At a house in Irving, David Lowery was filming a pivotal scene in A Ghost Story. His wife, actress Augustine Frizzell, stood on set shaking her head.
They both watched as Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara argued about houses. It was intense and it felt real — in part because Lowery and Frizzell had almost the exact same argument just months earlier, just miles away.
The couple got into a heated debate about whether they should move out of their modest house in the M Streets after the Dallas filmmaker started collecting checks from the Disney payroll for his remake of Pete’s Dragon.
“It was a literal transcription of a fight that my wife and I had about where we were going to live. The argument felt like a scene from a movie. We were really laying it all on the table. It was really interesting to relive that through Casey and Rooney,” Lowery said. “We have since worked it out.”
Yet with the way Lowery’s mind works, he used it as a launching point for an elliptical tale of apparitions and the afterlife that’s a meditation on grief — and a eulogy of sorts for the house he vacated when the couple relocated to Lakewood.
“I didn’t want to move, and I was really upset that we were leaving it behind,” he said. “A lot of the emotions that went into the film were based on my unwillingness to leave Texas.”
The film begins with that bickering by an unnamed couple, played by Affleck and Mara. The husband subsequently dies in a car accident, prompting his widow to grieve and eventually move out. But he remains behind, in the form of a ghost represented by a corpse in a white sheet, struggling to come to terms with his own death and the presence of those who later live there.
The first half of the film essentially follows the married couple through the bereavement period that follows his death. Then it detours into a Malick-style meditation on memories and the passage of time, through the eyes of the ghost and its beloved house, which spans generations.
The comforts of home
The bulk of production took place at a small house in Irving, not far from where Lowery graduated from high school. He was driving around the area and looking for houses that were slated for demolition, which gave them more freedom to destroy it as the story dictates. It stood out, in part, because of its resemblance to his cherished former dwelling in Dallas.
“I knew it would be perfect. It had the same vibe. The more we fixed it up, the more it felt like home. I’ve still got some of the furniture from it in my house now,” Lowery said. “Whatever house we chose, we knew it would not survive the entire running time of the movie.”
Most of the film was shot within driving distance of his home, from a construction site in Fort Worth, to various landmarks around downtown Dallas (such as Cityplace and Museum Tower), to a hospital in Waxahachie, to a field near Meridian — the setting for his 2013 Western, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
About that pie scene
Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film is one in which Mara’s character, overcome with grief, sits on the kitchen floor, fork in hand, and consumes almost an entire sympathy pie in a single, static shot lasting more than five minutes.
For Lowery, the sequence — which mercifully required only one take from Mara — takes the phrase “eating our feelings” to a new level.
“I needed to cover a lot of ground with her emotionally. I needed one scene — and one scene only — that would really ground her, and allow us to spend time with her and not the ghost,” Lowery said. “She’s going through something emotionally that’s profound. It’s easy to show someone crying or lying in bed. But I wanted her grief to be very physical and palpable for the audience.”
Lowery knows the pie scene, like the film itself, isn’t for all tastes. But he’s very proud of the result and credits Mara’s committed performance.
“She’s doing something very private, and it feels uncomfortable because of that. I knew it would be a long scene that tried people’s patience, but that was good,” Lowery said. “When she did the scene, I remember watching it and feeling a great sense of peace because I knew it was working. It felt like we were achieving something truthful.”
Carving his own path
Lowery, 36, wrote the screenplay for A Ghost Story very quickly — it was just 30 pages due to the sparse dialogue — and began shooting it just two days after he wrapped post-production last year on Pete’s Dragon.
Transitioning between expansive studio projects and low-budget indies isn’t part of a predetermined career pattern, Lowery said. He recently finished shooting Old Man and the Gun, a small-scale crime drama starring Affleck and Robert Redford, and is next slated to tackle Disney’s upcoming Peter Pan reboot.
“I want to make as many movies as I can. I’ve got a lot of stories I want to tell and a lot of ideas I want to explore. Some of them fit within the realm of big studio movies, and some of them are much smaller,” he said. “I need to find a balance that allows me to continue working steadily.”
He acknowledges that A Ghost Story might polarize moviegoers by demanding patience and subverting genre expectations.
“I knew that this would be challenging to a great many audience members. Anyone going to see this thinking that it’s a traditional horror movie is going to be tested. I like being provoked, and stepping out of my comfort zone,” Lowery said. “I wanted to make a movie that would require a lot of the audience. It requires a certain patience and a certain disposition. Hopefully if an audience is willing to meet it on that level, they’ll get a lot in return.”