With just three major theatrical films under his belt director David Lowery certainly knows how to keep audiences, and critics, enthralled. His 2013 drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints evoked a Terence Malick feel with a Bonnie and Clyde edge, while his Disney family film Pete’s Dragon in 2016 captivated a new generation of audiences. His latest, A Ghost Story, is a moody meditation on life, love and death that sticks in your mind long after it’s over. Lowery sat down with The Young Folks to talk about his work, leaving a lasting legacy, and what it’s like to be dazzled by Robert Redford’s charm.
The Young Folks: You probably hear this a lot but you’re one of my favorite directors working today.
David Lowery: That means a lot. I don’t hear it that much so that makes me very happy.
Between Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon and now A Ghost Story what’s it like to have a trio of phenomenal films with great critical acclaim already under your belt?
It feels good. My hope is always that the movies I make will be enjoyed, that people will like them, but I’m never completely sure if they’ll work. They always work for me but I’m never sure if anyone else will appreciate them, so it makes me feel less alone to see these movies get out in the world and being embraced to the degree that they are. In the case of Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story, one’s hot on the heels of the other and it’s nice to know, in spite of their differences, that people like them.
How do you choose what to work on? What entices you to a project?
I’m unpredictable to myself. If you had told me ten years ago I’d make a remake of Pete’s Dragon I’d have told you that you were absolutely insane. When that project came around it felt like the right thing to do and I wasn’t sure why. I loved Disney movies growing up but I wasn’t sure why that felt so right; it felt like I needed to make that movie. I like to challenge myself. I like to explore new things. I don’t like to repeat myself that much because I feel the very nature of me making a movie is there’s something consistent. That in spite of the stories being different they’re always going to feel the same, whether I just want to try something new, or push myself a little further, or make myself uncomfortable I’m always trying to take a lot of left turns. The movie I just finished shooting is completely different from anything I’ve made and I’m very curious to see how that will turn out because I feel I’m in a completely different world right now. It’s exciting and refreshing even though it makes me nervous from time to time.
Your films have this emphasis on small town atmospheres, a folkloric feel, and a reverence for the nostalgic past which you’ve said is your attempt to preserve time. What is it about nostalgia and the need to evoke a timeless feel in your filmmaking?
I feel like the stories work better when they aren’t beholden to a specific time period. That’s not true for all stories, of course; there are certain stories that need a time period in which to define them in a specific way. Whether these movies are period pieces or not, I’ve always tried to make them feel timeless because I want the stories to resonate, regardless of when the viewer watches them. If someone watches A Ghost Story or Pete’s Dragon or Ain’t Them Bodies Saints 20 years from now I don’t want them thinking about the time in which it was made. I want them to feel it’s as immediate then as it is now.
I am very fascinated by folklore, I love it. I grew up listening to folk songs my dad would sing me before I’d go to bed, those were our lullabies growing up. The idea that those songs have been around for a long time and have been told many times in different keys and different voices is something I love. I’ve always attempted to imbue all my films with that quality, and part of that is the sense of finding a place not defined by time. You go to small towns and you don’t know what year you’re in. They feel like they haven’t changed. It also reduces the clutter on-screen when you have a single house on-screen by itself; it ceases to be just a house, it becomes a House with a capital “H.” All the themes that go along with that are that much more pronounced.
The nostalgic quality to the film is evident from the very beginning, and that mostly stems from the aspect ratio and the color palette. Was this how you always envisioned it?
I always envisioned it in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. In fact, the first line of the screenplay was a statement of intent on that regard. The first line of the script was, “This movie will be presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio.” But the sentimental quality of the image wasn’t initially part of the approach. My cinematographer and I talked about how we wanted the images to sustain themselves for a long period of time; some of these shots go on for upwards of five minutes without cutting.
Like the pie-eating scene.
Yes, exactly. We knew that they needed to, on a visual level, be pleasing to look at. On a very basic level, this movie needed to look nice because you were going to spend a lot of time looking at these images. We talked a lot about photography, not just cinematography but still photography, and we were looking in particular at the works of Gregory Crewdson who does these wonderful, large format photographs that feel like movies. Even though you are looking at a still image, it feels like you’re watching a movie when you’re looking at them. Each of his photographs has a budget far higher than the budget of this entire film, but we nonetheless felt it was a good point of inspiration. There’s a beauty and a sense of chiaroscuro to those images and that’s what we were after with this.
We really wanted the movie to feel rich and lovely to look at. In our pursuit of that, we tapped into something somewhat nostalgic and surreal. I feel like, as grounded as the movie is, in reality there’s a degree of magical realism that seeps through, not just into the ghost’s presence, but in the way it is lit and the way sunlight hits the wall sometimes. So much of the movie is utilizing natural light in specific ways.
A Ghost Story is steeped in history and the history of humanity itself. A big facet of the movie involves Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House” and there’s an air of Wuthering Heights to the story. Do you look for a literary quality with your work?
