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Two Blokes Talk About Death: Director David Lowery On A Ghost Story
Mat Colegate , August 11th, 2017 08:44

Director David Lowery's latest film, A Ghost Story, is a subtle and moving examination of all the big questions. Mat Colegate sat down to ask him some slightly smaller ones.

In A Ghost Story the latest film from David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Pete's Dragon) death haunts every frame. Seen almost entirely from the point of view of a recently deceased, white sheeted spectre (Casey Affleck) desperate to reconnect with his lover (Rooney Mara), but doomed to stay on the same spot for eternity while life continues ceaselessly around him, A Ghost Story asks the biggest questions there are, while still maintaining a tightness and intimacy that grants it a hypnotic and moving power. It's rare that a fim can ask so much of it's audience – forcing them to question their existence and eventual irrelevance – without going into cosmic grandstanding, but Lowery achieves it with style and compassion. A Ghost Story is undoubtedly one of the stylistic highpoints of the year, but it's clear message and unabashed lyricism make it as much a feast for the heart as for the eyes and ears. David Lowery recently sat down with The Quietus to discuss death, parties and directing a bloke in a duvet.

Are you one of those people that thinks about death, like, a lot?

Yeah definitely. I feel like probably most people do. Do you?

Yeah, I get told that it's not normal.

I can imagine it's not common. I think it's healthy to think about. We need to face the facts. I don't want to obsess over it or be crippled by it but I want to be aware of it at all times.

Did you see the film as a attempt to look at death matter-of-factually?

To a certain extent, yes. Setting aside the fact that it's about a ghost in a bed sheet, it is meant to be taken as a very pragmatic view of death. The deaths in the movie are all presented as very matter-of-fact. I wanted the death to be mundane.

What made you want to take that approach?

It's probably the most personal film I've made. All of my films to a certain extent deal with the same dramatic content and the same subject matter: they deal with fear of death and the fear of irrelevance that comes with death. But this was the one where I really dug in and decided to address those themes head on. I sat down with the image of the ghost in mind, but those were he themes that came out of that image.

The Bonnie Prince Billy character talks about irrelevance. Is he your voice in some respect?

He's my voice up to a point...

Do you act like that at parties? We all know people who do...

I've been the person listening to that person. But I'm the person at a party that will find a bookshelf and sit in a corner and read my friend's books. I would never presume to philosophise to people or to explain the way things work. Nonetheless what he's saying in that scene represents my own pursuit of something. As I try to find relevance in life, as I try to find meaning, I try to synthesise various rationalisations for everything around me. That scene is two thirds one of those rationalisations. He doesn't arrive at a cogent thesis statement by any means, but he's in pursuit of something that is meaningful and sincere and true and personal to me.

He knew about as much about the subject as it was possible to.

Exactly. He's scratching the ceiling, and that's where I'm at. I feel like I have a more meaningful understanding of the universe than he does in that scene, or than I did when I wrote that scene, but the ceiling is consistently just rising above me and I'm always just scratching at the surface of it

What kind of realisations did you come to while you were making the film?

There were no realisations that I can put in literal terms, but I found myself very comforted afterwards. I found myself at peace in a way that I wasn't when I sat down to write it.

Is that something you were looking for?

Definitely, because when I sat down to write I was feeling very nihilistic and pessimistic about the state of the world and my place in it. When I came out of the experience of making this film I felt much better about everything. Maybe it was just putting those thoughts into words, maybe it was just the sheer act of creation, maybe it was what I was subconsciously dealing with coming through on screen. Somehow as a result of making this film I found myself in a better place and I'm happy to just leave it at that.

It's almost a paradox, that level of peace that can be gained from the realisation that none of it matters.

Definitely. I feel like I had to get to that point to get past it. I had to get to a point where I could embrace nihilism, where I could find comfort in nihilism because I was on the flip-side. I was feeling nihilistic about everything and I was depressed, which is a terrible place to be in. I couldn't let go of the nihilism because I felt that was the state of the world. I needed to find a way to find something positive about nihilism. I described it to mom recently. She saw the movie and found that scene very upsetting. I explained to her that I was trying to make nihilism feel cosy and embrace it like a warm blanket, and once I was able to do that I was able to move past it. The fact that there's a ghost listening to that monologue is evidence of where I'm at now. The fact that I'm including a spirit that has outlived its own death in a conversation about how nothing matters because we're all going to die is emblematic of the inclusiveness with which I see things at this point in my life. I wasn't looking at things that way then, but I had to come to terms with the meaninglessness of everything to be able to see even a glimmer of potential that might be beyond that meaninglessness.

It's been a big journey then making this film...

Definitely. It doesn't feel like a big journey on a day to day basis, but looking back on where I was 18 months ago it definitely feels like I'm in a better place now.

I was surprised at how modest the film was for such a big topic. You could have taken a much grander and more cosmic approach, what stopped you from doing that?

Some of it was the built in limitations of time and money. I wanted to make this movie quickly. I had a very limited window in which I thought I could make it, and I wanted to pay for it myself. So that just kind of forced my hand as regards the amount of scope the movie could have. We got a lot of bang for our buck - this movie should have cost a lot more than it did. Within those built in limitations I pushed as far as I could but they were always there.

Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve in the writing stage, or did things come together through the process of filming?

I wrote it almost entirely in one sitting. I didn't intellectualise the process too much. I tend to over think everything when I write and it takes me forever to get anything done. But in this case I just wrote it, so the finished film is pretty close to that. The one thing that changed is the amount of emotion that's present in the film. I hoped that it would be emotional and I thought there was potential for emotion but I didn't think it would elicit as much emotion as it has in audiences. The fact that people find it as moving as they do is really beautiful to me and makes me very happy. But I didn't expect that. I thought the movie would be a little drier and a little bit more intellectual. Ultimately I'm very aware that I'm a sentimental person but hopefully the film finds a nice balance. But that's really the only thing that was unanticipated.

How do you direct a guy in a sheet? It is an emotional performance.

It's an emotional performance but the emotion comes through in spite of the performance. We initially wanted Casey to be acting a lot under the sheet. We wanted his body language to come through the fabric, and we wanted audiences to recognise him underneath the costume. But it just didn't look right, it looked silly. And so we removed the performance from his performance and at that point the ghost became a character unto itself. The direction ultimately was very mechanical. I would tell him to turn his head to the left or tell him to walk forward five paces and then stop, or I'd just say hold still. Then I'd be like 'Keep holding still, keep holding still, now look to the left'. That was all the direction it required. But it took us a while to figure that out. Minimalism was the answer.

A Ghost Story is in cinemas today