David Lowery is having a good run. The 36-year-old writer and director from North Texas had a slow start to his filmmaking career—his 2009 debut, St. Nick, was rejected by Sundance and never found distribution. But his follow-up, 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, quickly found an audience. That same marquee festival that rejected St. Nick nominated Lowery for the Grand Jury Award for his crime drama staring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, and suddenly, Lowery found himself in demand. Disney tapped him to direct last year’s Pete’s Dragon, a project so successful that Disney announced last year that Lowery would be helming its live-action remake of Peter Pan.
But Lowery didn’t just grab the Hollywood brass ring when it swung by him—rather, he seized the opportunities that come with a high profile to make the sort of personal pictures that launched his career. That’s embodied in his forthcoming The Old Man and the Gun (with Robert Redford), and this year’s A Ghost Story, reuniting the filmmaker with Affleck and Mara, which is available on iTunes and Amazon Video today. Texas Monthly writer Dan Solomon sat down with Lowery to talk about what it’s like to bring movie stars to your North Texas hometown, the power of ghosts, and the sexual harassment allegations around Casey Affleck.
Dan Solomon: This is the kind of movie that feels like it had a specific message. What made you decide to make this movie?
David Lowery: That’s a number of factors that all converge. The inspiration was all over the place, and it led me into production on this thing very quickly. One of them was wanting to make a haunted house movie, because I love haunted house movies. I wanted to make a movie about physical spaces that we’re attached to. I had moved to LA with my wife to make another movie, but I hadn’t wanted to—I really didn’t want to leave the house that we were living in in Dallas. It was really upsetting me, and I was wondering, “Why am I so upset about leaving this house that we’re renting? Why am I so attached to this particular space?” I realized that I’ve always been attached to the homes that I’ve lived in, and I wanted to dig in and explore that a little bit, and come to terms with it. And I’d also always wanted to make a movie with a ghost wearing a sheet, so that was there, too. I had a window of opportunity to make something, and this felt like the right project, so I wrote it very quickly—almost in one sitting—and then we made it. It was just the right time for all of these ideas to kind of manifest themselves.
DS: Was there a full-circle aspect to making the movie in Irving, after being inspired in part because you were sad to be leaving Dallas?
DL: Totally. It was even stronger because I grew up in Irving. That’s where my parents still live. The set is right down the street from the house where I spent most of my childhood. That wasn’t intentional—it’s just where we found the perfect house—but it had all sorts of full-circle qualities to it.
DS: What was it like shooting in a place that typically doesn’t act as a setting for films?
DL: I remember as a kid being really excited that Problem Child was shot in Irving. I guess the nice thing about it is that no one is paying attention, because they’re not expecting a movie to be shot there, so we were able to maintain a great deal of anonymity. People in the neighborhood got wind that we were making a movie there, and got used to seeing cameras and stuff set up in yards and whatnot, but I don’t know if anybody ever knew that various Academy Award nominees were eating at Chipotle right down the street from the Irving Mall.
DS: Is it different making a movie in Texas, as opposed to anywhere else?
DL: I like to make movies in Texas because that’s where I learned how to do it. I know the industry there, I know the people, I know the crews. But it’s hard to make films in Texas. I just finished another movie that was supposed to be shot here, but we had to shoot in Ohio because of tax incentives. I wish I was able to do bigger productions here. There’s so much value that can be had making films here, and geography is very important to me. Physical space is important to me. I like those physical spaces to be in the right place, and to be somewhere that matters to me.
DS: The movie is very rooted in the notion of metaphor, but then there are moments where it feels more explicitly supernatural. How did you strike that balance?
DL: It was sort of a balancing act, to find that tonality and to move from a very intimate story of grief to what is essentially a remake of Poltergeist in Spanish, to an existential party movie, to a science fiction movie, to a historical epic. Every movie within it felt like we were making a new film, but we knew that it would be bound together by our protagonist, who is always front and center. As long as we got the ghost right, we felt like all of those tones would bind together, so the key was to make the ghost work. That was a bigger challenge than we thought: we thought that we’d just need to put a sheet over someone’s head, but to make that presence feel as profound as we needed him to be required a lot of trial and error. It really took a while. But once he did start working as a character, we felt like everything else would click into place, and it did.
