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David Lowery on How ‘A Ghost Story’ Evolved and Experimenting with Visual Language

Written by on July 12, 2017 

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Director David Lowery couldn’t attend a recent festival screening of A Ghost Story in Chicago, but he ensured he was there in more than spirit. As the curtains opened, a short video began playing with the clearly exhausted director lamenting his absence with an earnestness and disappointment that only comes across when talking about projects with great personal meaning. To be fair, his inability to be there was understandable. At the time, the meteoric Texas workhorse was nearing the end of production on his third film in as many years, while also multitasking the writing of his second project with Disney, Peter Pan, after last year’s surprising reinvention of Pete’s Dragon. But after watching A Ghost Story, that introduction video retroactively became an even more impressive feat — proof that even after making something as purely overwhelming as A Ghost Story, Lowery had far from extinguished himself. He’d only reignited his own passion.

Wherever you fall on A Ghost Story (our own Jordan Raup reviewed it at its Sundance premiere and awarded it our highest honors), and there will undoubtably be viewers who walk out in the first reel, it’s a film of a rare breed. Most filmmakers don’t even attempt a film that revels in this many contradictions in their lifetime, let alone this early in their career. Talking to Lowery, it’s clear that the film’s production was its own rewarding and terrifying journey — a deeply thought out but blind vision that could have just as easily ended up an unfinished relic in his attic as become a film gracing multiplexes this month.

In a sprawling conversation, we talked to the director about the challenges of working in an entirely different visual mode, the complexities of the atmospheric sound design, and the importance of making something that feels homemade.

The Film Stage: One of the things that I find so unique about this film is that it feels like it’s constantly mutating in shape. You’ve talked about how your original script and shooting script were surprisingly nearly the same, but how much of the tone and pacing was molded during the production compared to what was on the page?

David Lowery: There’s always a great deal that is found during production or during post-production. And certainly, the tone of the film was refined in the editing process — and on set, for that matter. But it was mostly in the editing process, as we cut away the moments that were too funny, or too scary, or too boring. The pace was similarly discovered on set, and in the edit. Many of the scenes are very long. And we even shot longer versions of them. Others, we had a stopwatch out on set, and made sure they were hitting an exact, preordained running time. And we really do just sort of feel it out. It was very intuitive. If something felt like it was too long, or if it was getting boring or getting redundant, we would cut it, whether it was on set or in the edit.

But the stage was set for that in the script, and many of the scenes in the script would describe the type of shots that the movie would be made of, and describe how long they would last, and what the running time would be. I wanted people reading the screenplay to understand from the get-go that this would be a movie that took its time in that fashion, or had a certain tone. I wanted that all to be clear on the page, so that no one would mistake it for something else, or to be confused on set when we weren’t cutting the camera after three consecutive minutes of holding on a house. So it was elaborated upon and refined and discovered in both the shooting and post-production process, but the template for all of that was set in the script.

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When you were first approaching Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara about this script, and then in the shooting process, did it take a little bit of extra discussion to communicate how pared down the film was going to be even after they read the script?

A little bit. I think Casey just sort of jumped in, and was open to whatever. Rooney and I definitely discussed the pace of the film and the way it was going to get structured and be put together because she wasn’t sure if it would work as a feature. She read it and loved it, but felt that it read like a short film. And so I just explained to her the way in which it would work as a feature and the type of pacing, and how that structure would change over the course of the movie. I don’t know if she ever believed that it would ever actually come to fruition. [Laughs] I think, to a certain extent, she thought it would stay a short film once we got into the edit — but she took that leap of faith that I knew what I was talking about.

This film feels unique in your career in relation to form. You’ve previously shot films for a widescreen format, but you conceived this project from the beginning with not only a modified Academy ratio in mind, but also as a series of long takes. What was your thought process for these two choices, and what were the challenges that came in the execution?

