“I know I have trouble watching my own films …but this one lingers with me. And every time I watch it, I’m left with a sense of peace and acceptance — not with the world necessarily, because the world will always let you down. But an acceptance of time, and the inevitable end of all things.”
The mindblowing Independent film A Ghost Story was shot lost year on the outskirts of Dallas in secret by Pete’s Dragon filmmaker David Lowery. For Lowery it was more than a return to indie production after a large-scale Disney adventure—it was also a reunion with his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints leads, Casey Aflleck and Rooney Mara.
A passionate young couple, unexpectedly separated by a shocking loss, discover an eternal connection and a love that is infinite.
The film concerns the passage of time via a couple and their house (Affleck and Mara). When Affleck’s character dies, he appears in his old home as a ghost in a thick bed sheet with vacant eyes. He observes his wife’s depression from his demise, various new occupants, and glimpses both the future and the past of his surroundings.
A Ghost Story is two sides of a coin. On one, it’s a sparse experience, with very little dialogue and numerous long takes that enhance the stillness and solitude of this afterlife. On the other side, it’s quite expansive, viewing Affleck’s lived experience in the house as but a mere speck of dust in time; time is cruel and reinforces our near irrelevance.
“A Ghost Story” began as a fight between Lowery and his wife, filmmaker Augustine Frizzell. She wanted them to move to Los Angeles; he wanted them to stay in Texas. “It was literally like I didn’t want to leave this one particular house,” Lowery recalled. “I was so bummed out. Our bed was gone. We were sleeping on the floor. But still I was like, ‘I love this place. I don’t want to leave. What if we just stayed?’ I recognize that as a flaw in myself, that I could be so attached to something so technically ephemeral. It was a rental — we didn’t even own it!” He looked down at his coffee. “That house looked shockingly similar to the one that ended up in the movie.”
The production budget was $100 000 and during its first three months of releases in the States it grossed $1,596,371. The film does not yet have a release date in South Africa, but has been releases in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It is also available on DVD and Blu Ray
Lowery chose to shoot the film in an aspect ratio of 1:33:1, partially because he thought it was thematically appropriate for the film stating “It’s about someone basically trapped in a box for eternity, and I felt the claustrophobia of that situation could be amplified by the boxiness of the aspect ratio.”
Was it your hope from the start to kind of make it a secret that you were making this?
We intentionally didn’t tell that many people about it because we wanted to have the opportunity to fail. You know? It was so high concept in so many ways that if it didn’t work I didn’t want to have the weight of expectation putting pressure on us; making us feel bad for not accomplishing what we set out to do. The other aspect of it is that it’s just fun to keep secrets [laughs]! It’s not like we were trying to do anything like a J.J. Abrams mystery box sorta situation, but it just made us feel like we had more room to be creative because no one knew about it, and there was something fun about that. I think everyone involved in the project – because you know, if you were in Dallas last summer and going to certain movie theaters or restaurants, you would see us and know that we were making things – people were aware in a very limited sense that there was something going on, but no one knew what it was, and I think most people assumed that we were making a music video or a short film…
When did the project begin as an idea and how long did it take for it to turn into something?
There were seeds of it that predate the day that I wrote it last spring, but it really began at some point around late February of 2016. I wrote it largely in one sitting, which isn’t that impressive because the script was only 10 pages at first [laughs]. And then it gradually became 30 pages and never got much bigger than that. Then I sent it to Toby [Halbrooks] and James [M. Johnston], my partners in crime, and I told them we should make it that summer. That was just barely over a year ago, so it was a very fast process.
Working on a low budget
My version of making a movie on that budget is different from everyone else’s, you know? No two people who make a movie on a certain budget scale are going to achieve the same thing because it just depends on what sort of favors you can call, and what sort of dynamics you can pull in the play. Because obviously if you watch the credits for this movie you see Weta listed in the credits, and that’s because we just made a movie with Weta so we were able to get them to help us out a little bit, and that’s certainly not always what you can achieve on a movie of this budget. It’s definitely something where everyone is in it for the love of it, and we definitely made it for ourselves. It was within our own means to make this film.
That’s one of the advantages of an independent movie, isn’t it? Do you think a big studio would have let you get away with that? Would a big studio have taken a chance on that?
I don’t think they would have ever taken a chance. This is something I think about a lot: Steven Spielberg was once quoted – this was back in 1999 or 2000 – as saying that if Thomas Vinterberg had come to him and pitched him the idea of The Celebration, he would have “100% financed that movie”. [Laughter].
If someone were to go to Steven Spielberg and say “I’m going to make a movie, and it’s going to be, you know, X, Y and Z, and it’s all… you know, like The Celebration, with actors you’ve never heard of, and it’s going to be shot in consumer DV, and can I have the money to do it?”, would Steven Spielberg really have given him the money to do it? I think you have to wait to see the finished film to realize that vision was there from the beginning.
