INTERVIEW: David Lowery, director of “A Ghost Story”

3 10 2017

In July, I was able to interview David Lowery for a piece I wrote on Film School Rejects that contextualized his film “A Ghost Story” within a canon of existential films made by Texan directors that includes Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” I had a full twenty minutes with him, which was more than enough to get the few quotes I needed to round out the piece. So with the permission of my editor, I’m publishing the full transcript of our talk here. There were just too many good tidbits here not to share!

Also, if you haven’t seen the film … you probably shouldn’t read this.

I’ve heard you say that A Ghost Story contains some elements of autobiography – as such, did you have to shoot it in Texas? Was there any other place you could have – or would have wanted to – shoot it anywhere else?

I didn’t have to shoot it in Texas, but it definitely made the entire process easier both in a practical sense and an emotional one.

In a practical sense, it’s easier for me to make movies in Texas – especially at the scale we were making this movie on. I have the ability to call in favors in my hometown in a way I can’t anywhere else, and when you’re making a movie on this budget, that is something you just have to do. So on a very practical level, I was just able to make this movie in Texas. If I tried to make this somewhere else, I wouldn’t have.

But insomuch as it is a personal movie that does contain elements of autobiography, I wanted to feel like I was making a movie in my own backyard. I wanted to feel like I was making a movie in my own backyard. I wanted it to take place in the same landscapes that I live in (I still make my home here). I could have made exactly the same movie on a shot-by-shot basis somewhere else, and it wouldn’t have changed that much. It wouldn’t have been that quantifiably different. But it wouldn’t have been as personal to me. Because I wanted this one to be personal, it was important to let that connection extend to the geography in which the film takes place.

What is Texas to you? How has the experience of growing up and living in this state inform your sensibilities as a filmmaker?

It’s funny because I grew up wanting to get out of Texas. I moved here when I was 7, and I was not a fan. My mother’s from Fort Worth, and she predisposed me to not like Texas as a child. She did not love Texas –  I spent the first couple of years in my life in Wisconsin, and she was very happy there. When we moved to Texas, it was a disappointment in her life that she had to go back to the state that she was born and raised in. So I was naturally predisposed to not like it also.

As I got older, I wanted to stake out, or leave the state and move to New York or LA to find my path on one of the two coasts. That was definitely my plan for a long time, but at some point – I guess, rather than going into the long autobiography of my history with Texas – I stopped disliking it and become nonchalant about it. And then that nonchalance eventually turned into an affection. And then that affection turned into a part of my identity. At a certain point, I realized that I identified as a Texan, and it was important for me to stay here and keep making movies here.

Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story

From my understanding, this started as a personal story about the decision you and your wife were making about moving out of your house. At what point did you expand the story to encompass a more cosmic perspective? 

It was there from the very beginning. I often conflate the domestic and the cosmic on a daily basis, so I make those jumps all the time in my day-to-day life. It wasn’t that big of a leap when it came to writing that for the script. In fact, the very first image that I wrote for the screenplay was of the cosmos at dawn and the camera dropping down to find this little house. That’s not the first shot in the movie anymore, but it’s pretty close to the beginning and it’s the first thing I wrote down. That was always part of the story.

And the ghost was always part of the story, too. There was never a version of this movie that didn’t have the ghost there. But all these ideas entwined in my subconscious in just the right way that when I sat down to write the film, they were all already there. It wasn’t a matter of trying to find a way to represent my own personal history on film, nor did I just simply want to make a haunted house movie. In order to make a movie about life in a cosmic sense, all those things just naturally intertwined themselves as I was writing the script. There was no cart before any particular horse, in this case.

Which came first – your decision to take time as the subject of the film, or your decision to use time as the building blocks of the experience? Like the duration of the pie-eating scene or the monologue at the party.