I’ve always loved movies that take their time, and that give you an image to luxuriate in. And my other films haven’t been of the sort in which I’ve had the opportunity to do that myself. But I’ve always wanted to make a film that functions in that way, at least to a certain extent. So that was all part of the design was to have a movie that employed time in a way which you’d feel the time passing. And in a very literal sense. [Laughs] And at the same time, you’d have the opportunity to regard an image for a longer period of time than you normally would. I love watching movies in which I have time for my mind to wander where I don’t have to be immediately ready for an edit or a new image to process or a juxtaposition to provoke a connection in my brain. I love being able to look at one thing for a long time, and regard it. And I love it when my mind wanders away and comes back, and the image is still transpiring, and maybe something’s changed, maybe it hasn’t.

That’s a beautiful thing to me, and I wanted this film to function in that way up to a point. So we designed it initially as a series of tableaus. The entire film was initially conceived to be a series of individual shots. Each scene would be one shot, and that shot would be meticulously designed and lit and then executed, and then we’d be done. At a certain point in pre-production, we realized that the whole movie wouldn’t work that way, that it needed to change. That still was the rubric upon which we based, you know, the first half of the film, and we would always try to find that one key image that we could rest the entire scene upon for any given scene, whether or not we went in for additional coverage or not.

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That was a wonderful process to discover with my cinematographer, Andrew Droz Palermo, and I spent a lot of time just talking about what those compositions would be, how we would compose them, what the components would be, what mattered to us in a given frame. And once we saw the house, we just started spending time there and looking at various rooms through a viewfinder, and trying to figure out what lenses would be best for individual moments. And he started to pay attention to how lighting would work in the house at different times of day, so we could figure out what scenes to shoot when.

Part and parcel with all that was this aspect ratio that was always going to be part of the film. It was always intended to be in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the Academy ratio. The first line of the screenplay was a statement of intent in that regard, and we just committed to it from the very beginning, not really realizing what a challenge it was going to be to shoot a movie in that aspect ratio because our brains naturally at this point think in rectangular fashion. We always think of images in rectangles. And so there was a bit of a mental gymnastics lesson that we had to go through to figure out how to squeeze these widescreen images that were in our minds into a square.

But it was a challenge that we were very excited about, and we definitely committed ourselves to it wholeheartedly. We shot on an Alexa Mini, which has a full-frame chip, and just embraced it. We shot in full frame with no cropping. We just kind of had to own it. We couldn’t backtrack on it. And it was an important aesthetic choice because this is a movie about a character who is trapped in a box, for all intents and purposes. And there’s a claustrophobia inherent to his circumstances that I thought we could amplify through that aspect ratio.

And also something intriguing about the fact that when we watch a movie in 1.33 now, or on a television screen, we’re watching it on a rectangular screen, so there is an inherent proscenium to the image. There are these pillarboxes, these black bars on the side that you’re just going to see when you watch the movie projected, or when you watch it at home, or when you watch it on your phone. They’re all going to have these black bars on the side, and I really like that. It’s very pleasing to me and to my sensibilities to have this enforced frame that we have to peer past to see the image that is being represented to us. It’s an enforced proscenium that makes my eyes really happy. I don’t really know why, exactly, I like it so much, but it just really makes me feel like I’m seeing the image better and more clearly. And so I was really happy to have that built-in factor working in our favor.

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Along with the visual format, there’s such a careful precision and continuity to the sound design and an awareness of the presence and absence of ambient sound, as well as Hart’s score. But one of the most jarring and interesting scenes for me is the sequence at the party that slowly builds into this huge existentialist monologue from Will Oldham. And Oldham’s kind of plays the guy you want to avoid like the plague at the party, but the scene is so carefully orchestrated in the way it rises from scattered conversation to an unexpected climax of “Ode to Joy.” What was the process like in terms of the sound design for that scene, and for this film as a whole?

