By Ray Pride
David Lowery’s fourth feature, “A Ghost Story” is a wounded, wondrous poem of a picture about many things, not limited to the needfulness of coupledom, loss, lingering, the parsing of love, the passing of language. A young couple (Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara) live in a Texas house she’s tired of, but where he feels like staying. Their days and nights are shown with tender diffidence and, one day, he’s killed in a car wreck in front of their house. She goes to claim the body, standing beside the table in the morgue for a while. She steps away and the camera holds on the body under the sheet for longer still, and then the sheet rises, a figure beneath: here is a ghost made from a sheet, with two holes cut out for eyes. The absurdity is splendid and the events that follow, coursing time and space, but largely one plot of Texas earth, are filled with rich implication, and absurdity, too, if you care to observe, for its brief ninety-two minutes. It’s a grown-up version of his first feature about a pair of runaway children, “St. Nick”: there’s a world of wonder if your eyes are open.
“A Ghost Story” feels fantastically personal, like you were able to channel so much that was on your mind, and not only that there was a sheet-ghost in one of your earliest shorts.
This is the first film I’ve made since “St. Nick” that feels personal in the way that that film did. They were both written spontaneously in one sitting, so there’s a lot of connectivity between the two.
That one sitting for this script, this is a forty-page outline? That came from a childhood fascination with a “ghost” under a sheet. What was that document?
It was a pretty traditional screenplay, it just didn’t have any dialogue. It was very similar to the screenplay for “St. Nick,” which I think was twenty pages long, and also had no dialogue in it. It was very close to the finished film and it looked very traditional in terms of the screenplay format. This began as a ten-page script, grew to thirty pages over the course of the next few days! [laughs] But that initial document is very close to what you see on screen.
There were two big gasps for me in the imagery, one given away in the trailer, of the rising up of the futuristic night skyline, and the other the final shot with its ambiguous resolution. The goodbye to ghost language, as it were. Did you know how to create that neon-rich image when you thought of it? You had just worked with the best people from the WETA digital effects folks, in New Zealand on “Pete’s Dragon.”
Definitely, that was always in the script. I didn’t know exactly how I would accomplish it, but I knew I had just enough of a handle on visual effects myself, at the end of the day, I could probably knock something out myself. But I also felt we would be shooting it practically, for the most part. We did go and try to shoot it practically, on top of a skyscraper in Dallas, and that quickly proved to not work. We got up there and realized that, oh yeah, when you’re on top of a forty-story building, it’s very windy and it’s very hard to do anything and the sheet instantly started to go, it almost blew off the building. So we beat a hasty retreat to a green-screen stage and reshot it, and at that point asked our friends in New Zealand if they could lend us a helping hand.
Talk about the impulse behind the longest patch of dialogue in the film, when Will Oldham, at a kitchen party, offers up his wisdom of the world. Were you working off the tried-and-true notion of giving the greatest truths to a contrary character, someone you’d immediately distrust, like his scruffy character? He speaks all the theses out loud! He’s like a small crusty villain in Shakespeare.
Oh, totally, yes. We intended that character to be vaguely obnoxious, and yet the speaker of some form of truth. I think everyone has had some instance in their life where they go to a party or some social event and someone just monopolizes it, and everyone is waiting for that person to stop talking, but they are high on their own self-importance. And that is the way in which that scene was written, and that’s the level on which Will played it, so when people are annoyed by that character, it’s totally fine. He is that guy at the party! And yet, what he is saying does contain some truth to it, and more so than truth, it contains the pursuit of truth, which is more important. And he represents my own pursuit of, I don’t want to say the meaning of life, because no one’s ever going to reach that particular goal, but a way in which to live one’s life. I was trying to figure out how to live my life when I wrote that, and what he is espousing are two-thirds of my own process in regards to how to get up in the morning and go about my day.
Ideas are slanging around, and you have the contrapuntal element of the very pretty song playing. And there’s this asshole at the party—
I haven’t read any reviews to date, which is healthy for me, but I’ve done enough, I’ve conversed about the movie enough, and then done Q&A screenings, and people have so many different reactions to that character and that scene. Some people find, some people were just right in line with him, and others just love what he has to say. And other people are annoyed by him as a character, but appreciate what he has to say. And then some people feel that what he has to say is so incredibly nihilistic that the scene as a whole puts them off. But all of those responses are valid. And they’re as valid as what he has to say, which in fact, in my opinion, is worth listening to.