It’s a compliment because I love literature. I’m an English major who never graduated. It’s an art form I have a tremendous amount of esteem for. I wish I had the patience to write novels because I love the written word and the form of literature. Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors. She’s someone who really opened my eyes to what literature could do. In this film there’s a scene where books get knocked off a bookshelf. I knew that Rooney [Mara] would pick one of them up and I wanted a little nod to one of my favorite authors there. I haven’t read every short story Virginia Woolf ever wrote, so I hadn’t read “A Haunted House,” but I discovered it in the process of discovering what book Rooney should find on the floor [and] that story was so in line with what I wanted A Ghost Story to be about that I wanted to borrow it, I wanted to reference it.
Beyond that, Virginia Woolf was instrumental in my understanding of how time could be used in storytelling, both in a formal level – such as the famous time jump in “To the Lighthouse” – but also on a narrative level, as we see in “Orlando” when she has a character who is not defined by time in any human sensibility or human understanding of how time works. There’s not much to be gained from that quote in the beginning [of A Ghost Story] other than to put people in a literary mindset and hopefully provoke a few people to dig up this story and read more of her work because it’s truly wonderful. The fact that [Woolf] cared about the spacing of words on the page and how many sentences would fit, and felt that contributed something to how readers processed her stories reminds me of how I think about shots in movies and how I use my arsenal of tools, the language I have at my disposal to formally experiment and control the way readers process the stories I have to tell.
To jump from there to the literary aspects of my films, that’s a compliment to me. I really hope they feel that way. They’re definitely steeped in a literary tradition, especially in the case of Pete’s Dragon. I’m happy that came through because that matters to me. I love the intersection of literature and film and the way one can inform the other.
We’re introduced to the ghost as a white sheet with eyeholes instead of the typical, cinematic approach of having a paler version of the person who died. It was a huge risk, especially not knowing how the audience would react to it. Did you have any doubts about the audience not embracing this idea when you were making the film?
How did you arrive to having subtitles for the ghost communications? Was that always part of it?
That wasn’t part of the script; that interaction was meant to be comic relief actually. I wanted to have a release valve for the audience to blow off some steam and to chuckle. It is a funny image. A ghost in a bed sheet is inherently funny. As I was editing that scene, which initially ended when they waved [at] each other, I wanted there to be more. Then I realized that this is the only time in the movie where he is able to communicate with someone else and it is such a relief to see that communication occur that you can’t help but want more of it. The idea of the subtitles occurred to me. I didn’t know if I could get away with it. Again, it felt like a joke or stunt, but it actually worked. It felt nice to see those words on screen and know there was communication happening. As these things do, when you start digging into the scene more, the moment goes from being very funny to being very sad within the space of two or three lines. As a result of that, we ended up shooting more scenes with the ghost next door and making her a little subplot in the film. Then it just keeps getting sadder and sadder even though it started out as trying to put in a moment of levity.
A Ghost Story eschews a formalized religious look at life after death in favor of a general neutrality. Was that always something you planned?
I wanted to remain neutral. I remain neutral in life, not just in this movie. I was raised Catholic with a father who was a theology professor so that was a big part of my life and no doubt trickled through to the work I make now. I feel there’s a spiritual element to everything I make that is undeniable, and yet it’s not a big part of my life; it just comes through because that’s how I was raised and it’s who I am. The mythology in A Ghost Story is meant to be taken literally, and yet it’s not representative of something I believe to be true by any means. It’s as facetious as the afterlife in Beetlejuice, but it is more serious than that. It’s a wonderful vehicle for exploring those ideas, and those are ideas that regardless of one’s faith or belief system or personal philosophies are prevalent in life every step of the way. We are always thinking about what comes next, whether or not anything comes next, whether or not we have anything to look forward to whatsoever; that’s something I think everyone goes through and spends a lot of time thinking about; I’m no different. I think about those things all the time, even though I’m not religious in the way I was growing up. The movie is neutral to an extent, but there’s a lot to dig into there regardless of that.
Ghost stories are usually used as a way to explain history or even to serve as some sort of cautionary tale. What are some of your favorite ghost stories in literature or film?
In film, I love The Innocents, the Jack Clayton movie based on “The Turn of the Screw” and I love it because so much of it takes place in daylight. There’s something so creepy about ghosts in daylight, so that’s one of my favorite haunted house movies. I love all the classic scary ones. I love The Haunting, House on Haunted Hill, and The Shining, of course. There’s an amazing Japanese movie called Ugetsu that’s based on classic Japanese folklore that I think is one of my favorite ghost stories of all time. It’s not scary at all, in fact it doesn’t reveal its a ghost story until the very end. Oops, spoiler alert!
In a couple of scenes in the film, we see the ghost go full poltergeist. Have you ever personally experienced any paranormal phenomenon?
I’ve never experienced anything that couldn’t be explained away. I’ve been in old houses where the lights are flickering in very particular ways but you could always just write that off as bad wiring. I’ve heard weird noises and experienced things that could be described as supernatural phenomenon but I don’t think they actually were. That being said, I wished they were. I wish I had more quantifiable proof of the supernatural, and I’m very open to having an experience, but they have consistently evaded me to date.
I think the important thing is that you would be open to it.
Oh, very open to it even though it would probably terrify me. I’m very, very scared of everything. I can’t watch scary movies without covering my eyes, so if it were to happen to me in real life it would be traumatizing but I still would like for it to happen.
