Interview – David Lowery – A Ghost Story

David Lowery‘s A Ghost Story, his second film featuring actors Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara after 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, is as much about the life within people as it is about the life within a house which makes it a home, and the slow, sometimes painful realization that that essence is no longer there. As the story bends and stretches the concepts of time and space in relation to the memories and legacies we create, old connections are broken, new connections are made, and even older connections are found, all in the hope of and search for that precious peace of home.

The MacGuffin had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Lowery on Thursday, July 20, about A Ghost Story, which opens this weekend in select theaters nationwide, as well as his work on children’s films such as 2016’s Pete’s Dragon and the upcoming Peter Pan, slated for release in 2018.

The MacGuffin: Most of Casey Affleck’s performance is behind a sheet, and yet you feel his emotions and reactions to the people and world around him. How did you and he prepare for such a unique and surprisingly expressive role?

David Lowery: There wasn’t any preparation per se because we didn’t have rehearsal time and we kind of just started shooting the movie. We didn’t really prepare at all aside from finding a location and building the costumes. It was a very “by the seat of our pants”-type of production. What we found out after a few days of shooting with that ghost costume is that less was definitely more, and that the less he did under the sheet, the more expressive the ghost became. It was a wonderful example of the tendency we have as human beings to project our own emotions and understanding of a context onto an object. In this case, it’s a blank canvas, in a very literal sense: just white fabric with two immobile eyes and yet you really feel as if there is a performance coming through, and you feel that this character is changing and growing and responding to things. That was something that didn’t come about until we stopped having any sort of performance actually occur. It was an odd paradox because I initially thought that I would need Casey to be acting a lot underneath that sheet and to be moving around a lot and gesturing and trying to use body language to convey emotion, and that just did not work. It felt false. As soon as he stopped doing that and just started standing still, and as soon as we reduced the movement to very minimal gestures, the emotions started to pour through and really emerge through that fabric. It was an odd performance because there wasn’t any performing, and yet the performance comes through all the same.

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TM: I’m pretty sure this is a biased perspective since I was born and raised in the state, but I loved the juxtaposition of the wide open spaces of the north-central Texas plains with the interiors of the ranch-style house. At times, the wide spaces are warm and enveloping as when [the ghost] is walking from the hospital back home, while the house can be cold and isolating. What draws you to film in Texas?

DL: I just like making movies in my backyard, so the fact that I grew up here and learned how to make movies here and still live here means that I am going to probably keep making films set in Texas. I live in Dallas, so the landscape around [the city] – that sort of strange blend of the Southwest and the Midwest – I’m always drawn to that. It makes me feel like I’m at home, and I like the way it looks so a lot of it is just personal aesthetics. It looks the way the world around me looks, and I always try to capture things that feel like home to me. The house that the characters live in feels like the first house I was living in when my wife and I got married.

But, it was also important to me to make sure that that house did not feel like a home once he got back to it. When you picked up on the landscape feeling warm and magical and then the house feeling cold and oppressive, that was by design. We wanted that house to feel oppressive because once he gets back there, he doesn’t belong there any more. He wanted to go home but he shouldn’t have, and we wanted to make the house feel less welcoming once he comes back as a ghost.

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TM: Taking exactly what you just said about trying to get back to things that are familiar when they are not reminds me of an early scene, right after the funeral, when Rooney Mara’s character comes back home and eats the pie. I noted in my review that the scene was so honest with what happens when you lose someone and then you have to go back home where, especially in the South, people ply you with food and equate it with comfort. When [Mara] starts to gorge herself with pie, it’s like nothing tastes as it should, like [she’s] eating a simulation of food. The mouth feels the proper texture and it signals the brain to pick up on the smells and tastes of the pie, but there is this falsity to it because she’s not eating the pie. She’s eating people’s sympathies. The pie doesn’t make her feel how it did in the past before this event. She’s almost trying to get back to that memory of how the pie tasted when it tasted good, because it doesn’t taste good anymore. I just loved the “pie scene” because it was so true.

DL: I’m so glad to hear that. I can’t say anything else about it. You said everything I could possibly ever hope to say about that scene better than I could have because I approached it on a very simple, guttural level. I didn’t want to put too much thought into it, and I also wanted it to be true and real and sincere. One of the reasons why I wanted it to go on for as long as it does is that I wanted it to poke through the artifice of the film itself and feel like a real moment we were capturing, almost like a documentary. It was really important to me that this movie not traffic in grief tourism, if that makes sense. I wanted its representation of grief to be sincere and hopefully somewhat accurate, as accurate as we could possibly make it just being a couple of folks making a movie. To hear your response is very comforting to me and makes me feel like we achieved what we set out to do.

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Brooke's first theater trip was to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which taught her to sit still and absorb everything in the story, from sound to light to faces, and that each person's response is colored by their life and experiences.
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