A24’s power as an independent studio is quickly rising. Founded in 2012, their first directly financed production, Moonlight (2016), fought La La Land at the Oscars and won. But A24 is more than its successes, supporting smaller scale productions, A Ghost Story gaining $1 million against its $150,000 budget. A24’s presence is welcome in a diversified film market supported by other recent players like Netflix, Amazon Studios and Neon. Distributed in the UK by Picturehouse Entertainment, Picturehouse have beaten out other studios to distribute recent releases like Elle and God’s Own Country that, in another time, might have received other methods of distribution.
As he tells on Vox’s I Think You’re Interesting, Lowery spent the early 2000s making use of Netflix’s DVD rental service, watching Cassavetes and much of that era’s wave of Asian cinema. Though Disney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon didn’t make Lowery a household name, it proved a breakthrough. As Lowery tells No Film School, A Ghost Story was his “summer vacation movie”, produced within a two-month window. Self-financing the film, Lowery was “prepared for it to fail”. Talking to Filmmaker in July 2016, Lowery described “[wanting] to make something small and tiny and handmade”. As he tells Filmjournal, Lowery never signed “oaths of secrecy”, allowing crew to post to Instagram.
With a 34-page script, Lowery recruited cast easily.
I just texted Casey and said, “Hey, I’m making a ghost movie this summer. Do you want to come be in it? You have to wear a sheet.” And he said, “Sure.”
Casey Affleck’s presence in any film is controversial, thanks to the sexual abuse case coming to light. Though Casey Affleck has had many roles, beginning with early films like Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Affleck has spent most of his career overshadowed by Ben Affleck until his Oscar-winning performance in Manchester by the Sea, protested by sexual-assault survivor advocate Brie Larson. In many ways, Manchester by the Sea parallels A Ghost Story: a film about life and mortality as Affleck’s Lee Chandler deals with the loss of his brother, caring for his teenage nephew. Manchester by the Sea equally approaches time as fluid, moving into flashback of the burning house without clear delineation. Lowery explores events leading up to C’s death with restraint, not resorting to melodrama but positioning his death through the mundane: a car crash. Speaking in Filmmaker, Lowery describes allowing us to “luxuriate in something […] profoundly personal”, depicting C “checking [his] email and watching a video on YouTube” in an earlier cut of the film.
Lowery had been interested in ghosts since childhood. In his 1988 first film, inspired by Poltergeist (1982), a film he was “aware of but definitely hadn’t seen”, 7 ½ year old Lowery used his dad’s friend’s camcorder, its cloak, square frame, sound effects and fade to grey prefiguring what he would perfect with A Ghost Story. An 18 year old a decade later, Lowery shot Ghostboy during senior year on a Hi8 camcorder, a film so bad it “depressed [me] for the rest of the day”. As he tells No Film School, the image had been “waiting for the right movie”.
Although Affleck’s presence as a white sheet, communicating emotion through its circular eyes, seems not to require acting ability, Affleck still has some performance to give. As he points out in Filmjournal, Affleck was “really upset” when Lowery had to use another actor in reshoots and pickups. But Lowery found the sheet difficult to pull off; in early footage, the ghost had “no elegance, no grace, no sense of the ethereal”, like “a sheet stumbling through a frame”. Shooting in 33 frames per second, Lowery made the ghost “three-dimensional” through fabric, allowing arms to move and “making a trail”. As he points out on I Think You’re Interesting, the iconic image emerged from the theatrical tradition of burial shrouds, a tradition evoked as we view C’s cadaver underneath a cloak, Lowery’s camera holding on the body for a full minute. As he says, the ghost is a “very recognizable image”, existing as the Snapchat logo, an emoji and LEGO figure, but we “don’t really think about what that means”. Lowery drew from an existing canon of ghost films, from “Michael Myers [wearing] the sheet with the glasses” in Halloween (1978) and the rules established in Beetlejuice (1988) and Ghost (1990).