I want to give Spielberg credit for saying that, but I don’t know if it would have worked out that way. By the same token, I don’t think I could have gone out and convinced anyone to pay for this movie. I don’t think I could have justified it. And I’m sure that there are folks now who will see it and say, “Sure, we would have taken that risk,” or “Yes, we would have financed that movie,” and maybe they would have. Maybe. But it would have been a much longer process, a much more challenging process, and ultimately a process I did not want to even consider embarking upon, because I knew it would just slow me down.
Independent filmmaking is changing now, with financial backers demanding more and more influence on how the films are being made, almost as much as for studio films…
I certainly think that’s true. I think that everyone is very acutely aware of how risky independent movies are these days because there are so many of them being made, and the ways in which they are seen are increasing. There are more movies being made and more ways to see them, but the chances for a film to recoup its investment seem to be rapidly decreasing. So I think that investors are being much more conscientious about what they are investing in, and as a result they want to have more of a say.
I certainly haven’t experienced a negative version of that, but I can also look to my own experience making Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and compare that to my experience making Pete’s Dragon, and when it comes to notes, and to creative limitations and frustrations on set, Pete’s Dragon was a far smoother production. It was much easier to make. It was much easier to make the movie I wanted to make, and that’s not to castigate the producers of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in any way, but it was just that there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen for that movie, and there were a lot of different opinions that were all good and valid, but it was a much rougher production as a result.
With Pete’s Dragon, Disney was very excited about the movie I wanted to make; they were very supportive of it, and it was a smooth process. I was really surprised by that. I was expecting the opposite, but now having been through both of those, I can completely see the way in which independent films can be either equal to – in terms of the interference from the financiers or the producers – or greater than a studio film. And I want to be clear that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think that if you have a good producer, he will be involved in a good, productive way. If your financiers care about the movie, they will be involved in a very constructive fashion, but it can get out of hand very quickly, and that is something to be aware of in any type of filmmaking.
Tell us about cinematic influences?
The point in my life when I got Netflix was sort of a big door opening. Up until that point, I was a big-screen purist; I only wanted to see things on the big screen. I didn’t go to film school, so I didn’t have access to the French New Wave or [John] Cassavetes movies, so once Netflix emerged, all of a sudden I just jumped headlong into so many different types of movies and was so taken with all of them and just wanted to absorb as much as possible.
When did you know it was going to work? Or did you feel that way all the way through to editing?
It wasn’t until the last week of production that I finally was able to rest easy and feel confident in my choice – not only to put Casey into a bedsheet, but to make this movie in general. It took us a long time to figure out how to shoot the ghost properly. Once we figured that out, everything was smooth sailing, but there were a lot of stressful [moments]. The process of discovering how to make the ghost work was very stressful.
You took a classic Halloween costume and turned it into a tool for an actor to flex some acting muscle, but also as a canvas for viewers to project their own emotions on. We’ve seen actors being able to emote through heavy costumes in other movies, but this is very different. How much of this turned out exactly the way you wanted it to, and how much of it surprised you in the end?
It alternately is exactly what I wanted it to be. There were very little surprises in the long run. I think the one big surprise is that it was a far more emotional film than I was expecting it to be.
[Casey] gave the ghost something that was unquantifiable, but it wasn’t a traditional performance, and the emotions that came through that performance – or lack therefore – was something I had not counted on. I did not expect this movie to be as moving an experience as it turned out to be. So that was a wonderful surprise.
Casey thought of this as an opportunity to do what he always wanted to do: hide in plain sight. You always want to make sure people aren’t going to be uncomfortable or complaining or whatever, but I remember the first time he put it on, he was just like, ‘This is great.’
What was the process of creating the sheet? Because it’s not like a standard bedsheet, it is much larger and almost looked like canvas.
There are three stages, and initially the fabric is basically a big bed sheet, but we had to have it custom-made because even a king size bed sheet won’t cover an entire human form the way we needed it to. So it’s a big piece of specifically cut fabric that’s a certain size and length that has room for arms to do what they needed to do and for that trail to come out behind him. I can’t remember what thread count it is, but that mattered because it needed to be weighty enough to hang and drape in a very specific way.
Tell us about manipulating time in A Ghost Story?
It really comes down to one’s own internal chronometer and one’s sense of rhythm, and I really just use my own taste as a barometer when it comes to those things. I wanted this film to play with time, to utilise time in a very pronounced fashion. And I wanted that to be relative. I wanted time to move very slowly in some scenes, and in other scenes for it to fly by in the blink of an eye.
Some of that is in the script. The structure is in the script. Sometimes I would include the running time of certain scenes in the script just to give the crew an idea of how long a scene might last. Other times, you discover it on set, because something you are looking at is not as interesting as you thought it might be, or sometimes it’s more interesting and you just want to make it work longer. And then, you take those shots to editing and start to slam them all together, which is how I like to describe editing; it’s a very messy process for me, and gradually it gets cleaner and cleaner as you move it along.
As you go along, you discover the rhythm, the internal rhythm that every movie has and you try to follow that rhythm. There were scenes that had very long shots that did not need to be that long. I would cut those scenes in half, or cut them out entirely. There were other times when a shot that I had filmed on set wasn’t quite long enough, and I would have to slow it down, or digitally loop it so that it would last a little bit longer. That is not done through any mathematical science or anything as exact. There is no scientific method to it. I just sort of watch the movie and feel out that rhythm and trust my own internal chronometer.
