The TDF Interview: David Lowery

The name David Lowery first came the attention of most people with 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a film that won acclaim both on the festival circuit and in critical circles, building upon the directors first two releases, Deadroom and St. Nick.

This took him onto a re-imagining of Pete’s Dragon, taking something of a leap away from independent filmmaking, working with the behemoth that is Disney. Stepping into the studio environment clearly didn't change him and once that was done, he immediately began work on A Ghost Story, reuniting once more with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.

The film’s imagery alone marks it out as a different approach to a traditional ghost story, with Affleck spending the majority of the film standing underneath a white bedsheet (and yes, he was under there the whole time on set) and Mara showing us the true delights of pie eating. It is a contemplative and beguiling journey through time looking at our world from another dimension, asking us to question the value of all that we see around us while still alive.

We spoke to David recently about his love of horror, some of the influences that inspired him to make the film and  how he sees his progression as a filmmaker after six films.

Rather fittingly, the film really haunts and stays with you for some time after you’ve finished watching it. But aside from it literally being the story of a ghost, how would you describe the film and its themes?

That’s a very good question and I should have a really rote answer, but I don’t. To me, the tagline sort of sums it up – it’s all about time. I did want to make a movie that dealt with the passage of time and the way that we as human beings think about time, process it, the attachments we make and the things we let go of. If there is a theme of the movie, it’s the theme of letting go – which is an important one – but I know from talking to people who have seen it there is a lot more you can draw from it than that.

The film is surprisingly tense in places. Would you be interested in doing a more ‘conventional’ horror? I saw one of your last tweets before you took a break from Twitter was about seeing The Conjuring 2 - is it a genre that interests you in general?

I love horror films, I would happily do The Conjuring 3 if I had the chance! I saw The Conjuring 2 right before we started shooting with my DP and it scared the heck out of me. I get scared really easily. I go see all of the Paranormal Activity movies and I watch between my fingers. I can’t handle it but I love going to see them. I love horror films and I wanted there to be some element of that in here. And so, that moment when you hear the piano in the house was meant to be very tense and scary. It’s not designed to make you cover your eyes like I would but it’s just meant to build this sense of unease – not even dread but unease – you think it’s leaning to one thing but it turns out it leads to something else. The language of horror films is wonderful. I love that there are things that can telegraph to an audience that something unusual or frightening may be afoot and you can build upon that. The whole sequence in the film with the family in the house is really me just riffing on Poltergeist.

An opportunity to squeeze some traditional horror tropes into the film?

Exactly. Just like when you see the door knob turning by itself, that doesn’t necessarily correspond with the rules of the movie, but I thought “this is a ghost movie, you have to have that in there”.

It’s not often we are asked to empathise with a spirit. Why did you want to tell a story from the ghost’s perspective?

When thinking about making a haunted house movie, it’s very easy to empathise with the humans because they represent us, and that is why 90% of them do take that perspective and it’s fun to think of things popping out and scaring you. And when you think about a movie like The Conjuring and think about it from the ghost’s perspective, it suddenly becomes a very sad story and probably a relatively boring story too – if there are no humans around you’re probably not doing much scaring. I really like the idea of approaching a haunted house movie from a ghost’s point of view, it’s an idea that pre-dated this movie. This movie is a product of a bunch of different ideas that all came together at the same time and yielded the screenplay. But, it felt like in my attempt to deal with the passage of time, that the character of a ghost stuck in one place would be uniquely suited to being the protagonist of a story that has that as its subject matter. It allowed me to engage with these different modes of storytelling and play with the idea of a horror film and with the idea of an original drama and leave those ideas behind and move towards what the movie was ultimately about.

I read it started out as a very small concept about staying in one place before you began to add in more elements – such as the iconic ghost bedsheet – at what point did you know you really had something that would work?

I think it was after the second week of shooting and at that point I was just convinced that this whole thing was a disaster. So that weekend we were shooting six day weeks and I had one day off, so I just very roughly cut together the first twenty minutes of the movie and I realised that it kind of worked and that it was actually quite good. It was pretty close to what I was hoping it was going to be. We were shooting a lot of stuff that wasn’t working but the stuff that was working, was working well. By putting the rough cut together I was able to identify what worked in the conceit of the project and I was able to build upon it.

So it was still some time from the point of conception – you’ve effectively got everyone committed to the project already.

[LAUGHS] Yeah, there was basically no turning back at that point. I remember calling my producer Toby (Halbrooks) one night after shooting and saying to him “If I decide to bury this film, I’ll definitely pay you back,” (they financed the film themselves). And he just told me to shut-up [LAUGHS].

In terms of style it feels closer to world cinema than it does a traditional North American film, bits of which I’ve noticed more in your last two films. Is this form an approach that is closer to your heart, or just one of many you’re keen to experiment with?

I keep just poking at different things – it all depends on the project. Obviously Pete’s Dragon could not have been made this way – or should it have been – but you can see a little bit of that in there, some of those influences do trickle through to that film. Ain’t Those Bodies Saints is more of a mess of different ideas and I never quite zeroed in on one, although we did shoot a version of that movie and it could’ve have been similar to this, really long takes that hold on things for a long period of time  but I ended up not using them. I kind of asked myself did I chicken out, or did the movie not need them? I don’t know the answer to that. But with this one, because it was designed to function a certain way and had these built in ideas that needed to be explored in a formal way, rather than in a traditional narrative sense, I felt that I could just dig in and make a movie with this form.

