‘A GHOST STORY’ filmmakers conjure up an eloquent meditation on memory
Preston Barta // Features Editor
‘A GHOST STORY’ interviews with filmmakers David Lowery and Andrew Droz Palermo
We’ve heard it all before.
“Silence is golden.” And: “Actions speak louder than words.”
While most mainstream movies crowd their stories with dialogue and eye-popping sequences to keep from losing their audience, Dallas filmmaker David Lowery (PETE’S DRAGON) and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (director of ONE AND TWO) exercise these ideas — the depths of silence and the profundity of actions — by evoking emotion and character through visuals.
In their new film A GHOST STORY, we follow a young married couple — played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, whose characters are credited simply as “C” and “M.” C composes music and admires the history of their isolated suburban home, while M yearns to leave and move to a place that’s more modern. However, fate intervenes to settle their disagreement.
C is killed in a head-on collision, leading him to haunt their house as a ghost.
Ghosts in cinema have mainly played for scares. In cartoons, we generally see them spooking characters in a white sheet with cutout eyes. Lowery takes this silly image and turns it into something beautiful by giving his audience the heartrending perspective of its mute ghost character.
“I wanted the ghost to feel like a ghost, despite the fact that [Affleck] is wearing a practical costume,” Lowery said in a recent interview in Dallas. “I wanted him to feel like an ethereal entity. We played with the frame rate to make his movements slightly heightened.”
Designing the ghost’s visual language proved to be a challenging game of trial and error for both Lowery and Palermo, but in time the idea presented itself.
“It was certainly tough to work out the logistics of everything for a film with little dialogue, but it was also a fun and exciting experience. It’s honestly the kind of movie I want to be making,” Palermo said. “I don’t particularly favor talky movies, especially to shoot them, because really, how can you cover them interestingly?”
A GHOST STORY is chiefly about emotion. The filmmakers learned to follow their intuition and make the ghost appear as though he could be part of this world — and apart from it — simultaneously. Lowery and Palermo communicate most of the story’s emotions with just the camera.
Beyond the film’s awe-striking aesthetics, there are its subtle themes of legacy, death and love. However, more curious is the concept of creativity. There are many noteworthy moments that tap into these deep-rooted thoughts. Whether it’s a scene where a prognosticator (played by Will Oldham) speaks of how the world will remember its people and creations, or the story’s visual representation of this dialogue (showing a young settler from the past humming the tune Affleck’s character created in the present), viewers will undoubtedly find themselves lost its existential questions.
“I want to give A24 [the film’s distributor] credit for the [young settler’s added humming track]. Not only does it play with the idea of where things come from in time, but it feeds into the whole idea about nothing truly belonging to you. The idea of what [Affleck’s character] has created in his self-expression, something that he thinks is purely his, might predate him or doesn’t belong to him, really ties in nicely to the themes of the movie.”
Because the film covers a long time period, Palermo experimented with ways to show the passage of time. The result is the ghost learning to exist in the afterlife, and the depiction feels natural.
“Once you see some of the jumps in time, as the ghost goes from room to room — those scenes were very freeing, because we got into the camera actually moving. By that point in the movie, you really need something to break the stillness. Being able to move around on a gimbal or a MōVI [camera movement system] made the film more alive and exciting,” Palermo said.
A GHOST STORY is an observational tale that invites audiences to project their own experiences on screen. While the film doesn’t expect viewers to fill in every void in its narrative, it presents its concepts well enough that each person’s experience will be unique. Though its shroud-wearing ghost may not be the most accessible tale at the theater, it’s certainly one you’ll never forget.
A GHOST STORY is now playing at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas and Plano.
Feature Photo: Production still on the set of ‘A GHOST STORY.’ Photo from Andrew Droz Palermo’s Twitter page.