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The director of A Ghost Story on how Netflix and cellphones inspired his low-tech, timeless film

David Lowery: "My own movies never feel as real to me as they do when I'm looking at them on my phone.”

Cinema Cafe - 2017 Sundance Film Festival
Director David Lowery at 2017’s Sundance Film Festival.
Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

There isn’t much technology onscreen in director David Lowery’s (literally) haunting new film, A Ghost Story, but the growth of the internet and the inescapability of our devices serve as inspiration for both his new supernatural romantic drama and his overall filmmaking process.

“I was going back through my blog that I’ve been keeping since high school and found an entry around seven or eight years ago where I was, like, cataloguing appearances of ghosts in sheets in other media, whether it was film or music videos,” Lowery tells Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff on the latest episode of his podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. “Even in Halloween, when Michael Myers wears the sheet with the glasses, it’s a really striking image that really just is funny but also unsettling at the same time.”

Lowery’s latest film follows C (Casey Affleck), who experiences the afterlife while watching as his wife M (Rooney Mara) grieves his unexpected death. It’s the director’s fourth feature, following 2016’s live-action reimagining of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, and is inspired in part by an argument Lowery and his wife had about moving.

In terms of his cinematic influences, Lowery cites Quentin Tarantino as a major figure, but notes that he was also shaped by streaming culture and the ability it gave him to engage with directors and cinematic movements he’d never experienced prior.

“The point in my life when I got Netflix was sort of a big door opening. Up until that point, I was a big-screen purist; I only wanted to see things on the big screen,” Lowery says. “I didn’t go to film school, so I didn’t have access to the French New Wave or [John] Cassavetes movies, so once Netflix emerged, all of a sudden I just jumped headlong into so many different types of movies and was so taken with all of them and just wanted to absorb as much as possible.”

Lowery’s relationship with technology informs his own films as well. But while so many contemporary films rely on technology to the point that they feel dated after an OS update, Lowery’s work is inspired by it in subtler ways, as seen in A Ghost Story’s untraditional narrative. As VanDerWerff notes, there’s a shift from the “analog world” into a more modern one centered on the internet and technology. He asks Lowery, “Do you think about that passage of time at all? Do you feel that cleaving in your own life between the world that was and now this world that is?”

Lowery responds:

I think about it a lot, especially in terms of how it affects my day-to-day life and how it affects the neurological pathways in my brain. I definitely wonder if I was better off before I had a phone in my pocket all the time that was telling me all the things it tells me every minute of every day. I think a lot about whether it’s softening me. I’ve done enough research on it to know that our neural pathways are changing with the way we intake information at this point, and I don’t think it’s for the worse, but sometimes I do.

For those reasons, contemporary technology has never played much of an onscreen role in Lowery’s films. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is set in the 1970s, Pete’s Dragon primarily spans the ’70s and ’80s, and his debut feature, 2009’s St. Nick, is set in an ultra-rural slice of Texas.

“All of my films have been set in eras prior to that technology for that reason, because I feel like I’m able to tell stories better if I just remove that facet of life from them. A Ghost Story is contemporary, but at the beginning it’s sort of in an elusive period where you don’t see that much technology,” Lowery tells VanDerWerff. “You see MacBooks, things like that, but not a lot of mobile phones, and the setting itself is very antiquated. The house feels old, it feels vaguely rural; that’s the type of neighborhood I live in, and I like that.”

Another unique flourish to A Ghost Story is its aspect ratio, which VanDerWerff likens to a Polaroid photo or an Instagram crop and is technically the old Academy ratio. Lowery said that being able to see his film in a frame allows him to better contextualize what he is seeing.

“I often find that my own movies never feel as real to me as they do when I’m looking at them on my phone, because that just somehow puts them in a box,” Lowery says. “I’m a big-screen person, I go see everything on the big screen, but for my own work it helps to watch it on a phone, because then it finally feels real to me.”

For more of VanDerWerff’s conversation with Lowery, including the power of filming in the director’s home state of Texas and what he remembers of his first day on a movie set, listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.