David Lowery Cut Scenes From ‘A Ghost Story’ That Were Directly Lifted From ‘Ghost’
When you go to the movies this summer you’ll be greeted with a plethora of superheroes, action films, and ongoing cinematic universes. But nestled beside those familiar franchises you’ll find A Ghost Story, one of the most unique movies in years.
If you have heard of the film, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year, you probably know one of two things: Casey Affleck wears a sheet for ninety percent of it, and Rooney Mara binge-eats a pie in one sitting. Those two takeaways have come to define to latest from Pete’s Dragon filmmaker David Lowery, and though they may sound gimmicky, they’re both unexpectedly emotional aspects of a film that never goes where you expect. A meditation on the vast expanse of time and the things we leave behind when we die, A Ghost Story has an exceptionally minimal narrative – minor spoiler-alert; if you want to experience this film fresh, bookmark this and come back afterward – which follows Affleck as a man killed in a car accident, then suddenly wakes up as a ghost, returning to his house to watch his grieving girlfriend (Mara), among others.
Lowery, who shot the film in secret last summer with his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints costars, told me that the film began with an argument he and his wife had about moving, one that’s recreated onscreen between Affleck and Mara. During an interview in New York last month, Lowery also told me that he cut multiple scenes that were direct comedic references to Patrick Swayze in Ghost, how he directed Affleck under a sheet (which was more than just your typical bed sheet), and why that pie scene is so moving.
This movie is so simple, but it has so many surprises. Where did you come up with the idea of a story about a guy who dies, becomes a ghost, and watches life go by?
The point of inspiration was bifurcated in that I had this idea about a haunted house movie with a guy in a sheet for a while. It was just an amusing idea and I didn’t know what I would ever do with it, but it was something that I filed away in the back catalogues of my brain. Then I’d had this argument with my wife about where we’re going to live. We’ve lived most of our lives in Texas, but I was getting ready to make [Pete’s Dragon] that was going to require me to be in L.A. a lot. The practical thing to do would be to pack up and move to L.A. And I really didn’t want to. I was really upset, partially because I love Texas, but also because I was really attached the house that we were living in and I did not want to leave it. I felt really heartbroken at the idea of leaving this house, and it was just an old house that was falling apart, it wasn’t particularly great.
So out of this argument that my wife and I had, I started to wonder, why am I so attached to things? Why do I get so sentimental about the places I’ve lived? That was sort of the inciting point for this movie. All my movies have to do with home to some degree, so this felt like an opportunity to really dive into why I’m so obsessed with the idea of home.
Then, in thinking about homes and physical spaces, the image of a ghost haunting them emerged and it was this ghost [points to the movie poster] in particular. It just felt like the right time to use that image. I sat down and just started writing it. I began at the beginning of the movie with the car accident and just started writing it from there. I wrote the first draft, which was only 10 pages, in one sitting. And there’s no dialogue, so it was very easy.
What does the script look like in comparison to the final film? Are they pretty similar?
It’s pretty similar, there’s not a lot of differentiation. We had this giant dialogue scene between Rooney and Casey that we shot multiple times in different places all around the house. In the script that was all in the beginning, and then he died. In the final film it’s kind of scattered throughout [and] most of it’s actually at the end. That’s the biggest change.
There are also some scenes that we deleted. We had more rules in the screenplay in terms of what the ghost could or couldn’t do. We had a lot of scenes that were sort of directly lifted from Ghost, the Patrick Swayze movie, about how he’s learning how to physically move things in the real world. We had an entire sequence defining the rules of the world, where he’s running through the house trying to figure out how to get out and realizes that he can’t. And ultimately that stuff proved to be unnecessary. This movie was too simple to require that sort of explanation as to why you can’t leave the house. All you need to see is that he doesn’t leave. That stuff changed, but by and large if you were to read the screenplay, even down at the running time of certain scenes, it was all in there.
It’s so funny that parts of this were inspired by Ghost because there are so many moments when this begins to feel like a haunted house movie. But then you steer it back and it becomes something entirely surprising.