It’s interesting because it shows us how we sometimes have to endure the passage of time, while at other moments, it shows us how fast time can fly…
That’s just the way I experience time in my life. I think it’s a common phenomenon. The relative pace of time, and the way that pace changes in the course of our lives, is so profoundly noticeable. As children, we all feel like Christmas will never come, or that summer vacation is going to last forever. Time goes by so slowly when you’re a child, and then, as an adult, it goes by in the blink of an eye. I wanted this film to encompass both those types of time passage. So there are times in the movie when the seconds are just ticking by at a glacial pace, and then there are other times when life and death just go by [swiftly]. Those are both equally true to how I perceive time in my life, and the way I move through it. I wanted this movie to be reflective of both of those types of experiences.
With its aspect ratio, the movie is a square in the middle of a large rectangular screen. It’s almost as if we’re watching a home movie shot on Super 8. There are a lot of things reminiscent of home movies A Ghost Story. Was that the desired effect?
There were a number of reasons why I went with that aspect ratio. Largely, it just felt like the right aesthetic choice. It felt like it would convey the right type of feeling to the audience. And certainly, I’m a sucker for nostalgia. It’s a big part of why I made this movie in general, and I felt that the square aspect ratio with those square edges would put the audience in a nostalgic state of mind. It felt like home movies, it felt like photographs, it felt like slide projectors or View-Masters. We tried to make the images as organic and as textured and as colorful as we could to help facilitate that. We wanted it to feel rich, and old and antiquated, in all of the best ways.
It may not seem so to some viewers, but you throw in some humour in there… I burst out laughing at one point [details of exact moment redacted]
It definitely is there. The very first version of this movie I saw in my head made me laugh. It’s an inherently funny idea. It’s an inherently funny image, the image of this bedsheet ghost in an empty house all by himself. It’s also a very sad and a very lonely image. There is something bittersweet and melancholic about it as well, and I wanted to embrace all of this nuance. So I’m glad you laughed, because it was meant to be funny, almost to serve as comic relief for a brief moment before it gets sad again. The wave that the ghosts give each other… We were just cracking up on set when we shot it. It was very, very funny to us. Just as the ghost himself. It was meant to provoke a chuckle or two the first time you see him, because it’s a funny image.
So you went from making an indie, to a big studio film, and then back to an indie, and now you’re embarking on a new big studio film with Peter Pan. How hard is it to make the transition, or is there a transition at all?
It really comes down to the time commitment. Once you get used to making a movie for more than $50,000, the differences go away. They’re all kind of the same. They use the same equipment. The designated roles on set are all the same. The rules you have to follow are all the same. The ways in which you break the rules are usually the same. The only real difference is the amount of time it takes to make these films.
I just wrapped a movie with Robert Redford [Old Man And The Gun] that was an independent film, and we shot that in 31 days, which was a little bit more than A Ghost Story, a little bit more than Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and less than half of Pete’s Dragon. If I go make another Disney movie, which may or may not happen, but I’m excited about the possibility of it, I can automatically just write off two years of my life, because I know that it will take at least that long to make. And that’s the biggest thing you have to understand going into these movies… that it takes a while, and you have to be willing to give it your all for that entire period of time. Once you accept that and are able to deal with that, the differences really are minimal.
Tell us about Peter Pan.
Peter Pan is a beloved property. It’s a property that was brought to the screen many, many times before, so one has to not only justify the reasons why one might make a Peter Pan movie in 2018, 2019 or whatever, but you also have to do justice to the source material. So, you can’t be a revisionist, but you also cannot be redundant, and that is a very challenging process. I think we can do it, but we are being very careful. If it has to be done, it has to be done right. Until we have that version of it, we’ll keep working on the script.
(MAJOR SPOILER FOR A GHOST STORY AHEAD)
It’s really hard to talk about the ending without mentioning the note [left by Rooney Mara’s character in the wall of the house]. The viewers are left to wonder what was written on that note that gave closure to the ghost. What made you decide to use that approach for the ending?
I was very open to showing what the note said, if we could come up with something that would actually matter to audiences. The truth is that there is nothing that I could put there that could be more satisfying than wondering. The wondering and the questioning are intentionally frustrating, but I think audiences will enjoy that frustration more than they would enjoy seeing what that note said.
I believe that this one unknown thing is more satisfying than actually finding out. It’s a mystery that is best left unstated, and I can’t provide any solution, because I don’t know what it said. Rooney wrote down something on a piece of paper and folded it up, painted it into the wall, and that note went down with the house. So, there was something on that piece of paper that she wrote down, and because she took that movie seriously, and because she cared about the movie and the characters, I believe she wrote something meaningful, but I don’t know what it is. She won’t tell me.
You can point to the briefcase in Pulp Fiction or the whisper at the end of Lost In Translation. Those are two things I’m happier not knowing. I certainly left the theatre wondering what those mysteries were. I would rather not know. I’m happy going through my life letting that mystery hang over my head