In his new paranormal indie drama “A Ghost Story,” Dallas-based filmmaker David Lowery takes audiences into the afterlife with an intricate, reserved and oftentimes beautiful approach to the narrative. The film stars Casey Affleck as a man who dies and returns to the home he once shared with his wife (Rooney Mara) as a metaphysical being.
Trapped in some kind of limbo state – and covered with a single white bed sheet – Affleck’s character, only known as “C,” watches his wife intently as she goes through the motions of life before picking up and moving on. “C,” however, is confined to the home and witnesses different tenants move in and out over the years.
During a recent interview with me last week, Lowery, 36, talked to us about the idea of his ghost character being portrayed as a being hidden under a bed sheet and what existential plane he feels the character is actually inhabiting. We also talked to him about his thoughts on life after death and why he decided to re-team with Affleck and Mara after working with them on his 2013 crime drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”
I read a little bit about the inspiration behind this film and the discussion you had with your wife about not wanting to move out of the house where you lived together. Of course, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara’s characters are going through the same debate. Can you talk to me a little bit more about that specific home you shared and why it had so much sentimental value to you?
Basically, I sentimentalize every house I’ve ever lived in. That has been the case my entire life. That house was the first house my wife and I moved into after we got married. It was the first home we made our own. It really just felt like I had invested a lot of myself in that space. That house had that je ne sais quoi that certain places have – like you belonged there. Even though it wasn’t the nicest house, and it was sort of shabby and falling apart, it still felt like me. It had that quality that just made me feel like I was attached to it.
Were you at all worried about the way you wanted to portray the ghost in this movie – someone under a white bed sheet at all times? I’m assuming somebody came to you some time during the beginning of the process and said this might end up being too silly or even funny. What kept you committed to this specific idea?
That was sort of the central image on which the entire movie was based. If I had lost the nerve with that image and with that representation of a ghost, I just wouldn’t have had a movie to make anymore. I certainly was worried about it. I was worried about it being too silly or too funny or being too high concept. That was definitely keeping me up at night when we were shooting. But I had faith in that image and felt that if I could do justice to the image in my mind, this movie would work.
I didn’t find it silly or funny at all. I thought it was a very sweet representation. I kept thinking to myself that this film would be great as a really sad children’s book.
That’s exactly right. I’m glad you said that because it has this naiveté to it that feels almost childlike. It’s like a childlike image, not only because we’re used to seeing children dress up as a ghost with a bed sheet on Halloween, but the specifics of that figure and that form would lend itself well to a children’s book.
Would that be something you might want to do? It could be a children’s book about bereavement to help kids through the loss of a parent or someone close to them.
That’s a really interesting question. I’d worry that I’m not qualified to engage on that kind of therapeutic level, but just as a storyteller, I would love to make a version that was a children’s book. That would be fantastic. I might steal that idea.
Do you consider Casey Affleck’s ghost character in a state of limbo in this film? Describe to me what you wanted to convey with the idea of where he actually is at after he dies.
He is definitely in a limbo. It is a physical limbo he is stuck in. He is in a practical house, which he lived in as a human being, but he definitely is stuck between two worlds. When that door opens in the hospital early in the film, he has an opportunity to move on and chooses not to. Because he makes that choice, he is henceforth stuck in a purgatory of sorts – a purgatory of his own making, and one that he is familiar with because it is his own house. But that’s not where he belongs and he’s not meant to be there. His journey throughout the film is one which he is trying to get out of there.
What are your own thoughts about what happens after we die? Some people say everything goes black and that’s it. Other people think we go to heaven and dance with angels and ride white horses. Does it have to be one or the other?
No, I know that everyone has their own personal beliefs and personal faith or lack thereof. That is a wonderful thing. I personally have no expectations. If I die and it’s just blackness and my conscience is gone, I won’t know. So, I won’t have anything to be disappointed about. But if my soul or my conscience does live on in some other form, I can’t wait to find out what that is. But I don’t have any expectations about what might happen nor do I have any particular faith. I’m open to whatever comes my way when it comes my way.
I think I consider myself more of a hopeful agnostic. I mean, the idea of heaven seems amazing. I don’t know that it exists. It probably doesn’t. But it would be great if it did, right?
Yeah, it’s a very comforting idea and it’s not without merit. But I also think it’s important, to me at least, to acknowledge the flipside, which is there could be absolutely nothing. Maybe at the end, there is something between those two things. Maybe we keep going, but not in a form we currently understand. Who knows? That’s for us to find out in the future, or not.
