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Making ‘A Ghost Story’: How David Lowery Exorcised His Demons To Make The Best Film Of Sundance 2017

Last summer, David Lowery quietly disappeared to Texas with Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, a pop star and a pie and made the movie of his life.

a ghost story

“A Ghost Story”

It’s kind of silly. It’s also staggeringly beautiful. “The joke pitch for the project was “Beetlejuice” as remade by Apichatpong Werathesakul,” Lowery said. “It didn’t turn out like that, but still, that’s sorta the spirit in which me made the film.”

He didn’t have any idea how the film was going to turn out, or if it was going to turn out at all. The actors, who either worked for free or close to it, trusted Lowery enough that they showed up on set without a clear sense of what they were there to shoot. “I didn’t even know it was going to be a feature,” Mara recalled.

Nobody did. Halbrooks had confidence in the idea, but even he wasn’t sure they could pull off the visuals: “I felt we’d have something really strong if we could get past the goofiness of the sheet.”

And getting past the goofiness was a lot more difficult than Lowery expected. It turns out that you can’t just drape some cloth over an actor and call it a day. In order for the film to work, the costume had to bridge the real and unreal, silly and serious. The ghost had to be simple enough to feel like a person, but spectral enough to function like a presence. The eventual outfit consisted of several layers of petticoats and a helmet with eye cavities built in. “It’s like you’re puppeteering with a person under it,” Lowery explained, admitting that it took a while to figure out how to get the movement right and the crew endured a long process of getting the giggles out that left them with “a lot of really bad footage of this ghost walking around doing stuff.”

And yes, Affleck was under there the whole time. On the surface, it might seem like a humbling role for a well-established actor who — even at the time — was clearly hurtling towards his first Oscar. But the “Manchester By the Sea” star, whose natural discomfort in the spotlight has only been exacerbated by the recent focus on his sexual assault settlement, couldn’t have been happier. The way Lowery saw it, “Casey thought of this as an opportunity to do what he always wanted to do: hide in plain sight. You always want to make sure people aren’t going to be uncomfortable or complaining or whatever, but I remember the first time he put it on, he was just like, ‘This is great.’”

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how enthusiastic he was to be there — a movie in which Casey Affleck wears a sheet over his head is still a movie in which Casey Affleck wears a sheet over his head. People will have questions. Halbrooks insists they made “A Ghost Story under the radar mainly so that they wouldn’t have to answer any of them if it didn’t work. “We just didn’t want to have the pressure of people expecting this film. We wanted to reserve the right to be like, ‘You know what? A guy in a sheet doesn’t carry a whole movie.’ Or the right to say, ‘It does, but it has to be a short.’ We reserved the right for everything to fall apart.”

It was a right that Halbrooks paid for in cash, as he and Lowery (and two other people) fully financed the film themselves. “Let’s just do this at a level where it’s not going to hurt us if we don’t succeed,” Lowery remembered thinking. “That’s a luxurious place to be in, to do that at all — nonetheless, we didn’t spend much money on it.”

“That’s why there’s no reason to frame this around how low the budget was,” Halbrooks piped up. “We recognize that we’re in a position where we can ask for favors and participation from people that other people can’t. We can get deals at Panavision. We can call WETA to do our special effects. Not everybody can do that, and we recognize that we’re very lucky. But we also treat people with the kind of respect that they are happy to participate.”

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”

IFC Films

That goes for their cast, that goes for their crew, and that also goes for their musicians. Fans of Lowery and Halbrooks’ work will hardly be surprised to hear new bits of score from frequent collaborator Daniel Hart, or to see that Will Oldham makes an appearance in the film’s second half, delivering an epic oratory that’s nearly on par with the monologue he imparted in Lowery’s sensational 2011 short, “Pioneer.”

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