Art and Death in A Ghost Story: An Interview with David Lowery

Art and Death in A Ghost Story: An Interview with David Lowery.

Mockingbird / 10.3.17

This interview was conducted by Daniel Melvill Jones. “A Ghost Story” is available for rent on iTunes and other outlets as of today Tuesday, October 3.

Director David Lowery burst onto the filmmaking scene with his breakout indie hit, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. This led to Disney entrusting him with last year’s remake of Pete’s Dragon, a critical success praised for its personal vision. But nothing prepared critics for this year’s Sundance hit, A Ghost Story. Wholly unique, this small film has a scope at once cosmic and contained. It elegantly expresses questions of loss, death, creativity, and the permanence of the physical. As a Christian creative, I find myself challenged by these themes on an almost daily basis; this film’s approach to them literally took my breath away. So when Mockingbird was offered the chance to talk on the phone with David Lowery, I was prepared for an earnest conversation.

Part of the wonder of watching this movie is being surprised by the unexpected places it goes. I urge readers who plan on seeing the film to do so before reading this conversation.

Congratulations on the tremendous reception to your film, and an even bigger congratulations on creating such an extraordinary piece of art. I have no doubt it will remain my favorite movie of the year.

Oh thank you! That’s awesome. I hope it holds up [over] the next six months! There are a couple more movies coming up that might beat it…

I doubt it, but we will see. I’m going to stick with my prediction!

Great! I’ll just count on that.

I want to talk a little bit about creativity itself. To me, one of the most indelible moments in the film was when the song, which was recorded by Casey Affleck’s character, lasts beyond his life. His character has died and he invisibly haunts his house while Rooney Mara’s character listens to the song. In a physical response to the music, she reaches out and and in so doing just touches his ghost. It communicated this idea of his art lasting beyond his lifetime.

And yet, at the same time, there is that speech towards the middle of the film in which a character talks about how we can’t really rely on our art to last beyond the inevitable death of the universe.

Yeah. There’s not necessarily a contradiction there, but there is a complication of that lovely idea.

In light of that, why do you create movies?

Well…as I’ve gotten older, [the answer has] changed a little bit. But at the root of the question is the simple answer [that it] is my means of self-expression. I have a consistent need to express myself. [Filmmaking] is the only way I know how to do it well. And thusly I will! [Laughs.] And hence, I keep doing it. But that is the primary, baseline reason that I make films. And it’s the primary reason that I’m creative in general, because it allows me… [It is] a means by which I can express myself.

What about the idea explored in the film of art enduring beyond the here and now? Because, as a Christian, it’s something that I struggle with. Does art last into eternity? If it doesn’t, why do we even bother to create it? Since you express these themes in your film, how do you reckon with them yourself?

It’s something I’m still reckoning with and kinda trying to define my own opinion on. But I do think that—setting aside the idea of whether or not one believes in an afterlife—


—I think it’s important to understand the extemporaneous quality of our lives. To understand that, [yes,] what we do in our lifetime has an effect around us during our lives. But beyond that, we can’t count on that effect resounding after we are gone. And although it might, we can’t live our lives in such a way that depends on that potential. I think that’s important.

The question of whether or not our art exists beyond our lives and after we die—in a Christian sense—is really interesting to me. Because I was certainly raised [religious and] to think that once we leave our earthly bodies behind, nothing that we do here will matter to us anymore. We will be so far beyond the earthly realm that the concerns that we had as human beings will become trivial. And that’s a fine way to think about things, but then you do start thinking…will I be able to watch movies in heaven? [Chuckles.]


Like, will I be able to listen to the music [we made] or will it just not matter anymore?


And [those are] interesting questions that I, of course, have no answer for. I don’t know whether or not that is a question that is truly worth engaging as a human being. I think [it] goes beyond just having faith and gets into the specifics of faith in a way that isn’t even useful or practical. Whereas even if I do believe that I will go to Heaven if I live a good life and follow the prescribed path of someone who dies in the Christian faith, I still need to address the fact that the things I do here on earth are earthly and may not carry over.


And even while I’m grappling with that potential issue, I would say that…I guess I’ve already answered the question as best I can. The issues of faith and the issues of one’s legacy on earth are almost, while not independent of one another, they have an exclusivity that makes them both easier to deal with on their own terms.

I see what you mean…

Let’s talk about how that applies to creating. You say that it’s important to understand that what you are making right now—what you are pouring your energy and soul into—isn’t necessarily going to last. How does that understanding then affect what you are doing, that pouring of yourself into your work?

It doesn’t make me stop, that’s for sure! [Chuckles.]

Good, good!

But it did make me question the value, the potential. The very nature of that question, once asked, led me to question the value of what I was doing. And the value that I ultimately found in it was the same that I’ve always had: it satisfies me. It satisfies a very extemporaneous need that I have.

I also believe that there is more. That while satisfying the extemporaneous need, it also does provide some greater meaning, in some way…but I haven’t quite figured that out yet. I don’t think that it is limited to pure creation, that you are simply making something for the sake of making it to express yourself. I believe that that’s important, and that’s why I do it, but I think there’s more to it than that. And I haven’t been able to define that properly for myself yet.

Right! I think that’s why A Ghost Story has such value for creatives, because it’s exploring that very question, and testing it, and knocking at it in different ways.

