Right now, as you’re reading this – in the midst of summer movie season – a peculiar little movie is coming out that is probably best known as “that movie where Casey Affleck walks around in a sheet.” Or, “That movie where Rooney Mara eats a pie for five minutes.”
David Lowery’s A Ghost Story isn’t scary. Before the film premiered at Sundance, Lowery compared it to staring out a window than anything featuring Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, or Michael Myers. Okay, sure, on the grand spectrum of “staring out a window” versus being chased around by Freddy Krueger, A Ghost Story might be slightly closer to the whole window thing. I mean, there really is a five-minute scene of Rooney Mara eating a pie. But, one-sentence descriptions aside, A Ghost Story is one of the best films of 2017.
“I would do a Ninja Turtles movie,” says David Lowery when we get on the topic of ‘80s movies. I put this quote up here as kind of a way of making the point that Lowery isn’t your typical director of offbeat indie projects. “I thought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was the best movie ever when that came out. I went back and watched that and I was like, oh man, I feel so bad for my parents for having to sit through this three times with me. I bought the soundtrack on cassette.”
Lowery’s pretty obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When I ask him what he thought of the most recent Turtles movies, he admits he isn’t biggest fan of the first one, but had high praise for the sequel, “The second one actually felt like a literal recreation of the cartoon. It was so true to the cartoon. Even with Krang flying away at the end, saying, ‘I’ll be back’ – like shaking his tentacle at them. It was so goofy, but I liked it.”
Lowery made his feature directorial debut with 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which received high praise at Sundance and also starred Mara and Affleck. This led to his next gig, which at the time seemed like a puzzling decision. No one really thought we needed a Pete’s Dragon remake. Yet, David Lowery made a Pete’s Dragon remake and… it was really good. More importantly, David Lowery got to make a David Lowery movie in the studio system.
“I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop,” recalls Lowery, about his time working for Disney. “For them to tell me to make the dragon talk or make it modern, or put some cell phones in there or have some modern references. Never happened. Every step of the way, they were supportive of what I was doing.”
I bring up the fact that the optics of making A Ghost Story, a movie in which Lowery had complete freedom, does look a little like a response to just coming off a big studio movie. Lowery immediately poo poos this: “In truth, making a Disney movie was a delight.”
Then, I bring up the situation of what happened to Chris Miller and Phil Lord – let go for “creative differences” from the Han Solo movie – and that there is a growing concern that bright young filmmakers aren’t being allowed to have any freedom in the process.
“I mean, I didn’t have final cut on the movie,” answers Lowery. “Nor would I have expected it, but that never got in the way of me making the movie I wanted to make.” And, yes, Lowery would certainly receive notes, but it was never obtrusive. “They all just wanted to push in on, lean in on that tone even further. And I love that. And I really have great respect for them for that. And I want to make more movies with them, but we had such a good experience on that one that I want to make sure the next one is just as good.”
Do not make Rooney Mara eating a pie into a meme
In A Ghost Story, After C (Affleck) is killed in an auto accident, he returns to his house and wife, M (Mara), as a ghost – which is represented by Affleck just simply wearing a sheet with two holes punched out for his eyes. It’s a version of a ghost we would see in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
“I’m going to take the most childlike representation of a ghost and bring some gravity to it. I mean, this image, around the world, if you show it to anybody, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, it’s a ghost.’ But yet at the same time, they don’t take it seriously.”
So how did Lowery get a movie studio to take it seriously? Which, in this case, would be A24, the same studio that currently has a Best Picture Oscar for Moonlight sitting in the same offices where Lowery and I are talking. It’s easy to envision hearing the idea for this movie and someone asking, “Well, is it a spooky ghost?” Then it’s easy to envision the look on that person’s face when he or she is being told about the whole sheet thing.
“There’s a degree of trust involved whenever you’re telling anybody about it,” explains Lowery. “Because it doesn’t sound like it should work and it doesn’t sound like something anyone would take seriously. And so, I didn’t have to convince my producers to make it with me because we all trust each other.”
It turns out Affleck and Mara were a slightly tougher sell.
“In trying to convince Rooney and Casey to do it, you know, I don’t know if they completely got it from my initial email that I sent them asking if they would be interested in it,” Lowery says. “I’m sure there was some question as to whether or not this would work or whether he would really be under a sheet the whole time. Casey was just down to do it. And Rooney was like, I remember her asking, ‘Is this really going to be a feature? The script is great, but it seems like it’s going to be a short film. Can this really hold up for an entire 90-minute running time?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think it will. If we do it right, I think it will.’”
After C’s death, M takes out all of her frustration pain on a “vegan, gluten-free, mostly sugar-free chocolate pie” – which turns into a five-minute long scene (which feels even longer on the screen) of pure emotion. Lowery knows this will be a meme, but wishes it wouldn’t be.
“I sort of am worried about the inevitable meme-ification of it,” says Lowery. “It’s a very private moment. Rooney is really exposing herself in a very unusual way in that scene.”
But Lowery does joke that if you must make this scene into a meme, at least use the whole five minutes. “Yeah, just it has to be a five-minute meme. It’s like, have some integrity with your memes! You know what I mean? Have some integrity with your GIFs.”
A Ghost Story faces pretty tough odds as it tries to cut through the noise produced by Transformers and multiple superheroes – and even other smaller films like The Big Sick and Baby Driver vying for your summer attention. (Though, A Ghost Story is so small in scale, it seems unfair to even compare it with The Big Sick and Baby Driver. Lowery says they even got the suburban Dallas house where the film was shot for free because it was condemned and set to be demolished. Lowery admits, “I do have to say that there is something incredibly therapeutic about destroying the location that you’ve spent an entire gruelingly hot summer in.”)
This is the kind of movie people will discover randomly someday while high – then think it’s the greatest movie they’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of movie that should almost have been done as a complete surprise. One day, with no announcement, it’s just in theaters. That’s almost what happened at Sundance before Casey Affleck spilled the beans in an interview about Manchester by the Sea.
“I mean, the Cloverfield movies I guess are the closest that’s happened,” says Lowery as he contemplates this idea, almost looking like he regrets not trying it. He’s still contemplating, “If we had skipped festivals…”
Finally, he admits, “I think it could be done, but no one would have the guts to do it. Yeah, and everyone would think it’s a joke at first. They’d be like, ‘This is a joke. This is a publicity stunt.’ And then they’d realize it’s a movie.”
If Lowery gets his way, maybe in a couple years we will walk into a theater and, with no advance warning or promotion, we’ll see David Lowery’s rebooted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is playing.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.