Casey Affleck discusses A Ghost Story

The actor and director David Lowery were at Karlovy Vary

Actor Casey Affleck and director David Lowery were at the recent Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to present the film A Ghost Story. It has been released in the United States but so far does not have a Czech distribution date.

The actor and director, along with two producers, discussed the film at a press conference. Affleck, who won an Oscar for his role in Manchester by the Sea, also took home the Festival President's Award from Karlovy Vary. He said the Oscar was in his closet. Hopefully, the President's Award will be more prominently displayed.

Lowery was at the Karlovy Vary in 2013 with his film Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which also starred Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.

A Ghost Story had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The screening in Karlovy Vary was the first in Europe.

The discussion went deep into the plot and motivations behind A Ghost Story, and contains many spoilers.

The film centers on a haunted house, largely telling the tale from the ghost's point of view. It isn't really a horror film, but a sad melodramatic love story.

Director Lowery said it was inspired by true events to an extent. “I had moved to Los Angeles with my wife and I was very sad to leave the home that we had in Texas. Out of that, this movie came. It was sort of the initial seed for this movie. Everything I do was very personal, but I don't really think too much about why it is. But that is the one thing I can identify as a personal element of this film,” he said. A young couple moving out of a house that has been making strange noises is an early part of the plot. The husband, played by Affleck, wants to stay.

But as for the ghost element of the plot, Lowery is more skeptical. “I am very open to seeing a ghost but have yet to [encounter any] in real life. … I am open to believing but I'll leave it at that,” he said.

Affleck was a bit less open. “Lots of things get broken in my house but usually because of my children. There are always bumps in the night and different noises, but more often than not a ghost is the least scary thing that comes to mind,” the actor said.

Lowery and Affleck worked together previously in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and the two have already made another film together called Old Man With a Gun, which will come out in 2018. When writing A Ghost Story, though, Lowery did not have a cast in mind. “I didn't think about anyone while I was writing it because I was writing it so quickly. That is not usually the case with me. I usually take forever to write anything but this script was very fast. And I didn't think about anybody until it was done. I called Casey right away,” he said.

Affleck accepted without reading the script, knowing that for the bulk of the film he would be under a sheet. He said the reason he likes to work with Lowery is because the director hires him. “That keeps me coming back. I just really like his sensibility. I like the things that he likes, whether it is the costumes he puts on the actors or the production design. As an actor when you show up on the set many or all of these decisions are made by the director well in advance and you are walking into a world they have created. And if you feel at home and you can live in that world, it makes your job that much easier. And I really loved the world that he created,” Affleck said.

“Any good movie is an experiment and just like an experiment in a laboratory, success in the experiment has to be judged not by whether the results match up to what you thought you were making but sort of by how much you learned from the experiment. And anytime I work with David I feel like I have learned a lot. He is a very experimental kind of director. He both has a vision and is a great collaborator. There's lots of room to try things and make mistakes, and to fail and learn from those mistakes and also to succeed and be surprised by what other people are doing. So it is a process I like as much as I like the end result,” he added.

Another reason Affleck agreed to be in the film was to work with Rooney Mara again. “Rooney is one of my favorite people to watch, whether I am in the movie or not. She has a way of being expressive or very mysterious at the same time. I think she is the perfect person for this movie because so often in our scenes at least one of the actors' faces wasn't being seen and you have to have someone who is doubly interesting in the scene to make up for that. She can show a huge range of emotion on her face in moments where she is just alone. She doesn't need a whole ton of dialogue to communicate a lot of things,” Affleck said.

“I love working with her. It is all very effortless. Many actors myself included often have to work very hard to make scenes work and find their way to a character and to serve the director's vision, and Rooney does it all as if it were second nature,” he added.

Affleck said that he is concerned about the roles he chooses. “The movies I reject of late would be things I find very violent because it just seems more and more upsetting. The movies I am drawn to more and more are poetic in the way that they look and the dialogue. And have a more positive message without being so heavy handed,” he said.

“I find that David's movies whether they are a little bit sad or funny or a little bit suspenseful they by and large are about good people who are trying to do good things even if they are making mistakes,” he added.

The reason Affleck isn't seen through much of A Ghost Story is because he is wearing a sheet to appear like a classical idea of a ghost. Director Lowery said that the sheet was a concept that was key to the project from the beginning. “There are a lot of wonderful movies that show ghosts in many different fashions, but the original image that came to mind for this film was the ghost in a sheet. That was there from the beginning. There was never a point where I was 'OK, let's show who this character is.' The challenge was to create a cohesive character so that once his face is covered up by the sheet you are still feeling he is the protagonist of the movie. You are still feeling like he is that lead character. That was a challenge for us as filmmakers,” Lowery said.

“And we never once thought like, 'Oh let's backtrack on that.' We were 100 percent committed to it. And I think it was fun to see what kind of performance you can get out of an actor when they are completely deprived of all of the usual tools that they have at their disposal in most films. And I think that in the finished product is that there is a lot to be found in that,” he added.

The sheet costume that Affleck wears was much more complicated than it looked, according to Lowery “The original idea we had was just that I would drape a sheet over someone's head and cut two holes for eyes and we did a little test of that … and that just wouldn't work. It looked silly,” he said.