I’m really glad you’re asking me these questions, because I’m having to define them for myself in words and ideas that I haven’t quite come to terms with. And it’s important for me to acknowledge that I haven’t come to terms with them. Because that pursuit—that quest if you will—is vital to the creative process as well, as much as it is a means of expression. I’m also always trying to take myself further and achieve a greater understanding. So the expression is not one-sided. There’s a reciprocation there, and that reciprocation has a degree of mystery to it that I’m nurtured by, and it also tells me to keep asking.

I heard you describe in an interview that in making this film you set yourself up for failure. You wanted to have the freedom to fail. Which I find fascinating, because in our digital age it’s so easy to create something and then to share it right away.


Which doesn’t really create room for failure. So I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that goal, the room for failure, and about the need to fail in your creative life and in making this film.

I’m not going to hit home runs every single time, nor have I yet. The films I have made have all been works in progress that succeed to one degree or another. There is failure implicit in everything I do. So I’ve never not failed, to one degree or another.


But making this film, I wanted to have the freedom to not fail in public. With all of my past films, regardless of how I feel about them, they had to be seen. Because there was money at stake, and it would have been a failure in a business sense not to exploit them in some fashion. If I made a movie in the past and I wasn’t happy with it, it was something I had to just deal with. The movie was going to get seen regardless. That is exactly what has happened with my past work.

With this movie, I wanted to give myself the luxury of failing in the same way that I have in the past. And perhaps to an even greater degree, because the project was so high-concept. I wanted to have the right of failing in such a way without being in the public eye. I wanted to do that in private, and if that failure was so immense that I felt that the movie was best left unseen, I wanted to be able to take that route.

Was there a turning point when you realized that you were going to show it?

There were a few turning points. There was a point during the shoot when I felt that it was kind of working. Then there was a point during post-production where it began to feel like a movie. Then there was a third point where I was convinced to show it to some other people earlier than I was anticipating, which then led to feeling okay about sending it to Sundance. All those points occurred over the course of about four months, and each one was a stepping stone. But I never felt fully confident in the movie until right before we showed it at Sundance.

One of my favorite artists, Makoto Fujimura (a recent guest on the Mockingcast), advises younger artists to always have something that they are working on in secret, just to explore and to have the freedom to do that. And in this case your version of that was a success! So thank you for doing that.

I think that’s a wonderful thing to have as an artist! Usually those secrets are a little more manageable; they are screenplays or sketches or drawings. In this case, it was an entire movie. But nonetheless, it was really valuable for me to do that.

So I don’t want to ask about the ending, because finding the meaning of that stunning shot is part of its power. But let me ask you this: If you were that ghost, what do you think would be written on that scroll for you?


There was a line of dialogue that doesn’t make the final cut, in which Rooney describes the type of thing that she would leave on a note in the house that she left behind. And the example she gave in the film at one point was, “Don’t forget the mouse that lived in the Christmas tree during Christmas in 1982.”


That type of specificity is what I think I would find in the note. Something that is very personal, very specific, and very meaningful to me. And it wouldn’t mean anything to anybody else.

Hm! And that would bring you the release?

It would. But also, I don’t think it’s necessarily what the contents of that note are that gives him the ability to move on. It’s just the fact that he’s finally read it. And maybe it says nothing! Maybe it’s just literally a piece of paper on which, over the years, the ink has faded away and he can’t even read it anymore. That would give him the same relief. He just knows. He’s just able to understand what is or isn’t there, after having been wondering for centuries at that point, and that’s what allows him to let go.


It is not a textual signifier so much as it is an experiential one.

Yeah, he has finally “found what he’s looking for,” in the words of the Irish poet.


The film shows such a care of the physical space. We see this in its use of light, sound, and textures. I know that you’ve said that this is important to you and that you find it hard to leave the physical spaces that you’ve come to love. It strikes me that much of the film is coming to peace with the impermanence of that physical space.

So how do you reckon with that in your life? Because it’s clear that you love those details. Your work admires those details, and yet your work also acknowledges that they themselves don’t last.

I think one just has to find beauty in impermanence. I’ve always been drawn to rust, and to decay, and to images that represent the inevitable passing of physical things. That’s why I live in old houses, or one of the reasons why I like to live in old houses. That’s why I like overgrown alleyways in the back of a Texas neighborhood. There’s the sense of nature overtaking the spaces that we’ve defined for ourselves. I find that appealing.

It’s a little bit frightening as well, because it represents our very impermanence. When you see a house that’s coming to the elements, it is intrinsically linked to our own ideas, or our own concepts, of personal impermanence. And that is unsettling. You can look at an old city that’s been overtaken by nature and just see the inevitable fate of all mankind in its collapse. But there’s something beautiful about that, too. And it’s an intrinsically beautiful thing to watch.

When you see an animal or even a person decaying into the dirt, it’s a horrifying image and yet it’s a very beautiful image at the same time. If you can find that beauty and understand that beauty, our own deaths then becomes less terrifying because you’re understanding the natural organic process that’s taking place.

So when I gravitate towards these places, the ones that really mean a lot to me are the ones in which that process has already begun, where that transition is already started. On a subconscious level it is helpful for me to be surrounded by that.

Rather than hiding it.

Exactly. It does lead to more home repairs, but it is nonetheless helpful. [Laughs.]

Well, this is a film that I expect I’ll be returning to for the rest of my life. So thank you for exploring those themes in this movie. I can’t wait for many of my friends to see it and then to talk about it with them. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to seeing what you do next.

Thank you! Well, this has been a fantastic conversation and I really appreciated it.

I hope we can do it again sometime!