In the first 15 minutes of A Ghost Story, the main character C (Casey Affleck) dies. Don't worry, this isn't a spoiler—after all, if you've seen a shred of the marketing around David Lowery's weird, wonderful film, you know that his character spends the majority of the film as a ghost, under a spooky sheet. (Affleck himself is under the sheet for most of the film too, with a crew member standing in for reshoots.)
And A Ghost Story isn't so much about death itself but how it feels to miss something—a person, sure, but a home, too, or a place you were once familiar with and has since become a faded memory. It's a beautiful and at-times funny meditation on our own cosmic search for a place to belong, and even if you find yourself bewildered throughout the film (and you probably will), the journey is worth taking—and the film's conclusion, an elegant slice of finiteness, is undeniably satisfying and soul-nourishing.
Suffice to say, A Ghost Story is one of my favorite films of the year so far, so I had to talk to Lowery about its lovely strangeness and how he came up with such a strikingly original idea.
VICE: Where did the idea for this movie come from?
David Lowery: My wife and I had an argument about whether we were going to stay in Los Angeles or move back to Texas. It was a very defining moment in our relationship—the first time we felt like we were drawing a line in the sand between the two of us, and we couldn't agree on what to do. I took that argument, wrote it down, and decided to use it as a scene in a movie—much to my wife's chagrin, although she's a filmmaker too, so I think she understands.
After that argument, I did a lot of soul searching about why I find myself attached to physical things. At the end of the day, I wanted to be somewhere I was comfortable with—to live in the house we'd moved out of when we moved to LA, to be back in that neighborhood, to replicate the home that I had left as much as I possibly could. I realized that was nostalgia and sentimentality, and that all the things that were holding me back in life could be traced to me not wanting to move out of my parents' house—or not wanting to leave the home that we moved out of when I was seven years old. So I wanted to make a movie about not wanting to leave.
Alongside that, there was this separate idea of a haunted house movie where the ghost was someone wearing a sheet. I'd always wanted to make something with a sheet ghost. I briefly entertained making a horror film like The Conjuring where the ghost was wearing a sheet, because I thought that was a funny concept. As I was coming up with this idea about why home matters to me, this ghost naturally just forced his way into that and became the defining point of the film.
It's really interesting to think about haunting a place that you lived, and missing that more than you miss a person.
I love that you spent 45 minutes in this film thinking it's about him haunting his wife—and then the rug gets pulled out from under you, and you realize it's about the space, and the things he can't let go of. The movie doesn't begin to define itself truly until [C's wife M, played by Rooney Mara] leaves the picture.
That argument that my wife and I had—I realized that we might be looking at the end of our marriage solely because I didn't want to leave a specific place. It never came to that, but it was ludicrous to me that [the end of our relationship] could be something as simple as not wanting to leave a place that I was comfortable in. There's no reason that I should ever subjugate the affection that I have for my wife to that—and yet, I was doing that. That was troublesome to me. I wanted to dig deeper into that, and this movie was a way to do that.
What do you miss most about the house you grew up in?
The feeling of family. I'm the oldest of nine kids, and most of my family lived in the same house up until a couple years ago. I didn't move out until I was 27, so there's this very strong sense of family in our home. The first house we lived in, back in Wisconsin, was the first time I experienced the particular pain of moving away from the place that you've defined as your home. I missed the warmth of it—the narrowness of the staircase, the slant of the walls, Christmas. But all of those things are just affectations of what my parents were able to create, which was a very strong sense of family and belonging. Because we belong to that family that they created for us, and the house was part of our family, I feel like we belong in that house. I remember just crying my eyes out when we had to leave it because it felt like we were leaving a family member behind.
I saw someone on Twitter mention that they saw three people walking out of a press screening during the scene where Rooney Mara eats an entire pie.
I figured most of the audience would walk out in that scene, but the two people that stayed would really like it. I'm more proud of that sequence than anything else I've ever directed. It's simple, and it's hard to achieve true simplicity when you're making a movie, because you overthink everything. To achieve something simple is very challenging, and for once I feel like I pulled it off.
We knew it was going to be an important scene, because if the whole movie is about the ghost watching people in their most private moments and being unable to affect what they're going through, that's the most intense version of that. Once we found the house, we started talking about where and how we would shoot it. Rooney brought up the concept of sitting down on the floor, and as soon as she said that, we understood how to shoot the scene.
What kind of pie was it?
A vegan, gluten-free chocolate pudding pie. She felt that would be the easiest thing for her to eat.
I would've gone with a savory pie.
There was very little sugar in it, and my producer is a vegan chef, so he made it for her. He said he made it a little saltier than he normally would so that it would run toward the savory side, even though it was ultimately chocolate.
The Virginia Woolf story A Haunted House bears strong relation to this film.
Surprisingly strong, because I didn't even know it existed until I'd written the script. She's one of my favorite authors, and I've been greatly inspired by her usage of time. So for the scene where the books get knocked off the bookshelf, I thought it would be nice if one of the books that fell off the shelf had personal meaning. I wondered whether Virginia Woolf had ever written about ghosts, so I googled "Virginia Wolfe ghosts" and this story popped up. It blew my mind because it felt so akin to what I was already working on—two ghosts looking for what mattered to them in life and not being able to find it.
You've lived in Texas for a lot of your life. What draws artists to the state specifically?
I define myself as a Texas filmmaker, and I can't quantify what it is that makes it so appealing. Whenever I get back from another place, I'm always so struck by the largesse of the space—the sky somehow feels bigger there. My editor on Pete's Dragon just moved to Dallas for the summer to cut with me there, and she was like, "This doesn't look like anything I've ever seen before." Texas feels huge, epic, and full of possibility. I love the trees, the way the landscape works with the sky, and the way cities pop up in the middle of these rolling hills.
There's something to be said about the history of the state and its rebellious spirit that could be carried over to artistic spirit and intent, although I don't necessarily subscribe to that. There's a lot about Texas history that's truly terrible, and still is.
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