David Lowery on why he made A Ghost Story: ‘I was freaking out, having an existential crisis’

Why would anyone dress Casey Affleck in a white sheet and try to pass him off as a ghost? It all started when David Lowery read an article about earthquakes and thought the world was ending

David Lowery spent much of last summer feeling sick to his stomach. The director was so nervous about shooting A Ghost Story that he filmed it in secret. I was very aware of falling flat on my face, he says. It was such a high-wire concept. I went into it thinking it would be fun, a liberating bout of creative experimentation. But it was terrifying. I was so riddled with self-doubt I probably aged five years.

Lowery is now grinning from ear to ear, though. He can talk about his fears because A Ghost Story has neither sunk his career nor made him a laughing stock although you can understand his anxiety. On paper, the films high-wire concept looks bonkers: its Casey Affleck wearing a white bedsheet. He looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost or the phantom emoji come to life. On set, I kept waiting for someone to call me out, to raise their hand and say, This looks stupid. Im glad no one did, because my confidence was already shot.

A Ghost Story is difficult to categorise: eerily beautiful, dreamily melancholic, earnestly sincere and patience-testingly slow (I watched it sitting next to a man who could barely contain his exasperated harrumphs). The film ranks low for scares its more likely to keep you up at night fretting about the meaning of life than to make you terrified of a spirit under the bed. A recent article in this paper included it in cinemas latest big thing: post-horror.

Affleck plays C (the film is too cool for actual names), a musician who lives on the outskirts of Texas with his wife M, played by Rooney Mara. A few minutes in, he is killed in a car crash. At the morgue, Lowery holds the camera still, observing Cs body covered in a white sheet. We watch and watch until C simply sits up on the slab and walks out, wearing the sheet.

Its funny, until its not. The image of ghost Affleck trudging home, sheet dragging in the mud, is piercingly sad. Back at the house unlike Patrick Swayze in Ghost he is unable to communicate with his partner. So he becomes a silent witness to her grief. Time passes, the world moves on, and he is trapped in the house contemplating eternity.

Lowery, 36, wrote the first draft in a single day last spring. Having directed Mara and Affleck in his breakthrough film, 2013s outlaw tale Aint Them Bodies Saints, he asked them to make this weird little movie in Texas. Actually, he texted Affleck, explaining that the role would involve wearing a white sheet. Affleck replied: Sure. Lowery says he doesnt think Affleck even read the script until he showed up on set. Casey likes to do weird, strange things. I dont think he cared so much how it would turn out.

Outlaws united Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in Aint Them Bodies Saints.

But is it Affleck under the bedsheet? Because, lets face it, it could be anyone. Yes, Lowery nods earnestly. All the time? Not always. We had to reshoot a bunch of scenes and he wasnt available. But he was upset. He begrudgingly bequeathed the sheet. The costume is more complicated than it looks. Under his bedsheet, to get the shape right, Affleck is wearing a hoop skirt and tulle petticoats.

The star does perform some Oscar-worthy mumbling before he dons the sheet, but the big performance comes from Mara as the grief-stricken widow. The scene everyones talking about is a five-minute, uninterrupted take in which she eats an entire family-size pie slumped on the kitchen floor, then runs to the loo to throw up. Youll never look at pie the same, screamed USA Today. Given Maras tremendous presence throughout, its a bit of a shame that so much attention has been given to the fact that it was the first pie shed ever eaten. What kind of pie was it, sweet or savoury? Sweet, says Lowery. It was chocolate but had a very low sugar content. One of my producers is a vegan chef.

Its the scene hes most proud of, he says, its purpose being to avoid any revelling in grief. I havent lost a partner, Rooney hadnt either. We didnt want to be grief tourists or to capitalise on an experience that is real for many people. He gave Mara a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didions account of coping with the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The thing I remember from the book was the way in which Didions grief would manifest itself in the most mundane moments. Eating felt like the right thing.

Lowery is as striking as his film shaved head, laser-bright blue eyes though sadly his giant handlebar moustache is no longer in evidence. Hes friendly and up for talking about anything. Where, I ask, did this interest in mortality and the enormity of time originate? He laughs. I was having an existential crisis. I felt everything was meaningless.

The trigger, he says, was a Pulitzer-prize winning article by Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker about an earthquake that scientists believe will take out a sizeable chunk of northwest America. It freaked me out, he says. I started piling on other fears: the political situation in the US and all over the world. I was not feeling optimistic about the future of mankind. I felt the world was on its way to ending. The film became my way of dealing with those issues.

Lowery is regarded as one of the most promising film-makers of his generation, A Ghost Story being the fifth movie he has directed. Aint Them Bodies Saints, his third, gave him indie-level fame and led to a bizarre offer from Disney to remake Petes Dragon, the 1970s kids fantasy. He started filming A Ghost Story last June, two days after finishing Petes Dragon, using his Disney pay cheque to partially cover the $150,000 budget. Friends chipped in the rest.

Bizarre offer Lowerys remake of Petes Dragon. Photograph: Disney

His interest in supernatural beings and bedlinen goes way back: at the age of seven, he moved to Texas, where his dad still works as a theology professor at the University of Dallas. It was around then that he decided to become a film-maker, his first foray being a remake of Poltergeist, which he hadnt seen (my parents wouldnt let me watch it). It starred one of his brothers wrapped up in a sheet.

Lowery never expected, nor even hoped, that the world would ever see his films. Success seems to have taken him by surprise. I knew I would carry on making strange little independent films that would maybe play at festivals, he says. I sort of resigned myself to toiling in some degree of obscurity. I certainly did not envisage making a Disney movie. The most I hoped for was to be able to pay my bills. I was not a go-getter. I was very type-B.

A Ghost Story opened with a small release in the US, but spread to 400 cinemas. Does he worry that someone will walk in expecting something akin to Patrick Swayze and a pottery wheel? Lowery nods and gives one last grin. The marketing has been very clear about what the movie is, he says. But I have no doubt that at some multiplex in America right now, someone is very angry that they just spent $15 and assumed they were getting a horror film.

  • A Ghost Story open in UK cinemas on 11 August. It is out now in the US and Australia.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/aug/09/a-ghost-story-interview-david-lowery-casey-affleck-rooney-mara-pie