Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for length. Additionally, it contains plot points and potential spoilers for the film “A Ghost Story.”
“A Ghost Story” tells the tale of a young man who, after dying, becomes a ghost locked in space to the grounds of his home in Texas but adrift in time. He watches his partner grieve for him and eventually sell the home while he remains behind as a silent specter to the passage of centuries. Quiet, meditative and at times a touch cosmic in theme, the film is one of this year’s best and a shining example of how indie, micro-budget films can strike poignant, thought-provoking emotional chords. David Lowery wrote, directed and edited the film, and he sat down with The Daily Californian to discuss his creative process.
The Daily Californian: Thank you so much for talking with me!
David Lowery: My pleasure!
DC: I’ve read that the script is only around 30 pages, which is both amazing and not really surprising when you see the film — but I’m wondering how you approach directing the scenes that would’ve been really sparse in script (like the pie scene).
Lowery: The pie scene was a scene that didn’t require much direction. It just required clarity of intent — both for myself and for Rooney (Mara) and for everyone else on set that day. It is very simple, and the weight of that scene rests on her shoulders. … I was there, but I stepped back, because once we were ready to shoot it, it was all up to her to finish that scene. The running time was up to her as well.
Other scenes that are more sustained — like the scene of Rooney and Casey (Affleck) in bed together — was to a certain extent up to them. But we just kept the cameras rolling for long after they fell asleep just to see what else would happen. And that was the case with a lot of sequences in the film. We spent a lot of time letting these scenes play out and trying to puncture the artifice of the film as a whole with moments of reality that could sustain themselves.
DC: I’ve definitely found that the extension of a cut beyond a beat expectation of how long a cut normally is — just extending the edges of it a little bit — really gives a really strong sense of authenticity to those moments.
Lowery: Yeah! You have this built-in idea of when scene should be over or when a scene should cut, and sometimes you’re right — sometimes that idea is right — but if you push past it, you can discover new things sometimes. We were always trying to see how far we could push past those built-in ideas about when a scene was over.
DC: One of the first things I noticed about the film was this degree of how uncomfortable you can make an audience member just by extending a scene longer than expected.
We were always trying to see how far we could push past those built-in ideas about when a scene was over.
Lowery: It really is remarkable how quickly you can feel like you’re trapped somewhere or that you’re being forced to look at something. These shots are not that long in the grand scheme of things, but within the context of the 90-minute movie, you just feel like you’re stuck in this one moment for an eternity — and that discomfort is incredibly appropriate for the film and really helps you understand the way in which the movie is operating.
DC: I saw that too, in the way the camera mimics C’s (the ghost’s) actions, his stillness —
Lowery: Yes. Completely.
DC: I definitely felt like a “second ghost” in the film.
Lowery: That’s so great. That’s a beautiful perspective to have on it.
DC: I’m curious about the monologue (that takes place near the midpoint of the film), one of the few moments of the film that is dialogue-heavy and which tackles some of the same themes. What was the process like writing that monologue?
Lowery: It was, like many things in the movie, a rather intuitive process, at least in terms of writing it. It was reflective of my own thought process as I was trying to rationalize the way in which I live my life. It isn’t complete; I feel he gets two-thirds of the way through a cogent argument and then gives up. But nonetheless, it is very reflective of what I was thinking about at the time that I wrote it; I was trying to define my own set of standards as to how I was going to live my life.
It wasn’t meant to be the solution to the film — it’s not a case of the character explaining to the audience what the movie is about — but it opens up that proscenium; it expands the horizons of the movie and points in the right direction.
It’s a scene that’s sort of an interlude in the movie, because we’ve had so little dialogue up to that point — and after that scene is over, the dialogue will be gone once again. So you’re able to take a breather, engage with some dialogue, engage with some traditional filmmaking.
To that extent it’s a palate cleanser, but it also is preparing the audience for the left turn the movie’s about to take and also underlying some of the thematic concerns of the film. After having had so much fluidity or strangeness — these long sustained shots that really test the audience’s patience — I wanted this one to just be a scene you could grab onto and participate in the way you normally would when you watch a film.