DS: How do you make a ghost without a face someone audiences can relate to?
DL: It was trial and error. Initially, I thought we would put this sheet on Casey, and he would emote through it and perform through it, and it would be very clearly him under the sheet. But that didn’t really work. It just felt like a person wearing a sheet. It didn’t have the spiritual quality that we were after, for lack of a better word. We wanted him to feel ethereal, even though it was a very physical presence in the room. So what it turned into was almost a puppet show. We had to treat the ghost, with Casey under it—although sometimes it was someone else under it, as well—like a puppet. I would talk him through the movements on camera. I would say, “Okay, stand perfectly still. Now turn your head slowly to the right.” Whatever the action might be. And then we would have our costumers down at his feet so the wrinkles would all stay in place, and so the eyes wouldn’t go askew. The costume itself has lots of layers, so the shape remains intact, and it needed to have the humanity removed from it, so we’d feel like he’s a character. It was a really odd paradox, because we wanted him to feel like a human being, but for us to feel like that was Casey continuing on to the next realm of existence, we had to remove every trace of him.
DS: A Ghost Story feels like the kind of movie that could go wrong. There’s not a present narrative, it jumps from tone to tone, and—of course—the protagonist’s face is hidden. How do you make sure that’s going to work?
DL: I went into this with complete confidence that it would work. But as soon as we started shooting, my confidence went out the window, and I was calling my producer every day like, “This is a disaster, what are we doing, why are we making this?” And we put our own money into it, so we were on the line for it. In some ways, that was a a safety net, because we didn’t have to answer to anybody else, and we all felt comfortable allowing ourselves the possibility that this might fail. But that same possibility was terrifying. So we just had to trust that initial confidence that we had going into it, and fumble towards that. In some ways it was the hardest thing I’ve ever made because it was such a high-wire balancing act. It wasn’t until we got to the end and got a rough cut together that we really felt that the initial idea was gonna prove successful—every step along the way was terrifying.
DS: You made Pete’s Dragon. You’re attached to Peter Pan. There are opportunities for you to make big movies right now. What makes you decide to invest your own money and go to Irving to make this movie that you’re not sure anybody is going to like?
DL: I love movies of all shapes and sizes and colors and tones. I don’t want to limit myself to any one type. As much as I loved Pete’s Dragon, and want to make another movie with Disney, I wanted to make this, as well. I could have taken more time and found more money to do it, or outside financing, but I wanted to make it on my terms. It was important to me to do that, and it was a necessary movie for me to make. I’ll keep doing that—whether I’ll keep doing that on my terms or not, I don’t know. I would love to. But I just finished another movie with Robert Redford that is completely different from anything else I’ve ever done. I keep wanting to push myself in new directions, make different types of movies, and ultimately make myself happy as a moviegoer by making movies I want to see.
DS: That movie with Robert Redford also co-stars Casey Affleck. I have to ask what it’s like putting out two movies with him, given the allegations that came out around the Oscars in January. I have friends who were excited about A Ghost Story, but who aren’t sure they’re going to see it because he’s in it. How do you decide what to do in a situation when someone you have a working relationship has been accused of something like that?
DL: It’s tricky. Now I wonder if you need to look into everyone’s legal history before you start working with them. A lot of times you make friends with people when you get to work with them, and then maybe something comes out of the closet. All I can do is judge this person on our working relationship, and the time we spend together, and the way I see them handle themselves in day-to-day life.
That was before I knew him, so all I can do is make the same judgment calls that everyone else does. It’s a tricky situation: I know Casey to be a fine, upstanding, wonderful individual, and I also believe that if people have made mistakes, they should be forgiven if they’ve not made them again. But what I do think is valuable about this conversation, all across culture right now, is that society is less willing to tolerate assholes, and they should be not willing to at all. That’s a rule that we have made for ourselves—my collaborators and I—that we don’t tolerate assholes. So regardless of rumors or civil trials or criminal trials, I’m really glad that this conversation is happening, because it’s letting people know that if they act up, it shouldn’t be tolerated. It’s an uncomfortable situation, but it’s a good discussion to have. So as much as you wonder, “Does this color me in a certain way?”, I have to set myself aside from it and say that it’s affecting other people in terrible ways, on both sides of the equation, and I find the value in the discussion.