Both of those, while intrinsically related, came from two different places. My initial idea was to let the temporal aspects of the movie simply exist in the filmmaking. It was going to be a movie comprised of very long takes and very few compositions. And I wanted it to be a movie that indulged in my own affection for slow cinema. I knew this would be the type of film that could utilize that in an effective way, it wouldn’t just be a stylistic trick, and I really wanted to lean into that – the idea of using time as a way to tell a story in a visual sense.

At a certain point, my own obsession with time as something that I process as a human being came into focus as a narrative element, not just a part of the form but a part of the content as well. The monologue is where that came into play most acutely. I can only assume that on a subconscious level, that was the result of me writing something that was already so temporally focused on a formal level. Eventually it just became text in the script in addition to just subtext. But when I look back now, they seem completely related to the other. But in the process of writing the film, the movie wasn’t going to use time the way it wound up using time. That was something that came about naturally while I was writing it.

I’ve heard you talk about how Shane Carruth came in and helped you tinker with time to find the movie’s rhythm in the editing room. Was he helping you achieve your original vision of the film or showing you something you didn’t realize it could do before?

He was working on the assembly while we were shooting, and he completely threw the script away and cut the footage together based on his own intuition. He was looking for hidden connections and narrative jumps, and all the things you would recognize in one of his films. That was wonderfully liberating for me because, at that point, I had the screenplay and felt it was pretty solid. But I felt pretty rigid about it. I felt it needed to follow certain rules, particularly in regards to time. At a certain point in the film, time as a narrative construct gets very flexible. I felt that, on a formal level, time needed to be incredibly rigid and well-defined so it wouldn’t muddy the waters of the narrative later on down the line.

What Shane did was help me rid myself of that rigidity, basically. Although he only worked on the movie for a few weeks, what he put together was vastly illuminating. He wasn’t so much finding the rhythms I later employed so much as he was showing me that I did not need to follow my own rules so thoroughly. That the film could withstand a more flexible approach – and, indeed, benefit from it.

I’ve read some things where you talk about how your experiences with Catholicism and Buddhism might or might not have informed the film. But apart from religion, is there something spiritual about the land in Texas to you? Or something that transcends time?

I definitely feel that. I feel that about the houses I live in. There is a palpable sense of history in the homes that I choose to occupy. I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitate towards old homes, I really like that sense of history and that sense that I am one step in a very long process that trails out in both directions around me. Before me and ahead of me.

Texas, in general, for me has such rich history and amazing history that it’s impossible to separate the state from its own legacy. I value that. I really enjoy that. The same is true for any part of the country, or any part of the world. But because I’ve been raised in Texas and steeped in Texas history, that particular tradition and that legacy is readily apparent to me everywhere I look. It is not necessarily the most savory history, in its current form. We’ll look back at what’s happening now in the state and hopefully recognize that this particular chapter in Texas history is not the best one.

Nonetheless, that history is rich and vivid and angry and beautiful and sad – and has a spirit to it that is undeniable. I think that is what appeals to me about Texas above all else. It has this almost unquantifiable spirit that is both political and personal. I think the best metaphor for it, on a visual level, is to point to the flag which is historically the only state flag that can be flown at the same level as the U.S. flag. In that rambunctious, upstart spirit, I find a great deal of personal satisfaction. I like that. I don’t like where it leads all the time, on a political and personal level, but I like what’s behind it. I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitate not just to Texas history but to the state itself and why I want to reside there.

And what about music – that seems to be something that connects C and M across their different plains of existence?

I think music is just one of those things that can cut through whatever – you are catching me on a day when I have run out of all my vocabulary. Gosh, what word am I looking for?

I really find music combines things together in a way that nothing else can. It combines two people together with an expediency that no other form of communication can. It can cut through words and meaning and get directly to the heart of the matter. When I find myself in a narrative bind as a storyteller and screenwriter, I often use music as a way to get out of it. Music just solves problems. It can be a great equalizer and put all sorts of conflicts at rest – at least temporarily. In this film, the characters are having a dispute and reach an impasse. That impasse is ultimately resolved not through words or conversations but just through an exchange of music.

