Interview – David Lowery – A Ghost Story
TM: The two children who move into the house after Mara leaves are fantastic at portraying not only genuine fear but also unspoiled courage, as when [the little boy] Carlos glances back down the hall after they watch the closet door open and run to their mom’s room. He just looks back at the ghost, almost curiously. How do you get such honest performances out of such young actors?
DL: It was a matter of setting the context for them. It was very similar to directing the ghost in some ways because it required a lot of mechanics to get that emotion out. When you’re working with very young actors, or children who haven’t had that much experience like Carlos who had never been on a movie set before, you want to remove the art of acting from the process because that will just confuse them. One of my favorite directions to give a child actor is to relax their face, let their mouths open ever so slightly, and let all the muscles in their body go flat. When you do that, it creates a sense of sadness or wonder or any number of different emotions. It’s very mechanical, and I’ll usually be right off camera giving them these directions very vocally as we’re shooting. Sometimes, you tap into real emotions which is a wonderful thing. When you are working with very young children or children who don’t have very much experience, it is funny how literally you have to address certain practical matters in terms of a shoot to achieve something emotional.
TM: Do you expect the tiny message that Rooney’s character leaves in the crack of the entryway will end up like the words Bill Murray whispered in Scarlett Johansson’s ear in Lost in Translation in that, for years, people are going to wonder what was in the note?
DL: I hope so. I hope the movie goes down in history enough that people will keep wondering that for years to come. I certainly know that everyone wants to know what was in that note. That’s the one question I get after every single screening and Q&A: everyone asks me what the note says and, of course, I’m not going to tell them. I assume when they ask me, they know I’m not going to tell them, but they’ve got to ask anyway. It’s exactly the same thing as the whisper at the end of Lost in Translation: it is a secret between two people that we are not privy to and no words on that note or that Bill Murray might whisper to Scarlett Johansson could be as satisfying to the audience as not actually knowing. The mystery is so much better, and even though it’s a burning mystery that everyone wants to solve, it’s better not to know.
The great thing is that Rooney is the only one who knows. Even if I wanted to tell people, I couldn’t because I did not look at what Rooney actually wrote on the note, so the secret will go down with her.
TM: You wrote and directed Pete’s Dragon last summer, and next year you’ve got Peter Pan. I loved Pete’s Dragon because you showed the magic of childhood but then you also didn’t shy away from the loneliness that can occur when we’re young. You showed that it can be sad sometimes and it can be magic sometimes. Peter Pan also delves into loneliness or isolation and that need for connection. What draws you to these types of character traits or themes in movies for younger audiences?
DL: I think that I am still a seven-year-old at heart (laughs). I feel very in touch with the seven-year-old version of me that once existed, and that seven-year-old was very lonely and afraid of change and growing up, and that version of me was very emotional. I am constantly trying to make the seven-year-old version of me feel better with the films that I’m making. Even A Ghost Story is a movie I would have loved when I was seven. With Peter Pan and Pete’s Dragon, my goal is to make a movie I would have loved as a child but that would also have helped me deal with the things I was dealing with, which are things that all children deal with, but some kids are more outgoing and have more friends and I tended to be a very shy and trepidatious young man and was often very lonely even though I grew up in a house with many brothers and sisters. I was a lonely and emotional child, and that side of childhood doesn’t get represented in films that often. When I make films like Pete’s Dragon and Peter Pan, I want to make sure I’m providing other children with an emotional outlet and a way for them to recognize that there are other people like them in the world and that they’re not alone.
TM: I love that. I can’t wait to see [Peter Pan] and I’m glad you’re directing it. When I saw it was an upcoming project on your IMDB page, I thought it was great because Pete’s Dragon and Peter Pan tie together, as you said.
DL: They totally do, aside from just having characters named Pete in them, and I can’t wait. I’m working on the script [for Pan] right now and hopefully by this time next year, we will be either shooting it or already have shot it.
A Ghost Story is playing in select theaters now.