As a Hispanic family moves into the house, living breakfast and Christmas rituals, the ghost haunts as an active agent not invisible force, breaking plates and interacting with physical space. In the commentary, Lowery notes The Conjuring 2 as one of his favourite films, watching it before filming the sequence. As Andrew Karpan writes, Lowery’s long takes evoke the “malicious and unseen monster” of the Paranormal Activity series (2007-15); “the family, more reasonable than any in a horror movie, simply move out.” Lowery’s ghost interacts with physical space, granted a realm of communication with the house next door, waving towards what Lowery describes as a “grandma ghost” with a floral pattern (played by Lowery himself), utilising subtitles for the viewer to intuit conversation. Will Thede’s remix A Friendly Ghost Story makes A Ghost Story’s relationship with the existing canon explicitly clear, cutting clips of Casper (1995) against the trailer.
Rooney Mara, having excelled as Faye in Song to Song, remains one of cinema’s greatest actresses. As Mara notes, actresses are expected to “either be shy and very polite and well-spoken” or “the crass, brassy, cool girl who drinks and eats pizza”, but she fits into neither. Lowery depicts small moments, showing M’s intimacy with C as they kiss in bed and embrace, framed in tight close-up. As he notes in the commentary, Lowery called cut partway through, but let the camera roll. We see the arguments, beyond absolute perfection. As he notes in the No Film School interview, the scene had been 10-pages long, shot over the course of the day, inspired by an argument he had with his wife, Augustine Frizzell. As he says, they were “discussing the plans for our future” and “draw[ing] lines in the sand”; in the moment, he “could see the end of our relationship”, despite calming down and coming to “a very sensible resolution”.
M’s reaction to grief provides a useful counterpoint to Jackie. In Jackie, the First Lady’s grief is overwhelming as she falls apart. But M’s grief is epitomised by binge eating. As a neighbour pops by with a pie wrapped in tin foil, Lowery emphasises isolation and personal space as she consumes the pie within a single shot, before running to the toilet to throw up. The bodily experience – consuming and expelling – summarised within a single scene. Though Mara wanted macaroni cheese or chocolate chip cookies, Lowery let producer James M Johnston to cook a vegan gluten-free, sugar-free chocolate pie. M sits, not wearing shoes, as the ghost remains in the edge of the frame, in the back of her mind, observing events as she reshapes her relationship with the house. Lowery explains in Filmjournal wanting to “feel the sense of loss” as “tangible”, at a “more meaningful level” than “crying her eyes out in bed”, restricting to one take controlled by Mara’s “own volition” without blocking or discussing beforehand. Lowery let Mara draw upon Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), reflecting the book’s exploration of grief “manifest[ing] itself in the most mundane moments.” M must live life with absence, though C remains a presence. Meeting another man, we never get to know about their relationship or her feelings as a character, but the absence speaks volumes.
A Ghost Story is highly symbolic, the same year as Aronofsky confounded viewers through his similar transgression of horror, mother!, utilising allegorical narrative and archetypal characters. Working with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, Lowery’s lights carry visual symbolism: the hospital drowned out by reds and blues; the reflecting light in the living room. Lowery asks what meaning objects, people and places we hold onto carry. Like Personal Shopper, A Ghost Story details trace present through paranormal visitations tied to personal mourning. The paranormal is itself about trace, from ghosts in photography in the 1800s, and series like Ghost Hunters (2004-16) seeking to provide videographic proof of a ghost’s existence. Our lives are series of traces, markers towards our presence on Earth left behind. M reads over a book, finding a trace of their relationship within its text: a shared library between a couple, with unspoken symbolic significance granted, no matter how mundane. Between copies of A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Nietzsche, all objects cannot be detached from the life they live. An epigraph drawn from Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House (1921) is equally a trace: “Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting.” Whilst emphasising relationship to physical space, the extract is itself a trace, detached from the work many decades after publication. Cinema depends upon intersection with the present: the act of watching a film, its trace within memory and preservation for future generations.