And that, in my life, has been a very meaningful experience which has proven to be true time and again. If there are no words in any given situation that can make a situation better or communicate an idea, music can often step in and provide that common ground for two people. And if you just want to boil it down just how it functions in a relationship, when two people get to know each other, the fastest way to understand the way in which a stranger feels or looks at the world or thinks about the world is to listen to their iTunes library to get a sense of their taste of music. You get to know someone so much more thoroughly when you’re getting to know them on a musical level. Once you build a relationship with someone, whether it’s a friend or a coworker or a collaborator or a spouse, the way in which music intertwines in your mutual lives is usually one of the most defining aspects of that relationship. At least that’s what I’ve found.

So I wanted that to be common ground in which the two characters come together in an important moment in their lives.

I seem to recall you hitting back at some of the lazy characterizations of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as Malick-inspired, but those light refractions inside the house did remind me some of the flickering flame in The Tree of Life – so I have to ask, was this project influenced by Malick at all?

Definitely. There’s no way for me not to be influenced by Malick just because I have definitely found a great deal of value in what he is contributing to cinema, on a formal level and the cinematic grammar that he employs. And the idealistic one, because I do like what he is after – particularly in The Tree of Life, he is seeking after something that can’t be contained in mere narrative.

So I definitely will cop to being influenced by him, there’s no doubt about it. In this movie, there is that flickering little ghost light on the wall that does exist in The Tree of Life. I can’t say that that wasn’t an influence but that also in my friend John’s [movie title – unintelligible] and that was probably a bigger influence. I saw his movie and was like, “Huh, I might borrow that some day.” And I did. It wasn’t until later where I was like, we probably both got that from The Tree of Life.

I don’t bristle at being compared to Malick because I like the same things he likes and respond to the same things he responds to.  I think – I’ve never met him – but I can tell in what he does that I want to do similar things. But I don’t want to limit myself to that. There’s truth in every single comparison but I also feel there’s a lot more going on under that. Hopefully, in particular with A Ghost Story, it manages to break free of those comparisons. Although I’m totally fine if they’re made.

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REVIEW: Battle of the Sexes

1 10 2017

Toronto International Film Festival

NOTE: Since I reviewed this film for a bigger outlet, I can’t really reprint the review in its entirety. From now on, when I’ve given a film a proper review elsewhere, I’ll use this space to expand upon certain elements that might not have made their way into the full review.

Battle of the Sexes

One aspect of “Battle of the Sexes” getting lost amidst the gendered 2016 election comparisons is the film’s queer storyline. It was important that Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King was a woman facing Steve Carell’s misogynist Bobby Riggs, but as the 1973 public did not know, it was important that she was a queer woman. King was living a lie to herself and her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) because the world was simply not ready to accept a prominent lesbian athlete. (It’s used against King by one of her pious teammates as blackmail, another sad reminder that not every woman abides by the tenets of feminism.)

As I wrote in my full review, “It’s important ‘Battle of the Sexes’ included Marilyn [King’s lover, played by Andrea Riseborough] – to reduce her role or eliminate her altogether would have been nothing short of erasure.” But while their love story might not function smoothly as a romantic subplot, it does open a window into the quiet dignity of a still very underground LGBT community. (Most notable among them is Alan Cumming as Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling, the women’s costumer.) In particular, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris pick up on the incognito communication they use to keep each other safe and covered. These observations are perceptive, and they seem like just nice moments until a surprisingly walloping emotional coda that I dare not spoil consummates them into something more.

Also, Sarah Silverman should only play sleazy promoters/publicists moving forward. Between this and “Popstar,” she’s found her perfect type. B+

Read my full review on Slashfilm.





Where I’ve Been

30 09 2017

Hey.

It’s been a while, I know.

