Be­liev­ing in a holy spirit

A spooky ex­pe­ri­ence at the age of six in­spired David Low­ery to make ‘A Ghost Story’, and the re­sult is an un­set­tling, emo­tional film that has var­i­ous re­li­gions fight­ing to claim it. He talks to Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY - A Ghost Story is on re­lease

Get ready to the­o­rise and spec­u­late. We may only be half way through 2017 but David Low­ery’s fourth fea­ture film, A Ghost Story, is un­likely to be sur­passed for mul­ti­ple read­ings and strange the­o­ries.

It’s an al­le­gory about toxic mas­culin­ity in which a phantom tor­ments a single mother and her young im­mi­grant fam­ily. It chron­i­cles the his­tory of Texas from its early coloni­sa­tion by Euro­pean set­tlers and ges­tures to­ward Amer­ica’s even­tual post-in­dus­trial im­plo­sion. Tak­ing cues from Dick­ens, it uses its tit­u­lar spec­tre to cri­tique cap­i­tal­ism and ma­te­ri­al­ism. It’s about the near-cosmic level of voyeurism fos­tered by the in­ter­net age.

If that wasn’t enough food for thought, A Ghost Story also con­tains a scene wherein Rooney Mara, grieving her dead lover, stress-eats an en­tire pie. Mara has sub­se­quently ad­mit­ted that the pie in the scene – a sugar-free, ve­gan choco­late-pud­ding pie – was the first she had ever tried.

So what is the mean­ing of Low­ery’s melan­cholic, ex­is­ten­tial fa­ble? And where does the dessert come into it?

“It’s been amaz­ing to hear and read all these the­o­ries,” says the writer-di­rec­tor. “Be­cause I went into it with such speci­ficity and al­most a nar­row fo­cus. It’s been a won­der­ful sur­prise to hear what au­di­ences get out of the film.

“Very of­ten they are get­ting out ex­actly what I in­tended. But some­times they bring a unique per­spec­tive that I could never have an­tic­i­pated. I never say it’s not about toxic mas­culin­ity or about Texas. And voyeurism is cer­tainly a big part of it. Robert Alt­man said some­thing once about this phe­nom­e­non. Which is that ev­ery single el­e­ment of a movie is read­able in­tu­ition. I’ve hung on to that phrase.”

A Ghost Story was re­leased in the US to a great deal of chat­ter and a per-theatre screen av­er­age of $27,017. That’s al­most a thou­sand bucks more per cin­ema than Spi­der Man: Home­com

ing. And now com­pet­ing re­li­gions are bat­tling for its soul.

Pur­ga­tory

At a re­cent New York screen­ing, Ti­betan prac­ti­tion­ers were keen to stress that the jour­ney taken by the tit­u­lar wraith en­acts the Bud­dhist con­cept of Bardo, which is the state of in­ter­me­di­ate ex­is­tence be­tween two lives on Earth.

Mean­while, Kurt Jensen, writ­ing for the Catholic News Ser­vice, de­scribes A Ghost Story as “the best film about pur­ga­tory you’ll see this year”.

Low­ery is the el­dest of nine chil­dren and the son of Mark Low­ery, a pro­fes­sor of the­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Dal­las and the former editor-in-chief of the Catholic So­cial Sci­ence Re­view. He agrees that there may be a Catholic sen­si­bil­ity un­der­scor­ing his new film.

“My mother would be very happy to hear you say that,” he says laugh­ing. “I was def­i­nitely raised Catholic. Very Catholic in­deed. I no longer par­tic­i­pate in Catholi­cism. But I have no doubt that it made a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on me while grow­ing up. I also sus­pect that what­ever I do for the rest of my life will be thor­oughly Catholic whether I like it or not.”

There are ad­di­tional early in­flu­ences. Aged six, Low­ery imag­ined he saw the ghost of a young boy at the fam­ily farm­house in Wis­con­sin, a spec­ta­cle he now at­tributes to an over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion.

“At the time I thought it was real. But look­ing back I as­sume I was just imag­in­ing things. I don’t re­ally be­lieve in ghosts, but I am open to the pos­si­bil­ity that they might ex­ist. I guess I’m ag­nos­tic on the mat­ter.

“If I did ex­pe­ri­ence a quan­tifi­able su­per­nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non I don’t know how it would change me ex­actly. But it would cer­tainly al­ter my per­spec­tive on the world.”

Quo­ta­tion

Vir­ginia Woolf, one of Low­ery’s favourite au­thors, pro­vided a rather more tan­gi­ble in­flu­ence on the ma­te­rial. The film opens with a quo­ta­tion from Woolf’s 1921 short story A Haunted

House. Ea­gle-eyed view­ers will likely spot fur­ther ref­er­ences to the pioneer­ing modernist au­thor.

“Or­lando is one of my favourite nov­els,” says Low­ery. “I love her let­ters too. She’s my guid­ing light. The way she uses time fas­ci­nates me. Es­pe­cially in To the

Light­house and Or­lando. They play with time in this dy­namic and fun way. I love the idea of a char­ac­ter ex­ist­ing out­side of time in the way that Or­lando does.

“So that was cer­tainly on my mind when I was writ­ing the screen­play. And I wanted to pay ho­mage to her in some small re­gard. And I won­dered if she had ever writ­ten about ghosts. So I did a Google search and found A

Haunted House. I couldn’t be­lieve that I had never read it be­fore.