I’ve always been the type of person that loves a really good, ambiguous ending to a film. With that said, this film is one of the very few that I can remember that ends ambiguously but still feels like there’s closure. Do you think that’s what you’re going for and how do you feel about ambiguous endings overall in film?
I love ambiguous endings if they feel earned and if they don’t feel ambiguous just because the director didn’t know how to wrap them up. That’s always frustrating. But if the ambiguity feels correct and appropriate, then I’m all for it. There is a lot of ambiguity in life. Not everything is always wrapped up in a neat, tiny box with a bow on top. With [“A Ghost Story”], I definitely wanted there to be closure. I did not want to leave people hanging. I wanted to put a period at the end of the sentence. But there were certain elements that did not need to be defined. I wanted the film to provide ambiguity, but also not get in the way of reaching closure.
I don’t know if you remember when Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” came out in 2003 and the end scene is Bill Murray whispering something into Scarlett Johansson’s ear and everybody wanted to know what he said. Somewhere down the line, someone messed with the volume levels of the film and was able to hear what he actually said and posted it online. Doesn’t that take something away from the film?
It does. I feel like that is a perfect example of a movie that leaves you with a burning question that is best left unanswered. Everyone wonders what he said to her and no one would actually be happy if they knew. I know people have gone in and done lip reading to see what Bill Murray said. I don’t want to know. I trust Sofia Coppola and trust she will give us the information we need to understand it. In that case, we don’t need it. The story doesn’t need it. I’m much happier that one little bit of information was removed because it just provides you with a feeling you can’t quantify. The same goes for the note in [“A Ghost Story”]. Everyone wants to know what the note says. I guarantee, if anyone saw what it said, it wouldn’t be as good or as meaningful as not knowing.
OK, so I don’t actually want you to tell me what the note said if it said anything, but was there something written on the note during production or was the paper blank?
Both. The note that Rooney wrote and put into the wall and painted over was something she actually wrote. I don’t know what it says. When the ghost pulls it out later on, that was a separate piece of paper that was blank. The truth is I don’t know what it says, but she did write something. I wanted her to write something that was personal to her and mattered to her and felt right for her character, but we never asked her what it was. It went down with the house.
Are you ready for someone on YouTube to shoot extra scenes for this movie and “reveal” what the note actually says?
We did that already just to make ourselves laugh. We had it say, “Boo.” We had a phone number on it. We had a lot of dirty jokes. As seriously as we took this movie, we had a lot of fun making it. We weren’t above poking fun of ourselves.
You had worked with Casey and Rooney together before in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” Was there a dynamic between them during that film that you saw that you thought would translate over well to this production? Why did you decide to cast them as a pair again for this one?
They just had some amazing chemistry and with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” I knew they could bring that romanticism that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. I wanted there to be a love story at the core of this film. I wanted the couple in this story to feel like a real couple who stay together and actually care for one another despite their differences. I knew that by casting Casey and Rooney I would be 90 percent of the way there already without even having to shoot a frame film because they just have such a wonderful dynamic.
When you made “Pete’s Dragon” in 2016, you became a member of this group of young male filmmakers who seem to have made one well-received indie film and then were given the opportunity to direct something on a really grand scale. Recent examples are like Colin Trevorrow doing “Safety Not Guaranteed” and then given “Jurassic World;” Jon Watts made “Cop Car” and was then given the newest “Spider-Man” film. Maybe I’m wrong, but this feels like a fairly new phenomenon. I don’t know if 10 years ago someone so green would be given something so big. Do you feel the same way?
It definitely feels like a phenomenon, and I hope that phenomenon becomes a lot more inclusive because I know lots of wonderful female filmmakers who would love that same opportunity and aren’t a bunch of white guys in their 30s. I think there’s a practical side of it because it keeps cost down. When it comes to movies of a certain scale, there is so much planning in advance – so much that goes into it – it’s not that big of a risk. It’s actually a wonderful opportunity for studios to get fresh perspective. If you hire Steven Spielberg or David Fincher, you’re going to be automatically out of pocket about $10 million. If you find a director right out of Sundance, you’re spending a lot less. It’s great to get a fresh perspective from a director who hasn’t been in the blockbuster world for 20 years. There are certainly cases where that doesn’t work out, but there have been lots of cases where I think it has. It’s proof that you don’t have to come from a world where you’re steeped in big-budget storytelling to make a big-budget film. What I found in my personal experience is that it doesn’t really change. The process of making a big studio movie is exactly the same as making a tiny indie – it just goes on for a lot longer.