The last time I posted, August 19, feels like a lifetime ago. That it’s been just over 40 days seems impossible. (Apologies in advance for the ensuing humblebrag.) I took off for a week-long trip to visit a friend in London on August 22, not knowing just how different my hometown of Houston would be when I returned. Toward the end of my trip, Hurricane Harvey caused widespread devastation across Houston and much of southeast Texas – though, luckily, my home and family were spared any flooding damage.

I was not able to return home as planned on August 29, instead taking a detour to stay with family friends in Baltimore until the airports reopened/I was able to get a flight. That wound up taking until September 3.

Then, I packed up and left again on September 7 to attend a friend’s wedding in Los Angeles. From there, I left on September 10 to spend five days soaking up the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which I covered for Slashfilm and Vague Visages. It was an honor to attend and cover for these outlets, but man, was I wiped after 20 movies and everything else that had happened in those whirlwind three weeks.

So, to put it bluntly, I needed time for myself. Things had changed and will continue to change. I needed time to hear my own thoughts. To return to some sense of normality. To fall in love with movies again rather than seeing them as a box to be checked or a review to be filed. I’ve taken longer breaks from Marshall and the Movies in the past, although this one feels much longer.

Starting tomorrow, October 1, the new month will bring about a fresh start – and I’ll do my best to start posting once per day again. I make no promises as so much remains in flux. But it’s something I’m ready to begin reincorporating into my life. And you’re going to get a more thoughtful version of me now than you would have gotten were this just another checklist item on my personal agenda, trust me!

(Anyways, I don’t feel like I had to do this – and if you’ve read this far, I’m impressed and flattered. This was more for me than you, admittedly. It’s mostly a little bit of accountability.)





REVIEW: Gook

19 08 2017

Justin Chon’s “Gook” is a film brimming with insight, energy and anger – but ultimately one without the resources or the know-how to make the Molotov cocktail of ideas combust. The story of understanding across generations and races as the 1992 Los Angeles riots come to a head has undeniable sincerity and good intentions. It also bears the marks of a novice filmmaker, veering wildly between the poles of undercooked and overwrought.

In addition to his roles behind the camera, Chon also stars as the protagonist of “Gook,” shoe store owner Eli. Over the course of a sweltering summer day, he must deal with his lazy brother, a bitter cashier across the street and the 11-year-old black girl Kamilla intent on hanging by his side. The film is best when it simply allows his harried day to play out, giving us a look into the overstretched Eli’s attempts to please everyone around him while still making enough money to keep his business open.

But everything else in “Gook” gets a little sloppy, including the incorporation of the riots that give the film its gravitas. These tense conflicts loom in the background and bear on the plot, yet the way they made an entire city combustible doesn’t quite seep into every nook and cranny of the film. It’s little more than a nice backdrop, in other words.

Chon’s film includes highly stylized moments that feel ripped out of a Kendrick Lamar music video, most notably the scenes where time seems to stand still – and Kamilla dances with the abandon of someone who has just learned the true meaning of freedom. His script also works in plenty of on-the-nose dialogue exchanges between Eli and his elders. He’s got talents in both fields, but their juxtaposition in “Gook” simply doesn’t work. The solution? Let Chon make two more movies where he’s allowed to explore each side of his filmmaking persona to its logical end. B-





REVIEW: Marjorie Prime

18 08 2017

Jon Hamm is just sitting on the couch when Michael Almereyda’s “Marjorie Prime” begins. There’s something wooden about him in an intentionally uncanny valley kind of way, like an automaton Don Draper. As it turns out, he’s a hologram of Marjorie’s deceased husband Walter – kept at a much riper age than her current 86 years young.

Walter simultaneously assists in the psychological comforting of a fraying Marjorie (Lois Smith) and assuaging of guilt for her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins). They must still tend to her physically, of course, but Walter can perform some heavy emotional lifting to ease their burden. Among the science-fiction genre, this speculative future looks like it could be closer to fact. With a population of Baby Boomers quickly graying, the promise of AI could free their offspring from providing extensive care through the ultimate act of outsourcing.