A Ghost Story has a Malickian element, following from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013). As Lowery says of George Washington (2000), he was “influenced by Terrence Malick inasmuch as David Gordon Green was”, reflecting upon the voiceover in Days of Heaven (1978). As Marshall Shaffer parallels to Boyhood and The Tree of Life (2011), time is “elemental” to the production process, from Malick’s elongated edit, Linklater’s decade-long shoot and Lowery’s “furtive” summer, describing Boyhood as “strictly secular”, The Tree of Life as “religious” and A Ghost Story as “nebulously spiritual”. As Shaffer writes, each film depicts time as “both antagonistic and awe-inspiring”, with the “main conflict” being to “hasten its speed, fend off its advances or stop it altogether”.
The nihilistic monologue performed by Prognosticator (Will Oldham) perhaps makes Lowery’s existential philosophy most abundant: a person can make out, or be a labourer, or writer and carry a life of meaning, but the death of the universe and species is scientific fact. As Lowery says in The Verge, Prognosticator is “representative and reflective of my own thought process”. For Lowery, he lays “two-thirds of a pretty good argument”, with the film “[taking] it all the way” to truth and meaning. As he says in Filmjournal, he wanted to “address” his “existential dilemma” and “give myself some degree of relief”. Although Lowery describes himself as “very pragmatic” and subscribing to “some degree of spirituality”, a holdover from his deeply Catholic family and theology professor father, the film is more interested in our relationship with physical space. As he tells The Guardian, the trigger had been Kathryn Schulz’s article The Really Big One, in a heated political climate feeling like “the world was on its way to ending.” Lowery is interested in time before and after, exploring life’s cyclicality. In a flashback to the 1700s, we witness a family settling around a campfire in the 1700s, constructing the foundations of the house. In a cut, the family are murdered by Native Americans; in another, the family are reduced to rotting skeletons. As he says in the commentary, Lowery was assisted by director Shane Carruth, reshaping the film from his initially linear narrative. Lowery reminds us of the youth of the US itself, eliminated from existence within an instant.
Like the documentary Starboard Light, Lowery intersects the personal with physical houses, emerging from Lowery’s own spatial displacement against his personal identity. Speaking in the No Film School interview, Lowery recalls the argument with his wife that inspired the scene between C and M, remembering moving to LA and New Zealand for Pete’s Dragon when his “identity belonged in Texas.” As Tad Friend writes, Lowery grew up in a farmhouse in Irving he was “convinced was haunted”, before being self-diagnosed with “hypnagogic sleep disorder”. Lowery undergoes displacement of body and space, with Friend noting feelings of “being suffocated”. As Shaffer writes, all three films he analyses use Texas as “a spirit from which they can draw history, mythology and weight”, using the state’s “vast and multitudinous expanses” to “ponder the tension between the supreme importance of a given moment and its relative insignificance on a cosmic scale.”
Lowery pays close to natural elements like rain, using the house’s frames to parallel the frame of the film, panning from the window. In flashback, C and M visit properties, guided by an agent. On her laptop, M searches for other properties. Lowery’s use of digital displays leads to, as he describes on the Vox podcast, a contemporary yet elusive period that combines the antiquated and rural, a Macbook appearing but no phone. As he comments, growing up in the 80s he felt connected to an analogue world. In his absence, M packs up boxes, moving out, hiding paper within the walls of the house: securing a record of her existence as the doorframe becomes painted over. The ghost moves through the house as though moving through purgatory, before disappearing into disembodied nothingness by the film’s conclusion. The ghost’s persistent existence might seem a middle finger to Prognosticator’s dismissal of belief, but is this the case?
