Playback: David Lowery on ‘A Ghost Story’ and Breathing New Life Into ‘Peter Pan’

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up six months ago, but many of the films from this year’s lineup are finally making it into theaters this summer. “The Hero” and “Beatriz at Dinner” have arrived, while others like “Landline” and “To the Bone” are on the horizon. This week, David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” lands, and it may be the best film of the year so far.

It’s a tough one to talk about, though, because it starts to unravel as you explain it, inevitably failing to do it justice. Lowery describes it simply as the story of “a ghost haunting one space for a long, long time.” But it deals with big metaphysical ideas, all the while drilling them down to an intimate space.

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“I wrote it very quickly, but the idea of a haunted house movie with a ghost represented by someone wearing a bed sheet was something I had been wanting to do for a while,” Lowery says. “I didn’t know if it would be a scary movie, like a high-concept horror film that had a goofy element in the middle of it, or a weird art film, or maybe just a video installation. It was something I liked and an image I responded to. I had seen it utilized elsewhere, but I just wanted my version of it.”

Aesthetically speaking, Lowery was inspired by the photography of Gregory Crewdson. He even Photoshopped that bed sheet image into a number of Crewdson’s works to help explain the tone he was after. Thematically, much of the story sprang from an argument Lowery had with his wife about where they would live. It was Los Angeles versus Dallas, and Lowery, being a nostalgist, he wanted to stay in Texas. But while they reached a compromise eventually, those ideas of the good and the bad of an attachment to home made it onto the page in the writing.

Lowery then tapped “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” alums Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for the film, largely to establish a shorthand quickly, because he knew they work so well together.

“They changed what ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ was just by doing a scene together,” Lowery says. “What was originally meant to not be a love story turned into a love story because they have so much chemistry. With this film, because there’s so little on the page, and particularly so little with the two of them together, I wanted to ground the film in that chemistry from the get-go. I wanted you to feel that something had been torn asunder, and I knew that within the space of one or two scenes, they would ground this relationship in a very real and emotional and tactile way.”

Lowery is currently editing “Old Man and the Gun,” with Robert Redford, a film the legend hired him to direct four years ago. “Ultimately this is sort of a tribute to him and his legacy,” he says. “It plays into some of the iconography that he’s known for, and also hearkens back to my favorite film of his, which is ‘Downhill Racer,’ by Michael Ritchie.”

After that, it’s back to Disney following a happy collaboration on “Pete’s Dragon” for a new rendition of “Peter Pan.” It’s a story we’ve seen many, many times on the screen, and from many different angles. But Lowery want to give the audience a reason to dive back in.

“I’ve got those ideas,” he says. “I don’t want to reveal them here, but I do acknowledge that there are a lot of versions of this material. That is a big question, like, why do we need another Peter Pan movie? At the same time it is an evergreen property and I do believe if you can do it right, it makes that question irrelevant. You can make people feel like they’re watching it for the first time. That would be the challenge I set for myself.”

He also has his eye on how an inflated budget could become the enemy on a project like this.

“It’s important to me to not fall victim to bloat and scope just because a movie feels a need to be big,” he says. “If you can make a giant summer blockbuster feel intimate — which can happen; I feel ‘Fury Road’ managed that pretty effectively, even though it was non-stop thrills from start to finish — that would be my goal. I don’t want to just rehash the final battle from any one of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies at the end of this film, except throw in some flying kids. That’s not my intention, nor would I be personally interested in seeing that. So it’s always trying to find that balance.”

For more, including thoughts on how being an editor affects his work as a director, as well as directing an episode of “Rectify” and working in the television space, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

David Lowery photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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