David Lowery: “‘A Ghost Story’ was an opportunity to make a movie for the sake of making something special”

‘I rarely see a movie so original that I want to tell people to just see it without reading any reviews beforehand, including my own. David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” is one of those movies. So I’m urging you in the first paragraph of this review to just see it and save this review for later.’ That’s how Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-at-large for RogerEbert.com, began his review of “A Ghost Story” in July 2017. There can hardly be a more accurate way to describe David Lowery’s fourth feature, a supernatural drama and a gorgeously sad tale of love and loss that reunited Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, the two stars of his second film, another highly acclaimed little masterpiece titled “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013). For both films, he got some friends together and just made them.

David Lowery (b. 1980) is an American filmmaker, screenwriter and editor, also known for directing the live-action fantasy adventure film “Pete’s Dragon” (2016, a remake of Disney’s 1977 musical); the crime drama “The Old Man & the Gun” (2018) starring Robert Redford, which brings back memories of the Hollywood films from the late 1960s and early 1970s; and the astounding medieval fantasy epic “The Green Knight” (2021), adapted from the late 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” one of the best-known Arthurian stories.

The highest ratings for “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013), “A Ghost Story” (2017), “The Old Man & the Gun” (2018) and “The Green Knight” (2021), as reviewed on RogerEbert.com

Mr. Lowery switches easily from small, independent films to big-budget Hollywood films and back, but that doesn’t change his work as a film director. Regardless of the production size, the creative process is the same. All he needs are actors, a table, a few chairs, a camera and a cinematographer.

The wide variety of subjects his films deal with makes him one of his generation’s most talented and hard-to-pin-down film directors. He writes most of his own screenplays and each time—also depending on the topic of the film—he’s able to capture the essence of what he’s sharing with his audience. As a natural-born storyteller, he always creates very rewarding and enriching films.

After he was a guest at the Film Fest Ghent in October 2014, he returned to the Film Festival last October for the second time, where I sat down with the Dallas-based film director to talk about his work.

Mr. Lowery, when we first met in 2014, you said during our interview, ‘What I expect of my work is that it has a certain degree of integrity to it.’ We’re now nine years and four films later, and you certainly live up to those standards. Is it easy to set the bar that high?

I wouldn’t be able to call myself a director or even sleep at night if I wasn’t aspiring towards that. I feel relatively lucky that I had to compromise very little in the movies that I have made. In fact, I haven’t compromised at all, but I stick to my guns, try to make the best version of the movie that I possibly can, and get that version up on the screen. If I were ever to call it quits or stop before I thought I was done, I would just be letting myself down. We pull this team together, we get these actors together, we assemble the footage, and we all work to make something. It’s my job to take whatever everyone else is giving me and pull the best version out of that. I know that nothing is ever perfect, but you need to get to perfection as close as you can get. I’m always reaching for that and do everything I can to achieve that.

A common demeanor in your films is your poetic cinematic sensibility which is very recognizable. Would you agree with that, or is that description maybe too narrow?

I don’t think it is too narrow because I think poetry and cinema are like-minded mediums in that they use language to evoke feelings that aren’t bound by literal meaning. Literature, as a novel, can work that way—a novel can contain poetry within it, but the medium isn’t as fluid as poetry is. Film can be didactic, it can be expositional or literal, but it also has the ability to be so much more than that. And I love making movies that push in that direction, that push towards the transcendent, push towards poetry and metaphor, and find meaning beyond the quotidian details that might comprise their design.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013, trailer)

When I first saw “Aint Them Bodies Saints,” I wondered what you could do as a filmmaker to aim even higher. But you make it look pretty easy.

I know that intrinsically I’m going to repeat myself because I am who I am, and my movies will have a sense of style and thematic coherence that are intrinsically my own. But beyond that, I don’t ever want to be bored, nor do I want not to be challenged myself. So with every movie I make—and as I write my own films—and I have an idea, I think, ‘Well, I have never done that before?’ Or I read a book and think, ‘It would be a challenge to adapt this.’ Other times I have a very deep yearning to convey something specific that will manifest as a movie. But other times it’s just a whim, like a whimsical idea that once I’ve spent the time necessary to write a screenplay and make the movie, I become deeply invested in it. Very often, I’m challenging myself, amusing myself, and trying to find new ways to excite myself as a moviegoer. I think, ‘What would I want to see?’ If I were an audience member and buy a ticket to this movie, would I be excited to see it? Would I be excited by what this movie is conveying in the way it is conveyed? So many of my projects and the way that I approach them, are coming from that viewpoint, of me trying to make myself happy as a moviegoer. When I think of the directors I love, their work is always recognizable in their movies. But they are also pushing forward and they try not to repeat themselves; they’re pushing into new territory, trying to push the medium forward as well. That excites and inspires me, and I can’t help to try and do the same.

