Interview: Capturing a Conversation with a Ghost Story’s David Lowery
The 21st annual Fantasia Film Festival, held every year in Montreal, has come and gone and, yet, it was, once again, filled with indelible treats that highlighted a broad range of genre cinema.
Over the course of its three magnificent weeks, the festival managed to premiere an eclectic mix of movies, but none has captured the conversation more than David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story.”
One of the most audaciously original narratives I have seen this decade, “A Ghost Story” was shot with friends Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as a personal side project while Lowery was also filming “Pete’s Dragon,” the film is not, in any sense, “scary” as much as it is an engrossing meditation on life and death. The less you know, the better, but the film’s official synopsis is perfectly put together to tell you all you need to know: “This is the story of a ghost and the house he haunts.”
We spoke to Lowery at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, in an extensive and in-depth interview, about his latest film, Robert Redford, Rooney Mara’s distaste for pies and A Ghost Story’s beautiful mysteries.
What gave you the idea of shooting such a small, personal and, even, experimental film?
It began with the image of the ghost. That was an image that preceded the inception of the film. It was an image that I’ve been waiting to use, one way or another, for a very long time. I found the concept of a bed sheet ghost, separate from the confines, to be incredibly beguiling and it had all sorts of emotional qualities. It was funny, it made me laugh, I think that was the beginning of it, it just made me laugh, but it was also very sad and it had a melancholy and a sense of loneliness to it. That was substantial enough that I could hang an entire movie on this one image. That was the beginning of it, I didn’t have a story, I didn’t have a narrative arc, but I did have that image. When I sat down to begin writing last spring, I didn’t know where the story would go or how I would use that image, but I just started writing and that was the film that emerged from that. It was also all written in one sitting so it came out very quickly.
How many pages was the script? There doesn’t seem to be too much dialogue.
It was ten pages at first, very short, and then I expanded that a bit and added some dialogue so it grew to about 30 pages. It was drawn for the purposes of a traditional screenplay, but when you remove most of the dialogue there’s not much else there, just descriptions of scenes and sometimes the descriptions would get very complicated, very direct.
There’s a scene that shows up near the end with these new characters just talking about the film’s existential themes, aligning itself perfectly with the movie. Was the idea always there for the scene to happen?
I didn’t have any scene in mind for that part of the script. When I would write the screenplay, I was asking myself “what would I want to see happen next?” Then, I would write that scene. It was a very mechanical process in many ways, when I got to that scene you’re speaking of, the one in which this character holds forth this party about all sorts of existential matters, that just felt like the right time to dig into some literal content, I wanted to hear somebody speak at that point in the movie. It was a palate cleanser in many ways. It was an attempt to recalibrate the experience that the movie up to that point because at the 2/3 mark you’ve spent a lot of time sitting in silence and, as an audience member, I just felt like it would be nice to have traditional dialogue to grab onto, but it was also a wonderful opportunity to delve deeper into what the movie is doing and what it’s about. At that point, it takes a pretty big left turn and this monologue prepares audiences for what is to come.
I felt like I entered a Richard Linklater movie
Yeah, it’s like “Slacker” or “Waking Life.” There’s a brief moment where philosophical ideas are espoused in a very conversational setting. I love those movies. They were probably my introduction to philosophy even though I didn’t even know it at the time. To briefly carry that torch to and to participate in that tradition was really fun for me.
I do love how silent the film is. For example, there’s a scene where Rooney Mara eats pie to wallow in grief and it lasts for quite a few minutes. I didn’t even realize it lasted that long until someone mentioned it to me post-screening. I was just mesmerized by that scene, it’s a very touching portrayal of grief. I had read that Rooney had never eaten pie in her life before shooting that scene.
It’s true, I think, that’s what she told me and I’ll take her word for it. Amongst many qualities my film might have, it’s a documentary about the first and last time Rooney Mara ate pie [laughs], which is hilarious to me, it’s captured on film for whole time. I like that you didn’t realize how long that scene lasted, it’s wonderful for me to hear that because when I watch it I forget as well. I’ve seen that scene maybe eighty times at this point and every single time I’m able to get lost in it. That’s my favorite experience as a moviegoer, to be able to forget where I am or who I am or what I’m actually watching and become caught up in an individual moment. It’s a really wonderful phenomenon that cinema can provide and it is something that is harder to pull off, I think, than I initially thought, but in that moment we succeeded and despite of the fact that everyone talks about it. You know, it’s the “pie scene, “ it’s become one of the biggest talking points of the film, but the scene itself exists outside of that conversation. Everyone will go into this movie expecting that scene to occur and they’ll be waiting for her to sit down with that pie and then the scene will just happen, it doesn’t matter how much anticipation people bring to it or how many expectations they may or may not have, the scene itself does its own thing and does it on its own terms and all we can do is just sit back and decide if we want to take part in it or not, but it’s going to go on regardless and that’s a beautiful thing.
