“We’re not actually recording anymore are we?”
I’m late to the David Lowery train as neither of his first two features — Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon — did much for me, and endless talk about a lengthy pie-eating scene kept me from checking out his latest for nearly a year. Having finally seen A Ghost Story, though, I can honestly say it’s among the best films of the year. It left me in tears on first viewing, and as a testament to the film’s power it accomplished the same feat for me while I watched it with the commentary track playing. People were jabbering over the film’s audio, and I still cried while watching it. Ugh.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
A Ghost Story (2017)
Commentators: David Lowery (writer/director), Andrew Droz Palermo (cinematographer), Jade Healy (production designer), Daniel Hart (composer)
1. “This sequence of the movie probably changed more than any other,” says Lowery in regard to the opening featuring C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) on the couch. This was Affleck’s idea while the script actually opened with ten pages of dialogue interspersed with various shots of the house’s interior. They shot it all but went with this instead.
2. Mara’s opening line — “I’m scared” — was actually just her referring to being nervous about filming the couch scene without knowing where Affleck was going to take it.
3. The house was one scheduled for demolition and had been gutted on the inside. They had to decorate and build the interior from furniture on to the kitchen itself. Some members of the crew ended up living there during production.
4. The scene where the couple wakes up to a noise and walks though the house in search of its source was the most expensive in the film due to fx costs. “Casey has lovely tattoos all over his back,” and they had to be digitally removed.
5. Lowery called cut partway into the shot of the couple in bed, kissing before falling asleep, but the actors didn’t hear him and kept at it. They let the camera roll. “I don’t remember saying cut, but I guess I probably did. I do stupid things when I’m directing.”
6. Mara’s face perfectly fits the 4:3 frame via the 50mm lens.
7. They used a stopwatch for the scene where C is covered with the sheet and M walks away. Lowery wanted a full minute before Affleck sat up beneath the sheet.
8. Hart wrote a big, noisy piece of music filled with “terrifying sounds” for the scene where a dead C comes back to life, but it was scrapped.
9. The shot of ghostly C approaching the house at 18:55 was done after the house had already been demolished, so they used some composite fx trickery.
10. At no point did Lowery consider adding audience applause (a la Kramer from Seinfeld) to M’s entrance into the house at the 23:00 minute mark.
11. It was Mara’s idea to eat the pie on the floor. Weirdo. It’s almost as if she’s never had pie before.
12. Mara had never eaten pie before. Lowery called bs, but Mara confirmed she had avoided it as she’s never been a fan of sweet foods. They made less-sweet pies for the scene, and Mara chose the salty chocolate one for her first foray into pie eating.
13. “It’s really tempting to always want to get a close-up,” says Lowery, but the more films he makes the more he discovers that “if you have a really good actor you can put the camera on the other side of the room and it’ll still feel like a close-up.”
14. Several of the shots featuring both the ghost and live people were filmed separately and composited together, “sometimes because we were shooting in different frame rates.” The pie eating scene was done this way because they didn’t want to risk Affleck passing out under the sheet or any other distraction that would have required Mara to eat a whole other pie.
15. The subtitled conversation between the two ghosts was not scripted, and it was originally intended to be strictly waves. “After the wave I wasn’t ready for it to be over yet,” says Lowery.
16. That’s Lowery under the second sheet as the ghost across the street. “First time I ever cameo’d in one of my own movies.”
17. The film was originally going to be very linear from beginning to end, but Lowery credits filmmaker Shane Carruth (Upstream Color) with his help in assembling the film during production. “He completely ignored that rule” that Lowery had in place and instead suggested some intuitive cuts and edits.
18. The song was originally written by Hart for his own band, but Lowery added it to the script after becoming obsessed with it.
19. Mara said the scene where she’s seen in close-up while listening to the song was “incredibly uncomfortable.” The lack of outward emotion without dialogue or normal expressions was tough for her apparently, “and also Casey’s sitting right across from her the entire time watching her listen to it.” Lowery adds that he feels bad for making her do it three times.