I love the idea of movies that change gears and gradually reveal what they’re actually about, as opposed to laying it out for you at the beginning. So for the first 45 minutes of this movie you could read it as a very esoteric remake of Ghost because it kind of follows the same beats. But that’s not ultimately what the movie’s about and 45 minutes in, if you are expecting that to be the whole movie, the rug gets pulled out from under you and it becomes something else. In fact, it becomes remake of Poltergeist in Spanish, and then it becomes something else after that. I love movies that are consistently evolving and transforming. But we definitely were aware going into it that we were going to play into certain expectations and were joking about – we even had certain scenes that were meant to evoke the idea of Ghost or of Beetlejuice. We even had a cat that was directly meant to be an echo of the cat interaction in Ghost, but our cat did not behave so we knew we were wasting too much time trying to get a cat in there.
The pacing of this movie is also so unique and so much time is spent in quiet long takes. Why are you drawn to that kind of pacing and why did it makes sense for this film?
I like letting time really play into how a movie’s form takes shape. I come from an editorial background and the use of time is very important to me. As an audience member, when I go to the movies I like to have time to process things. Some movies don’t need that, but there are movies where you’ll find an image and you just want to live in it for a little while. I wanted this movie to be designed in a way where when we found those images or when they presented themselves to us, we would be able to live in them for as much time felt appropriate.
Some of it was written into the script. There would be scenes where I would say in the script, “This shot will last for one minute or two minutes.” Other times it’s sort of implied, such as the scene where Rooney eats the pie. In the script it says she eats the whole thing, so there’s a built-in implication that that’s going to be a long scene. Those were scenes where I thought that was appropriate. At the beginning of the movie, it has that pace more than it does at the end. Towards the end it gets very fluid.
To just look at it and regard the images and have time to let their mind wander off, and then come back and still have the same scene going on; I love when that happens to me as a viewer, when I’m able to look at one image and it triggers something in my brain and I follow some strange train of thought out into who knows where, and eventually make my way all the way back to the movie that we’re watching [that’s] still the same shot. I wanted this movie to be a vehicle for that kind of experience.
It certainly feels that way during the pie scene. I found myself asking all these questions – What kind of pie is it? Is she going to eat the whole thing? – throughout the scene. It’s such a mesmerizing way to depict grief.
I wanted to depict grief and I also wanted to be with her in an extremely private moment. Because that’s what Casey’s character is going to do. He is going through eternity watching people when they think they’re not being watched, or hanging out with them in their most private moments. So I wanted the audience to partake in that experience and to not only bear witness to her grief, but to something that she would not normally expose in public. There’s a meta quality to it as well, that you don’t often get to see anyone do that, particularly actors. You’re not going to sit down and watch an actor eat food for five minutes in most movies. There’s a very raw honesty to that in that it’s actually happening. There is acting happening in the scene in an emotional level, but on a very practical, physical level she’s really doing this and that’s uncomfortable for her, and uncomfortable for the audience. That discomfort adds something to the grief that is being focused in the narrative in that moment.
Did you film that scene in one take?
Mostly. There’s two shots and the first shot we did two takes and the second one was one take. We knew that there was a lot riding on it because it’s sort of the emotional apex for her character, at least at that point in the movie. And we knew it was going to be an important scene that people would remember. If it worked, people would be remembering the scene and talking about it and it would define the movie to a certain extent. So we felt the pressure to get it right, but also the pressure to make it as simple as it can be and that was harder than we thought.
Early in the film, there’s a lumia on the wall that reminded me a lot of the Opus 161 from The Tree of Life. And it follows Rooney Mara’s character throughout the film.
I remember it from Tree of Life, but then my friend John Magary made this movie called The Mend and it had one in there too. I remember watching that movie, a very kitchen sink New York drama, and just thinking that adds a touch of something haunting to everyday life. I mean it’s a very practical thing, just light shining through water or a prism or window or whatever. But it is something ethereal. When Rooney sees it on the wall when she’s painting the house, it’s not a direct connection to Casey’s spirit, but it just adds something spiritual to that moment in a very physical, grounded environment where she’s doing something very practical, it adds an extra layer of reality and it kind of allows her to connect with him in an abstract.
