Why David Lowery Almost Killed 'A Ghost Story,' Summer 2017's Best Movie
David Lowery almost quit 'A Ghost Story' mid-production, but his crew convinced him to stick with it. Now, it's the best movie of the summer.
When I was a child, I often dreamt of houses. Sometimes, they were labyrinthine mansions with dark corridors and stairs that led to nowhere, empty save for a ghostly presence that would take flight as I opened a creaky door. Other times, they were more modest Americana abodes with freshly-hewn lawns and a dog barking somewhere in the distance. Once inside, I would find that the family members had left post haste; sometimes, the tea kettle was still on the stove, whining softly.
To watch David Lowery's A Ghost Story was to revisit these childhood dreams and the feeling they evoked: that particular brand of melancholy that comes from realizing time and space belong to no one.
"There was a point in production where I lost all my confidence. I thought it was too high-concept to succeed." —David Lowery
This experience is by design. Lowery crafted his stunning film as a canvas onto which audiences can project meaning. At the center is C (Casey Affleck), a sheet-wearing ghost—with eyeholes, much like a lo-fi Halloween costume—who, after he dies in a car accident, haunts his young wife, M (Rooney Mara), in their Texas fixer-upper. The details of their relationship are vague, but the emotion is potent; through interspersed flashbacks, we are privy to revealing scenes, both intimate and mundane, from the couple's past life. The film's most memorable scene is a long take in which M devours an entire pie. Through this brutal act of binge-eating, she tries to eat her grief alive, consuming that pie like it’s the only good thing she has left in this world.
Then, life goes on. (There is at once nothing sadder or more hopeful than that.) A Ghost Story is not its plot; in the spellbinding second and third acts, it sucks you into its metaphysical world, where time melts into itself and restless souls can only hope for eternal return. It's jarring when a human being finally speaks again: nearly an hour in, we have our first dialogue-heavy scene, an existential rant that could have been written by John from S-Town.
Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo captures the vastness of time and the smallness of the things that belong to the realm of human existence with a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio. Every frame is reminiscent of a photograph in an old album that was, perhaps, left to collect dust in a small fixer-upper in Texas—as a token of belonging, or proof that someone was here.
What is a house to us, anyway? After all, as in my childhood dreams, we are just passing through.
"The sheet ghost was an image that was just waiting for the right movie to be in."
No Film School sat down with Lowery to discuss why he nearly abandoned A Ghost Story mid-production, the challenges of bringing his sheet ghost to life, how the entire film was a home-grown affair, and more. Toward the end of the interview, when my recorder ran out of memory, Lowery said, "You should make this a part of the article. I love seeing the nuts and bolts of when things go wrong like that, as we try to recover from this tragic loss of memory."
A Ghost Story opened in theaters on July 7.
No Film School: This is my favorite film of the year so far. It does what films like Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey do— it transcends time and space. It evokes ideas of eternal return. But more than the aforementioned films, A Ghost Story contains these big ideas in small things. What was the first kernel of the idea for A Ghost Story?
Lowery: There were two things that predated the writing of the screenplay. One of them was the image of a ghost in a house, and that ghost had a sheet over his head. I loved that image. I wanted to use it somewhere. I'd made attempts to use it on other projects that didn’t pan out. The sheet ghost was an image that was just waiting for the right movie to be in.
Then I moved to LA to make Pete’s Dragon, then to New Zealand, then back to LA. In doing that, I left the house my wife and I had moved into when we first got married. Leaving that house was really upsetting to me. Leaving Texas was really upsetting to me, and I wanted to move back there. We did go back there for the holidays, and while we were there, I floated the idea of moving back when Pete’s Dragon was done. That suggestion became an argument, because my wife loved Los Angeles and was happy there, and didn’t want to leave. But I was very happy where we had been, in Texas. I felt like my identity belonged in Texas.
"A Ghost Story kind of wrote itself."
As we were discussing the plans for our future, we started to draw lines in the sand about what we each wanted out of our relationship, and the lengths we'd go to for one another. It became one of those big arguments that felt like a scene from a movie. We calmed down and we came to a very sensible resolution, but in that moment, I felt like I could see the end of our relationship—a potential ending of it. The fact that it could end over something as simple as the place where we called home was troubling to me. I wanted to unpack that a little bit. I’d written down that argument as best as I could remember and turned it into a scene. I didn’t know what it was going to become, but lo and behold, it became this movie.
