Existential horror is the worst kind of scare there is

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

There’s nothing haphazard about David Lowery’s approach to filmmaking (Pete’s Dragon), but it’s still a surprise when, in A Ghost Story, the auteur crafts a narrative that very nearly grinds to a halt — in a good way.

In A Ghost Story, Casey Affleck (“C”) and Rooney Mara (“M”) are an average couple living in a rickety house. Their happiness comes to an end when “C” dies in a car crash. But death is just the beginning of the story. Hung up on the good times, the spirit of “C” passes up the opportunity to transcend to another plane and returns home, invisible to everyone, including “M”. As his beloved goes through the stages of grief and eventually moves on, “C” finds himself stuck for years to come. Time goes by, house dwellers change, but his longing remains.

Lowery’s depiction of eternity is bold: scenes take longer than they should (we get to watch Rooney Mara eat her feelings in real time), silence is the norm and Casey Affleck keeps his acting chops hidden under a bed sheet (literally — how else should a ghost look?). It all works: A Ghost Story is an intimate experience likely to trigger plenty of reflection on matters like letting go, and one’s legacy.

Lowery — who previously worked with Affleck and Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints — is open to the existence of ghosts (“more at night than during the day”), but has never seen one. His interest in spirits has more to do with the subjective nature of time than the supernatural. I talked to Lowery a few weeks ago in Toronto, four years after meeting him for the first time in Vancouver. Looks the same, but seems more comfortable in his own skin.

Did you always know your ghost would wear a bed sheet?

Yes. That was there before the movie existed. The image of a bedsheet ghost in an empty house is something I’ve wanted to [use] for a while. Executing it in three dimensions was more challenging than I thought, but I did believe that image was strong enough to sustain a feature length film.

One of the film’s curveballs is that it’s not linear.

There’s plenty of quantum theory that supports that possibility, and — even though this movie doesn’t engage with those theories at a practical level — I like the idea of a character existing outside the continuum of time, unmoored. The idea is that “C” is initially defined by a person, space and time. Then Rooney’s character leaves, time becomes irrelevant and all that is left is space. The character needs to cross that final threshold — not being defined by space — to move forward.

Were you concerned Casey Affleck’s acting wouldn’t come across under the sheet?

Initially, I thought Casey would get to do a lot more acting and communicating through the fabric. We tried it and it didn’t work: It felt like an actor with a sheet over his head. We needed the ghost to feel like a ghost. We realized we needed to remove the “performance” from his performance, and have him stand still and move very mechanically. It was really a case of less is more — he had to do very little for the ghost to become an emotional character.

Did you have to sell Affleck on that?

No, it was a very organic realization. He was down to do whatever needed to be done. Could it have been someone else under that sheet? Absolutely. At the end of the day, there was no reason to subject Casey to this, but he wanted to wear it and be part of this. At various points of the film there were two other people who put it on and you can’t tell.

Any rules establishing what ghosts could and couldn’t do?

We had one going into the film. We shot scenes in which all of those rules were laid out, but they felt redundant and tied the movie down. I realized you come into this film having seen ghosts or haunted house movies. The rules are sort of the same and we could rely on them to provide structure.

There’s an element of horror, but it’s existential.

True. I hope audiences find A Ghost Story ultimately hopeful, but I recognize it has the potential to be terrifying. I don’t find the ghost’s existence pleasant whatsoever. Being stuck in a house for eternity would be a pretty epic bummer.

What did you learn from making a movie on the scale of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon?

When you scale back down to a little movie like this, it’s just as hard as doing a giant studio film, with all the pressure on your shoulders over the fact your movie needs to make a lot of money to succeed. You still run out of time every day, you still don’t have enough money to do the things you want to do. ❧