It’s Will again, as in “Pioneer,” the short you made together in 2011, embracing and embellishing this cracked history of first, this nation, and now, the history of the planet. Steamrolling you with his version of history.
Steamrolling is a great way to describe it, during that scene. But to me, again, he’s such a phenomenal actor and such a wonderful presence; it’s a joy to be run over for him for about eight minutes straight!
At that point the film is also starting to accelerate, to make bigger leaps with its ellipses of time. The scenes before aren’t so much slow as your takes are long, you allow actions to play out. You’re probably three minutes longer with him than most any other director would care to.
Yeah! [laughs] You’re right, that’s the last gasp we have before the movie makes this wild jump to a new temporal landscape. And the language that we’re using, both right before and directly after that, is different from the rest of the film. Time is starting to work in a different fashion. And right before we make this huge leap, I felt it was good to have a little palate-cleanser with some dialogue.
Human engagement! How did Shane Carruth [maker of “Primer” and “Upstream Color”] earn his “additional editing” credit?
When we were shooting, I wanted someone to be assembling it as we went. I asked Shane to do it, and he was happy to oblige. And ultimately, I remember talking to him about it, he didn’t look at the script as he was cutting it together, he just took the footage, and on an intuitive level, just started slamming images together. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was incredibly helpful to see that. It allowed me to see the plasticity of the content. I was able to understand that the movie was not, it did not need to be as rigid as I boringly intended it to be. Shane worked on it up until we finished producing and then I took over. But it was wonderful to have that bedrock there from the very beginning. He kept telling me, if you want me to just follow the script, I will, just tell me to cut the scenes together in script order, I’ll be happy to do that, but until you tell me to do that, I’m going to do exactly the opposite. I never told him to stop. I wanted to see what he could find in the footage by looking for those connections. Looking for that fluidity. And it ultimately freed me when I took over, and allowed me to make the movie what it became.
Thelma Schoonmaker says she does that with Scorsese, she reads the script, asks some questions, then waits for the footage to flood into the editing suite. No need to be on the set, meet people, why, she has the unique privilege, “I’m the only person on earth who gets to see the footage blooming in front of me, endless possibilities, it’s Marty Scorsese’s footage and I’m still always surprised.”
It’s a wonderful luxury. And from my days as an editor, I never wanted to read the script after the first time. I read it once, I know what the story is, now I’m going to take all the raw material that’s delivered to me, and I’m going to let that tell me what it needs to be. Yes. There is a script that we’ll adhere to, to some degree, but there’s no need to consult it during editing.
With the accelerated production, working fast directly on the heels of “Pete’s Dragon,” by the skin of your teeth, by the seat of your pants—
All of the above!
I enjoy the whimsical things, the limits you’ve imposed, and then what that gives you. You decide on a nearly square frame, you’re looking for a square house that’s about to be demolished as your setting, instead you find a ranch house, and when you use the low-to-the-ground ranch house, you’re left with so much Texas sky you didn’t intend in the first place. You’re illustrating Peter Bogdanovich’s Orson Welles story, he says to Orson, so you as a director take advantage of accidents, and Welles draws himself up and says, “My dear boy, a director presides over accidents!”
Definitely. I think both of those are true. Because you have to take advantage of them when you’re presented with them, and then take ownership of them and use them as platform to push further. So yes, we wanted a square house that would fit inside a square frame, but when we found a ranch house, not only did we just own that and find a way to photograph it, that would fit within our frame, but used that quality that house had, sitting there, flat in the middle of this field to create a different esthetic for the film, that helped us create the temporal aspect. That house, in and of itself, feels like it doesn’t quite belong in the time where it is found. That became an important factor for the history of that space. The history of that space is literally cited by Casey’s character as an important attribute to the movie. That was something we wouldn’t have been able to embrace so fully if the house had been more modern or in a different neighborhood. That was what we found and it was something that we could not only take advantage of, but own to the degree that it informed how we approached the rest of the film.