The image of the ghost in the sheet just naturally worked his way into there right from the very beginning. For lack of a better way to describe it, A Ghost Story kind of wrote itself. It was also very short, so it was easy for that to happen.
NFS: It’s interesting that the first scene you wrote was a complex argument. In the final movie, there’s so little dialogue. It’s so sparse.
Lowery: Yeah, but it was much longer. I'd written a 10-page scene that we shot over the course of a day with Casey and Rooney. My wife was there that day, and I remember her rolling her eyes because it was literally the things we had said to each other. But she supports it completely—that I utilize our relationship in my art. She'd want me to say that.
The movie didn’t need a 10-page conversation, at the end of the day. It needed something different. That conversation then was filtered through other scenes that we shot with the two of them, and then we sprinkled it through the whole movie as needed.
NFS: You decided to shoot immediately after Pete's Dragon. Why?
Lowery: From the time we finished Pete’s Dragon to the time it would open would be about two months, and I knew that there was a window in there to make something. I went into this thinking it would be my summer vacation movie, to get creative again.
NFS: How did you mobilize so quickly?
Lowery: I really just called on my friends. I had to stay in LA for the most part and finish the Disney film, but on the weekends, I would fly to Texas and we would go looking for houses that we could shoot in. I knew that I wanted to keep the crew very small and very tightly-knit. I wanted all of my usual collaborators to be involved. I wanted it to be a very small crew. A very close group of friends, because I knew this was going to be that type of movie that needed that type of support and structure to succeed.
"To make [the ghost] costume work in three dimensions was a feat of mechanical engineering. I was consistently sick to my stomach thinking that it would not work."
Once we knew that we were going to make it, we kind of just put the balls in motion. Because it was self-financed, there wasn’t any need to go pitch it to anyone or to knock on doors asking for money. We were going to make this movie small enough that we could afford to make it ourselves. We didn’t put a number on that. We just sort of knew, "Here’s the amount we can spend without going completely broke," and that was the cap.
Once we decided to pull the trigger and actually go for it, we just started calling people and saying, "Hey, do you want to help us make this?" "Do you want to come spend two weeks in Texas this summer?" It didn’t take a lot of those phone calls, but it took a few, and one of them was to Andrew [Droz Palermo], our cinematographer. Jade [Healy] already was on board, my production designer. We put together a small group of friends and started work on finding the house and, once we found it, restoring the house to the condition it needed to be in to shoot.
Lowery: Then, Annell [Brodeur], our costume designer, started working on the ghost costume. It didn’t really click into place until I got there full-time, which was two days after we finished Pete’s Dragon, and we also started shooting that day. There wasn’t a traditional prep period, and it all just sort of came together organically. That lack of prep certainly caused problems.
I wonder now, looking back, if we'd had more prep time, if would have lost my nerve and pulled the plug on it. Because there were plenty of times while shooting that I wanted to do that, but we were already too deep into it. There was a point in production where I lost all my confidence, and every day I was convinced it wasn't working. I thought it was too high-concept to succeed. I was prepared for it to fail.
NFS: What caused you to doubt the movie so significantly?
Lowery: It was mainly just the ghost. I just was not convinced that it would work. In my mind, it worked beautifully, but on set and in all practical senses, it was very much a work in progress for the first week or two of shooting. We were constantly refining the costume and the way in which we had to photograph the costume, and the way in which Casey had to act while wearing it.
The ultimate goal was for it to look as simple as can be—the simplest representation of a ghost imaginable. To make that costume work in three dimensions was a feat of mechanical engineering. I was consistently sick to my stomach thinking that it would not work, or that it would look stupid, or that we would just all fall flat on our faces. Making that ghost work was definitely the biggest challenge in the entire process.
"We were consistently unhappy with the images we were producing on the first week of the shoot. It took a while for us to figure out how to make the ghost not look dumb."
NFS: I can imagine the ghost was really hard to light, too.
Lowery: Yeah. We knew that it would be hard because it’s just white. It just picks up light, so we knew going into it that that would be a challenge. But also, just putting it in the frame was hard—setting aside the fact that we were shooting in 4:3, and none of us had done that before, so that was a learning curve in its own right. As soon as you put this ghost into a frame, it just changes everything, because it’s such a dominant form.
NFS: Your eye is drawn to it.