And in the meantime, your films are very successful. So far, their cumulative worldwide gross is over $180 million. Does that enable you to choose the actors you want to work with?

I think it’s not so much their success because none of them has ever been huge. I never made a movie that made as much money as a ”Spiderman,” you know. But relative to their budget, they have all done well and they have been received well. I think that actors see the films and see the opportunities that I give other actors, in terms of like here is a character or a story you can invest yourself in, or here is a slightly unusual opportunity to try something you’re not getting the chance to do elsewhere. I think that’s the feeling. And also, I try to create an environment where actors can do their best work and have fun doing it. I consider that part of the job, to create an environment and an atmosphere in which all of my collaborators—but actors first and foremost because they’re the one who will represent the movie—like they can feel they have given it their all, and had a chance to dig into something in a way they might not always get to.

“The Old Man & the Gun” (2018, trailer)

How do you write your dialogue, and direct an actor like Robert Redford?

[Laughs.] With Robert Redford, I had the luxury of working with him on “Pete”s Dragon” first. The part in that movie wasn’t written for him, but once he was on board, I was able to work on it and kind of tailor it to him. It was an incredible luxury to get to make that movie first, because after I made “Pete’s Dragon,” I was able to rewrite “The Old Man & the Gun,” knowing what it’s like to direct Robert Redford, knowing what it’s like to work with him, knowing how to capture that twinkle in his eye or the way he holds himself on camera. And so I rewrote the script entirely and wrote it specifically for him. He was always going to play that part—“The Old Man & the Gun” was a property that he bought and brought to me, but when I had written the early drafts, I didn’t know him yet as a person or as an actor. I just knew him as a movie star. I knew he would play the part, but I hadn’t written it to his strengths. Once I had worked with him, I knew exactly how to do that and I rewrote the script from scratch. That made that movie a joy. I was able to write it in a way that we would have a great time with him on set.

Does he need any direction, or do you have to guide him in a way?

A little bit, yeah. He wants that. I was always very curious because he has made so many great films himself that he would come on set and maybe think about it as a director or judge my choices as a fellow director. But even when we made “Pete’s Dragon,” he let me know very quickly that he was there to act and that he certainly knew what he was doing, but he also wanted to be directed. With all the actors that I have worked with, especially lately, if you cast a movie right, then it will come. Ninety percent of the job is done. The actors will show up, they will do a great job because they’re great actors, and then I can come in and just sort of guide them to that extra ten percent. Sometimes they show up and they just nail it, and it’s perfect. But usually, a bit of exploration is required, or I need to adjust the energy of what they’re providing to the movie or what they’re giving me. That’s where a director comes into play. And there have been instances when everything is so perfect. Then I can sit back, be an audience member, and enjoy the show that I’m getting to witness live on set [laughs]. But more often than not, it needs a little nudge in one direction or another. That’s where I can come in and help shape a performance.

Another strength of your films is that you often don’t need too much dialogue. In “Pete’s Dragon,” for example, you can hear the silence of the forest, or in “The Green Knight,” you can smell the air. The audience gets to feel and sense that. Are you aware of the impact your films have?

No, I don’t think so, although I’m only thinking about the audience because I make the movie for myself as an audience member. When I’m on set, I feel as if I try to keep the show on the road, so to speak, and to make sure that we’ll cut something that comes together. There’s a sense of desperation when you’re on set—for me—but I don’t let anyone else notice. There’s a sense that we are barely holding things together, that we’re just barely scraping by and we’re getting just enough footage to string a movie together that might work. And then when you get into postproduction and look at the footage, you realize that everything you wanted is there, it’s all done with intention, and nothing is as half hazard or flip shot as you thought it was when you were on set. That’s because you have been living with the project for so long; you’ve been through the screenwriting and the preparation, the preproduction, and—if you’re lucky enough to have rehearsals—the rehearsals. You put the pieces in order so that when you’re on set, even though you might feel that it’s falling apart, what’s actually happening is that it’s proceeding exactly the way it needs to. The panic or desperation that I feel on set is indictable how things are actually coming together. It’s just a natural reaction that you have when you’re making a movie; you realize the sun is going down and you have only fifteen minutes left to get an entire scene, so you naturally feel like you’re not getting things done as well as you could. And you wish you had enough time to do ten takes. You’re sad because you didn’t get those ten takes and you’re sure that if you had done all ten, the tenth would have been perfect. But then you’re in the editing room, you look at the first take, and you realize that was perfect. So all of that stress was for nothing.