It does approach that world cinema style, the things that you see in a lot of Asian films and European films and there is a great deal of comfort in that for me. When I first saw a Tsai Ming-Liang film, I thought this is what movies should be, I really responded to it. Part of that is I have a very limited attention span, there is something about having really long takes where not a lot is happening in terms of plot that really helped me to focus on the movie. I had a really meditative experience and as a result, a really profound experience. I don’t think every movie I make is going to have that approach because I have so many different interests and there are so many types of movies that are made that I’ll let each film dictate its own needs, but it is something I am drawn to. I do find, regardless of the movie, that I end up cutting out as much dialogue as possible. I’ll write these gigantic monologues and I’ll probably keep one of them but I try to cut everything out. I overwrite the script to the nth degree and once we’re in post I ask myself why did I waste all my time doing all that writing.

I guess it helps to get all your ideas out there and then just trim them down as you go.

Yeah, you get it all out on paper and then you hear an actor saying it and you decide you don’t need all of that after all. So going into this film I wanted to have as little dialogue as possible. The argument that I had with my wife that was sort of the inciting incident for this project, we shot that. Originally it was a ten-page scene and we spent a whole day that just shooting that and there are snippets of it left in the movie.

What did you take away from your time spent making the film?

This film was dealing with some ideas that were very personal to me in terms of letting go of things. Coming out of this movie I felt like I was able to exorcise certain demons that I had. They weren’t big problems – it wasn’t like I was an alcoholic giving up the bottle – but I was having trouble sleeping because of certain existential crisis that I’m sure everybody has, and this film helped me deal with them. So that was one personal takeaway and I feel like I’m a better person for having made it, for that reason.

On a filmmaking level, I feel like I keep learning the same lesson over and over again and I just learn it better each time. That lesson is, no-one knows what you’re making more than you do and you need to stick to your guns and listen to your gut and make sure you are not walking away from a scene unhappy with it. And, every movie I make, I know that going into it, I forget it on day two because making a movie requires you to quickly adapt to evolving circumstances. By the end of it I have come out either feeling like I need to retire or I need to take a vacation. And then I start thinking back on the movie and start to realise that I did actually know what I was doing, for the most part. With every movie I make, I feel like I knew what I was doing a little bit more. Coming off of Pete’s Dragon and going directly onto this film, there was no break between the two and I felt like that was helpful because I was fresh off the experience of having made this big studio movie and then was able to go directly into making this one, while still in that mindset. So, I hadn’t forgotten that I shoot movies a certain way, that I need a certain amount of takes or that my instincts always push me in a certain direction. Between Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon, I’d forgotten a lot of those things and when I got back on set I remembered that this is how I make movies. When I tell people that I can shoot quickly and down and dirty, I’m lying, because I don’t. I spend a lot of time shooting. It’s good for me to be aware of my proclivities.

I think what I took away from this one that I brought onto the film I just finished shooting (Old Man and the Gun) is that I will do seven to ten takes and inevitably use the first one. And that always happens. There’s always something in that first take – unless there’s an overt mistake – that has an honesty and a spontaneity to it that I’m drawn to. With the film I just finished shooting I tried not to do more than five takes, sometimes I would only do one, and usually would just do two. I knew going into it that unless there was something very specific that I had to get right, I’d probably use the first one. Even though I would feel very uncomfortable doing it, after two takes if I didn’t have a clear objective that I was pursuing I would just move on. And that really freaked me out but I was pretty sure was I got to the edit I would be fine, so I’ll see the first version of it next week.

Are you someone who can watch your own work?

Once we’re done with them, I’ve seen them enough. In five years it would’ve been ten years since I made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and I will try watching it then. I feel like I need a ten year break. I watched A Ghost Story the other day, just to check the final DCP – we did some retouches to the sound after Sundance – and that was the first time I’d seen it since January and it was pleasantly surprising. I was really surprised that I enjoyed it and I was able to watch it almost as an audience member, rather than as the filmmaker and that was really nice. In many ways it’s the film I’m most happy with and is the closest to my original vision, the most successful in terms of executing my original idea. So, there is a great deal of satisfaction sitting back and watching it for that reason. But that’s probably the last time I’ll watch it for the next ten years.

Lastly, what have you got coming up next?

It’s the first time in four years I don’t have a movie that is about to start shooting. I just finished shooting Old Man and the Gun a few weeks ago, so I’m going to go and edit that and see what it looks like. Then I’m just going to spend some time writing. I’m writing a movie for Disney (Peter Pan) and I might direct that but I don’t know for sure yet, I have to make sure it feels right. I’ve got an original idea that I’m twenty pages into, so I’ll keep working on that. I’m just kicking back and waiting to see what feels right. It’s a strange feeling to have no production calling for my attention right now and it’s kind of nice to be honest.

A Ghost Story is released in UK Cinemas on August 11th

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