The twist in “Marjorie Prime,” though, is that Walter is only as good as Marjorie allows him to be. His technology depends on her willing disclosure of memories, which may not even be entirely accurate. At many points in the film, it’s unclear whether Walter is wrong or if Marjorie’s own mind has failed her.

Most of these tricky contradictions come from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Jordan Harrison which Almereyda adapts into little more than filmed theater. “Marjorie Prime” plods along patiently with the deliberate pacing of a stage show but sorely lacking the human connection normally provided by live actors moving through a space. On screen, the main value of Almereyda’s film seems to be the democratization of the ideas contained within the play through the mass medium of cinema. The over-literalization brought to the text through the magic of cinema removes some of the abstraction, and thus some of the mystique. C+





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 17, 2017)

17 08 2017

Sean Baker might be our most essential contemporary humanist filmmaker. He locates the beating heart of his films not in the extraordinary but in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane. His works start in one place and end in someplace altogether different and unexpected, leaving us all the better for having walked two hours in his characters’ shoes.

His 2012 feature “Starlet” is no different. While my first impression upon encountering the film back in 2013 was that the film was sweet but a little slight, a second watch recently convinced me otherwise. This is more than just a May-December platonic friendship between two women in Los Angeles. It’s a moving journey of how people can clear away the calcified numbness in their hearts.

The central character of this selection in my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column is Dree Hemingway’s 21-year-old Jane, an actress down on luck and short on cash. She gets a welcome snap out of her boredom when she unexpectedly stumbles upon a wad of cash hidden inside a thermos purchased from an elderly woman, Besedka Johnson’s Sadie, at a yard sale. Conflicted, Jane takes some money for herself – but also makes attempts to befriend Sadie to assuage her guilt.

The two initially take to each other like oil and water, but each has a cloistered part of their identity that leaves them with a void in their day-to-day existences. Gradually, and heartwarmingly, they begin to fill that space. We see more of Jane’s alternative world, as she’s the protagonist, and Baker finds a visual schema that represents the two discordant spheres she inhabits. Her home life is filled with hand-held camerawork and fast-paced editing, while her visits with Sadie are comprised of more stable shots and longer takes. I won’t spoil what exactly makes Jane’s personal struggles so turbulent and simply let the film reveal it. Baker drops a detail that would define any other character so casually about halfway through the film; it’s a refreshing change of pace for this type of figure who traditionally never amounts to anything other than the work she does.





REVIEW: The Wound

16 08 2017

At least for now, it’s taken as an assumption that most queer cinema will take place against the background of a heteronormative society. Few visualize it like John Trengove’s “The Wound,” a drama set in among a South African tribe participating in a male circumcision ritual. The first love scene between two men is shot from a dispassionate distance where thrusting is but the motion of a few pixels, and a scene of fellatio shortly after takes place in such dark silhouettes that individuating features are not discernible. These actions is so forbidden and their pleasures so taboo that what we see is little more than bodies in motion.

When we’re closer to two men’s physical intimacy, Trengove shows us the effects of a hypermasculine culture on the lovers. Two people who feel a deep emotional bond do not always feel comfortable enough in their own bodies to express that, so we see a lot of uncomfortable and awkward groping, grasping and grabbing. It’s like watching a surrender to primal urges, stripped from any kind of notions of romance or sensuality.

“The Wound” is less compelling when these characters try to awkwardly integrate in with their more macho companions in the tribe. Trengove does astutely observe the ways that homoeroticism thrives in homophobic spaces; for example, several young men expose their genitalia to each other from behind towels to compare unit length but throw around anti-gay epithets at will. Yet his film operates better with themes than it does with people. The central love triangle is poorly defined, and the other characters are mere caricatures. B-