An interview with ‘A Ghost Story’ director David Lowery

David Lowery A Ghost Story

Mongrel Media / A24

A Ghost Story is David Lowery’s latest hit and its hauntingly beautiful story has understandably earned the film a lot of buzz. A film with such personal themes would have to come from a someone who has such connections to what they’ve crafted. In this case, it would be none other than writer/director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). I had a chance to talk to David about his movie, and he discussed his very human thoughts and ideas in bringing the vision together.

What was the hardest idea conceptually to translate from your head to the screen?
This is perhaps sort of a reductive answer or maybe not the most exciting one, but the ghost himself was the hardest part. It was a very difficult costume to work with, and just getting the image that I had in my head out onto the screen and even on the set in front of us was far more challenging than I anticipated. I could talk about it all day, go in depth about the ghost, but the short answer is that it’s was a lot harder than we thought it was going to be.

There’s a lot of stillness in the movie, moments that specifically focus on one thing or so with little movement, and the audience is still captivated. What did you find most compelling about directing these scenes?
I really appreciate stillness with a sense of quiet. And I also appreciate things that move very quickly and rush along and cut quickly, but there’s great peace to be found in contemplating a single image. It was really wonderful on set to find those moments where we realized we’d put the camera in the right place and that the actors were performing a scene exactly as we envisioned and, in fact, would bring things into the image that we hadn’t anticipated – where everything clipped into place in a way that poked through the normal artifice that is part and partial in the filmmaking.

Usually, you’re creating a moment, building a moment that might approach reality, but it is always somewhat artificial. But in creating these incredibly still tableaus, these scenes that are very quiet and contemplative and don’t have a lot going on the surface, we were able to capture something that felt truthful in a way that I’ve very rarely able to accomplish when I’m making a film – and that was a rare luxury indeed. We were always able to go home happy after having shot a scene like that because we felt we’d really captured something unique and beautiful and true. I don’t wanna pat myself on the back for having done that – you know we certainly worked very hard to accomplish that and spent a lot of time figuring out how to achieve that simplicity – but when it worked it felt like it was happening outside of us, it felt like it was something that was happening in spite of our best efforts and that was a beautiful feeling.

This question also focuses on an aspect of the stillness, and that it’s contrasting linear time to the ghost’s perception of time. How did you go about achieving that?
Essentially, all we had to due to make that contrast work was have the ghost always present. His experience in a way we shot him remains the same. There’s very little that he has to do – he largely has to be a passing bystander and time around him has to change. The way that time flows around him is similar to like a rock in a stream. It’s like he’s the rock and the water is just rushing around him and sometimes that lake or that stream freezes and doesn’t move at all where other times the ice melts and it rushes very quickly indeed, and that’s the way the ghost and time function in constant with one another.

Sometimes the seconds pass by like years and sometimes years pass by like seconds and the one constant is that ghost. Even when he stops moving in a linear fashion – sometimes you know clearly there’s a point in the movie where time can no longer holds sway over him the way it does for us humans – he’s able to exist in time in a different fashion. But even then, he’s still doing the same thing, he hasn’t changed the way he engages with the world around him. It’s time itself that is changing. That was an important concept for me to convey, because as a human being I experience time in a linear trajectory, but within that linear trajectory there is so many different speeds at which it seems to move.

It’s all perception of course because it’s 100% relative, but I think we all have the phenomenon of being a child waiting for Christmas, waiting for a birthday, or waiting for school to get out in which a single day can feel like it lasts an eternity. Then as you get older time moves more quickly. And now that I’m in 30’s, the years just flow by like nothing else, like a year is over before you know it and again, I wanted this movie to encompass all those different versions of time because I experience them myself.

For working with the actors and crew, was it hard to get everyone on board with the complex details at hand?
It actually worked very well. We made it one rule when we first started making this movie which was we only wanted to work with friends. This was a difficult movie to make, and it was challenging, it was going to require a lot of trust from everybody and because of that I didn’t want to have to explain it to many people, or convince people to make the leap of faith this movie was ask of them. So, we just surrounded ourselves with friends and that included the cast.