We shot that scene and it felt profound enough of a moment that I thought we needed to have it elsewhere in the movie. So we added it at the beginning and then again at the end. And it’s not meant to represent a ghost or a spirit or the afterlife. But it’s just one of those little everyday bits of magic that catches your eye, takes you out of the quotidian realities of life for just a split second.
Even though Casey Affleck is wearing a sheet for most of the film, it’s such an emotional performance. Everything from the cuts of the eyeholes to the rips and tears on the sheet convey such sadness and longing. How did you direct him and work with the costume designers to create that performance?
Initially I thought this would be a movie where he would get a chance to really use body language in a profound and meaningful way. And that he would get to truly act underneath the sheet. That’s how we started, and it didn’t work. It felt like a human being wearing a sheet and that very quickly, we realized, was not what this movie needed. This movie needed a ghost that was more ethereal and less human. And ironically the less human he felt the more relatable he became, and by becoming more relatable he came more human. So by removing the performance and removing the body language, and ultimately removing any trace of himself from that performance, he was able to become a character that felt well-rounded and a vehicle for emotion even though he’s not actively conveying emotion. The more he moved the less that face worked. If he moved his head too fast the eyes would go askew and they wouldn’t hold their shape. It was more akin to puppeteering than to acting.
That went beyond him being under the sheet and was also something that the costume department had to participate in, in terms of the way the folds fell. If the sheet didn’t fall in just the right way, he would start to look goofy. It had a tendency to bunch up under the nose and make him look like he had like an elephant mask on. So we had to always have someone under the sheet or down at his feet holding the fabric and tugging it just so as he moved so that the shape would maintain some degree of consistency.
And then of course the costume itself had all sorts of layers underneath it so that the shape would stay consistent and, again, remove some amount of that humanity that would naturally be there if it was just a sheet draped over Casey Affleck’s head. It ultimately was a very mechanical process and a very unemotional process. My directing was always like, “Alright turn your head very slowly to the left. Now hold still. Keep holding still. Now ... look right.” I would talk very slowly to let him know he needs to move very, very slowly. And we shot him at a different frame rate so that there would be a different quality to his movement. It was all mechanics, but out of all those mechanics the emotions was able to come through. The paradox of this ghost was that the more removed his humanity of a more human he became.
And despite all of that, it was still essential for you that it was Casey Affleck and not just a double under the sheet?
Well it was at first, but then once we realized that he didn’t have to be recognizable under that sheet, once we got rid of the idea of the body language it became less essential. It starts off with the scenes where Casey and the ghost are in the frame at the same time. We had someone else there and then we had pickups and reshoots when Casey wasn’t available, and by that point we felt comfortable having someone else under the sheet. Our art director David was the same height and he wore it in those early scenes. It was remarkable how seamless it was. Going into it I was like, we have to have Casey under the sheet for every shot or else we’re failing and audiences will be able to tell. But very quickly realized that if we were doing our job right, you would never know who was under there and it would still maintain that seamless quality of character that we were after.
I love what you did with Pete’s Dragon and you did a crime drama before that, and next you have another film with Robert Redford. Do you have a dream project that you haven’t been able to do yet?
I keep wondering like, what would my dream project be, and I don’t really have one. I have one dream project but it’s just a movie I want see get made. Whether I make it or someone else makes it, I don’t really care. It’s this movie that the Coen brothers tried to make once called To the White Sea and it’s a really amazing novel set in Japan. I just want to see the movie version of it and I hope the Coen brothers someday come back to it and make it again. They almost made it with Brad Pitt about 20 years ago. If they don’t ever make it, maybe I could somehow find it the opportunity to make it myself. But I just want to see that the movie version of that book.
Beyond that I just do what feels right to me. Pete’s Dragon felt right. It was a total left turn from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but it felt right and out of that rightness came the consistency. I think that if you were to watch Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon back-to-back, you would see that those movies are very similar in tone and the look and feel of them, and that carries through to A Ghost Story. The movie we just did with Robert Redford has a lot of parallels as well, although that one I wanted to really push myself into a new realm and try to make something that was funny and light-hearted. I’m always trying to push myself in new directions and try new things, but I also want the movies to feel like me and feel personal to me. If they don’t, I won’t be able to make them.
A Ghost Story opens in limited release on July 7.