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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