“A Ghost Story” (2017, trailer)

“A Ghost Story” is a favorite of mine. Is there any film you made that you would consider your most personal project?

“A Ghost Story”–and to a certain extent “Pete’s Dragon” too. “Peter Pan and Wendy” was very personal to me while we were making it. Now that the movie is almost done, the finished project is not as personal as I thought it was while we were making it. That’s only because “Peter Pan” is such a beloved story already; while we were making it, it felt like we were telling a story that never has been told before. And I was so personally invested in it, it felt like the clearest transposition of my own emotions into a film I ever made. When I watched the edit, I realized that’s true, but also that “Peter Pan” is a story that the audience is aware of. It’s not a new story, and the familiarity cushions the emotions I was feeling while I was making it. So I don’t know if the finished project will be the most personal movie I ever made, but certainly the experience of making it was the most personally invested I had ever been, and the most personally connected that I had ever been. But in terms of a movie from start to finish, I think “A Ghost Story” is probably the most personal film.

Is it true that you financed that film entirely on your own?

I did with some of my friends, like Toby Halbrooks, who produces all my movies. I was going to do it on my own, but he said, ‘Let’s get some friends who put some money into it.’ So it was Toby, me, and two other friends who paid for it, and we were initially trying to make it for under a $100,000 but it got a little bigger than that. But it was still pretty affordable; “Pete’s Dragon” allowed me to do that. I got paid for the first time in my life on “Pete’s Dragon” and I thought, ‘I can’t think of anything better than take this money and put it right back into another film.’

“A Ghost Story” grossed more than $2 million, which was about twenty times your investment. That’s in this day and age, when films have become so expensive, quite an accomplishment, isn’t it?

It’s the only movie that we’ve made that is so in the black that everyone who invested actually gets some residuals from it. The other movies have also been successful, but Hollywood accounting is such that we know we will probably not see any more money from them. But with “A Ghost Story” it was in terms of percentages definitely the most successful film we made [laughs].

David Lowery during his visit at the Film Fest Ghent, October 2022 | Film Talk

Was it a coincidence that you cast Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for the leading roles in “A Ghost Story,” after you had worked with them on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”?

It was more a sense of comfort and just knowing them. I knew them by that point as friends. I could just call them and ask if they wanted to make a strange movie in Texas for a couple of weeks. I didn’t expect either of them to say yes, but both of them did, and I am incredibly grateful for it. But when I was writing it, I only knew what I was trying to achieve on an emotional level. I didn’t know if it would work, I didn’t know if it would be feature-length or not, I wasn’t even sure how what I had written would manifest. What I did know, is that I wanted to get as many friends as I could to help make it. Casey and Rooney were two of the ones who came down to Texas, but it was a labor of love in the classic sense of the term. No one got paid, there was no sense of recompense; it was just an opportunity to make a movie for the sake of making something special.

Film Fest Ghent
October 22, 2022


HAPPY BIRTHDAY (2002) DIR – SCR Yen Tan PROD Mark Buchanan CAM Jack Burroughs ED Jay Wesson MUS Steve Whitehouse CAST Benjamin Patrick, Michelle E. Michael, John K. Frazier, Devashish Saxena, Ethel Lung, Denton Blane Everett, Xiao Fei Zhao, James M. Johnston, David Lowery (Videographer)

DEADROOM (2005) DIR – PROD – SCR David Lowery, James M. Johnston, Nick Prendergast, Yen Tan CAM Jim McMahon ED David Lowery MUS Daniel Huffman CAST Sue Birch, Rebecca Bustamante, Mark Forte, Harry Goaz, Jeff Griffin, Grant James, Renée Kelly

CIAO (2008) DIR Yen Tan PROD David Lowery, Jim McMahon SCR Yen Tan, Alessandro Calza CAM Michael Roy ED David Lowery MUS Stephen Altman CAST Chuck Blaum, Adam Neal Smith, Ethel Lung, John S. Boles, Margaret Lake, Tiffany Vollmer, Alessandro Calza, Clementina Plasencia

