There’s a cinematic theory known as the Kuleshov effect that’s all about context. In essence, it argues that the same neutral shot of an actor’s face can take on a different meaning to the audience depending on the shot that comes before or after it. “It’s like that classic actor’s trick where, if you need an audience member to feel emotional watching a scene, the actor will do nothing,” explained director David Lowery. “The audience will project everything on there as long as the context is there.”
A Ghost Story, Lowery’s new movie, “is the most extreme version of that,” said the filmmaker. It stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, though you see the latter only briefly: For most of the movie, after a fatal car accident, Affleck’s character exists as a mute ghost, which Lowery signifies by throwing a simple sheet with eyeholes over Affleck. In today’s era of outlandish special effects, there’s something audaciously low-fi about covering your Oscar-winning star with the sort of costume that looks like it was thrown together at the last minute on Halloween, but the longer A Ghost Story goes—and it goes, seemingly, to the end of time and back—the more likely you are to realize that the ghost outfit isn’t just a white sheet. It’s a blank canvas, and your response to the movie will come from what you project onto it.
“The personal narrative that the viewer brings to the film is entirely legit, so I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading into it,” Lowery told me recently when we met up in a Los Angeles coffee shop. I was curious, though, what baggage Lowery himself brought to this deceptively simple story, and the more we talked about his hardships shooting it—and they were significant—the more Lowery seemed to come to an epiphany on what drove him to make A Ghost Story in the first place.
You’re asking the audience to make a significant buy-in with this mute protagonist who’s hidden under a sheet. Even before we get to the ghost, did you use the first act of the movie to subtly prepare the audience for what’s to come?
Completely, 100 percent. When we put together the first part of the movie, I was sticking very literally to the script, which had a lot of dialogue upfront and a lot of conversation between Casey’s and Rooney’s characters. I had to remove it and rely entirely on a long scene where they’re in bed together, embracing and making out and eventually falling asleep, because that scene allowed audiences to come to grips with what the movie was going to be. All the dialogue was setting them up for the wrong movie, it was sort of predisposing audiences to think they were watching a movie about a couple, and ultimately that’s not what it is. So there was easily a version of the movie that took about 45 minutes to get to the ghost.
You have to train the audience how to watch the film.
I wanted to keep pushing the audience a little more with every sequence. For example, in the hospital after he dies, once Rooney leaves, there is a solid minute before anything happens. I felt like a minute was the exact amount of time we could push the audience, up to the point where they’re wondering how long is this gonna last. I even had a stopwatch out on set just to make sure we had a solid minute of nothingness, to kind of set the stage for how far the movie is gonna go in terms of its stillness and it’s sense of quiet. Every scene just kept building that up until you get to a certain point in the movie where the fever breaks and the images start to move with a more propulsive quality.
I’ve heard that you weren’t always sure, even while shooting, that this would be a feature.
There was a point in production where I lost all my confidence. I just lost my nerve. It was entirely thanks to my producer and my D.P. that I was able to save face enough and show up and persevere, because I really lost it.
You felt like the footage wasn’t clicking?
Yeah, and the ghost wasn’t working yet. I really wanted Casey’s performance to come through under the sheet, and I felt like, as long as we had him here, we had to utilize him as an actor. That wasn’t the correct approach, so in the early days of shooting, the footage wasn’t good. We had a lot of footage of him walking from one room to the next or coming through doors or just doing things like trying to pick up his mail, and all of that stuff was just unnecessary because we weren’t trusting the audience, nor were we trusting ourselves. That led to a lot of reshoots for the beginning of the movie, until we realized all we needed were just shots of him standing still, and that would convey everything we needed.
We figured out how to make it work, but in those first ten days of production when we had a whole crew there and Casey and Rooney who had flown in to take part in this, I was just feeling the pressure of the idea. The conceit, the risk of failure … I just lost it. I felt like it was just not gonna work and I put on a happy face and kept going every day and kept trying, but I was just so convinced that it was too high-concept to succeed.
You had just come off the biggest movie you had ever directed, Pete’s Dragon. But it was on this movie, with a much smaller crew, that you felt more acute pressure about wasting everyone’s time.
I went into this thinking it would be my summer vacation movie, that I could recharge my creative batteries and have fun with friends. It turned out to be far more stressful than Pete’s Dragon because it was all on my shoulders and there was no one who I had to answer to other than myself. At the end of the day on Pete’s Dragon, if we didn’t nail something, we could come back and pick it up later. I always knew there was a safety net built in that Disney would not let the movie fail. But in this case, with A Ghost Story, it was all on the line.
The way that you describe that kind of pressure, I half expect that you’ve come home from set some days and engaged in some stress eating akin to a grieving Rooney Mara attacking that pie.
It’s totally happened. I mean, that’s kind of where that scene came from: I wanted to have a private moment of grief, but I also wanted something that felt very physical and very relatable. In my darkest moments, I have not eaten an entire pie, but I have turned to other baked goods to find solace.
You basically started making A Ghost Story right after you finished Pete’s Dragon, right?
That’s correct. We finished our color-correct, which was the last stage of the process, at, I think, 1 a.m. on June 10. On June 11, I flew to Dallas, and June 12 we started shooting [A Ghost Story].
I’ve talked to some directors who admit to a feeling like postpartum depression once they’re done with a movie, when everyone you’ve been working with goes away. Do you sidestep that feeling when you move straight from postproduction to shooting your next movie?
Yes, you do. You definitely do. After this incredibly intense experience was over with A Ghost Story, I had to go do press for Pete’s Dragon, so it was an incredible do-si-do where I was able to sidestep the postpartum, by and large. And then Pete’s Dragon came out and we went back to doing pickups for A Ghost Story, so I kept just trading projects up until early September, at which point I was at a complete loss. I just sat sadly in my room for a couple weeks trying to figure out what to do next.
Not unlike the ghost in A Ghost Story. The people who matter to him eventually move away and leave him behind, and without any purpose, he floats through life aimlessly.
That’s true, it’s very true. [Long pause.] I have not thought about that, but I’m gonna sit here for a second and ponder that because that is such a real thing. On a movie, you go through such an intense experience with so many cycles of people at every different stage, and at the end of it, it’s all just gone. You’re done, and you’ve got a movie that’s either in theaters or on Netflix or whatever, and everyone that you were so attached to for this incredibly intense period of your life has gone their separate ways. And you have to deal with that, and that’s where that postpartum feeling comes from largely, because you just feel lonely.
And then, just like in A Ghost Story, the cycle starts anew.
It starts again. You write something down and it leads to this whole process reigniting. That’s amazing. Suddenly I have more clarity on my own film!
See also: Rooney Mara Eats Pie, Steals Sundance