DC: I want to talk a little bit about “I Get Overwhelmed.” I’ve read that (composer) Daniel (Hart) came to you with that before shooting, and you listened to it a lot and felt like it needed to be in the film. What made you feel it needed to be added, and how did you integrate it in such a fluid and natural way?
Lowery: The movie, in my head, felt the way that song felt. The song is a pop song, and it’s got a lot of pleasing qualities. But Daniel’s voice, when he sings it — the lyrics and the way in which he sings them are both desperate. There’s this very, very bittersweet desperation to the song and you just feel him as an artist, as a human being, reaching for something and not quite grabbing hold of it.
Initially, that scene where Rooney listens to it with the headphones, when Casey plays it for her, that was at the very beginning. It was a scene that was going to occur at the beginning of the movie, and we would have a reprise of it later towards the end of her sequence where she’s laying on the floor, listening to the song one more time.
But in the editing process, we felt like her arc was not complete and there was a catharsis that we had not yet reached. Bringing those two scenes together, intercutting them, somehow provided that catharsis. That was just one of those wonderful discoveries in the editing process — and I will take a moment to give credit to (additional editor) Shane Carruth for helping me with that because he was instrumental in helping me break free of the rigidity to which I initially forced the movie to apply. He told me that I should not be so bound to that, that I should be open to flashbacks, and because of that, that scene and the way those two moments collide really, in a way, is the heartbeat of the film to me — it’s the centerpiece of the movie.
DC: That’s a good segue into how time operates in the film. I was intrigued when Casey’s character says the reason he wants to stay in the house is “history.” And then we see him as the ghost go back in time and re-emerge like he’s always been there almost. There’s this sort of circular element to it. Could you talk a little about when you were conceiving that process of bringing him back to where he started and how time operates overall in the film?
Lowery: I’m fascinated by the potential of time to not be a linear construct. I love the idea that time is a dimension that does not have a forward or backward property unless you need it to — and we as humans need it to. Once you subscribe to that potential, you also start wondering, “What would it be like to break outside of that?” And the easiest way for me to talk about it is just to quote Kurt Vonnegut, who used the phrase in “Slaughterhouse-Five:” “unstuck in time.” That’s just a beautiful concept to me, I really love that idea, that a character or a person could transcend the point A to point B aspect of linear time.
I love the idea that time is a dimension that does not have a forward or backward property unless you need it to — and we as humans need it to.
So to me, what’s happening in that sequence is one of the defining aspects of this character’s life: falling away. At first he is defined by space, time and another person. Then that person leaves, and it’s space and time. And then time ceases to hold sway over him, and so it’s only space. He could have wound up anywhere within that space in any time period, but I wanted to go back and see that space be defined for the first time. It felt like that was the important step. In that time loop, in the journey back, he’s learning that no one belongs there, that no one can lay claim to a space. And when space finally goes the way of time and human connectivity, that’s when he’s able to move on.
DC: One last question before I wrap up. It has to do with the settler scene. Now, I couldn’t tell, and my friend who went back to see it twice in LA couldn’t tell for sure, but … is the girl humming the same song (“I Get Overwhelmed”)?
Lowery: For a second! She’s humming something else, but for a second it turns into that — you’re not mistaken. The beautiful thing about it is that it removes the preciousness of (C’s) artistic creation, saying “Hey, someone else has hummed that melody in the past. It’s not just yours.” I will give credit to Graham (Retzik) at A24 for that because he saw that scene and asked the same question, and when he asked that, we didn’t have it in there yet — there wasn’t actually that song; he just thought he’d heard it. And I thought we should make it just a little more specific, and so we did a little bit of ADR (automated dialogue replacement) and just got a couple notes to make it sound closer to that song so that people like yourself could pick up on it — but maybe still wonder whether it’s really there or not.
DC: Thanks so much, again!
Lowery: My pleasure.