Haunting film encases friends
Director David Lowery tells James Croot how he managed to persuade Oscars’ current best actor to spend most of a movie with a sheet over his head.
Not many directors would have the audacity to ask the most recent Oscarwinning actor to take a role where he’d spend most of the time with a sheet over his head.
Not many directors could persuade a rising Hollywood actress to eat a whole family-sized pie while on camera.
But that’s exactly what David Lowery did in order to make his new film A Ghost Story .A haunting, low-key drama that almost defies description (think Truly, Madly, Deeply-meets-Ghost filmed by a combination of Terrence Malick and David Lynch), this time-bending tale of loss, love and legacy makes its Kiwi-debut as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.
The Texan film-maker, best known here for his work on our shores shooting 2016 family film Pete’s Dragon, says it helped that he knew Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara well, the trio having worked together on his directorial debut feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
‘‘It definitely was important to me having my friends [Casey and Rooney] working on this movie with me. It was such a small movie, such a strange undertaking, that I wanted to have the safety net of friendship all around me at all times.
‘‘Ever since we first worked together, we’ve been friends who hang out when in the same city. We’ve always wanted to work together again. This felt like the right opportunity, the right kind of movie to make together.
‘‘It was as friends that I approached them and as friends that they said yes. It wasn’t a business opportunity. It wasn’t an opportunity to take on a role that might win anybody any awards. They approached this as two friends who wanted to help another friend make something, and that was a beautiful way to make this film.’’
The 36-year-old writer-director admits he was asking both of them to do things ‘‘that were slightly off the beaten path’’. ‘‘They had to subjugate their own ideas about acting to a certain degree to what this film needed – especially in Casey’s case – but they both were down for the cause.’’
It’s at this point that the eldest of nine siblings admits he’s not 100 per cent sure where his story idea came from. ‘‘I do know that the idea of making a ghost movie in which the ghost is wearing a bedsheet is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time – an image in my mind that was waiting for me to use it.
‘‘However, I don’t know what compelled me to sit down and write this movie – something I did in one sitting, so it’s hard to parse out the myriad sources of inspiration that led to it. I can say that I had been in a tremendous argument with my wife [Augustine Frizzell who he married in 2010] about where we were going to live. I wanted to move back to Texas, she wanted to stay in Los Angeles. We had one of those arguments that happen in relationships sometimes that feel like scenes from movies – it felt like we were characters shouting dialogue.
‘‘Out of that argument, I just wanted to do some soul searching and kind of come to terms with why I didn’t want to live in Los Angeles – why I wanted to move back to Texas where I’m from.’’
Out came, virtually fully formed from the off, A Ghost Story’s screenplay, essentially what the idea of home means to Lowery. ‘‘It’s a movie about both the meaning and attachment of home.’’
So naturally that meant he just had to film it in Texas, ‘‘particularly with the [small] amount of money we had to spend’’. ‘‘I knew it would be easier to make it there and that I’d be more comfortable there. The fact we wound up shooting it in Irving specifically [where Lowery spent his formative years] was purely coincidental, but that added an amazing layer of nostalgia to the whole process. We were shooting relatively right down the street from my parents’ house – where they still live.
‘‘There is all sorts of sentimentality to the production that maybe doesn’t show up on screen, but certainly was a very big, heavy part of the process.’’
One intriguing thing that does show up on screen is the film’s opening quote (‘‘Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting.’’), taken from Virginia Woolf’s 1921 short-story A Haunted House.
‘‘It was a stroke of luck that I found that short story,’’ says Lowery. ‘‘I knew I wanted to include her literature in the movie in some way because the way in which she wrote about time and the passage of time has been a tremendous inspiration to me as a writer and as a film-maker. Her body of work as a whole has been an inspiration but, in particular, the way she uses time had a tremendous effect on me.
‘‘There’s a scene in the film where the ghost knocks some books off the bookshelf and Rooney picks them up again and pauses to read one of them and I wanted that to be a Virginia Woolf story – just a glimpse of her prose.
‘‘I thought it would be something from Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, but I wondered to myself if she’d ever written anything about ghosts. So I googled ‘Virginia Woolf ghosts’ and out came this story called Haunted House and it fitted my ghost story to a T. It was exactly what I was trying to get across – this idea of a phantom trying to
Areclaim something in a physical space that he or she had once lived.
‘‘Her story is two ghosts – two lovers rushing through a home. The prose flows like a river – it’s so beautiful, moving. I just wanted to direct audiences towards it. I don’t know if anyone will know that is that short story. I know that people will see the quote at the beginning and see that it is setting you up for something. It is the first sentence of the short story and how our story begins as well. It seemed like a great way to tee things off and a way of tipping my hat to one of my favourite authors.
Another key contribution to the project was provided by regular Lowery collaborator, composer Daniel Hart.
‘‘The song that Rooney listens to that Casey’s character has written is a song by Daniel and his band The Darkroom. It was a song written for his upcoming album and he played it for me while we were doing the score to Pete’s Dragon and I quickly became obsessed with it, turning it into a template for A Ghost Story‘s entire score. If you were to break down every piece of the score, at the core there’s some element from the song – a piece of strings, vocals.’’
Lowrey’s mention of Pete’s allows me the opportunity to ask about his time here in 2015 filming in the Hutt Valley, Waikato and West Otago’s Tapanui.
‘‘I had the best time ever working on Pete’s Dragon. Making that movie was a joy and I was just thinking it’s almost a year since I was last in New Zealand to release the movie. I feel like I need to get back there, I need to return because it has been too long. I miss it and I would love to make another movie there. I don’t know what that movie will be, but I guarantee that I will return.
‘‘I do gravitate towards small towns. I do enjoy making movies there, involving the community. Irving is a little bit bigger than Tapanui, but it definitely still has that smalltown vibe and there’s something honest and sincere about making a movie in an environment like that. It doesn’t have the anonymity of making a movie in a city.
‘‘There’s a personality in the landscape and the world around you and I want to capture that in my films.
‘‘One of the highlights of my life was to involve that entire [Tapanui] community in the filmmaking process and then, to go back again to the community centre and show the movie to everyone in the town. It was such a wonderful opportunity to come back and present it to everyone who had helped us make it.’’
But if making people believe in furry dragons proved no obstacle to Lowrey, getting the right look for his ghost in this latest work proved a far tougher challenge.
‘‘We all understand the image of the classic Halloween costume ghost, but if you put a sheet over somebody’s head and cut two holes, it doesn’t quite work the way you think it should. Well, maybe as a child for Halloween, but not for an adult in a feature length film.’’
The problems he encountered included the fact that even kingsize bedsheets don’t cover your feet (‘‘so the illusion is lost’’) and that you can’t just cut two eyeholes because they simply droop.
‘‘My costume designer Annell Brodeur spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to achieve a symmetrical look in threedimensions. That involved a lot of testing of what type of fabric to use and the type of thread count that would hang and drape in the right fashion. Then she had to fabricate it from scratch so that the arms could hang and move and yet remain covered.
‘‘So underneath the topsheet, there was all sorts of petticoat layers to help with the shape, as well as a head-cap made out of felt, that all made sure it puffed out around the waist and feet so he didn’t get caught on it if he was moving around.
‘‘There’s a lot going on in that costume to achieve the simplicity that appears on screen,’’ Lowery says, laughing at the suggestion that it has already become this year’s must-dress-as Halloween costume.
‘‘Look, if you want to wear it for Halloween you’re going to have to spend a little bit of money.’’
"There's a personality in the landscape and the world around you and I want to capture that in my films." David Lowery