It’s hard to describe A Ghost Story without using words like “haunting” and “spectral,” terms that sound like bad puns. But they’re also accurate descriptions of how the film feels. The film, which opened on the coasts on July 7 and is now entering wide release, is one of the leading contenders for the best film of 2017. Its moody, melancholy story is like a melody that sneaks into your head and won’t go away. A Ghost Story is the latest from David Lowery, the writer-director of the grim 2013 Casey Affleck / Rooney Mara crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Disney’s startlingly eerie Pete’s Dragon reboot. (Note: He’s not the musician David Lowery, who sued Spotify over unpaid royalties, though he’s often mistaken for him. He says even CNN has called him up to interview him about the lawsuit, and when he was on Twitter, his bio read “Not the one who sings.”)
In A Ghost Story, Affleck and Mara reunite as a young nameless couple living in a small isolated house, where he composes music and she yearns to leave. But early in the film, Affleck’s character dies and becomes a ghost haunting the home. Lowery has said the film’s original seed was an argument he had with his wife — he wanted to stay in a home for sentimental reasons, she was ready to move on — and that conversation expanded into the film. But another idea that was core to the film was the way Affleck plays the ghost in what amounts to a child’s Halloween costume — literally a sheet with cutout holes for eyes. It’s a startling, almost comical image, until the film makes it disturbing, sad, and plaintive. I recently sat down with Lowery in Chicago to talk about the technical tricks he used to make that ghost-figure work on film, why he edits his movies without music, and what he hopes people get out of Will Oldham’s mid-film speech about the inevitability of the death of the universe.
In interviews, you’ve often described how you shot weeks of footage you had to throw away, because the way Casey Affleck looked wandering around with a sheet over his head didn’t feel right for you. And you’ve said one of the ways you fixed it was to shoot him at a different frame rate. How did that solution change the film?
“Shooting him at a different frame rate added a slightly surreal edge.”
I wanted the ghost to feel like a ghost, in spite of the fact that he’s actually wearing a very practical costume, and we weren’t using any transparencies or illusions to represent this idea of a phantom in a physical space. I still wanted him to feel ethereal, like a supernatural entity. Finding a way to convey that in a purely physical fashion took some trial and error. And one of the things we turned to was shooting him at a different frame rate, because it added a slightly surreal edge to his movements. That was something I did on Pete’s Dragon, too. There are scenes in that movie without dialogue where we shot them at 33 frames per second, because it’s not slow enough to feel like slow motion, but it makes the moment slightly heightened. It makes things slightly distended, and you feel everything a little more profoundly. So as we were developing our language with the ghost, the language we shot him in, that idea presented itself, and it proved to be a good one.
So pretty much anytime he’s by himself in the movie, we shot at 33 frames per second. And then often when he’s interacting with someone else, we would shoot the human as a separate plate. So we’d have Rooney in 24 frames per second, and Casey at 33, and we’d composite the two together in post, so you’d have two people operating in two different speeds in the same frame.
How much of that technique was inspired by the theme here about the way time moves differently for ghosts?
That’s a phenomenal question, and an excellent point. I hadn’t even thought about that, but that’s exactly what’s happening. Time is operating on a different level for the ghost than it is for everyone else. And so the fact that we literally photographed him in a different time-space than the rest of the characters, that definitely connects to the themes of the movie on a very technical level. I am amazed I never thought of that. That plays into the thematic parts of the movie so thoroughly, I should have realized that on set. I’m always surprised at how many of these things are just completely — there are amazing details in every movie that you would expect to be conscious decisions, but are purely happy accidents and unconscious inspiration.
What about the film’s square aspect ratio? That has to have been a particularly conscious decision.
“Sentimentality on a visual level is very satisfying to me.”
That was very thought-through. I liked the concept of trapping this character in a box, in a very formal fashion. I’ve always been a fan of that aspect ratio. It’s 1.33:1, the classic Academy ratio. I always wanted to make a film that utilized it, but I wanted to find a film where it felt appropriate, where it wasn’t just me using it as a stylistic stunt. So this film felt uniquely suited to that. And it gave me a good opportunity to really hammer home the circumstances this ghost finds himself trapped in, and to dig into and break down the claustrophobia of his life within these four walls. So it was helpful in that regard. And it was also a way to tap into some degree of nostalgia, because it feels old-fashioned when you see a movie in a square aspect ratio. And particularly with the vignetted edges we gave this film, it evokes feelings of an old photograph, or a slide projector, or a slide show. Sentimentality on a visual level is very satisfying to me. Even though the film is ultimately about letting go of sentimentality, I wanted the images to have a sentimental quality.