“The first sen­tence be­gins: ‘What­ever hour you woke there was a door shunt­ing’. I couldn’t re­sist ex­tend­ing that to the film. I hope that it en­cour­ages some­body some­where to pick up her work. Be­cause I owe a lot to her.”

Low­ery made his first short film aged 19. He was still in his 20s when he spent $12,000 to make his award-win­ning de­but fea­ture, the 2009 drama St Nick.

His sopho­more ef­fort, the 2013 Texas crime drama Ain’t

Them Bod­ies Saints, star­ring Casey Af­fleck and Rooney Mara, was short­listed for the grand jury prize at Sun­dance, and was se­lected for in­ter­na­tional crit­ics week at Cannes. He had edited Alex Ross Perry’s Lis­ten Up, Phil

ip and pro­duced Shane Car­ruth’s Up­stream Colour when Dis­ney ap­proached him to di­rect the $65 mil­lion live ac­tion ver­sion of Pete’s Dragon.

Col­lab­o­ra­tion

Last summer, two days af­ter he fin­ished his much-ad­mired re­boot, Low­ery se­cretly be­gan shoot­ing A Ghost Story with a

$150,000 bud­get and his friends Af­fleck and Mara.

“There’s an ease to our col­lab­o­ra­tion,” says Low­ery. “We’re all ve­gan. We have sim­i­lar dis­po­si­tions. We’re all very quiet peo­ple. Mak­ing movies is chal­leng­ing. It wears you out. It tries your pa­tience. So if you can find peo­ple you get along with, it makes the whole process eas­ier and en­joy­able.”

A Ghost Story con­cerns a young cou­ple known only as C and M (Casey Af­fleck and Rooney Mara). They are de­bat­ing a pos­si­ble move out of their re­mote Texan home when C dies in a car ac­ci­dent, only to re­turn as a low-tech ap­pari­tion: an Oscar-win­ning ac­tor with a sheet over his head, and holes cut out for eyes.

“It’s the sim­plest pos­si­ble Hal­loween cos­tume,” notes the writer-di­rec­tor.

C’s ghost watches as M moves on and oth­ers make the house their home, in­clud­ing a ver­bose Will Old­ham, who makes a lengthy, ap­pro­pri­ately cosmic mono­logue sug­gest­ing that all hu­man no­tions of pos­ter­ity are ul­ti­mately ephemeral. To un­der­score the point, C en­coun­ters an­other fe­male ghost (Kesha un­der a flow­ery sheet) who has been wait­ing for some­one for so long she has for­got­ten who it was.

“I don’t 100 per cent as­cribe to what the mono­logue is say­ing,” says Low­ery. “But it’s de­liv­ered in the pres­ence of a ghost so it’s rel­e­vant. I agree with cer­tain themes. I’ve found it very help­ful to em­brace the fi­nite na­ture of

my own work. And my­self. There’s a sense of im­por­tance that comes from work. But I had to put that aside and to di­min­ish my own sense of self-im­por­tance. I had to get over my­self a lit­tle. Movies won’t be around for­ever.”

A Ghost Story ar­rives as part of a new wave of films – in­clud­ing Trey Ed­ward Shults’s It

Comes at Night, Jor­dan Peele’s Get Out and Olivier As­sayas’s

Per­sonal Shop­per – that have been var­i­ously de­scribed as woke horror, post-horror, and new art horror.

“There’s def­i­nitely some­thing there,” says Low­ery. “There was an ar­ti­cle in the Guardian re­cently that coined the term post-horror. I never con­ceived of A Ghost

Story as a horror film. But I do love the genre.

“And I re­ally want to make a horror film some day that scares peo­ple. In the mean­time I’m happy to be in­cluded in this off­shoot genre.

“I saw Per­sonal Shop­per a few months ago and it knocked my socks off. The way it used the lan­guage of horror film to a dif­fer­ent end to most horror was re­ally im­pres­sive. I was moved and per­plexed. I never re­ally think about the zeit­geist. But I recog­nise that these movies have some­thing in com­mon.”

Crime­drama

Hav­ing just com­pleted work on the up­com­ing crime drama The

Old Man and the Gun (star­ring Robert Red­ford and Casey Af­fleck), Low­ery will re­turn to oc­cult themes with the pi­lot for

Strange An­gel, a bi­o­graph­i­cal drama in­spired by the life of rocket sci­en­tist and Aleis­ter Crow­ley devo­tee Jack Par­sons. Af­ter that, he’ll reteam with Dis­ney for the live ac­tion Peter Pan.

“I’m work­ing on the Peter Pan script,” he says. “The movie I just fin­ished shoot­ing is about as prag­matic and re­al­is­tic as you can get, so that’s a brief de­tour. Oth­er­wise, I love magic re­al­ism. I love the su­per­nat­u­ral. I love things that go bump in the night. I love genre. I feel like I’ll keep mak­ing movies of that sort. They’ll al­ways have some­thing spooky run­ning through them.”

Aged six, Low­ery imag­ined he saw the ghost of a young boy at the fam­ily farm­house. ‘I don’t re­ally be­lieve in ghosts, but I am open to the pos­si­bil­ity that they might ex­ist’

Holy smoke

A scene from ‘A Ghost Story’, in which Casey Af­fleck is largely kept un­der a sheet

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