One of the few non-existential, non-self reflection based questions I left A Ghost Story with was: How and when did Kesha join this project?
She joined the project two or three days before we shot that scene in which she has her brief cameo. It came about simply because I’m a fan of her music. It’s been a long-standing goal of mine to make a movie that has her music on the soundtrack, so when my producer asked me what music I wanted playing at the party, I quickly said, “Oh, it should be a Kesha song.” We initially just thought we would try to get the rights to one of her songs, but because we’re nothing if not ambitions, we thought we would try to get her to write an original song. From there, it was a quick jump from inquiring about whether she would be willing to be in the movie as well.
We had no connection to her whatsoever and weren’t able to get in touch with her, but one of our friends just happened to be at a fourth of July party that she was at and mentioned us to her, and that was enough to get the connection going. We shot the scene on July 9th I think, so within 5 days she was in Dallas in this party we were throwing with a lot of dancing to no music because Will [Oldham] was giving this monologue throughout the whole thing. She was totally game to just come and hang out and be a part of it, and I really respect her for having so much humility to embrace such a tiny part. I also feel she really added something to the movie. Just knowing that she was part of it adds something. Of course, she also wrote the song that played in that scene. That was a big checkmark in my career goals to have an original Kesha song in a movie, but I just love being around her. I would love to make another movie in which I can actually spend more time with her and let her take a more prominent role.
You’ve worked with Robert Redford twice now between Pete’s Dragon and Old Man and the Gun. As someone who has a long-standing crush on him, I have to ask what he was like to work with, especially considering his new role sounds very different from his last.
In Pete’s Dragon he wanted to play the crazy old codger and really leaned into wearing glasses, not shaving and letting his age show. If you had been on-set on Old Man and the Gun your crush would have gotten ten times worse because he was in full-on charming mode. He’s wonderful to work with. He’s a gentleman; he’s a wonderful actor; he’s a prankster. He’s a legend and you never for a second forget that when you’re around him. He’s just Robert Redford and Robert Redford is a legend. When you call him to set you are very aware that you’re calling a legend to set and are about to watch him act. It’s exciting, a little bit daunting, and just fun to be participating in something that feels like cinematic history, regardless of how the movie turns out. Just having him on-set everyday felt like we were participating in film history, contributing something and learning from it. It was a wonderful gift to get the chance to make two movies with him, but especially [Old Man and the Gun] because in many ways – and he wouldn’t like me saying this – it’s a tribute to him.
You’ve mentioned before that time passing terrifies you. Are there certain projects or actors you’re hoping to work with before you stop directing?
I was just thinking about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the other day and how I really want to work with Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton; I love both of them and would die to work with them. I’ll put that out into the universe right now. There are so many actors who inspire me. I always have to remind myself that once I work with them the appreciation I have for them as an audience member will change. I would love to work with Daniel Day-Lewis but at the same time would that change how much I love watching his performances? I don’t know. I’m always very cautious of that; I want to make sure I’m not going to diminish my fandom or that I’m mistaking my adoration for an actor with an actual desire to work with them. There are so many folks out there [I want to work with] it can range from Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton to Janelle Monae who I loved in Hidden Figures and Moonlight. Actually the entire cast of Moonlight I’d love to work with!
Paul Dano is someone who I hope to find a project to work with, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Chastain. I love Kristen Stewart and what she’s doing now, the choices she’s making are really exciting and I’d love one of my movies to be one of those choices. I had a meeting with Selena Gomez a few years ago and the project didn’t work out, but I’d love to make a movie with her as strange as that may seem. It just has to be the right movie, the right fit, the right project. The other thing is, as you pointed out, I’ve worked with Redford twice now. I’ve worked with Casey [Affleck] and Rooney twice; I’ve worked with Casey three times. Once I get to know someone and like them I want to keep working with them. Hopefully I’ll keep building this film family and bring them along from one movie to the next.
You’ve mentioned being a Disney fan and you’re set to adapt Peter Pan next. There are so many incarnations of that story and I’m a huge fan of the 1953 Disney version so what can we expect from yours?
Let me turn the tables and ask you what, as a Disney fan, do you want out of a Peter Pan movie?
I’ve always wished for less cattiness between Tinkerbell and Wendy. Too often their story is Wendy’s the good girl, Tinkerbell’s the sexpot, and they’re both competing for the love of Peter Pan.
I completely agree with you and I am seeking to change that. On the same level, Tiger Lily is an important part of the movie but she’s introduced in chains about to be drowned and I want to change that too; there’s no place for that in movies today. There’s a lot of tweaks we’re going to do to the original while also making it feel like the original. We’re still in the screenplay phase; it’s very early days and who knows what will happen. I want to make a movie that Disney fans feel familiar with, that feels like the Peter Pan they grew up loving but, at the same time, is reflective of what you want out of a movie now. The goal is to make it feel like a film you’ve never seen before, even though we have seen Peter Pan many times. It’s a challenge and I like that challenge, and I’m approaching it head-on but it’s going to take a little while to figure it all out. It’s a simple story but there’s a lot more to it than just copying the cartoon.