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How ‘A Ghost Story’ Became the Most Haunting Movie of 2017

The story behind how a director with a vision, an A-list actor under a sheet and a pie-binging star turned a little movie into a near-masterpiece.

David Lowery knows that you’re probably going to laugh at the sheet. He did too, a little bit, when he first saw it. So did Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. It’s a natural reaction, he says. You don’t have to fight it. Get it out of your system. Or don’t. There were days on the set of A Ghost Story, Lowery’s experimental mood-piece-of-a-movie, where the 36-year-old director would look up and find himself face to face with an adult under a large white cloth with two black eyeholes, expecting to be told what to do, and even he would feel the urge to snicker.

And on other days, he’d see a man who, only a handful of months later, would be up onstage accepting an Oscar but who, at that moment, looked like he was waiting for the Great Pumpkin to arrive, and then Lowery had to stifle the urge to cry.  “If I was making this movie with just friends, and not famous actors, maybe I would have felt less pressure,” he says, sitting in a conference room in A24’s New York office. “But I’ve got Casey Affleck walking around wearing a sheet, and I don’t want him to look foolish. So, you know …” He trails off for a second, looking forlorn. 

“What was supposed to be something that would take 10 days ended up being the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” Lowery adds. “And because of all of the things going on under the hood, it also ended up being the single most personal thing I’ve ever done as well.”

It’s a testament to the director’s vision that A Ghost Story not only gets past the absurdity factor of watching an Academy Award-winning star resemble a toddler’s drawing of a spooky spectre; it actually succeeds in making this sight one of the most sorrowful, poignant and moving visuals you will see in a movie theatre this year, or possibly any year. A largely free-form mediation on mourning that begins with a car accident – the one that shuffles a musician named “C” (Affleck) off this mortal coil and turns his girlfriend “M” (Rooney Mara) into a grief-stricken wreck – and eventually incorporates real-time binge-eating, Blade Runner-esque dystopias and Will Oldham rhapsodising about the apocalypse into its mix, Lowery’s extraordinary work is nothing if not ambitious. But it’s the way he uses the ridicule-courting sight of the dead observing a living world go on without them that gives the film its power to break your heart. 

“He texted me: ‘I wanna make a movie this summer, very small crew. You’ll be a ghost under a sheet for most of it. I’ll explain later.’ I said, ‘I’m in.'” –Casey Affleck

“It’s an image that I’ve loved, that’s amused me and confounded me for ages,” Lowery admits. “Because it’s simple, yet there’s undeniably something very haunting about it. And it’s actually something I’ve wanted to put in a movie for a long time.” He points to several examples of how artists have used sheet-ghosts in intriguing, disturbing and downright subversive ways, from Patrick Daughters’ music video for Department of Eagles’ “No One Does It Like You” to the 2010 Spanish movie Finisterrae, which he found inspiring because of “how they took this childlike thing out of the context of Halloween or, you know, a Charlie Brown special and found meaning in it.” Lowery borrowed the visual for an animated short he’d done as a sort of exercise back in 2011, and kept the idea of using it for something bigger on the backburner while his career as a writer, editor, cinematographer and director began to take off.

Then, deep into post-production on his 2016 live-action reimagining of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, Lowery began to get restless. It wasn’t like he was bored working on a large, FX-filled studio film – “Quite the opposite, in fact; I loved doing Dragon,” he’s quick to point out. But he’d been on the project for close to three years, and felt the need to get back on set: “I just wanted to make another movie, something off the cuff.” He recalled an argument that he and his wife had regarding whether to move from Los Angeles to Texas. Then the image of the man under the sheet came back. “Everything just sort of congealed, or maybe combusted, right then,” he says. Lowery sat down and wrote a 10-page script about a couple, a death and a spirit tied to a particular house. The next day, he expanded it to 30 pages. I have no idea what this is, he told his producing partners. But I think we should make it in the Lone Star State over the summer.

And partially because he liked the idea of returning to the same place he’d shot his 2013 breakthrough movie Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery sent what he’d written to one of that film’s stars, Rooney Mara. “I wish you could see that script,” she says. “It read like this incredible short story. But it was scary, because you immediately thought, ‘This is beautiful … but how can you translate that beauty into a movie? Is it even a movie at all?’ Then we talked, and he just said, ‘Look, it shouldn’t take long, we’ll do it in Texas and we’re going to do this in secret. We’re not telling anybody about this in case it doesn’t work.’ And I thought, Ok, this is beginning to sound more and more exciting.”

The next person Lowery reached out to was Mara’s Saints costar, Casey Affleck. “It was a text, I think … hold on, let me find it real quick,” the actor says, calling in from Los Angeles. He begins to read over the phone: “‘I wanna make a movie this summer, very small crew. Would love for you to be in it. You’ll be a ghost under a sheet for most of it. I’ll explain later.'” Affleck laughs. “I naturally texted him back immediately and said, ‘I’m in.'”

