LOWERY: On the set of "Pete's Dragon."
Both of David Lowery's
film showed on Saturday revolve around delicately crafted, easily messed up creatures of fantasy.
In "Pete's Dragon" there is a dragon. He is big, CGI, furry, and green. You can imagine this going horribly, falling victim to the technocratic ugliness of the "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace."
It doesn't. It's all heart.
In "A Ghost Story" there is a ghost. He is Casey Affleck under a sheet (which actually, Lowery noted in the Q&A, was much more complicated than just throwing a bed sheet over Affleck, it involved a helmet and petticoats and proper 'flow'). This could look funny, creating laughs, or, maybe worse, just dumb.
But, it doesn't. Again: it's all heart.
Interestingly, these monsters in Lowery's films — who are actually not monsters at all, but instead, nonspeaking and still expressive creatures — work as avatars for the core theme of the work.
The dragon in "Pete's Dragon" has an emotive, dog-like, presence that lights up the unconditional love element of family and connection to nature. The Disney movie sneaks its way to adult themes, but also, does not try to work above or in spite of children. The theme in "Pete's Dragon" is love and when it hits adults are crying and kids are crying; it does not need to be more complicated.
"A Ghost Story" is about love too. But, it is also about grief and, more than anything, about our relationship to a universe that will ultimately die itself. It's a pretty simple idea that — from its inability to solve with pure logic — has caused many a mid-life crisis: Does any of this matter?
"A Ghost Story" early on has two people in bed — M (Rooney Mara) and C (Casey Affleck), but you do not learn these names until the credits — who hear a noise. The next day, C dies. His ghost haunts their home and moves through time and space. Mostly, the ghost is physically still, in the frame. And, the subtlest movement made by Affleck can make one shiver. The ghost becomes a literal, and visual, embodiment of history, time and memory "haunting" us.
The ghost is, strangely and similarly to the dragon, somehow deeply emotional despite the fantastical creature element. The creature embodies the film's thesis without being overwrought.
Music plays a large role here, Lowery was quick to say, in developing that emotion for both films without it going overboard. Daniel Hart — who writes the music for all Lowery's work — does an incredible score in each film. In "Pete's Dragon" he creates something that is, both Lowery and Nichols said during the Q&A, obviously a Disney film score without overdoing the crescendos of sentimentality. In "A Ghost Story," Lowery said that Hart's work was "one-third" of the film's success. Music does much of the work that dialogue does not.
Will Oldham, another musician, has a wonderful cameo in "A Ghost Story." Just as the slow and meandering nature of the ghost moving through time gets to a potentially too boring or too brooding point, Oldham comes in as a drunken guy ruining a party. He gives a monologue on life and death. This is presented as both something we can agree with and find ridiculous. Oldham's prognostication on how we all die and none of this matters is interspersed with cuts of ghosts watching him, implying that, to at least a certain extent, there is something
supernatural beyond our reach and it does
matter. (Kesha is dancing around at the party, too, by the way.)
Another thing to watch for, which is getting much discussion: There's a four and a half minute shot of Rooney Mara eating pie. It's worth it.
Watching the films back to back, you can see how Lowery works in widely varied formats. No one would say that "A Ghost Story" and "Pete's Dragon" are very similar, but ... there's something.
My inclination, going into the double viewing, was that Lowery's directing may be interested with childhood innocence. (This was shaded by the news that he is writing Disney's new "Peter Pan.") Yet, that's not it.
The connection between the magical creatures in each work is more about how Lowery wants to use his camera — and not dialogue — to cut to the core of emotion. The link between "Pete's Dragon" and "A Ghost Story" is an urge to have some filmic
mood take center
frame as a creature (dragon or ghost).
In "Pete's Dragon," the creature is the bridge between humanity and nature, and the love that resides in all creatures. In "A Ghost Story," the ghost is our connection to the cosmos, the very nature of how time operates, and the deep sadness, and simplicity, of life
eventually ending. Each creature allows Lowery to show
you that without having to say too much.
The ghost glides and the camera does not move in "A Ghost Story." In "Pete's Dragon" the camera soars and constantly puts you into point-of-view shots where you take the perspective of a child. In "A Ghost Story" it's shot in a tight frame, making the house feel like it's confining you. The wide frame of "Pete's Dragon" makes you feel as if you are flying with Pete.
The point, always, is a heartfelt connection to something beyond words expressed through Lowery's camera and having a creature allows that to make sense without dialogue.
But, I have to say, Lowery is good at talking, too.
Here's are some notes of things he discussed with Jeff Nichols in the Q&As after "A Ghost Story":
- Lowery said "A Ghost Story" began "with the image of the bed sheet ghost, in an old house. And, I'd been waiting to use that image for awhile." It had shown up in an earlier script that he wrote in 2013 and even in a film
he made as a child, a remake of Speilberg's "Poltergeist" with his brother as the ghost.
- "A Ghost Story's" production and creation was, in one way, a reaction to the creation of "Pete's Dragon," Lowery said,
because the Disney film had taken three years. He wanted to go back to his roots, shooting much more quickly. He shot "A Ghost Story" in a summer
, in Texas, where he began as a filmmaker. The house haunted by the ghost was actually only a few miles from his home as a child, right down the block from the movie theater he went to as a kid.
- The conflict — of a ghost wanting to stay in a house — was also born out of a small fight he had with his wife. He was living in L.A., wanting to go back to Texas, and his wife wanted to stay in L.A.
- More on the Will Oldham monologue. "I didn't set out to make a spiritual film. But, people ask me, 'Is Will Oldham's monologue, like, is that, is he stating your beliefs?'," Lowery said during the Q&A. "Well, no ... there's a ghost listening to him. So, I think somewhere in there, the fact that there's a ghost listening to this thing — the synthesis of those two ideas is where I'm coming from."
- Lowery said that the first day on set, there were some concerns because the ghost costume "didn't look terrible, just goofy." He said that the main problem was movement, and they just needed the ghost to stand still. "It was really funny just watching him stumble around in a sheet. And, I'm like, 'Man, this isn't working. It just looks like a person with a bed sheet over their head bumping into walls.' Which is literally what was happening, because you couldn't really see in that costume. So, it took a little while to figure out how the ghost needed to function on a physical level to get that effect. Until we figured that out I was just dying inside every day because I was like, 'This movie is a disaster, a total failure.' ... We had to find that elegance. And it was a combination of things, but also realizing he doesn't need to do that much. ... Once we got ourselves and stopped having the ghost walk through doorways — there was a lot of that early on — because we thought we needed to show him getting from point A to point B and we thought we need to have rules, or whatever. You don't. You just need to be there."
- Lowery said that Rooney Mara asked to eat macaroni and cheese, instead of pie, during her grief breakdown. "She said she had never eaten pie in her life before," Lowery said. "I believe her."