by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
After writing a string of successful short films, David Lowery burst on the scene with a powerful indie called Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The film starred Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, and Ben Foster before they became household names. After working on major studio fare such as Pete’s Dragon, which he wrote and directed, Lowery decided to return to more personal work. With his latest film, A Ghost Story, he reteamed with Mara and Affleck to create a film that is unlike anything that’s been seen in theaters before.
Lowery sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about the process of writing and directing the film, the themes he finds true, and the role of spirituality in his movies.
John Bucher: I’m not the first to say it, but there is a Southern Gothic tone to your work that is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor. What were some of the influences and initial nuggets that brought A Ghost Story into your consciousness?
David Lowery: It’s a tough thing for me to trace back. It’s hard for me to follow that trail of bread crumbs because it all kind of came together very quickly, in terms of the ideas. They all just self-generated and suddenly there was a ten-page script in front of me. The two things that I know were inciting incidents were this fight that I had with my wife about where we were going to live. That was a big part of it. We were getting ready to move to LA temporarily, and we were debating whether or not to give up our Texas home or just keep it while we were in LA.
That argument was one of the very cinematic, real life experiences where half way through it, I remember thinking this feels like a scene from a movie. And so I kept it in mind. I thought maybe it would become a scene for one of my movies at some point. And it did work its way into this and was a big part of A Ghost Story. Then, the other concept that pre-dated the movie was the idea of making a haunted house film — where the ghost is represented by a single white sheet. Just the idea made me laugh. I thought that was really amusing and figured I’d do something with it someday.
At some point last year in the springtime, it all kind of came together into one idea. The idea accumulated enough mass to demand execution. And when that happens, I just sort of go for it. I don’t give too much thought. There’s not like a connect the dots process in terms of one idea leads to the next. They all just turn into one big congealed idea. And then I write it down.
John Bucher: Did you know from the moment you began writing that you’d be directing as well? I’m curious to know how the script-to-screen process went for you.
David Lowery: For me, writing is just part of directing. The same way that editing is also part of directing. And in the same way that editing and writing are very similar processes. It’s all one big process. And it all falls for me under the blanket of directing a movie. Or being a filmmaker. I know that you can break it down into categories, and there are definitely periods of my life where I’m just focused on writing, or periods of my life where I’m on set. But for me, it’s always a situation where one leads to the other.
When I’m directing or I’m shooting, I’m always still writing the script. And when I’m writing the script, I’m imagining how I’m going to be directing it, how I’m going to be cutting it. In this case especially, for this particular film, the screenplay was a means to an end. It was written so that I could show it to people and so that they would understand what it was I wanted to make. But there was never a moment where this was anything other than a movie. The script was never a script that I sent out or shared with my agent or got notes on. It was a document, but the kind that would be executed on set.
John Bucher: One of the most powerful scenes in the film to me is when Rooney eats the pie — that unbroken shot. It’s such a bold move for a filmmaker to keep such a long shot like that. But it’s such a powerful scene. Such a powerful moment. Did that occur in your head in the writing process, or was that part of the directing? How does a moment like that happen?
David Lowery: It’s both. I mean, it was definitely in the script. And it was meant to be, if not powerful, then at least emotionally excessive. Because I knew that we had to have a scene that would, all on its own, carry the weight of that character’s grief.
I could have a lot of little scenes that do a little bit here and there. But I needed one big scene that would define her character in that stage of her life. I was trying to think of something unique and something that would be a little bit more memorable, a little bit more emotional than traditional exhibitions of sadness or bereavement. And that was the idea that occurred to me. In the script it mentions that it’s a single shot, and so we all knew that would be the case. But that was about it. The blocking wasn’t in the script. The fact that she sits down wasn’t in the script. The specific things that we figured out on the day.
When you get into that house and you have your camera and your actress there, you’ll figure out the best way to execute it. You don’t have to trouble yourself too much in the writing process of figuring out what’s going to happen or how long that shot’s going to last. For me, it’s important to lay out the bare bones of it and make sure that when people read it, whether it’s the cinematographer or the actress, they understand that it’s going to be just one shot. It goes a long way towards explaining what the scene needs when we actually get around to shooting it.
John Bucher: You deal with some very universal themes that we don’t get that often in film anymore, one of which is the process of grief. What does it really mean to lose something or someone? Can you talk about why you chose to explore those themes in this story?
David Lowery: I think they are universal. Everyone’s going to deal at some point in their life with having to lose somebody. It wasn’t a particularly personal theme for me, because at this point in my life, I’m lucky enough that I haven’t gone through that. But it’s something that’s on my mind. Along with all of the other existential ideas in the movie. These are things that I find myself reflecting on. And, as far as the story of the movie goes, it was a way in. It was a way into these bigger ideas that go beyond the personal loss that the two characters at the center of the story feel. Because the story does expand beyond that. But we needed to get to that point. And I think you start off with something intimate and something relatable that feels very focused. And from that point forward, you can use that emotional core as a stepping stone to get to the bigger ideas that come next.
When you have a concept like a ghost that is covered in a sheet for the entire movie, or a big existential crisis that is presented in the last act, all those things are ideas that you need some time to work up to. And by dealing with these very intimate ideas of loss and grief, I think that helps pave the way for where the story goes.
John Bucher: You are someone who is not unfamiliar with spirituality and spiritual things. Your previous work deals with similar existential themes. I know that your father’s work in circles of faith is part of your experience. How do you go about crafting a sense of spirituality in your films that’s nuanced? There’s never any sort of heavy-handed approach or preachiness, but somehow you accomplish a feel of spirituality without crossing that line.
David Lowery: That’s a really good question, and one I don’t have an answer for. The other day someone at a Q&A asked me if my upbringing in a very strict Catholic household comes through in my work. And my answer was that I don’t think it does, but maybe. Your question suggests to me that maybe it does. But it’s beyond my own comprehension, so it must be something that’s so deeply rooted that it does come through. I’m not a very spiritual person at all. And I make movies that, to me, feel like they’re sort of rooted down in the dirt, and rooted in physicality.
Obviously, A Ghost Story has a very literal spiritual side to it in that the main character is in fact, a spirit. But beyond that, no, I’m not dealing with spirituality, in the traditional sense by any means. But at the same time, I am one hundred percent willing to accept that it’s there. I embrace the fact that you’re able to recognize that even though I’m not overtly or consciously trying to address it.
John Bucher: One of the other moments in the film that’s really powerful for me is the idea of leaving notes in the walls of the house. Had you done that? Have you heard of someone doing that? Was that just an idea that came to you?
David Lowery: I think I must have done that when I was moving out of a house at some point. Because it’s something that I feel like I have a memory of doing. If I didn’t actually do it, I definitely thought about doing it. The idea of leaving a trace of yourself behind in a place that matters to you is something that is very personal to me. You’re trying to leave your mark in one way or another. And whether it’s for yourself or for somebody else, or for both, it’s leaving a little trace of yourself behind. And that’s something that I know I’ve done.
I don’t think I’ve actually left a note in a wall, but I have left scratches on floor boards or carved my initials into the walls. Those types of things are very tangible expressions of one’s ego, I think. Because you’re trying to say, I was here. I, David Lowery, was in this space, and existed right here. And the idea that any given space that I might be in may very well outlast me. The houses that I have lived in are houses that will probably still be around when I’m gone. Maybe not. Maybe they’ll get torn down. But the idea that you’re trying to strain for some little piece of permanence in a very impermanent existence — that’s something that rings very true to me.
A Ghost Story opens in theaters July 7.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.