Few people knew of the existence of David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” before it was announced late last year as part of the lineup for January’s Sundance Film Festival. It seemed unusual that the filmmaker’s follow-up to his big-budget Disney reboot “Pete’s Dragon” would be something so secretive and under the radar, even more unusual considering that it featured prominent stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck.
The project reunites the trio from Lowery’s 2013 romantic drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” this time crafting a mournful consideration of love and loss. In the new film Mara and Affleck play a couple living together in a house and after he dies in a car crash she is left alone, grappling with her grief. Except that she is unknowingly under the silent watch of his ghost, who exists under a bedsheet with cut-out eyes. When she eventually moves out of the house, the ghost remains, unstuck from time for a journey of his own.
Lowery financed the low-budget film partly with his own money. He reached out directly to Affleck and Mara, bypassing typical channels so that the actors’ own agents didn’t know they were doing the project until just before it began.
“I’m inherently a secretive person,” said Mara. “It’s just fun and exciting to do something in secret. And also, there’s no pressure, there aren’t these weird expectations, it really felt like making something for ourselves.”
The movie was a platform for Lowery to grapple with a number of his own issues, including professional anxieties he had before making “Pete’s Dragon,” and an artistic desire afterward to make something small and simple, alongside domestic complications of whether to continue to live in Texas or move to Los Angeles.
The filmmaker’s growing unease came to a head when he was contemplating whether to buy a rare poster for Vincent Gallo’s movie “The Brown Bunny,” and his mind went to some extreme places to rationalize the decision.
“I decided not to get it because ultimately I would be dead and wouldn’t care about it and the world would end and the poster would be gone,” Lowery said. “I decided not to buy something nice for my house because existence was meaningless. And that wasn’t a healthy place to be in. So I bought the poster, framed it and decided I needed to fix this problem in myself and this movie was a way to do that.”
He entered into the project intending to make a feature film, but as a way to assuage his own uncertainties he would tell himself and his collaborators that it might end up as a short film or an art installation or he might even just scrap the whole thing.
“I didn’t know if the ghost would work,” said Lowery. “I thought it just might be too silly of a concept to function the way I hoped it would. I always hoped that shape and symbol and character and presence would be maybe a little bit amusing from time to time but ultimately a very emotional presence in the film.”
For the film’s internal mythology of how a ghost operates, its relationship to time and place, Lowery drew mostly from what he calls the “meta-continuity” of other movies — a little “Poltergeist,” a bit of “Beetlejuice” and ideas from assorted other places.
There was some amount of trial and error in creating the seemingly simple ghost costume — “We initially thought we would just put a sheet over Casey’s head and that would be it,” said Lowery — with an internal architecture being created to maintain the shape of the cut-out eyes and flowing folds.
The movie was shot in the summer of 2016, as Affleck was already on his way to winning an Oscar for his performance in “Manchester by the Sea,” which had premiered at Sundance earlier that year. (“A Ghost Story” can be time-stamped partly by where the actor was in growing out the scraggly hair and prodigious beard for his upcoming film, “Light of My Life,” which he wrote, directed and stars in.)
Affleck was later unavailable for some reshoots, and so the film’s art director David Pink stepped in as a substitute ghost. Lowery said that even he is now unsure who is under the sheet in some specific shots.
“I was under it for some of the time, but some of the time I wasn’t,” allowed Affleck.
Noting that “The Elephant Man” is one of his favorite movies and that images from that film have stuck with him since he was very young, Affleck said his own scenes while shrouded by the sheet are among his favorite moments ever as an actor.
“And I’m not saying that facetiously. I just loved, I don’t know, not being seen,” Affleck said. “More than anything it was a kind of humbling reminder of how much the director is doing for the actor and how much the other person in the scene is doing for the actor. It works so well because of Rooney and David.
“The two things I’m looking forward to having been under the sheet is all of the reviews that say that it is my most expressive and best performance, I am counting on those coming out,” said Affleck. “And I can’t wait, I want to see the YouTube version of this movie where someone dubs in all the dialogue for the ghost.”
Even more than Affleck under a sheet, when the film premiered at Sundance it seemed just about anyone who saw it walked out talking about the scene in which Mara, overtaken by grief, eats an entire pie, much of it in a long unbroken take.
“It was certainly something that popped out at me when I read it, that was one of the things I was really excited to do,” Mara said. “So it doesn’t surprise me that it’s something that jumps out of the movie. It was such a unique way of showing grief, we’ve never seen anything like that before. And I’d actually never had pie before, that was my first and last pie.”
Come again? How is it that Rooney Mara had never eaten pie before? (“I asked that same question,” noted Lowery.)
“I just don’t really have a sweet tooth and I was a really, really strange, picky child,” she said. “Something about pie always grossed me out and I just never tried it before. And this came along and I tried making them switch it to something else, but David really wanted it to be pie, so we did pie.”
Perhaps speaking to the intense closeness of the collaboration between the actors and filmmaker, Mara also recalled that during one take of a shot in which she and Affleck cuddled in bed, she actually fell asleep.
As a movie born from both professional anxieties and more personal concerns, Lowery noted that making “A Ghost Story” has had genuine therapeutic value for him (and that he and his wife recently bought a house in Dallas.).
“I can’t put it in words yet what I’ve gained from making this film,” Lowery said. “I’m in a better place as a filmmaker, I’m in a better place as a husband, and I’m in a better place as a human being. The existential crisis I was undergoing when I set out to make this now has receded in the rear view to a large extent. Now when I watch the movie I feel at peace, I feel very comforted by it.”
One pivotal part of the film remains an enigmatic mystery. Mara’s character likes to leave a note behind in places where she lives and departs, and like the whispered farewell at the end of “Lost in Translation,” just what was on the note is not revealed.
Mara alone knows what was written on that note, as it was painted into the crack of a wall of a house that was then demolished.
“I will never tell,” she said. “Let us keep one secret to ourselves.”