Are “vignetted edges” the curved corners on the frame?
Yeah, that’s something we did to make the frame that much more noticeable. I wanted the frame to feel like a proscenium through which you’re watching a movie. These days, all our screens are rectangular, so if you watch this movie at home or at a movie theater, you’re going to have black bars on the side. So you’re already aware of the framing in a very explicit fashion. Adding these vignettes to the edge make it even more noticeable, but I thought that was a good thing. I really like having an image that is contextualized by the outline of the frame.
We’ve recently heard a lot about filmmakers changing the aspect ratio of their films at different points of the story to change viewers’ emotional reactions. Is A Ghost Story completely consistent about using 1.33:1?
Completely, yeah. We definitely talked about the potential of changing the aspect ratio, because that’s one of the one of the other things you can do now, with DCPs and all films being presented digitally. You can shift throughout. Wes Anderson did it. Trey Shults did it both with Krisha and with It Comes At Night. It’s a wonderful way to utilize the entire frame you have at your disposal. But with this film, I wanted it to be rigidly defined by one shape. I wanted the aspect ratio to remain consistent even when the ghost’s context changes, when the space he’s in physically transforms. I wanted to see if I could actually figure out a way to make an image feel epic and give it some breadth, even within that square.
The future sequence certainly has that epic feeling. How did you approach designing your future world?
A lot of it’s based on Dallas, where I live, which has a very “Blade Runner in the Southwest” feel. Initially, I wanted to try and shoot that sequence practically. I knew we would augment the city itself, to make it look more futuristic, but I wanted to accomplish it in a practical sense. So we went up on the top of the tallest building we could get access to, and tried to shoot that entire sequence for real. But it just didn’t work. It turns out it’s really hard to shoot on top of a skyscraper, because it’s very windy. The sheet just wouldn’t behave.
“Luckily, I had some friends at WETA who had just finished working on a dragon for me.”
So there’s one shot in the movie where he walks through a door out onto a roof, and that’s really him on top of a skyscraper. But from that point forward, everything else is green screen. Luckily, I had some friends at WETA in New Zealand who had just finished working on a dragon for me, and I was able to convince them to lend us a helping hand and make the city. But it’s all based on photography of the Dallas skyline. We shot plates on the Alexa and gave all that material to them, and they turned it into this futuristic cityscape. Aside from the ghost, though, nothing in that sequence is real. Even the ground he’s walking on is just a green screen.
I assume the Illuminati eye on top of one of the buildings isn’t real?
It’s a real building. The structure has — you would never recognize it, but it has the bottom half of that curve built into it. So the designers took it and extrapolated it, flipped it around and made it glow so it’s a complete neon eye. We always joke that was a little in-house reference to the Eye of Sauron, which of course WETA designed.
So much of this film’s tone comes from the music. At what point in the process did you start thinking about how the soundtrack and score were going to contribute?
I was definitely thinking about it all the way through. I knew the music would be a big part of the film. And of course we had that song that my composer wrote, called “I Get Overwhelmed.” That was there on set, and the actors were listening to it, and we knew it would be a key part of the film. But Daniel Hart didn’t start writing the score until the picture was almost completely locked.
I always work that way — I always try to cut without temp music. I try to get the movie working without any music, so it could function without a score. Because it’s easy to hide behind your score. It’s easy to let the score do the heavy lifting for you. And I always try, in my editing process, to get the movie working on its own terms, before we add the music. And I always know the music’s going to be a huge part of it. I feel like the last third of all my movies rests on Daniel’s shoulders, because he delivers such an integral component to the filmgoing experience. But I do what I can to make sure the movie is functioning on a cinematic level before he has to go in there, so he’s not fixing problems with the score, he’s complementing what I’ve done.
“I try to get the movie working without any music, because it’s easy to hide behind your score.”
And so when he started work on this, the movie was pretty much done. By and large, he was able to write music to the finished picture. At this point in our relationship, he knows what I’m trying to do, and I know what he’ll bring to a project. We don’t have to talk about it that much, I just turn him loose with the footage, and let him go write music. Nine times out of 10, it’ll be pretty much all the way there, right out of the gate with this movie. There was one cue here that we did multiple drafts of and that I had notes for, but mostly, everything you hear in this soundtrack was his first attempt at writing a piece of music for the film, and they were all perfect.