Yeah, that scene was probably the biggest challenge we had in the sound design process. I worked with a friend of ours named Johnny Marshall, who did the sound design on Upstream Color, and he’s just someone who we know from Dallas, who’s incredibly talented. We’ve been wanting to work together for a long time, and this was the perfect opportunity to do that. And for most of the movie, I don’t want to say it was easy, but it was sort of self-explanatory. There were times when the sound design needed to be scary or to be surreal, or to be very nonexistent, or to have a musical quality, and it was a very natural and intuitive process to sculpt it into what it needed to be to give the scenes the shape they needed to have.

But that party scene was a real challenge because it is a lot of dialogue, and the dialogue needs to be front-and-center, and yet there’s a party going on, so there needs to be a lot of other sound going on as well. And there’s a song playing that needs to be loud and boisterous, and at the same time you wanted to have a certain degree of intimacy as if this guy is talking directly to you, so finding that balance took a lot of trial and error, and we pushed and pulled all of the elements quite a few times.

And one of the things that was important was that at that point in the movie, we hadn’t heard anybody talking for a while. There’s been a little bit of dialogue here and there, but by and large, there has not been much to grab on to. And all of a sudden, we slap audiences in the face with this eight-minute monologue, so I wanted to get into it in sort of an organic fashion, and the song comes in loud right at the beginning. It’s a very confrontational moment where this pop song just hits you at full volume. But from there, we start to pick up pieces of different conversations, and you get a little bit of this character’s dialogue, and you see him for a second, and then he disappears, and we dip into another conversation, and everything is sort of overlapping until gradually Will Oldham’s character emerges as the center of the scene.

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But we take our time getting there! It takes a minute or so to realize that the scene is all about him, and hopefully that guides you into it in a more organic and subtle fashion rather than just having him sit down and start talking to you as if you were right there. His character is sort of meant to be obnoxious and, at the same time, everything he’s saying has some truth to it. You kind of feel captivated by him, but at the same time your time is being monopolized by him. And we wanted to make sure the audience didn’t feel like their moviegoing experience was being overtaken by this dude at the party who has a lot to say about the meaning of life.

And then the music was a balancing act as well because we had this pop song that was co-written by Kesha, who’s also in the scene, and that plays through most of the scene. But then at a certain point, Beethoven comes in and that is not something that is literally happening at the party. No one at that party is playing “Ode to Joy,” but it was important to have that enter into the sonic landscape of that scene. So finding that contrast between diegetic and non-diegetic music and finding the balance and making it feel natural and organic and feel something you don’t really notice, but you just completely feel when it happens, was just a long process.

And it was one of the few things that we re-worked after we showed the movie at Sundance. I didn’t cut a single thing. There wasn’t a single change to the edit of the movie, but we went back to that scene and remixed the sound entirely from the bottom-up, pretty much, because we just felt we could do it better. And one of the key things afterward was that the song that plays — you hear lyrics at the beginning, but then the instrumental part just keeps going through almost the entire scene. And Nick Sealey, who produced the song with Kesha, went back to it and reproduced everything so that it functioned almost like musical score, so that the highs and lows of a song are sculpted around Will’s dialogue, and so that they support it in a dramatic fashion rather than just being background noise.

Before you made A Ghost Story, you were understandably very cryptic in interviews about what was next, but you caught my eye in your repeated sentiment that you wanted to make something, “tiny, small, and homemade.” Can you speak a little bit about that what that impulse means to you?

Yeah. I mean, I love making things in my backyard. That’s how I grew up making films, and it’s been sort of my goal in life to keep doing that, and to be able to make a living doing that. Obviously, I can’t make every movie that way, and for Pete’s Dragon, we obviously had to go pretty far from our backyard to pull that off, and it took a long time to make. The goal in mind for every film I’ve made is sort of to make it in Texas. Obviously, I couldn’t do that with Pete’s Dragon, but you know, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was made and shot in Texas, and Old Man with a Gun, which I just finished, I wanted to make it there. And part of it is just comfort. It’s a place that I know and I want to be in, and I like making things by hand. I think it’s important to have my fingerprints on everything I’ve made.

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A Ghost Story is now in limited release and expanding.


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