Last year at this time, North Texas film director/writer David Lowery was getting ready for the release of his first major Hollywood project, a $65 million, CGI-saturated, shot-in-New Zealand remake of the 1977 Disney children’s film, “Pete’s Dragon.”
This summer, he once again has a new movie landing in theaters, but it couldn’t be more different. Shot in Irving, Fort Worth and Dallas on a slim $100,000 budget, “A Ghost Story” — starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck and opening Friday in North Texas — is a quiet, meditative love story that takes Lowery right back to his indie-film roots. In fact, Mara and Affleck also starred in his 2013 effort “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” the filmmaker’s prior low-budget tale of desire and devotion.
Getting back to basics proved to be something of a relief.
“After having spent basically three years focused on one film [‘Pete’s Dragon’], making that film and not really paying attention to anything else, it was admittedly refreshing to make a film that, from conception to release, was less than a year,” says Lowery, 36, in an interview in the lobby of Dallas’ Angelika Film Center, a place he says he spends a lot of time when he’s in town. “That was, for me, as someone who has a very short attention span, helpful.”
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Despite what its title might imply, “A Ghost Story” has nothing to do with the horror of death and everything to do with the longing and regret that follows in its wake. Affleck is a young man so attached to his life that, after being killed in a car crash, he can’t sever this mortal coil. Instead, he rises from the coroner’s table — still swaddled in the sheet that had covered his corpse — and heads for home, where he finds Mara tumbling headlong into grief, devouring an entire pie as therapy, and then trying to get on with her life.
Meanwhile, Affleck watches and watches, unable to be seen except by another sheet-covered ghost rambling around the empty house next door.
The idea for the story was inspired by a rental house Lowery and his wife shared in the M Streets section of east Dallas. “It was the first house that my wife and I lived that was a house,” Lowery recalls. “We’d been living in apartments until then and so I really just took root in that space and got attached to it. When we moved out, I got really upset and that feeling was what led to this movie.”
He got in touch with Affleck and Mara to star but wouldn’t have been surprised if they had ghosted him, letting his calls flow into voicemail and remaining unanswered. After all, Affleck was the subject of major buzz with “Manchester by the Sea” (for which he would win the Oscar for Best Actor) getting ready for release, while Mara had Oscar nominations for supporting actress for “Carol” in 2016 and actress for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in 2012.
Affleck’s face wouldn’t even be seen for most of the film. That’s hardly what you’d call incentive.
“They were the first and only people I reached out to and I didn’t honestly think they would do it because, as much as I might count them as friends, they’re still busy movie stars,” Lowery explains. “The fact that they were down to come to Irving and make this movie ... was a testament to their own creative free will.”
About that sheet
If there’s one thing many moviegoers already know about the film, it’s that it’s about a guy who walks around in a shroud. (And Lowery concedes that it’s not always Affleck under the sheet but he won’t say which scenes are or aren’t a ghost substitute.)
If that whole thing strikes you as humorous, Lowery says that’s the idea.
“It’s meant to be funny,” he explains. “I wanted it to be funny but also for that humor to quickly fade and for it to become effective in terms of the character being one in which audiences can relate to. By the fact that all he has are two eyes, there’s something almost cartoonlike about his visage that allows you to embrace him on an emotional level, though there’s not a lot going on in his face.”
The sheet also hints at something more serious Lowery wanted to convey.
“I’m a very science-y guy. I was raised very Catholic, in a very religious household, and that fell away as I got older,” he says. “I ceased to be religious ... but at the same time, I do believe that there’s more to this world than we can comprehend. I’m happy to just accept that and I don’t know what that means. ... Maybe we’ll come to understand this entire universe in its totality but probably not and in that ‘probably not’ lies the possibility for me to believe in ghosts even though I don’t believe in an afterlife or anything like that. That is one of those little mysteries that makes life better for me.”
About that house
As much as Affleck and Mara provide the movie’s star power, it’s the house to which Affleck returns that feels as much of a character as any of the humans. Neither a palace nor a pigsty, it’s mid-20th century, single-story Texas suburbia at its most mundane. But it’s also the type of place — when infused with families, friends, and memories — that becomes more than the sum of its workaday architectural parts.
Lowery maintains that finding exactly the right house was crucial.
“That was the biggest part of pre-production,” he says. “We were still finishing ‘Pete’s Dragon’ when we were getting started on this so I made a couple of weekend trips to DFW to just drive around and look at houses.
“[Producers] James M. Johnston and Toby Halbrooks had the brilliant idea of getting in touch with the demolition company and finding houses that were condemned or slated for demolition. They gave us a list of homes, we drove around, looked at them and then found this one in Irving.”
The filmmakers struck up such a cordial relationship with the property owners that the homeowners’ granddaughter ended up as Mara’s stand-in.
