Chasing Intuition: David Lowery on A Ghost Story
David Lowery discusses the importance of humor, putting Casey Affleck under a sheet, and the shabbiness of his daily writing rituals.
In a modern-day movie with state-of-the-art visual effects at his disposal, writer-director David Lowery presents us with the sight of a ghost as a man under a sheet. With eye holes.
Even Lowery was concerned that the effect would be unintentionally comical. And yet the image of the spirit of a tragically killed musician drifting into frame for the first time in an almost slow motion, staccato movement, just works. Chalk it up to conviction, perseverance, and a sense of humor.
Already established as a director of a wide array of genres—from the small budget crime noir Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to the critically-embraced remake of Pete’s Dragon for Walt Disney Pictures—Lowery is the kind of fresh voice who leaves you genuinely interested in what he’s going to do next.
A Ghost Story tells the tale of a musician (Casey Affleck) who tragically loses his life, only to reawaken as a ghost, watching over his grieving partner (Rooney Mara).
Is it scary? While the concept might bring to mind popular romantic ghost stories like 1990’s Ghost, or classics such as 1943’s A Guy Named Joe, this film stands on its own as a powerful meditation on death, and life, fleeting moments and eternity. And so yes, in it’s own way, it’s scary as hell.
David Lowery took time out of promoting the film to reflect on the shabbiness of his daily writing rituals, the childhood origin of the figure under the bed sheet, and that infamous pie-eating scene.
It may seem like an obvious first question, but what drove you to pursue this film, this genre – a ghost story?
I’ve always loved ghost stories. And while this isn’t a horror film, per se, I’ve always gravitated towards that genre. When I was growing up my parents wouldn’t let me see scary movies, but they let me read about them, and they definitely fostered an inclination towards all things that go bump in the night.
I managed to get my hands on a camcorder when I was seven years old, and the very first movie I ever made with it was my own version of Poltergeist, starring my brother in a bed sheet. So this has been a long time coming.
You’ve worked before with both Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck – how did your past working relationship with them impact this film?
I love having a family that travels with me from one film to the next, both behind and in front of the camera. It just makes everything easier and more comfortable and more fun. It’s true that you can take more chances, but more than that, there’s a built-in sense of trust. You can spend less time talking about things and more time just making the movie.
Casey Affleck plays the role of a spirit, literally covered in a sheet for so much of the film. You’ve mentioned that you, the cast and crew needed to embrace the possibility early on that such an idea just might not work. Does that sort of mindset require a sense of humor?
Yeah, you absolutely have to be willing to laugh on set when you’re doing something like this. And you have to have a lot of patience, and trust, and hope.
Making this movie was a highwire act, and sometimes laughter was the only way to get through the day intact.
This work in particular has such serious themes, yet somehow humor shows through at just the right times.
I hope that audiences know that it’s OK to laugh! Humor is an implicit part of the finished movie. The ghost is funny – it’s a goofy image. And humor is an amazing gateway drug, so my hope is that laughter opens the door for all sorts of other emotions.
Affleck is such a powerful actor, most recently in his Academy-Award-winning performance in Manchester by the Sea. Was it important to you that the audience for A Ghost Story picture a well-known face under that sheet?
Maybe. I don’t know if anyone is literally picturing Casey within five minutes of him turning into a ghost, just because that ghost is such a strong visual, but I think the throughline is there.
And his presence definitely aides in that initial investment we ask of audiences. You’re more willing to make a jump into something strange when there’s an actor you trust helping you along. Would the movie have still worked if he hadn’t been available or hadn’t wanted to do it? Sure, but I think we would have had a slightly steeper hill to climb.
A memorable moment that has been referred to ever since the film’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival, involves Rooney Mara’s character consuming a pie in an expression of grief and sensory release. Can you speak about that scene? Did it appear on the page in the same way as onscreen?
It is pretty close to what’s on the page. There were a few changes in blocking, but overall it was more or less there in the script, minus all the emotion that Rooney brought to it.
Overall, are your films written tightly, to be followed closely during shooting? Or do you leave room for improvisation?
I’m trying to perfect the art of tightly-written sloppiness!