“So I realized what we needed was a three-dimensional representation of what a drawing of a sheet ghost looks like. It has to have a very simple form. A very symmetrical face. Very symmetrical eyes. It had to maintain consistency with that form,” he added.

“Our costume designer [Annell Brodeur] constructed this very elaborate costume. It involved lots of petticoats and a helmet made out of felt that had screens in there for the eyes that you could see through, but not very well,” he said.

“And the sheet was fabricated to be a certain size and dimension so it would hang and drape in a certain fashion. All this was done to achieve something that looks incredibly simple. As is so often the case in film making, simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve. And it took a lot of trial and error to get it right,” he said, adding that people below the camera level would shake the sheet to make it flow correctly. Sometimes there was double in the sheet. “There is someone else who was in it sometimes, but mostly it was me,” Affleck said.

The role of a ghost in a sheet was a change of pace for Affleck. “I like to prepare a lot for movies, sometimes before hand and during a movie I am planning and preparing. This time I found just how liberating it was to not do any of that. Just show up and be as sort of as present as you can without any artifice, if possible,” he said.

Affleck was not concerned whether the film would be a commercial success. “I try really hard not to think about whether people will see the movie or not and try just to do things that are interesting to me. The things I tend to be interested in and where they overlap with the people who want me to be a part of them are not usually dead center mainstream movies. I don't have anything against those movies. There are mainstream movies I love to watch. And I think there are great talented people in them. I am just not usually or ever one of those people,” he said.

Producer Toby Halbrooks, however, was glad for the success. “It was a great relief [that people enjoyed it at Sundance]. We made it for ourselves. It is my favorite thing we ever made so far. It is a deeply personal film on many levels. The experience of making it was very personal, and very difficult. It is very handmade and homemade. And the notion that people were able to see it was exciting. But the fact that they really enjoyed it was just thrilling,” he said.

“Sundance is important of course. James [Johnston] and I went through the creative producing fellowship so [Sundance] has been hugely supportive of our career,” he added.

Producer James Johnston was also happy with its success. “We all knew going in to it that we were excited about making it. … As a team we had kind of no concept how the public would accept the film or the critical aspect of it either. The response we got at Sundance was beyond amazing,” he said.

The themes of the script became more complex than Lowery originally thought they would be. “Wanting to deal with my attachment to objects and physical places, that was there at the beginning. As I was writing it, the existential crisis at the center of the film became more and more pronounced. I didn't know that was going to be part of it from the outset. I originally thought it was going to be more of a vague, abstract gallery installation,” Lowery said.

These themes were drawn out more in the editing process. “It is not so much discovery as clarification. [You] reveal the themes and how the movie is committed to them. They are always there. … As you are editing you are distilling down the essence of the movie. You are kind of removing all the detritus around it and realizing exactly what it was you are after,” Lowery said.

The director is also willing to meet actors half way. “I usually bend the movie to the actor. I find that more interesting. I like to let the movie be flexible enough to allow it to capitalize on whatever the actor's strength may be. … I have a vision for things, but that vision is flexible. I know there are multiple ways to skin a horse,” he said.

The actual shape of the film on the screen, called the aspect ratio, is a bit unusual. Lowery explained why. “The aspect ratio of the film is 1.33:1 and we also added a little curved vignette to the edges. The reason I went with 1.33 is because I like it that aspect ratio; I enjoy watching it — especially modern movies that employ it. And one of the things I like about it is when you watch a film in that aspect ratio on a wide screen television or in a cinema, usually it is not projected with proper masking so you end up with pillar boxing on the side, and so you end up with this proscenium, which I find quite enjoyable. I really enjoy watching things when you can see the frame on the side. Somehow it's very visually appealing to me,” he said.

“So I wanted to employ that. I addition on a thematic level this is a movie about a character who is basically stuck in a box for an eternity and it felt like … it was inherent to the concept of the film, and it felt like it could be delved into on an aesthetic level by using that aspect ratio,” he said.

“We added these curved edges that added the sense of a home movie or a slide projector or old photographs, which because I am an incredibly sentimental person just makes it click altogether for me in a very emotional way. All of those things figured into the decision to shoot in that aspect ratio,” he said.

Lowery said he learned a lot from making he film. “I learned it is OK to be personal because I usually try to distance myself from the things I have made, [and] not lean too closely into my own personal life. But in this case whatever little dialogue there is is pulled directly from my life. I felt if the project is right it is OK to do that,” he said.

His next project, also with Casey Affleck, is now being edited. It is called Old Man With a Gun and follows the exploits of an elderly bank robber who became a popular icon. “We finished shooting, it is waiting for me to get back to editing after I leave the festival,” he said. It will come out in 2018. “It is a lot of fun [and] experimental as well. … We were trying to have fun and do something funny and lighthearted. We all wanted to pay tribute to our lead actor, Robert Redford. He was an inspiration to all of us and we wanted to make a movie that was a tribute to his career and the roles he played and the legend that he is in the world of cinema,” Lowery said.

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