“They really got involved and then came to be part of our family as we were making the film, but finding the house was paramount,” says Lowery, who actually grew up in Irving and went to Irving High School before attending the University of Dallas. “We had to, A, have a house that we could have the full run of and ultimately, destroy. And, B, it had to have the right character to it and this one had both. It was just the right mixture of small town, rural Texas but also feeling like it was on the verge being in the big city. And it looks surprisingly like the house that I had abandoned in the M Streets.”
While most of the film was shot at the house in Irving, other parts of DFW appear as well, especially as the film moves into the future. Filming spots include inside the Trinity River levees in Dallas, the construction site of the Frost Tower in Fort Worth, the Cityplace Tower near Uptown Dallas, and Museum Tower in downtown Dallas. “It’s a series of buildings all glued together to make one futuristic ‘Blade Runner’ version of Dallas,” Lowery says with a laugh.
About those reviews
The film premiered at Sundance in January to generally good reviews and those were bolstered by positive press when it opened in Los Angeles and New York two weeks ago.
But Lowery is aware that with its title and the presence of a star like Affleck, some might be lured into expecting a more traditional horror movie or drama, not something as eccentric, contemplative and individual as “A Ghost Story.” It could end up being as divisive as “It Comes at Night,” the recently released film by another Texas indie filmmaker (Trey Edward Shults) that happened to have the same distributor, A24.
That film was loved by critics (88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), who appreciated its sense of claustrophobic tension and many unanswered questions, and scorned by filmgoers (44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), many of whom seemed to be expecting something more straightforward and definitive. (So far, “A Ghost Story,” as of mid-July, was enjoying more broad-based support with 88 percent of critics and 73 percent of moviegoers liking it.)
“I’m not worried so much because [A24] are doing a great job of putting the ghost front and center so everyone knows that it’s not a straight-up horror movie and that it’s weird,” Lowery says. “There’s going to be a point where audiences reject it and that’s fine. It’s not meant for everybody, but I love A24 for recognizing that there might be an audience for this beyond just the art house, though it might not be that much beyond it.”
About that ghost store
A24 certainly has come up with some clever marketing ideas, including opening a pop-up “ghost store” in New York’s Chinatown. You can even watch a live feed from the store at aghost.store/location/watch. If you want to purchase a sheet like the one in the movie (which is said to be made from “70 percent legacy, 20 percent entropy and 10 percent cotton”), you can do so online at aghost.store/shop/check-out but only after pressing and holding your space bar for eight minutes while listening to ghostly ambient music and being treated to such messages as “touch the stars” and “release.”
AdWeek was so impressed with the whole Ghost Store conceit that writer Kristina Monllos wrote, “What sounds like a ‘Portlandia’ gag about an artisanal Halloween shop is actually a promotion for David Lowery’s new film, ‘A Ghost Story.’ And once you’re inside, the whole undertaking feels like anything but a gag.”
About those big Hollywood movies
By making “A Ghost Story” on the heels of “Pete’s Dragon,” it could be assumed that Lowery subscribes to the theory of purposely alternating between big-budget studio endeavors and small, personal projects. It’s a common approach for indie directors and actors who want to walk on both sides of the cinematic street. But that’s not quite right, he says.
“I don’t have that ‘one for them, one for me’ mentality,” he says. “They’ve all got to be for me, and I don’t think in terms of scale. I definitely now understand what it takes out of you to make a film the size of ‘Pete’s Dragon’ or to make something even bigger . . . in terms of time, energy and commitment. So I will choose those projects carefully ...It’s just got to feel right.”
Most of Lowery’s career has been devoted to indie films. He’s been an integral member of the DFW filmmaking community since crafting his first short, “Lullaby,” in 2000, co-directing the feature “Deadroom” in 2005, and directing his first solo feature, “St. Nick” in 2009. He also has served as either editor or writer on some of the most striking films to come out of this area, including Shane Carruth’s beautiful, if inscrutable, science-fiction-romance “Upstream Color” and Yen Tan’s Pit Stop, the story of two middle-aged gay men in small-town Texas.
Now, he’s turning his attention to the more high-profile projects: finishing post-production on “The Old Man and the Gun,” starring Robert Redford as an aging bank robber, due for release in 2018. Then he’s supposed to take on the “Peter Pan” remake for Disney.
But he has no plans to permanently move from Dallas. In fact, don’t be surprised to see him hanging around DFW the next few weeks as he enjoys some down time.
“I’m going to be at the Angelika all the time,” he says with a laugh. “I’m really dorky in that I have very few things I do. I go running and I watch movies, so you can find me most weekend mornings running around White Rock Lake or on the Katy Trail and then I’ll go watch movies the rest of the day.
“It’s a simple but satisfying existence.”