, aside from wanting to make this very personal movie, I wanted to make it quickly because I had spent so long focused on one thing. I needed a sudden change of pace.

I would imagine that going from something the size of Pete’s Dragon, and this is sorta what I meant by a palate cleanser, the ability to move a production like that. It must be the huge lumbering--

It’s an army, yeah.

On A Ghost Story, the house that you shot in, you actually razed it. Did you guys buy the house...wait, I guess that’s actually a spoiler, huh? I should probably not - 

Well, I guess it's a spoiler. You can put a spoiler alert. We didn’t buy it. We were looking for houses that were in a state of ill-repair that we could, you know, kind of take over. So we got in touch with a demolition company, just after a list of houses that were condemned or...

On their way out.

Yeah, on their way out, and we found this one in Irving, which was coincidently the town that I grew up in, and it was perfect. It looked like the house that I left behind in Dallas and it’s owners - Scooter and Barbara Walsh. I wanna site them by name because they were instrumental in making this movie, not just because they gifted us this house and let us use it for free, but because they then came on and helped us make it in every way. They own an air conditioning repair company and when you’re making a movie in Texas in the summer, air conditioning is a very important thing. They were constantly coming over and helping us stay cool and their granddaughter was Rooney Mara’s stand-in and she ultimately wound up being one of the pioneers. It was really nice. They became part of our film family on this project and it was a really wonderful thing.

This is probably more of a question for Casey, but Casey’s not here, so I’m gonna ask you: was working under that sheet ever frustrating to him, do you think?

I’m just gonna quote him on this and say that he loved it. I guess that’s not a quote. “I loved it.” That’s what Casey Affleck says: “I love working under the sheet.” No, he did love it. We were just doing an interview last week where he was talking about how it really allowed him to focus on how much a director is bringing to the project. Because he didn’t have all of the usual tricks that he brings to things, and how much he feels he’s able to give a movie. And so many of those tools are stripped away. So he was able to be in the movie and be front and center in it and at the same time just be completely…you know, I talk about this a lot and how the performance is more like puppeteering than actually acting. It was just me saying, “Turn your head to the left a little bit. Now, move very slowly from that wall to the next wall.” It was like we were talking through every scene, just directing audibly. And all the usual instincts for an actor go out the window when they’re in that position, because they are not able to really do much other than just obey.

It’s a completely different skill set.

It’s a completely different skill set. And very physical. You have to hold very still and when you move, you have to move very precisely. It’s very robotic. It’s very unemotional and unintuitive and uninstinctive. And so I think it was a challenge for him, but one that he really enjoyed and also he’s talked about not being able to, you know, show his face. Like being able to be anonymous, and yet be front and center in the process of making the movie the whole way through at the same time. I think that was liberating to him, as well.

Awesome. Hey, are you done filming Old Man and the Gun yet?

For all intents and purposes, yes. We’re gonna do some pick ups in a month or two because it’s a movie that’s set in Texas but we had to shoot it somewhere else and so we’re gonna do a little bit of work to make it seem like it takes place in Texas. There are a couple scenes I know I’m gonna need to pick up, but for the most part it’s done. 

Did I read that that’s Redford’s final film?

He says. His publicist says it’s not, but he’s saying it is, so we’ll see. I know he wants to direct again.

Really?

Y'know, at his age, starring in a movie is a challenging endeavor. It’s a lot of work.

I would imagine directing a movie at his age is a lot of work, too. Some of these guys, though. Like Ridley Scott’s still out there and he’s like 80.

It’s something that gives me a great deal of inspiration, that Redford and Ridley Scott are still out there making movies at that age.

Passionate about it, too.

Passionate about it and excited about it. Though, I hope it’s not his last movie, because I love watching him as an actor, but if it is, hopefully we sent him off well. And I hope he enjoys returning to the director’s chair after a couple years’ absence.

Folks, do yourself a favor and see A Ghost Story immediately. It's not only one of the summer's best films, it's one of the year's best films, full stop. By turns creepy, mysterious, romantic, unknowable and profound, I'd consider A Ghost Story to be a vital part of your cinematic diet this year. Here's hoping you enjoy it as much as I did.

Reminder: A Ghost Story hits Drafthouse theaters this weekend. Get your tickets here.

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