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The lo-fi love story about a mute ghost haunting his lover

We sit down with writer-filmmaker David Lowery to discuss ‘A Ghost Story”, his new film shot on a $150k budget starring Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Kesha

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a film about life, about love, about time, about the infiniteness of the universe and the smallness of our relationships within it. It’s also a film so ridiculously lo-fi that nearly everything happens in one room and the ghost is just a dude wearing a bed sheet with holes cut out for eyes. Therein lies the masterstroke of Lowery’s cinematic curveball: none of it should work, and yet it totally does.

Part of the fun is the A-list cast. An unnamed couple, played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, move into a new home when tragedy strikes. From 10 minutes onwards, Affleck exists as a mute ghost, haunting the building and the frame as he forlornly watches Mara endure her own Manchester by the Sea. (This entails Mara tearfully eating a pie for one unbroken five-minute shot.) At that point, you may wonder where else the film could go. Well, let’s just say it involves Kesha, time-travel, and Bonnie Prince Billy surmising civilization's fate in a single drunken rant.

For Lowery, A Ghost Story represents a return to his indie roots. Though Ain’t Them Bodies Saints sparked comparisons with Terrence Malick, he followed it up with last year’s Pete’s Dragon, and it feels significant that he shot A Ghost Story in secret with his own cash. Unsurprisingly, we had a long list of questions. During his recent visit to London, we spoke to the director about his DIY ghost, the soon-to-be-infamous pie scene, and finding inspiration from Asian cinema.

How does A Ghost Story’s budget compare with what you had for Pete’s Dragon?

David Lowery: The official budget for Pete’s Dragon is $65m, and the budget for this movie was around $150,000. We finished Pete’s Dragon last year on June 10 and started shooting this on June 12.

Was it always Casey underneath the bed sheet?

David Lowery: For the most part, yeah. There were a couple of scenes where he’s in the shot with the ghost, like when time starts looping back on itself, and so our art director wore the sheet. And Casey wasn’t available for some reshoots. But he came to town ready to put that sheet on, and he really enjoyed it.

What does Casey bring to the ghost role – as opposed to it being, say, me inside that costume?

David Lowery: He does bring something. In the early takes, he was just Casey Affleck with a sheet over his head. I thought it’d be amazing, but the more we recognised him under the sheet, the less the ghost worked as a character. So we had to remove that performance.

Ultimately, it could have been anyone under the sheet, because I would have directed you in the same way, which is: “Hold completely still, and if you have to move to another room, move your head slowly without adjusting your chin.” It’s very mechanical. It’s more like puppeteering than acting. But it was still important for him to put it on.

How crucial is it having an A-lister under the sheet?

David Lowery: I don’t want to say it’s a cheap thrill, but there’s something cool about it. I remember seeing Manchester by the Sea and thinking, “This guy’s gonna win an Oscar – let’s put a sheet over his head.”

Let’s say Casey had turned down the movie. It’d still be good, but there’s an element of having two movie stars in those roles that gives the audience something to grab on to. In a movie that’s abstract, elusive and perhaps challenging to some audiences, it’s important to have a safety valve for them to grab hold of.

“She (Kesha) came to town, did that cameo, and wrote a song for that scene. It was about utilising her energy” – David Lowery

It also adds a specific energy having two musicians, Kesha and Bonnie Prince Billy, in supporting roles. Was that intentional?

David Lowery: Definitely. With Bonnie Prince Billy, I’d worked with him on a short, Pioneer, and he did some music for Pete’s Dragon. His songwriting is so akin to storytelling, and he has such a natural presence, whether he’s singing or orating, that I knew he’d be able to sell this incredibly long monologue.

That scene is a house party. My producer asked what type of music we should have. I said, “It’s a party where people are listening to Kesha”. He’s like, “Great. We’ll see if we can get some Kesha songs”. Then that turned into: “What if we actually have Kesha in that scene, and have an original song she’s written?” We didn’t know her, but we reached out to her. She came to town, did that cameo, and wrote a song for that scene. It was about utilising her energy.

What kind of pie does Rooney eat? It looks pretty gross.

David Lowery: A gluten-free vegan chocolate pie.

When we spoke to Todd Haynes for Carol, he complimented Rooney’s food-acting.

David Lowery: Oh yes, creamed spinach!

It’s a really popular GIF,, and he told us she improvised it. How much did you discuss the pie scene beforehand?

David Lowery: It was scripted and I knew it’d be one shot. She was like, “Do I really have to eat an entire pie?” I said, “Yes!” She suggested other food options that would be easier to eat, and I was completely dead-set on it being a pie.

I didn’t have to give much direction, because she’s an amazing actress who understood the material and that it was the biggest chance she had to define her character. She’s lost someone she loves, and we needed a scene that could convey her shellshock. I said, “When you’re done, you’re done. You tell us how long the scene’s going to be, because we’re just going to let you go for it.”

Cars give me a lot of anxiety, so I notice when filmmakers like Noah Baumbach, Christian Petzold and Kenneth Lonergan fill their movies with road accidents. This is your second in a row with a fatal car crash within the first 10 minutes.

David Lowery: It wasn’t intentional. In my mind, it’s just an easy way to kill a character (laughs). I’ve never been in a car accident, so I don’t have a personal relationship to it. They could have been hit by a falling piano. But it’s uniquely cinematic. As George Miller said, there’s nothing more cinematic than a car moving through space at high speeds.

Is there a car crash in your next film, The Old Man and the Gun?

David Lowery: There is one, actually. No one dies, but there are some car accidents.

“It’s uniquely cinematic. As George Miller said, there’s nothing more cinematic than a car moving through space at high speeds” – David Lowery

You’ve described A Ghost Story as a cross between Beetlejuice and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Why Apichatpong? Is that because of the dead co-existing with the living?

David Lowery: No, but it should be. I’ve been a huge fan of his films since Tropical Malady. Obviously Uncle Boonmee has a really wonderful usage of ghostly folklore, but I was thinking more of his aesthetics and his use of time. In Uncle Boonmee, the creature is a gorilla suit with two little LED lights for the eyes. He used something really goofy in that movie and made it beautiful and ethereal. That’s what I wanted with our ghost.

Apichatpong says it a compliment if viewers fall asleep during his films. Are cinemagoers allowed to doze off during A Ghost Story?

David Lowery: If people fall asleep during A Ghost Story, that’s totally fine. Some people might have a better experience. The movie exists in a dreamy state, and it doesn’t have a lot of literal content. If you fall asleep, you’re not going to miss on any story. And whatever your brain feels while you’re dreaming, it could be valuable and really add to the film.

Kiarostami said some of his favourite movies are the ones he’s fallen asleep during. When it feels OK, it’s a beautiful thing. Not every movie needs that. When I saw Inland Empire, David Lynch was there. The person introducing it said, “This movie is very long. If you feel the need to drift off to sleep, that’s OK.” Then David Lynch came out and said, “No! That is not OK! You need to watch every single frame!”

A Ghost Story opens in cinemas on 11 August

Follow Nick Chen on Twitter here @halfacanyon