I’ve worked with Casey and Rooney before and I’ve become quite close friends with them. So, I was able to approach them as friends rather than as a director setting an offer for some actors. They were able to come work on it as friends and as a result there was never any contention or any moment where I had to convince someone to do something. We definitely engaged with the movie on the level of a director and two actors who are there to do their best work, but their participation was because they already trusted me and because of that we were able to do the things this movie asked of them which were certainly outside of the norm, but still make this movie truly special.

I feel as if the house in the film also acted as a character. What made you choose this house to work with?
Well, on a very practical level, we were able to do whatever we wanted with it which includes ultimately tearing it down. But within those parameters that particular house has this wonderful nostalgic quality to it that reminded me of the house that I’d been living out of in Texas up until I went to New Zealand to work on Pete’s Dragon. That was a house that I loved and I was very connected to and the fact that this house looked similar was a wonderful boom to me as a storyteller. The fact that it is in the middle of a city yet at the same time existing in this rural neighbourhood that feels like it’s being over taken by nature, is very reflective of the things I like about living in Texas. I live in Dallas ,which is a huge city, one of the biggest cities in the US, and at the same time you can find these little pockets and neighbourhoods here and there that feel like they’re being reclaimed by nature.

There’s an interesting balance there that I really respond to as just a person who lives there, and so to have that be reflected in the house shown in the movie was really wonderful. But you know if we’d not found that house we would’ve still made the movie though it would’ve had a different feeling. It wound up having exactly the right feeling, it had a perfect feeling, had the owners of that house not been so kind and not so willing to let us do what we needed to do to their home, we would’ve had to try something else and the movie would’ve been different as a result.

Rooney’s character has a note written for the house in the film. I’ve heard she doesn’t remember what she wrote, but if you were able to, what would you have put on that note?
It would depend on who I’m leaving it too. If I was Rooney’s character, then I don’t know. I always put random details and little things that mean nothing to anyone other than myself and whoever else might’ve contributed to them. So in this particular instance I don’t know what it would’ve been. I’m projecting into her character at the moment, but like I don’t know what she would’ve found valuable about her experience in that house or as she says in the beginning of the movie she just writes down little details about the places she’s been and leaves them behind. So if I were to write that about the house that I’m living in right now, I honestly don’t know, but that’s a really good question. It’s such a personal thing and so specific that’s it’s hard to say or hypothesize. I don’t want to project or make assumptions. So if I were to give you an answer, it wouldn’t really hold any sway over the experience of the movie or what audiences might think that note might say. I love the fact that Rooney says she can’t remember because I don’t really believe her. I’m pretty sure she remembers but she knows that it’s best kept secret to herself and I respect that. So for reasons inclusive, but not limited to that, I’m gonna have to decline the answer to that question even though it’s a very good one.

What do you think stands out about this film compared to your others?
In comparison to the other films I’ve made, I feel it’s more confident. It’s a more sincere and honest film in many ways but that came about because I’m more confident has a filmmaker and I’m able to communicate things more directly and effectively. Sometimes more efficiently as well but that’s not the in-goal. I do think that it is unique for all sorts of reasons. There’s a couple very obvious ones in the poster, but the experience that I wanted to give audiences in this film was very personal to me. It was an experience I really wanted to have. And so folks who go see this movie hopefully engage with it on the level that I intended and so far most audiences have.

It’s been been embraced on the level that I’ve hoped it would be. As a filmmaker it’s also very satisfying to make something that I feel was a successful translation of this very abstract idea I had in my head – and all my ideas are abstract. There’s always these big combinations of tone and texture that are hard to put down into script form and even harder to translate into motion picture form without loosing something tangible that I wanted to accomplish. I look at a film like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and I feel that it’s about a third of what I was trying to get across and the rest of it gets tied down, and one thing or another. This film, however, is pretty much 100% what I was after. I really feel it was the first time I’ve been able to translate my subconscious ideas into consciousness with some degree of accuracy and that’s a very satisfying feeling.

A Ghost Story will open July 21, 2017 in Toronto and Vancouver with additional cities throughout the summer.


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