The matter of influence in contemporary U.S. cinema took an unexpected turn in February when Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, whose visual style is largely inspired by Wong Kar-wai’s films, won the Oscar for best picture. Wong’s sensual, colorful approach to representing his characters’ hidden desires was being embraced, if indirectly, by an industry that generally ignores Asian cinema unless it sees potential for box-office profit.
Moonlight’s distributor, A24, might have a similar potential in mind for David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, which borrows openly from the aesthetic techniques of Pedro Costa and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, among many others. Lowery isn’t shy about admitting these derivations, speaking of them with the same awareness and excitement as he does the films of Tim Burton and Tobe Hooper—more filmmakers Lowery drew from for his latest work.
The significance of younger U.S. filmmakers embracing the tone and look of world art cinema and casting well-known actors—here it’s Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck—remains to be seen, but the development is a trend worth charting, especially if A24 helps propel A Ghost Story to any degree of awards-season success. I spoke with Lowery about A24’s relevance to film culture, his relationship with slow cinema, and his outlook on jumping back and forth between Hollywood productions and the micro-budget experimentations.
What’s it been like screening this film around the U.S. and the world in comparison with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon? I imagine given the nature of this film there have been more than a few polarized responses.
I was expecting them to be more different than they are. I was expecting most people to walk out five minutes into A Ghost Story, and the few people left in the theater were going to be my target audience, and I was going to be happy with that. But the consistency with which people have connected to it on the same level that I connect to it, which goes back to the reasons why I made it, has been remarkable to me. Yes, there have been myriad responses. There have been positive and negative ones. But, by and large, I’ve been really taken aback and pleasantly surprised by how people seem to understand the movie, which is really meaningful to me.
When you decided much of the film would consist largely of long, static takes, did you do so thinking about how that might be received by a stateside, more mainstream audience who’s not immediately familiar with that kind of international art house technique?
Yeah, 100%. I made this movie for an audience, certainly, but I understood that to be a very small audience. I knew it would make me happy, as a cinephile, to see that language employed, but I knew that it would probably alienate 90% of moviegoers. And I was okay with that. I was making this movie for myself. I knew there were a handful of people who share my taste so I wouldn’t be the only person who liked it, but I figured it would probably rub most people the wrong way. At the same time, I’m always hopeful that someone who hasn’t seen a movie like this before will go see it and find it engaging and stimulating and provocative in all the right ways, and that maybe it will lead them down a cinematic path that they had never planned on embarking upon.
I’m curious about your take on the narrow pathway that leads art-house films to multiplexes and whether or not that’s been widening a little because of A24. I just saw It Comes at Night in a packed Midwestern multiplex, and it was easy to tell that the audience had come expecting something closer to a jump-scare horror movie, and were clearly surprised, if not frustrated, by its more deliberate pacing. Do you think A24’s helping to build a pipeline for audiences to embrace the art-conscious genre film?
There’s a great deal of truth to that. I think every film has its own built-in feelings, but those feelings are always slightly breakable at the same time. It Comes at Night is a fantastic thriller, and they’ve marketed it very well. I think it frustrates a lot of people who go in expecting The Purge or something like that. At the same time, I’m sure there are people who dig into that frustration. They dig a little deeper into why the movie is working on them the way it is. I think that will expand horizons. Even if it just reaches one person out of every audience at the multiplex, I love the idea that a seed has been planted.
On a smaller scale, there’s the fact that A24 is able to get a movie like The Lobster into multiplexes, and getting people to talk about it. I know several parents and grandparents who went to see that movie. [laughs] It’s very strange, and also very encouraging, that it reached the audience that it did.
I don’t think A24 is reshaping cinematic culture, but maintaining cinematic culture and expanding the degrees to which certain types of movies can find audiences. If A Ghost Story were to play in a multiplex, I would expect 90% of the audience to walk out of it. I would not hold that against them, but I would hope that there would be one person who stayed through it, and even if they hated it, or were just so perplexed and annoyed by it, my hope is that they would ask themselves why and that they would keep thinking about it. Maybe it’s very highfalutin of me to have this expectation but also that they might expand their ideas about what cinema can be. That’s a wonderful hope and aspiration that I think A24 is pushing forward with every film they put out.
I’m interested in how you conceived the film’s genre aspects in conjunction with art cinema. I’ve read that you pitched it to people as “Beetlejuice as made by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.” What about each of those pieces did you see a kinship between that made you want to unite the two?
It’s reflective of my tastes, first and foremost, because I love both of those filmmakers. I found that it was important for me to not take this movie too seriously. I felt if I were taking it too seriously that it would fail, and that I needed to be open to laughter and to the inherent goofiness of a ghost in a sheet. That’s an inherently amusing image, but the reason I got hooked on it was because it amused me. And so I wanted this film to operate on one level as a classic art-house film that you could trace back to various cinematic traditions that generally play in very small cinemas across the country. But I also wanted it to engage on the level of a film like Beetlejuice.
I guess what I’m striving for here is a way to say that I wanted it to function as both high and low art, but I don’t like that. I don’t like saying that one film is higher and one is lower. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a wonderful movie to me because it’s so spiritual, thought provoking, and beautiful. And yet, the heart of it is someone in a gorilla suit with LED-light bulbs in their eyeballs. The fact that the film can function on that level and turn such a goofy concept into something spiritual and meaningful is beautiful to me. I love that. I wanted to employ the same tactic on this film but lean in a little further to the genre route and the expectations of genre.
With Beetlejuice, it was an easy correlation because there are ghosts haunting a house, and there’s a point where they’re wearing sheets, and its also one of my favorite Burton movies. But I also thought a lot about Poltergeist and the Conjuring movies, and I wanted to employ the language of those movies but put it to use in a different fashion. Audiences can watch this movie and recognize certain things from those movies. The clearest example of that for me is the glowing doorway in the hospital which is straight out of Poltergeist or Beetlejuice, both of which have those glowing portals to another world. We wanted that effect to look like it was from one of those movies. We did it as a miniature, so that we’d have that old-fashioned, handmade quality to it.
We wanted audiences to engage A Ghost Story on that level, but how it functions in the movie is nonetheless very different from how it functions in one of those movies. But even that, it still functions the same way it does in Poltergeist: It’s a portal to another world. It works in a very literal fashion. I keep defeating my own thesis here, because I realize as I keep talking about it we did what those movies did and it still works, it holds up. But I like the idea of using these tropes and letting the cumulative value of them propel the movie toward a very different end goal.