Now playing in limited theaters is a film that tells the unexpected tale of a ghost. It’s not spooky and it’s not horror story — rather it’s a romance from writer director Davie Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) who presents a quiet film that takes its time to explore the idea of what happens after you die, and the longing to connect.
Recently deceased, a white-sheeted ghost (Academy Award-winner Casey Affleck) returns to his suburban home to console his bereft wife (Academy Award-nominee Rooney Mara), only to find that in his spectral state he has become unstuck in time, and he is forced to watch passively as the life moves forward without him.
Allie Hanley: Your passion project film “Ghost Story” is what seems like a sad story about loss when in actuality it’s a romantic tale about everlasting love. What’s the drive behind writing this piece?
David Lowery: It was a bunch of things actually. All of my movies are a bunch of things. In this case, it was being concerned with big existential questions like my place in the universe, and where do we go after we die, but also very personal intimate things like where are my wife and I going to live next year, and where are we going to move too, and should we even move? It was just a very big confluence of those things, and very personal things going through my own life.
The love story aspect of it, -its funny because I never set out to make love stories and I never set out to write love stories and yet a lot of my movies end up having that. I think that’s partially because I am a very romantic person and I can’t help but gradually turn everything into a love story. I think a lot of that is due to have Casey and Rooney in the story and their fantastic chemistry. A lot of that was not written on the page to the degree they performed it. I think they are very simple and undefined characters in the screen play.
The actors didn’t have a lot to go on but by casting two remarkable actors who had a lot of chemistry together, -a fondness for each other, I knew it would turn into something more than what was written on the page.
Out of that came what is essentially a love story. It starts and ends with the two of them together. I knew it wasn’t there on the page but I knew once we started shooting I was happy for the way it transformed. In the end I was very happy because like I said I am very much a romantic.
David on his two characters and how they are intertwined through time:
In my own life, and probably in your own, there are these things that reoccur. You find yourself either visiting the same places, or watching things happen that repeat, or just weird coincidences in life that feel, that make you feel like there are more things in this universe than meets the eye. I don’t necessarily think that time is cyclical but there are these times, -and I don’t have any particular theory about them, but I do think history repeats itself and time recurs to some degree.
There are parallels throughout history that repeat and I like taking something that is very personal and very meaningful to one person, -and in this case Rooney’s character and the note she leaves, and suggesting that it’s not that personal and that other people have done the same thing. I like the idea that you can go through out history and find it again, and that it’s not as special as it may seem.
And that goes for not just the note that he finds but also his death. It feels like a personally profound experience for him and yet everyone dies. He see the same little girl who meets an untimely end and he realizes that that’s just something that everyone is going to go through. It’s special for us but it is also universal.
I also think that is true of the house. He thinks this house is his, and he is bound to it, and he needs to stay there. Over the course of the movie he finds that that’s not the case. Not one person defines the space and he learns that in fact the right thing to do is to move on. So all of those ideas were ideas that I felt could be better represented if I used time as the galvanizer. So by traveling through time you are able to explore these ideas more clearly, with greater lucidity, and hopefully with a greater sense of more profundity.
Once the audience gets to the 45 minute mark and realizes that the movie is not what they thought it was, that’s when it starts getting good for me. I know some people are disappointed that it goes in that direction, but for me that’s when it comes to life.
David Lowery’s sense of spirituality and the story:
I am not an overtly spiritual person even though I was raised in a devout spiritual home. That’s not a huge part of my life anymore but nonetheless it does affect how I see myself in the universe and how I see the universe, whether you look at the film from that perspective or not. You could look at the film from a very atheistic point of view; Either way you look at it, it’s all about looking at a way to define oneself. Or you could go the other way and look at it as a way to not define oneself. Those questions are very important.
This movie is about a ghost. Anytime you bring up a ghost into a movie it explicitly brings up thoughts of the afterlife and where one goes after one dies. Those are important questions for everyone to answer on their own terms and to consider on their own terms. Also in this movie there are no answers. We are not saying that this is what’s going to happen after you die, or this is where you go, and here’s what you need to do to get there.
However, by engaging in that question about what happens and not giving the answers, it allows us to explore those questions. It gives audiences a chance to think about those questions. For me making this film, it was a way for me to explore all of those themes and ideas, I don’t have the answers for myself. I am still growing as a person and I am still trying to understand what it all means but the process is an important one and for me making this film was a big part of engaging in that process.
Allie: Can you talk to me about the choice you made behind having the ghost appear simply as the sheet?
David: That was always something that I wanted to do. I had seen photographs, music videos, and even “Beettlejuice” using it. I loved the fact that it’s a very simple image that has become the universal symbol for a ghost. I love that it’s so child-like and naïve to the point that it’s actually a child’s Halloween costume and yet at the same time it represents something so big and complicated.
The idea that a spirit wants to remain in the existence and haunt people can be represented by a sheet with two eyes cut out of it is very interesting to me. I wanted to take that very simple image, and utilize it in a different way. So it was a desire upon my part to use that simple idea and explore it. I liked that there was something sort of funny and goofy about it.
We could lean into that a bit because it is silly when he first sits up in the scene in the hospital and he walks down the hall. It allows the audience to laugh. Culture has allowed it to become funny. If you trace it back in time, the real reason we have that Halloween costume is because of the shrouds that were put over our bodies when they were buried a long time ago. So there is a lot of history and meaning to it that has been set aside in favor of the immediate symbolism. That doesn’t make it any less profound if we can get away with taking this goofy idea and bringing a bit of gravity to it.
“Ghost Story” is now playing in limited distribution.