I just love what he does. I feel like if you were to watch this movie without music, it would still work. It would still be a experience worth having. But it really becomes something transformative and profound once the music is added, because it guides you in a certain way, and it changes the way you process the information you’re getting. You’re still getting the same information, but it becomes a much more emotional experience. I can count on him to get a movie to cross that threshold —without music, it’s a very intellectual experience. It’s still emotional, but it’s somewhat dry. Once he adds what he’s going to add, it’s going to become something else. The movie will have an arc to it, a spine it previously didn’t have. And that is a beautiful thing to know, that that will come into play. It gives me a great deal of confidence as a filmmaker to know I can count on that finishing touch to be applied so beautifully and so thoroughly.
How do you go from something as low-key and personal as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to a large-scale Disney kids’ movie, and then back to a film like this? How do you make that transition?
I think the key is just finding yourself in the stories. That’s why I write all my movies. I don’t think I’m the best screenwriter in the world. It’s just important to me to write my movies so I’m personally invested in them. If I can’t finish a screenplay, if I can’t get to the last page as a writer, it probably means it’s not a good movie for me to make. So I try not to think in terms of scale, or the commercial value of any given project. Obviously Pete’s Dragon is more commercial than A Ghost Story, but when making them, I’m just trying to tell a story that matters to me, that ultimately would satisfy me as a moviegoer. Because watching movies is my favorite thing to do. I watch a lot of them. I like all different kinds, but I do have very particular tastes, and I want to satisfy those tastes as a filmmaker. And I know I’m not alone, that other people share those tastes as well. So I feel okay using that as the standard to apply myself.
“I don’t think I’m the best screenwriter in the world.”
There’s definitely a little whiplash going from one project to the next. Right now, I’m in post-production on [Old Man And The Gun], which was shot this past spring. Between press events for this movie, I’m looking at edits on my computer, and it’s really challenging to talk about this one and go look at that one, and wonder if that one’s going to be as good as this one. You do wind up feeling a little schizophrenic. But that’s only because the projects are being made in such close proximity that they’re overlapping. Individual movies all demand the same thing for me, and I give myself to them completely. And so there’s really no sense of differentiation between them in terms of the creative process, and the degree to which I’m personally invested, even though on paper they’re all incredibly different movies, with incredibly different tones, styles, approaches, and goals. They’re all coming from the same place.
I understand there were earlier versions of the Ghost Story script with much more dialogue, and you wound up scaling that back to make it moodier. But that leaves Will Oldham’s speech about how everything is pointless because of the eventual heat death of the universe feeling like a centerpoint to the movie, like a thesis. And yet it feels so cynical compared to the story. How do you want people to take that sequence?
That character is definitely representative and reflective of my own thought process, in terms of trying to synthesize some meaning within life. I’m not searching for the meaning of life, but I’m looking for a meaning within my life. That monologue is pretty close to what was going on in my brain when I wrote it. I was searching for a standard to hold myself to. And I feel that what he is laying forth is two-thirds of a pretty good argument. And I feel he stopped short of something that would be truly meaningful. There is meaning in there, because he is striving for something truthful. As much as he’s that obnoxious guy at the party who monopolizes everybody’s time, he’s also really trying to express something sincere and truthful. And while I don’t feel he takes it as far as he should, or as far as I took it personally when I was working through those issues and ideas, I do think there’s truth to be found there. And hopefully the movie takes it the all the way. While we never spell it out for the audience, and we never give the movie a thesis statement, hopefully there’s a sense that once that monologue has come into play, and set the movie on its course, the movie completes the ideas represented in there.
“I’m not searching for the meaning of life, but I’m looking for a meaning within my life.”
And there is some degree of contradiction. Like, the movie is not saying everything he’s saying is correct. He’s basically saying, “Live each day like it’s your last.” I want people to come away from the movie feeling like there’s a little more to life than just that. So that was the idea. But you’re right, there was originally a lot of dialogue at the beginning between Casey and Rooney. It was a 10-page scene that we shot very much like a play. And once we got into the edit, we realized it was just taking way too long for the ghost to show up. [Laughs] So we toned it down and put in the bare minimum, and kind of sprinkled it throughout the entire film.
You’ve said part of the point of Casey Affleck’s costume is that he’s blank, that people can see whatever they want in him. They can map their own interpretations onto him. Has anyone given you a really outlandish response, where those interpretations are far off from what you intended?
One thing that makes me happy is that everyone’s seeing what I wanted them to see in it. The only thing that’s really thrown me for a loop and surprised me was someone who thought the ghost next door was Rooney, who had died and come back and was trying to communicate with Casey. I was like, “That’s a beautiful concept and a beautiful idea that the movie in no way supports! But I’m glad you saw that, and got something out of it, and found a way to deepen your relationship with the movie, because I would never in a million years have thought of that.”