20. Mara is the only one who knows what her note actually says. “I told her to write whatever felt right to her, and she did, folded it up, painted it into the wall, and it went down with the house.”
21. Lowery is a huge fan of James Wan’s The Conjuring 2 — “one of my favorite films” — and they had just recently seen it before filming the sequence where the new family in the house is disrupted by the ghost at night. “It’s great to turn the movie into Poltergeist for a little bit.”
22. They entertained the thought of putting Affleck on wheels for some of his moving shots as his attempts at running/jumping ruined the feel and occasionally revealed his sneakers.
23. Palermo’s reference for the shot at 56:16 was from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit. He wanted it to feel like the scene where the old lady is scratching at the wall.
24. The party scene extras were cast on short notice, and that meant contacting a modeling agency. “When I first came into the house I think there was just thirty 6’2″ beautiful men and women all over, and I was like ‘this is not going to work.'”
25. Lowery spends a lot of time on dialogue — “I slave over it” — but he’s gotten into the habit of telling actors to just make it work for them.
26. Lowery wanted a Kesha song to play during the party scene, “and somehow that turned into Kesha actually being at the party.” They’re all dancing to a song she wrote but isn’t singing.
27. The party-goer’s monologue was written before the film as a standalone, but it was a natural fit for the film’s script once he began working on it. “It sort of sets the stage for where the movie’s gonna go, it sort of prepares the audience for what’s about to happen.” It’s not the theme of the film, but it represents Lowery’s own rationalization of existence.
28. Hart introduced vocals into some of his score with references from sources as varied as Virginia Woolf, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Ecclesiastes 9:5.
29. Weta is behind the sequence at 1:12:04 where the ghost climbs the rooftop against the neon-lit cityscape. They had tried shooting some of it atop a real highrise, but it wasn’t working, so Lowery called his Pete’s Dragon vfx supervisor for help.
30. The little girl on the prairie was humming randomly during a scene, and when they showed it at Sundance the marketing team inquired if she was actually humming “I Get Overwhelmed.” She wasn’t, but Lowery liked the idea so much he brought the girl into the studio, recorded her humming the song, and dropped it into the movie. It’s most evident in one of the trailers.
31. Palermo had forgotten about the script beat where M slams the window at 1:20:42 — “I got so in the zone of shooting Casey’s face” — and the first take terrified him to the point of shaking the camera.
32. Lowery added the ghost into some of the shots featuring both C and M before he knew how he was going to use them. They eventually became an integral part of the film’s ending.
33. He heard the Broken Social Scene song while jogging and paused on the spot to screen-grab it knowing it would fit somehow into the movie. The opening drum beat was “comforting, as a way of moving on to the next step.”
34. The script originally stated that the note text would be visible, and they actually shot over-the-shoulder shots of a blank note with the intention of adding text digitally after the fact. They decided (correctly) that it worked better without it.
35. Some of the practical effects — including the end sheet collapse and the earlier shot of M pulling the sheet over a dead C’s head and then him sitting up with the sheet collapsing all around him — were adopted from stage magician techniques.
36. The commentary ends on a sweet note of mutual love and respect… and then Healy notices a credit for a miniature unit and asks what that’s about. (They created part of the hospital scene where the wall falls away.)
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“I try not to use the word ‘haunting’ too much when talking about this movie. It’s a little too easy.”
“When in doubt, make the camera move.”
“If you’re gonna meme it, do it well. That’s all I ask.”
“Jade was on the master cleanse while we shooting this sequence.”
“We had a really great time letting out some of our frustrations in making this film on the house.”
“He’s always a little squirrly.”
Buy A Ghost Story on Blu-ray from Amazon.
A Ghost Story is a stunningly beautiful journey about grief, time, and the need to let go of some things if we want to hold others tighter. It’s a meditative experience and one I wouldn’t fault anyone for not liking — the filmmakers reference the greatness of Bela Tarr a few times here, and that guy’s movies are garbage to me — but if you connect with its vibe the reward is tremendous. The track offers on-set anecdotes, explanations of intent, and descriptions of technique, and it’s a recommended listen for fans of the film.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.