As Lowery recounts in the No Film School interview, producers Toby Halbrooks and James M. Johnston consulted with demolition companies to find “condemned properties”, finding the house’s owners “incredibly generous”, using their granddaughter as “Rooney’s stand-in” and as “one of the pioneers”. We move through time as the house devolves, crushed as paint wears away, a lizard taking over remains of human space. As the house is demolished and the ghost watches on, diggers and construction workers take their place. Watching George Washington, Lowery admired the film’s cinematic language, utilising the walls of cinema and landscapes of the natural world, contrasting open spaces and urban decay with the world’s imperfections. In the house, we sense a similar vibe. As Lowery mentions in the Filmjournal interview, he likes “the idea that when you leave a room” a “little bit of yourself behind”, with the energy transferring from the body in death “exist[ing] in the space you’re in.” Speaking in No Film School, Lowery mentions being “very open” to ghosts existing, but is “content to just wait for [proof] to present itself to me or not”. Working with the team at WETA that helped on Pete’s Dragon, the evolution of the house becomes a reflection of the transformation of the United States itself: the Texan house has become an indistinguishable office block defined by its lack, unnoticeable in its lights and sense of uniformity.
Part of what makes A Ghost Story stand out is visuals. The round edged 1:33:1 frame evokes an old picture developed, carrying archival and historical quality. The rounded frame of cinema has become outmoded, recent restorations of silent classics like Man with a Movie Camera (1929) only now expanding the ratio to glimpse the corners of the frame. As Charlie Lyne explores in his video essay Frames and Containers, repurposing the theories of Eisenstein, the cinematic frame can be manipulated beyond anamorphic widescreen across multiple devices, with films like Mommy adopting a 1:1 aspect ratio. As Lowery elaborates in the No Film School interview, he was drawn to 1:33:1 as a “thematic idea”, trapping the ghost “between four walls”. Lowery was inspired by Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold, emphasising the frame’s artificiality in an era of “widescreen televisions”, creating a “built-in frame”. Shooting on the ALEXA Mini, Lowery had the freedom to shoot widescreen, but chose to pillarbox the screen; as he explains on the Vox podcast, he added the vignette in postproduction as a “contextualizing frame”, commenting upon Instagram’s use of filters. As he mentions in No Film School, the “old photographs in my family albums have curved edges”, images he would view at “family gatherings” on a “slide projector”. Lowery’s evocation of the slide harkens back to a photographic trace of memory, tied directly into family history. Lowery’s frame exists beyond aesthetic: in locked off shots, Lowery pays close attention to the horizon, splitting the image into three sections. In 50mm close-ups upon Mara’s face, Palermo creates a sense of both containment and the personal.
Lowery creates a compelling visual aesthetic, using off-white greys and blues within the hospital to emphasise unease. But Lowery also uses sound to great effect, working with composer Daniel Hart and his band Dark Rooms to create a haunting aural landscape. Hart combines soundscapes of breathing and heartbeats; through the credits, we hear sounds of children and wind. As Lowery mentions in The Verge, Hart wrote the score when the film was “almost completely locked”, with Lowery cutting “without temp music”, interested in not “[hiding] behind [the] score”, instead wanting the film to “[work] on its own terms”. As Lowery mention in the commentary, Hart incorporated vocal elements from Woolf, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Ecclesiastes 9:5.
The powerfully emotive I Get Overwhelmed cuts across the fabric of time and space itself. In the trailer, the song allows the trailer to relay the entire narrative and substance of the film. The young girl hums as she scribbles and writes, emerging seemingly from nothing and carrying through time after her death, with Lowery dubbing the song in the studio following the Sundance premiere. As C and M tour properties, the tune appears again, carrying a spiritual quality, with C drawn to the piano. As we follow C composing and recording, editing on Garageband, we feel M’s emotion tied into song. Placing her headphones on, we contrast two periods of time: the song, played through speakers, and played through headphones. Through sound, Lowery conveys temporal and spatial displacement perfectly.
As I left the cinema, A Ghost Story was an uneasy experience. I was left emotional and confused, in the midst of an existential crisis. Lowery never reminds us of life’s joy, but life’s meaninglessness. Prognosticator’s speech cuts to the core as the film’s thesis statement, with little in the film offering any alternative perspective or debate. By confronting his crisis, Lowery only exacerbates, unable to come to any conclusion. Belief and knowledge are series of mysteries; a film can never adequately confront these issues and form something definitive. A Ghost Story can only prompt something deeper, but A Ghost Story is not the height of examining existentialist thought within cinema.