It also supports my theory that I could watch Rooney Mara practically do anything, even just read the phonebook, and it would still be gripping
A good actress can make anything amazing. The phonebook cliché is a true one because I think that it is true. I would happily watch Rooney do the most mundane activity because she can bring so much to anything. It’s also important to acknowledge she knew why that scene was in the movie; she knew what its intent was. And so, she could have easily just sat down and eaten pie but she knew the register at which her performance needed to exist, she was able to make it what it is. Had it just been a casual scene in which her character was hungry and happened to eat too much it would have been a completely different experience and it wouldn’t have been as good. She brought the emotional wave to it that scene required. She made it transfixing. So, if she ever does read the phonebook, the degree in which we will want to watch it will depend on the context. I have no doubt she can find that context and run circles with it [laughs]
Did you or any of the cast know what was written in that little note?
Rooney does. Rooney knows what it says, but she says that she’s forgotten. I kind of feel like she’s just saying that because she knows the value of a secret and she likes to keep secrets. So I strongly believe that she knows exactly what it says and will never tell anybody, including me. It prevents me from answering the question in any satisfying way, but the answer lies with her and whatever is on that note went down with the house.
That’s a beautiful thing though, to have that kind of mystery in the film. There’s also “mystery” in the film’s ending, a sort of dreamy ambiguity, do you know what it means?
I know what it makes me feel. It comforts me. It makes me feel at peace. The way at which it does that is unique to me, I don’t know if it would work on others and, if it does, I don’t know if it will follow that same path to that point for other audience members. I don’t want to prescribe anything to an audience, I never want to be prescriptive and so, while I hope that audiences find the ending of this movie hopeful and that they find solace in it, at the same time I don’t want to presume that they will have the same experiences as I do nor do I want to diminish in any way the unique experiences that they may have, so I don’t think the movie is a blank slate, I don’t think that it has a particular point of view or that it’s a very literal movie in any way, I don’t want to tell people what they should take out of it. I feel that if a movie succeeds there are so many layers in which you can operate that the filmmaker never initially intended. They should all be valid interpretations, that’s the nature of art. There’s more going on in any given work of art than the artist could have ever possibly imagined. I hope that this movie is successful and I hope that people find things in it and I will feel very satisfied if they find the same things that I do.
Tell me a little bit about Casey Affleck. You guys did incredible work in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” so I guess that left an itch for both of you to want to collaborate again.
We became friends after that film. We developed a few other things together, so working together was always paramount and was something we both wanted to do. We have this sci-fi film that we’ve both been working together on that will maybe happen one day. We just finished shooting the third film together called “The Old Man and the Gun” where he gets to share the screen with Robert Redford. When I got to the point of casting “A Ghost Story” he was the first person I went to, but I also wanted him and Rooney simultaneously because I wanted the chemistry they had. I knew they had a great chemistry together and I wanted both of them to be in this movie for that reason.
I heard “The Old Man and the Gun” is experimental like “A Ghost story.”
It’s weird to call it experimental because it’s not experimental in the way “A Ghost Story” is, but for me, it was just as much of an experiment. Audiences will see “The Old Man and the Gun” next year and think that, in comparison to “A Ghost Story,” it’ll feel very much like a traditional movie. It’ll feel like a completely different type of movie because it’s fun, it’s lighthearted, it is just a romp, in some ways, and, at the same time for me, that’s an experiment. I think a movie that functions that way is experimental because I just don’t normally think that way, particularly when it comes to this being funny, I have the acutest funny bone in the world, I enjoy laughing, I love laughing all the time. That was my goal. As much as I wanted to make a film that was delightful, it was still pretty experimental for me, but when you see it it’ll feel relatively normal. It still has some weird stuff going on, it’s very minimalist, there’s not a lot of story there, but it definitely is more lighthearted than anything I have done and it’s, in many ways, a love letter to Robert Redford. As much as it’s about him and his career, it also has a meta quality that could also be described as experimental, but when you watch the movie people will be like “Wow, David made a really normal movie.” But for me making a normal movie is somewhat “experimental.” I’m curious to see how the finished product looks like because like all experiments there is a chance for failure and I haven’t quite crossed the threshold of success yet.
The odds are in your favor because it’s Robert Redford and you’re back with Casey Affleck. Is the goal to bring it to Sundance?
It will be ready in time for that, but I think that’s sort of like cheating, you know, a Robert Redford movie at Sundance [laughs] I mean, he’s done it before. But for me, I just want to let it live its own life beyond that and so, I mean, I love Sundance and I’d love to play more movies here, it’s truly a treat and an honor as a filmmaker to show your movies there, but I also feel like if I have Robert Redford, the founder of the festival, in my movie, I could probably step aside and let some other filmmakers take that slot. It would be unfair to all the other filmmakers in the world who want to show their movie there.