There were roughly 72 hours until the Sundance premiere of David Lowery’s latest feature, but I already knew that one pivotal scene — in which a bereaved Rooney Mara devours an entire pie during the course of a five-minute long-take — would be the talk of the festival. “She did one take of eating the whole thing,” Lowery said with a smile, sitting across the table from me in the Park City Marriott where we’re having coffee, “preceded by two takes of her coming into the house and eating the first couple of bites. So she ate a lot of pie.”
I pressed for more details. “It was a chocolate pudding pie. Vegan. Very low sugar content. I believe the crust was gluten-free,” he said. “Rooney told me beforehand that she had never had pie in her life, so it was a first in many regards.” Lowery looked to his right, checking to see if friend, producer, sometime co-writer and full-time wizard Toby Halbrooks had anything to add, but Halbrooks just shook his head. Lowery turned back to me: “I think she enjoyed it.”
She did not enjoy it. “Oh, God,” Mara said, shivering when one of my IndieWire colleagues asked her about it later that week. “It was some disgusting sugar-free, gluten-free, vegan chocolate pie. It was really gross.”
But it was worth it. Even Lowery knows that it was worth it. “It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done.”
That’s a strange thing to hear from a man who’s never been shy about the fact that he can’t stand to watch his own work.
12:34am on Thursday June 9th is when we abandoned it.
— David Lowery (@davidlowery) June 9, 2016
That was the tweet Lowery sent when he put the final touches on “Pete’s Dragon.” Some directors finish their films, David Lowery leaves them to die.
And that’s when they start to haunt him.
“I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in the afterlife,” he told me, “but I do believe in ghosts.”
In a February 2016 blog post, “Three years ain’t long enough,” Lowery wrote about his 2013 breakthrough “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” like it’s a late relative he can’t bear to think about, as opposed to a widely respected indie that sold well at Sundance and earned the director a job with Disney.
“Since [its festival tour] I’ve kept it out of mind. I don’t read reviews or comments about it… I definitely don’t watch it. My relationship with it is such that I am very grateful I got to make it, I am content that it exists, I’m proud of what we accomplished, I am happy it is out there and even more happy that some people genuinely love it — and I need to not think about it or I’ll drive myself nuts.
Later, he discussed how, just last January, he was visited by the memory of a particular edit that he doesn’t feel he ever got quite right. A simple cut from the exterior to the interior of a bar tormented him all over again, as if he was still in the editing room with Sundance deadlines staring him down.
One day — I tell myself it’ll take ten years, which means seven from now — I’ll be able to like the movie. Just as the ardors of production have become wrapped in pinkish-blue nostalgia, those creative choices that pain me now will become charming in their naiveté. The good that came of the film will outweigh my mixed feelings towards it — as it already should, but somehow doesn’t! — and the picture itself will have gained a context in which I can look at it with affection, an imperfect but beautiful piece of me and all of us who participated in it … Today, right now… I know it’s not quite time yet.
So this summer, when Lowery was about to put another film to rest, he couldn’t stomach the thought of having to live with yet another collection of self-created specters, especially when “Pete’s Dragon” could taunt him from massive billboards along the 405, or jump out at him during commercial breaks. He couldn’t afford to sit shiva for one project while he was still mourning another. He had to find some measure of peace with the things that he had put into the world, and he had to find it fast. As Virginia Woolf once wrote: “Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting.”
Those words, excerpted from a short work called “A Haunted House” and plastered on screen at the very start of “A Ghost Story,” began to metastasize in Lowery’s mind. Even now, he was still working through them, sure of their importance but uncertain of what that might be. Hours after our conversation, he texted me a reminder to look for literal glimpses of Woolf’s work throughout the film, stressing how her writing “corresponds perfectly to my difficult-to-grasp perspectives on ghosts and specters and their relationship to life and time.”