Lowery: Your eye is drawn to it, and it monopolizes the image completely. At first, we rolled with that, but we were consistently unhappy with the images we were producing. Eventually, we went back and re-shot a lot of the material for the first week, because we just hadn't figured out how to put the ghost in the frame properly—how to make him function within the world of the movie we were making. In so much of the earlier material we shot with him, he just dominated the image, and not in a good way.
Lowery: "Clunky" is the best way to describe [the early footage of the ghost]. It just felt like someone wearing a sheet stumbling through a frame. It had no elegance, no grace, no sense of the ethereal. It just felt dumb, and it took a while for us to figure out how to make him not dumb. There were little glimpses here and there that kind of gave us hope that we might be able to pull it off, but it still took a lot of refinement. And not just with the costume, but how we shot it. How he moved. How he existed in the world. The frame rate that we shot him in. All those things were things we figured out as we went along.
"33 frames per second is a high enough speed to add a touch of surreality, but it doesn’t feel like slow motion. It’s just the right balance."
NFS: What frame rate did you settle on?
Lowery: Ultimately, 33 frames per second was the magic number. When the ghost is in the frame with Rooney, we would often shoot him at 24 fps. Other times, we would shoot her separately, and then bring the ghost in and shoot him at 33, and composite them together so that they would exist in the same frame, but at two different frame rates. 33 fps is a high enough speed to add a touch of surreality, but it doesn’t feel like slow motion. It’s just the right balance. We actually did that a lot in Pete’s Dragon for a number of scenes, when we wanted it to feel slightly heightened or slightly surreal, and yet not feel like slow motion.
NFS: What about shooting in 4:3? Why shoot in that aspect ratio?
Lowery: That was partially a thematic idea, because this is a movie about a character who is stuck between four walls for the entire running time of the film. The claustrophobia of that was something that I thought we might be able to amplify by using for 4:3—by using a literal box to trap the image in.
I also just really like that aspect ratio. It's very classical, very old-fashioned. When you watch a movie now that was shot in 4:3, it’s a different experience because we’re watching these movies on widescreen televisions, or at cinemas that don’t have masking that goes all the way. You’re watching this image through a proscenium. You get this sort of built-in frame for the film. When I see a Kelly Reichardt film or an Andrea Arnold movie, the modern context adds so much to the image for me, and I wanted to employ that myself.
We took it a little further by adding those curved edges in. That was something that just came about in post that helped define that frame even further. Also, added this nice, nostalgic sensibility that was nice to me, because I’m a sucker for nostalgia.
NFS: It also makes each frame feel like a photograph.
Lowery: Exactly. All old photographs in my family albums have curved edges. I don’t know if you can still get them anymore. Also, slide projectors are all in that aspect ratio and have those curved edges. Watching your family vacation on a slide projector is something no one will ever do again, but back then, at family gatherings every year, we would all sit down and watch a bunch of slides and they all looked just like that.
NFS: Even though none of you had ever shot with that aspect ratio, the cinematography seemed very intentional. There were perfect streaks of dappled light. Whenever light came into a frame, it very clearly had a direction— a visual throughline.
Lowery: There was a lot of intuitive process on set, but there was a great deal of planning as well. For example, to talk more about that dappled light, Andrew [Droz Palermo] spent two days in the house before we started shooting. While I was still finishing Pete’s Dragon, he was already there just spending time in the house over the course of two days, watching what the light did, and when the changes would happen.
"The DP spent time in the house over the course of two days, watching what the light did, and when the changes would happen."
For example, in the scene where Rooney is eating that pie, there's dappled light on the wall behind her that’s 100% natural. Andrew had seen that happen and suggested we wait 'till that time of day to shoot it and try to get it within that window. It was just so beautiful and so perfect and really brought that composition to life. That was something that he discovered through very rigorous observation on the location.
Then, other ones were all created. Like when [Rooney's character] sees the flickering light on the wall before she puts the note into the wall, that was something that Andrew built. It was a man-made effect. Nonetheless, every bit of that was 100% intentional. That was in the script, and we knew we were going to try to create that kind of effect.
The compositions were all very well thought out. We initially thought that we’d shoot the entire movie mostly in tableaus. Every scene had a central image at its core that we felt could sustain itself if we chose to do that. Obviously, that changed. [Spoiler Alert] Once Rooney leaves the film, the entire visual language changed completely. But, initially, that was the plan. [Spoiler Ends]
NFS: You mentioned the pie scene, and since you did, we have to talk about it. Although I'd think you're probably tired of talking about it by now. It was beautiful. Rooney eats that pie like it's the last good thing she has in this world.