“We told our agents we were just doing a short,” Lowery says. “We kept it under wraps so that no one would pay attention to us. I didn’t want it hitting the trades that the three of us were down in Texas making some mysterious movie. I didn’t want anyone to have expectations or ask questions.” Asked why, the filmmaker replies, “Because I wanted to give us the chance to fail. And at first, I felt like there was an extremely high probability of that happening.” He recounts days on set when Affleck, stuck in what was actually an elaborate costume (“There’s this sort of dress that you put on underneath it, to make it move the right way when you’re walking … like the underpinnings of something you’d wear in the 1800s,” Mara says, laughing) would bump into walls and nearly trip over the bottom of his flowing ghost-sheet. “You’ve got Rooney pouring her heart out,” he says, “and then there’s this dumb ghost behind her, and you think … ” He puts his head in his hands, moaning.

Lowery would silently pray that his producers would pull the plug, feeling like he had summoned A-list actors and a loyal crew to work on “something that was too high concept for its own good. I was prepared to bury it; because we’d told nobody about it, I had that safety net.” Everyone else could see that there was something there, however, and encouraged the director to keep everything going. After a few tweaks – noticeably ixnaying the idea to do everything as a sequence of one-shot-only scenes – Lowery said that flashes of the feeling he was going for begin to penetrate a crushing sense of self-doubt. “Just when I’d think ‘this isn’t working,’ I’d film something that hit exactly the right note,” he says. “The early scenes of Casey and Rooney talking in bed together, before the car accident – those worked immediately. The pie scene was another example. I knew there was something there even as we were doing it.”

Yes, the pie scene – the long sequence in A Ghost Story in which, still emotionally frayed over her beloved’s death, “M” proceeds to consume an entire pie onscreen. And then, after “C” has silently observed her gorge, she rushes to the bathroom and gets violently ill, all in real time. “Yeah, that was most definitely in the script he sent,” Mara says. “And it was one of the things that was most exciting to me about the film, to be honest. Because the way it was written, I knew it’d be one long scene and that it would be tough. But it was such an interesting way to portray grief.” According to Mara, they only did two takes – “Because there’s only so much pie one human being can eat in a single sitting” – and, as numerous Internet articles have breathlessly crowed over the last week, it was the very first time she’d ever tried the delicacy. “I’ve never been a big dessert fan, and I have no desire to ever eat another one again,” she says, cracking up. “I’m a person of extremes – all of nothing!”

It wasn’t until Lowery had begun editing everything together, he admits, that he realised that what he’d shot – especially the out-there sequences that make up the film’s mindblowing back half, which takes on the concept of time itself – was more than just the sum of its parts. “The fact that it does have this cumulative power, that it actually adds up to something quite unique,” the director says. “It surprised me. Because I’d been thinking of it as this series of scenes we’d done, and then the first time I sat down to watch the finished film, I  …” He halts, then throws his hands up. “I just started watching something that I’d made with complete and utter objectivity. That’s never happened before. Not only that, but I found it working on me in a way that I had completely not anticipated. At all.”

Still, he wasn’t sure that he wanted A Ghost Story out in the world – Lowery had asked the Sundance Film Festival for an extension in case he was able to finish before their final submissions were culled down, then decided he wasn’t going to submit it at all. Then his agent saw a rough cut, and per Lowery, said, “‘Dude, stop being an idiot.’ He convinced me to just send it in. Thank God he did.” After the movie’s premiere last January, you could practically dissect the fest into before- and after-Ghost time frames – between someone smirking at the idea of “that Casey-Affleck-wears-a-ghost-sheet movie” and that same person, damp eyes widened, exclaiming “You have to see that Casey-Affleck-in-a-sheet movie stat!”

“Look, I’m a very cynical person,” Mara says, “so it was easy to fall into the trap of ‘Ha ha, what the hell is this?’ It had the potential to go wrong. But when someone makes something with as much sincerity as David did, that’s not cheesy or clichéd … it’s hard to feel cynical about it. Almost everyone has lost someone they loved, or thought about death. And he somehow made this movie that allows you to think about these things in a totally different way from those somber dead-husband dramas where it’s one heavy scene after another. It’s weird and funny and contemplative and whimsical. And I like the idea that someone you love is beside you, watching, even after they’ve gone.”

As for Lowery, he’s happy that people have been connecting to this “odd little thing” he’s made, even if he’s slightly at a loss to explain why Ghost has struck such a chord with festival audiences leading up to its release. “I’m still figuring out my reaction to it, honestly,” he admits. “But I can say both making it and seeing it has helped me come to terms with a few existential crises that I’ve experienced in my own life. The idea of mortality, where we fit in the universe – everyone thinks about these things. And in some way, this movie taps into those common fears and worries and comforts that we go through as we grapple with those questions.”

And the man beneath the sheet? “It was the best experience I’ve ever had making a movie,” Affleck says. “It totally changed the way I think about my life, crafting a performance and what actors do. Everyone should make a movie in which they’re under a sheet at least once in their career.”

A Ghost Story is in cinemas July 13th.