It changes from film to film, but I spend a lot of time getting the text just right. I try to get the script as tight and perfect as possible, and then we start shooting and I encourage everyone – including myself! – to veer from the script as needed.
I’ve found that regardless of how much we improvise or deviate from what’s on the page, the movie usually winds up pretty close to what we started with. You just sort of have to feel it out.
I’m actually trying to get better about honoring my own writing, but even so, it’s important to recognize great ideas in the moment, and to allow a little time to go looking for them too.
How much room do you leave for actors in when it comes to characterization?
I really want them to bring a lot of themselves to it, whether that involves preparation and backstories or just spur-of-the-moment instinct.
That being said, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of not doing that – of creating very detailed histories for a given character and handing those to the actor, so that it’s not up to them. I might give that a try on a project I’m writing now.
When you’re doing a film like A Ghost Story—that is, a personal film that is nonetheless linked to big ideas about spirituality and metaphysics—how do you nail down your own perspective on such big ideas? Do you set them in stone or do they evolve over the course of production?
Even when I’m writing, I try not to overthink things. And certainly, once I start shooting a movie, the time for intellectualizing is over. I’m just operating on gut instinct at that point.
So sometimes those shifts do occur, but I wouldn’t qualify them as changes so much as they are a deepening, an enriching, which happens naturally. And I don’t usually recognize them until the movie is done.
With A Ghost Story, I was chasing my own intuition to such an extent that I really didn’t understand what the movie was about to be until I screened the almost-final cut right before Sundance.
There are some amazing moments between Casey Affleck’s ghost and the ghost he communicates with through the window across the way, via subtitles. With so much subtlety onscreen, their dialogue is almost refreshing in its bold simplicity.
Originally there wasn’t any dialogue at all in the script – that came about in the edit, and it started off as a joke, then it become something more emotional, as these things tend to do. I just tried to make the dialogue as efficient as possible, since we could only cut back and forth so many times.
How do you approach the differences between personal independent films such as A Ghost Story, and studio films such as Pete’s Dragon? Some filmmakers call it “One for me, one for them” – except that makes it sound like half the time they’re not giving it their all. Is there a trick to it?
I think the trick is to only make films that you feel personally invested in – which can be harder than it seems, because there are all sorts of reasons a project might seem like a good idea, even when it’s not.
That’s why I always write all my movies. I’m not the best writer in the world, but I know that if I can actually get a script to a point where it’s good enough to shoot, I’m probably pretty invested in the material.
I approached Pete’s Dragon the same way I approached everything else I’d ever made, and I approached A Ghost Story the same way I approached Pete’s Dragon. I had a story I really cared about, and I did everything I could to make a really good movie out of it.
Would you be willing to shed some light on your typical workday, if such a thing exists? Do you set goals for a page count? Do you use music? Do you freewrite, or write tight? Computer? Longhand? Typewriter? Forgive us – we’re a screenwriting magazine, we love this stuff!
I love this stuff too! There’s a really great book called Daily Rituals that chronicles the routines of artists across all disciplines, and I even made a short film about my own habits back in 2011, which still holds pretty true.
My personal routine is pretty shabby. I wake up, make coffee, answer e-mails and get started as quickly as I can on procrastinating. I usually don’t start writing until I’m finally feeling guilty enough about not writing, and then I do just enough to assuage that guilt. I have no idea how I ever get anything done!
I never have any set output I’m try to hit, unless I’m on a deadline. When I’m starting a project, I try to freewrite, but it’s usually pretty hard for me to get past the first act without going back to revise. I’ll freewrite in Fountain and then switch over to Final Draft or Fade In, depending on what project I’m working on.
The real goalposts of my routines have nothing to do with writing. I try to run every day, and I try to watch at least one movie every day. As long as I’m doing those two things and writing at least a little bit, I feel like I’m being productive – but when I think back on the writing process after finishing any given script, I have no idea how I ever actually finish them.
Finally, are there any genres you would like to tackle next?
I really want to do an honest-to-god horror film. I get scared easily, and I’d love to make a movie that’s too frightening for me to watch.
Featured image: Casey Affleck as C in A Ghost Story. Photo by Bret Curry, courtesy of A24