BLOOD ON THE HIGHWAY (2008) DIR Blair Rowan, Barak Epstein PROD Barak Epstein SCR Blair Rowan, Chris Gardner CAM Clay Liford ED Michael Fleetwood MUS Paul Nichols CAST Dave George, Robin Gierhart, Nate Rubin, Tony Medlin, Laura Stone, Chris Gardner, Nicholas Brendon, Tom Towles, David Lowery (Vampire), James M. Johnston

ST. NICK (2009) DIR – SCR – ED David Lowery PROD James M. Johnston CAM Clay Liford MUS Daniel Hart CAST Savanna Sears, Tucker Sears, Monique Byars, Riley Cole, Harry Goaz, Barlow Jacobs, Andrew Sensening

ALEXANDER THE LAST (2009) DIR – CAM – ED Joe Swanberg PROD Joe Swanberg, Noah Baumbach, Anish Savjani SCR David Lowery, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Jess Weixler, Barlow Jacobs, Justin Rice MUS Justin Rice, Jo Schornikow CAST Jess Weixler, Justin Rice, Barlow Jacobs, Amy Seimetz, Jane Adams, Josh Hamilton, Jo Schornikow, Sean Price Williams, David Lowery (Stagehand)

IT WAS GREAT, BUT I WAS READY TO COME HOME (2009) DIR Kris Swanberg PROD Kris Swanberg, Joe Swanberg SCR David Lowery, Kris Swanberg, Jade Healy, Benjamin Kasulke CAM Benjamin Kasulke ED David Lowery MUS Orange Mighty Trio CAST Kris Swanberg, Jade Healy, Chris Trujillo, Nick Drashner, Caitlin Donohue

SHADOWBOXING (2010) DIR – SCR Jesse Klein PROD Jesse Klein, Tristan Borys, Marley Sniatowsky, Marc Cloutier, Durga Chew-Bose CAM Kunitaro Ohi ED David Lowery, Yusef Svacina MUS Christopher Cox CAST Bobby Lamont, Karl Werleman, Danny Coleman, Philip Xavier Matz, Susan Corbett, Dermai Zan Young, Ezra Gray

LOVERS OF HATE (2010) DIR – SCR – ED Bryan Poyser PROD Megan Gilbride CAM David Lowery MUS Kevin Bewersdorf CAST Chris Doubeck, Heather Kafka, Alex Karpovsky, Zach Green, Lana Dietrich, Garry Peters, Harper Cummings

AUDREY THE TRAINWRECK (2010) DIR – SCR – ED Frank V. Ross PROD Adam Donaghey CAM David Lowery MUS John Medeski CAST Nathan Adloff, Anthony J. Baker, Tim Baker, Denise Blank, Teressa Bondavalli, Brittany Brumfield, Zack Buell, Adam Donaghey

BAD FEVER (2011) DIR – PROD – SCR Dustin Guy Defa CAM Mike Gioulakis ED David Lowery, Dustin Guy Defa CAST Kentucker Audley, Allison Baar, Hayward Buchanan, Dustin Guy Defa, Eleonore Hendricks, Scott Parisi, Dane Stevens, Annette Wright

UNIVERSAL SQUADRONS (2011) DIR Mark Willhone PROD Lisa K. Jenkins SCR Mark Millhone, Daniel Raymond O’Brien (story by Mark Willhone) CAM Clay Liford ED David Lowery MUS John David Kent CAST Riley Smith, Willa Ford, Barry Corbin, Christian Kane, Marshall R. Teague, David Bron, Adrian Green, Bryan Massey

UNCERTAIN, TX (2011) DIR – PROD Eric Steele SCR Eric Steele, Hunter Wood CAM Clay Liford ED David Lowery CAST Marjorie Hayes, Richard Rollin, Eric Steele, Caroline White, Hunter Wood, Clay Yocum

SUN DON’T SHINE (2012) DIR – SCR Amy Seimetz PROD Amy Seimetz, Kim Sherman CAM Jay Keitel ED David Lowery, Amy Seimetz MUS Ben Lovett CAST Kate Lyn Sheil, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, Kit Gwin, Mark Reeb, Gregory Gordon Schmidt

NOR’EASTER (2012) DIR – SCR Andrew Brotzman PROD Veronica Nickel CAM Ian Bloom ED David Lowery MUS Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans CAST David Call, Richard Bekins, Liam Aiken, Haviland Morris, Rachel Brosnahan, Danny Burstein, Geary Smith