You don’t go close on it so much, but from a distance, even, it looks neglected. Less-than-loved. From the 1950s. Like the small town where I grew up in Kentucky, from a distance, you say, that’s a nice house, simple, then up close, that place where the dog digs under the porch its whole life…
One-hundred percent. The house that I was living in in Texas before we made “Pete’s Dragon” looked just like that, and it was the same type of house: a house that was not worth the land it was built on. The owner had let it go. It was holding together. It was livable. I certainly loved living in it. Had I endeavored to buy that house, the smart investment would have been just to tear it down and do something else with the land. It was sinking into the earth. This house had the same quality, but at the same time, still felt like a home.
“A Ghost Story,” this little lark of a movie, lands fully into other work in the zeitgeist, your instincts leading you here as much as influence. Working instinctively seems less like you’re pounding at or compounding influences, the film has a conversation with other filmmakers, weirdly landing in the same space as other films, like Olivier Assayas’ modern ghost story “Personal Shopper.”
I saw “Personal Shopper” in March and instantly made it a career goal to have a double feature of that film and this one. Again, they were made independently of one another, I don’t know if he has seen this movie, but hopefully, he does, but there is something in the zeitgeist there. That’s different from me than when I made “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which was meant to be largely an ode to “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” When I did do a double feature of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “McCabe,” it was a very diminishing experience, because as much as I wanted to see those two movies presented back-to-back, there was no way mine could ever live up to that movie. So watching one after the other just reminded me that making an ode to a movie is not necessarily going to lead to a movie that is as good as the movie that it was inspired by. That’s a side note to this movie and its relation to other movies that are out there. There are movies, it’s interesting, that occupy the same mental sphere.
There are the films labeled “slow cinema,” there are films being made that remain open, “McCabe” even has that, you bring yourself to this “unfinished text,” to refer to an idea that Abbas Kiarostami always spoke of. Enough ambiguity, blurry around the ages about plot and motivation. Claire Denis, Lynne Ramsay, Terrence Malick… Gregory Crewdson. His images are so specific—
—and yet there’s still mystery. And mystery is something that I’m always after, rather than definition.
Two shots in a row you have the ghost tiny along a green Texas hillside, then a close-up of the sheet’s hem dragging in the grass, it felt both of Texas and of Malick and of course of the film that it’s in. It’s in conversation with what Malick does with similar space and texture.
Totally. The language that he uses is beautiful to me and yet it is, it has its limitations, and I, I, I definitely have employed that language and have made use of it, and being in Texas, like he is, the landscapes we see around us are the same landscapes. When we film in them, they’re going to look alike. But I… I feel he is the closest any filmmaker comes to using the shots in his films the way a poet would use words in a poem. And yet, I am not interested in writing poetry myself. I want there to be a poeticism to what I do, but I am a big fan of prose.
I’m looking forward to watching Malick’s latest, “Song to Song” again in a dark room at home with headphones.
I saw “To The Wonder” when it opened in theaters, and then I watched it again at home. Then one day I just put it on in the background, which I do at home sometimes. It was a wonderful way to experience that movie and probably not unlike the way he experiences it, with his production process, because from what I’ve come to understand is that he never watches his movies all the way through from start to finish. So just having the movie play in the background… I wandered through the house, went to get coffee, come back and just catch these pieces of scenes that, in piecemeal, have a more profound effect on me than they did when I watched them consecutively in the theater. That was a wonderful realization, that his movies actually function in bits and pieces just as well as, if not better, as a totality.
Chris Doyle has been echoing Apichatpong Weerasethakul lately. Apichatpong has long said that he doesn’t mind viewers falling asleep; he just wants to know if you remember where you fell asleep, where you woke up. “I want to know how you dreamt my film.” Getting lost in his dream is a compliment. Doyle’s pleased that his hypnosis worked.
I completely agree. And right as we were beginning the production process on this film, Kiarostami passed away, and I read a quote that is one of his famous quotes, which is that some of his favorite movies are the ones in which he’s fallen asleep and woken up and found that he’s dreamt a big portion of the plot. And I love that. I love that concept and I carried that concept with me as we shot this movie. I wanted this movie to have that potential, to give people room to let their minds wander, and indeed, if they need to, to drift off. And I in no way, shape or form see that as denigrating to the experience of the film itself. I think that is a compliment to the movie and can create a complementary experience to the film. Although I do hope they would go back and see it a second time fully conscious!
“A Ghost Story” goes wide on Friday, July 28.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.