DAVID Lowery’s latest film, A Ghost Story, is a quietly spellbinding and poetic study of time, grief and legacy. Yet the film explores these themes through the rather unexpected figure of a bed sheet wearing ghost.
‘It’s ok to laugh’, the film’s well-spoken and clear-thinking director assured the audience at a Curzon Soho screening of the film last Thursday (August 3). Lowery continued: ‘I knew the image [of a bed sheet ghost] itself was funny. That’s one of the reasons I liked it because it was very funny, but also very naïve, childlike and sad.’
This idea, Lowery revealed, had been floating around his head for many years. It was only last spring, at the end of filming Disney’s Pete’s Dragon – a different project in every imaginable way – that he finally decided to pull the trigger.
After writing the first draft in one sitting – albeit a mere 30 page script – Lowery had to find two actors willing to take on such an audacious and abstract high-concept. He turned to Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara who he had previously worked with in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013).
As Lowery told the audience, their reactions were welcoming but contrastingly measured. He said: ‘I texted Casey and said: “Hey I’m going to make a weird movie this summer. Do you want to be in it? You have to play a ghost.” And I sent him a picture of the costume a little while later.
‘Maybe he would say otherwise, but I don’t think he read the script until he got to town. I think he was just down to make something.
‘With Rooney, she did read the script and we had some conversations about it. But again, she trusted me. She didn’t necessarily think it would end up being feature length. She thought it might be a short.’
In A Ghost Story, Mara and Affleck play a young couple living together in a small Texas home. When Affleck’s character dies in a car accident, he returns home as a ghost to watch over his grief-stricken girlfriend. From then on, the film expands out – although staying in the same place – to tackle deeper perceptions of human existence that go beyond the individual.
Still the relationship between Mara and Affleck’s characters, wonderfully grounded in an authentic early scene of them kissing tenderly in bed, remains an emotional anchor of the film.
Lowery commented on the two: ‘One of the reasons I asked them to do it was because we already know each other and trust each other. So there’s that built in working relationship. The other reason is that they are great together on-screen. I realised that on my first movie [Ain’t Them Bodies Saints]. It wasn’t meant to be as romantic as it wound up being. They have an amazing chemistry together.
‘In this film, knowing that one of the characters is going to die and be covered in a sheet within the first 10 minutes of the movie, I wanted to make sure we made the most of the initial screen-time they had together. And I knew that with the two of them you would really get a sense of their relationship because they do have such great chemistry together.’
He continued: ‘They get along really well together and have a lot of fun together on-screen. I think they genuinely care for one another. I would love to make a movie with the two of them where one of them doesn’t die or go to jail, because I would love to watch that relationship develop.’
Mara and Affleck are not the only trusted Lowery forces behind this project. Daniel Hart, who has done the music for every Lowery film, plays a particularly pivotal role in A Ghost Story.
Lowery explained: ‘I always share the script with him very early. In this case, it was kind of reverse. While we were doing the score for Pete’s Dragon, he played a song for me called I Get Overwhelmed [Dark Rooms] and I was literally overwhelmed by it.
‘I got very obsessed with it and wrote it into the script. And it became a key component of the story, the crux of their relationship in many ways. That song had the tone and feel that I wanted the movie to have. So from there, Daniel used that as the bedrock of the entire score. So every piece of music you hear in the movie is based on some part of that song.’
This remarkably moving piece of music perfectly fits the film’s poignant meditations. But this reflective tone would have been broken had Lowery included scenes of Affleck racing around the house as an energetic ghost trying to escape the house.
Fortunately, as Lowery explained, they decided a more gentle hand was needed. He said: ‘Gradually we realised less is more. If he just turned his head very slowly that was all we needed. And once we figured that out the tone started to emerge.
‘We had that perfect blend. You do laugh but then it turns into something else. It has a gracefulness and elegance that goes beyond the initial childlike humour and becomes something far more meaningful, surreal and ethereal.’
With this approach, A Ghost Story becomes a quiet and contemplative experience. Even when the car accident occurs, the camera slowly pulls around to show a rather mundane aftermath. The result is something that feels more striking than actually seeing the incident.
Likewise, Lowery’s thoughtful filmmaking – reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) – sees him go from the cosmic image of a galaxy of stars and planets to a few strands of hair hanging from Mara’s head. As a result, we are left for extended – and at times silent – periods to ponder the simple, yet rich images on-screen.
In a month when audiences will flock to see the expansive CGI vision of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the crudity of the Emoji Movie and the fast-paced stylised violence of Atomic Blonde, Lowery believes A Ghost Story offers a welcome change of pace.
He said: ‘I like that as an audience member. When I go to see a movie that allows me time to think, when I’m not worried about when the next cut will occur. I don’t have to think about what is going to happen next. I can just exist in a moment and regard an image for a given period of time.
‘That is really valuable to me. I haven’t made a movie prior to this where I have been able to indulge in that, but I was excited by the possibilities present in this movie.’
Of all these understated moments, the most memorable sees Mara’s grief stricken character sitting on the floor to eat a pie. Lowery’s camera stays still and fixed on her as she fervently stabs away at the pastry, before rushing to the toilet to be ill.
Lowery gave his insight to the scene, saying: ‘We [me and Rooney] talked about it in advance, why that pie scene was there and what I wanted out of it. We talked a lot about the grieving process and bereavement. And wanting to do justice to that and not just being manipulative or using grief in an exploitative way.
‘Then we shot it and we didn’t talk about it much. She knew what it was there for and why it was included in the movie. She knew what she had to do and we all understood the weight that scene would have if it worked. The hope was to get it in one take so she wouldn’t have to eat too much. It was all in one take.’
He continued: ‘We all knew it would be an important scene and it would be talked about if we pulled it off. I find that doing the things that are that simple are really challenging because there is a tendency to get fussy about everything and micromanage.
‘Being that simple and restrained was really challenging but also really refreshing. It’s probably my favourite of any scene I have ever directed. Just because there wasn’t much that I had to do, but also because it worked. I just had to stand back.’
Lowery is clearly proud of his work on A Ghost Story – and he has every right to be. Next up for him is a film called The Old Man and the Gun, starring Robert Redford and, once again, Casey Affleck.
Although Lowery seemed excited by this film paying homage to Redford, he is all too aware his work on A Ghost Story might not be topped. He said: ‘I like having this movie as a high bar for myself personally because it reminds me how important it is to do things that really matter to me. To be personal and sincere in what I do.
‘I’m really happy and proud of it. It’s the one movie I’ve made that I feel I can keep watching and enjoy as an audience member as well as having made it. It’s a nice signifier for me and a memento.’
A Ghost Story will enrapture and enchant many cinema goers. Wondrous, penetrating and lasting – a film even the most obstinate viewer should take a chance on and experience. It sucks you in and once you are in you will not want to get out.
A Ghost Story arrives in cinemas on 11 August
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