UPSTREAM COLOR (2013) DIR – SCR – CAM – MUS Shane Carruth PROD Shane Carruth, Ben LeClair, Casey Gooden ED David Lowery, Shane Carruth CAST Amy Seimetz, Frank Mosley, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensening, Thiago Martins, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke, Andreon Watson

AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013) DIR – SCR David Lowery PROD Cassian Elwes, James M. Johnston, Amy Kaufman, Toby Halbrooks, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen CAM Bradford Young ED Craig McKay, Jane Rizzo MUS Daniel Hart CAST Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine, Kennadie Smith, Jacklynn Smith, Nate Parker, Robert Longstreet, Charles Baker

PIT STOP (2013) DIR Yen Tan PROD James M. Johnston, Jonathan Duffy, Kelly Williams, Eric Steele SCR David Lowery, Yen Tan CAM Hutch ED Don Swaynos MUS Curtis Heath CAST Bailey Bass, Marcus DeAnda, Yesenia Garcia, Bill Heck, Heather Kafka, Richard C. Jones, Alfredo Maduro, Jonny Mars, Amy Seimetz

EMPIRE BUILDER (2014) DIR Kris Swanberg PROD Kate Johnston SCR Kris Swanberg, Kate Johnston CAM – ED David Lowery CAST Kristin Davis, Samantha Newman, Bill Ross IV, Kate Lyn Sheil, Caitlin Stainken, Joe Swanberg, Jude Swanberg

PETE’S DRAGON (2016) DIR David Lowery PROD Jim Whitaker SCR David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks (screenplay PETE’S DRAGON [1977] by Malcolm Marmorstein; story by Seton I. Miller, S.S. Field) CAM Bojan Bazelli ED Lisa Zeno Churgin MUS Daniel Hart CAST Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr.

LISTEN UP PHILIP (2016) DIR – SCR Alex Ross Perry PROD David Lowery, Joshua Blum, Katie Stern, Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston CAM Sean Price Williams ED Robert Greene MUS Keegan DeWitt CAST Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de la Baume, Jonathan Pryce, Jess Weixler

A GHOST STORY (2017) DIR – SCR – ED David Lowery PROD Adam Donaghey, James M. Johnston, Toby Halbrooks CAM Andrew Droz Palermo MUS Daniel Hart CAST Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Cephas Jr., Kenneisha Thompson, Grover Coulson, Liz Franke, Barlow Jacobs, Richard Krause, David Lowery (Neighbor’s Ghost)

THE YELLOW BIRDS (2017) DIR Alexandre Moors PROD Mark Canton, Jeffrey Sharp, Courtney Solomon SCR David Lowery, R.F.I. Porto (novel by Kevin Powers) CAM Daniel Landin ED Joe Klotz MUS Adam Wiltzie CAST Alden Ehrenreich, Tye Sheridan, Jack Huston, Jennifer Aniston, Toni Collette, Jason Patric, Lee Tergesen, Rhoda Griffis, Carrie Wampler

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018) DIR David Lowery PROD Robert Redford, James M. Johnston, James D. Stern, Jeremy Steckler, Dawn Ostroff, Anthony Mastromauro, Toby Halbrooks, Bill Holderman SCR David Lowery (article by David Grann) CAM Joe Anderson ED Lisa Zeno Churgin MUS Daniel Hart CAST Casey Affleck, Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Elisabeth Moss, Tom Waits, Keith Carradine, John David Washington, Isiah Whitlock Jr.

THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021) DIR – SCR – ED David Lowery PROD Anjay Nagpal, James M. Johnston, Tim Headington, Toby Halbrooks CAM Andrew Droz Palermo MUS Daniel Hart CAST Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Joe Anderson, Noelle Brown, Sarita Choudhury, Anaïs Rizzo, Nita Mishra, Tara Mae, Atheena Frizzell

PETER PAN & WENDY (2023) DIR David Lowery PROD Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Jim Whitaker SCR David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks (adaptation of PETER PAN [1953, animated] by J.M. Barrie; story by Ted Sears, Erdman Penner, Bill Peet, Winston Hibler, Joe Rinaldi, Milt Banta, Ralph Wright, William Cottrell) CAM Bojan Bazelli ED Lisa Zeno Churgin MUS Daniel Hart CAST Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Jude Law, Yara Shahidi, Joshua Pickering, Jim Gaffigan, Noah Matthews Matofsky