Lowery: I don't get tired of talking about the pie scene mostly because there's not much for me to say about it, but also because everyone reads it differently. What you just said—that that was the last good thing she had—is a sentiment I have not heard before. That's very beautiful to me and it's true. That is proof that the scene works on levels beyond what we were intending.
We approached it very practically because we knew that it was going to carry a tremendous amount of weight and it would be a big moment in the movie. We knew that people would talk about it if it worked. We knew the reason why we were putting it in the movie, which was we wanted to convey her grief in a very profound and physical way. Also, to be with her in a very private moment that we shouldn't be seeing and Casey should not be seeing—a moment when she's on her own, she believes herself to be alone, and yet we're there witnessing it and so is he. That invasion of privacy should be uncomfortable, along with the very essence of the scene itself, which is very discomforting.
"We don't cut away from the pie scene; it just is that moment. It's the one moment where we punctured the artifice of the movie and it becomes almost documentary-like."
Because we knew that that was what it was about, we didn't have to talk that much about it. My job was to set up the camera and figure out the best place to film it and work with Andrew to find a composition that would hold up for the length of time that scene might last. Rooney's job was to just do the scene as an actress. She's a great actress, so she knew that it needed a certain something from her, and she was prepared to bring that, and that was really it.
Lowery: It was very practical. If we had talked through every beat of it—timed out when she needed to have a tear roll down her cheek—it would have lost that je ne sais quoi that Rooney was able to bring to it by just being in that moment.
In spite of the fact that this is a movie with a ghost wearing a sheet, the pie scene contains, to me, a tremendous amount of truth, honesty, and sincerity. We don't cut away from it; it just is that moment. It's the one moment where we punctured through the artifice of the movie and it becomes almost documentary-like because we're just observing and observing and observing.
I could keep talking about it because it means a lot to me, but the best thing I can do for that scene is to let people just watch it. I think that in spite of the fact that everyone's talking about it—and that we're talking about it right now—people will read this and go into the movie waiting for the pie scene to happen. It sustains itself for a long enough period of time that those expectations are diminished, and then the scene is just able to, you know....
Lowery: Exist the way it was meant to exist.
"Being open to ghosts makes my life a lot better."
NFS: Do you believe in ghosts?
Lowery: I do, in a way. Well, I guess the better way to say it is I'm very open to them existing. I would love to have solid proof that they exist. That would make me very happy. It'd also make me very scared because I get scared very, very easily. All my long nights at home with lots of creaks in the house would all of the sudden become far more ominous. But I have never had proof of ghosts, so I'm content to just wait for it to present itself to me or not. I'm open to both.
NFS: You're ghost-agnostic.
Lowery: I'm ghost-agnostic. Being open to ghosts makes my life a lot better, but I don't expect that I'll ever have an encounter. Maybe!
NFS: At one point in the film, there's a haunting scene in which the house that we've spent the entire movie in is demolished. How did you pull off that feat with such a low budget and so little time?
Lowery: I wrote it into the script not knowing how we would do it, or if we would even be able to pull it off. I thought maybe we would do it as a miniature, or we would just knock one wall down and build a plywood set. Thankfully, we didn't do that because I think that would have looked dumb.
My producers, James and Toby, had this brilliant idea that involved calling demolition companies and finding lists of condemned properties. Then we got that list and just drove around and found houses that were scheduled to be demolished. If they looked like they would fit our needs, we would call the owners and see if they would be open to us taking over for a little while.
This house looked perfect. It was exactly what I wanted. The house's owners ended up being not only incredibly generous, in terms of giving it to us, but hugely instrumental in the process of making the movie. Their granddaughter, who was in high school at the time, wound up being Rooney's stand-in. She also plays one of the pioneers. Scooter, the gentlemen who owned the house, owns an air conditioning company and wound up bringing out a portable unit to pump into the house to keep us all from dying while we were shooting in the Texas summer. We basically welcomed them into our family and they helped us make the movie. They came to Sundance and to the premiere in Texas, and are just as proud of the movie as we are. I think we couldn't have done it without them.
But that was how it came about: we just drove around looking for houses that were condemned. When we found that one, we fixed it up. We went in there and put a kitchen in, put floors in, even fixed the ceiling. Jade Healy, my production designer, made it a home. Then when we were done with it, we tore it down. That was that.