Yes, this year’s Best Actor Oscar winner, Casey Affleck, spends most of “A Ghost Story” under a sheet. And yes, his co-star Rooney Mara spends five minutes on screen eating a whole pie. All of which makes it even more remarkable that the film has such power to evoke and illuminate its themes of grief and connection. Affleck plays a young husband who is killed (offscreen) in an automobile accident early in the film. He then becomes a ghost, under what appears to be a simple sheet with holes cut out for the eyes, remaining in his home as time passes, sometimes backward, silently watching as people and buildings come and go.
In an interview, writer/director/editor David Lowery (”Pete’s Dragon,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) discussed the very complicated construction of the ghost costume, the film’s already-notorious scene of a young widow eating an entire pie in one shot, and why he wanted some of the shots to feel “interminable.”
The ghost’s sheet costume was surprisingly not silly or childlike. It had a sweep and grandeur to it.
My initial thought was that, to achieve what I wanted, all we would have to do is throw a sheet over an actor's head and we'd be done. We tried that and it instantly proved to be exactly the opposite of what I wanted, because it just felt like a human with a sheet over his head. And, so it was at that point that I realized that this costume was going to be a little bit more complex. To achieve the simplicity that I wanted we were going to have to do something that was fairly complicated. My costume designer, Annell Brodeur, spent a lot of time experimenting with different fabrics, trying different thread counts, and finding the right size for the sheet to be, because it needed to cover the entire human form from head to toe, and then needed to allow room for arms to move underneath it and for there to be this trail going out behind the feet.
A normal bed sheet could not accomplish that. Even king size is not nearly big enough to fit over an entire person. So we had to basically build the costumes completely from scratch. We had bolts of fabric that were the right size in the right thread count and she would dye them to get the right shade of white. We tried that and it still wasn't quite right, because even though the sheet was now the right dimensions, it still didn't have this simple shape that I wanted, which was more like a two-dimensional drawing of a ghost in a bed sheet than an actual ghost in a bed sheet. And if you would draw that image, it is a very simple line, a very defined arc with two very symmetrical eyes in the face. To achieve that in three dimensions required a lot of structure underneath the fabric. There was a helmet made out of felt that had a nose constructed out of it, and also these muslin eyes that would allow the actor to see out, but which we could not see through with as audience members. And they also allowed the face to be fixed to the sheet so that the sheet would move with the head and that the eyes will always have the same shape.
And there was also a series of petticoats underneath the sheet gave it the shape and allowed the sheet to billow out around the actor's feet so that when you walk around wearing a costume you're not constantly treading over your own bed sheets. And then even beyond the costume itself, one thing we realized is that we needed to puppeteer it while we were shooting. We couldn't just rely on Casey wearing this costume. Our costume team had to be hiding at his feet for most of the movie. They were holding the sheet in place so that when he moved around or turned his head the folds in the sheet wouldn't go askew. The costume looked so simple that the folds started to take on an emotional weight, because of the way that the sheet creased or draped over his shoulders had a tremendous visual power to it, and to maintain that we had to constantly puppeteer it, so that they wouldn't go askew or turn into just a bunch of fabric that clumped up in weird ways.
It definitely started with Charlie Brown. We initially thought that were going to take a childlike image of a ghost, the Halloween costume that everyone knows from Charlie Brown and finds some pathos in it. But to find that pathos we really had to develop that symbol, that image that costume to a degree we hadn't expected.
It’s quite funny and endearing when we see another ghost briefly, wearing a sheet that has a floral pattern, not just Charlie Brown-style plain white.
We definitely thought a lot about that. You know the idea of using a floral bed sheet that just made me laugh. Anelle came up with the idea and I thought it was charming. She really was excited about it. She really wanted to do it in a pragmatic sense that makes sense with the universe of the movie. Not that I ever really wanted to define the universe too thoroughly, but Casey’s bed sheet came from the hospital morgue. It came from the bed sheet that was placed over his body there. And this ghost next door, perhaps she died in her bed and that was the bed sheet that she died in. And we called her the grandma ghost because it felt very grandmotherly that particular floral print. And the floral added a tremendous amount of personality to what would otherwise be a very similar image to the one that we see through the rest of the movie.
You challenge the audience by sustaining some very long shots, very unusual in contemporary films. What was your calculus about that?
I knew from the script stage that certain sequences would last for almost an interminable amount of time. And I wrote that into the script, to let the crew and the cast know that this movie would have a lot of long shots. There are going to be sequences in the movie that just sustain for an unusual amount of time. And I wanted to be clear about that, so that when we were on set and I wasn't calling cut no one would wonder if I was going crazy or not. So, in terms of knowing when to cut, knowing when to bring a scene to a close. I really just use my own personal taste as a rubric. I use my own gut instinct as the standard to which I apply the pace of the film, and I'm a fan of movies that take their time. And I really like movies that use shots that hold for a great length of time and don't worry about getting to the next shot in any particular hurry.
I have a very short attention span, which is funny. I mean you'd watch me and think that I don't but I actually do. But when I don't have to think about what's coming next, it really allows me to get lost in the moment. And I wanted this movie to be full of moments that you can really get lost in and focus on and meditate on. It facilitates a wandering of the mind that can in itself be a very beautiful experience while you're watching the movie. My intention is to encompass all of that. The point at which each scene cut was based on when I felt I was no longer getting any information or emotion out of them. I would just let them play out until I thought that I was done with them.
I'm not surprised about the interest in the pie scene. People want to talk about it. Watching that scene, while we were shooting it I knew that it would be a scene that not only was incredibly memorable but that would be very unusual. It's got all sorts of meme-worthy qualities to it. And yet at the same time my hope and belief is that it endures long enough to overcome those anticipations and whatever kitsch value may have accumulated over the course of the people being aware of that scene. You can imagine audiences going to see the movie waiting for the pie scene to happen. And it just keeps happening and keeps happening, and by the time two or three minutes have gone by whatever anticipation the audience may have brought into the theater has completely evaporated and they'll just have to deal with the moment that that scene represents.
Obviously it's sort of a make or break moment and some people will walk out of the theater or some people will just think, ‘That goes on too long.’ When I was editing the movie and showing it to friends, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, the pie scene is great. Maybe you can make it shorter.’ But I knew that needed to be that long. I enjoyed how uncomfortable it made me to have to sit there and just be with her in this incredibly private moment. I felt that was a valuable experience to have and I felt that it made the movie a better movie. So, in spite of the fact that it is interminable to some audiences and makes people uncomfortable, I am ok with that. It was designed to do that. My main hope is that no matter how many times we talk about it or how many times I have to explain how we shot it, that it doesn't become cheapened, because to me, it is a very pure and honest and sincere scene in the movie and it means a lot to me.
Is it a sad movie or a hopeful movie?
I find it hopeful. I find everything in life a little bit sad but I also find a great deal of hope everywhere I look. And so, in spite of all of the, elegiac melancholy that is pervasive throughout the film, I do find the ending to be very hopeful. And more so than hopeful, I find it comforting because it's not telling you what to look forward to or what to hope for, but it is telling you that it's okay. Things are going to be okay. There is a way through whatever you're going through in your life. I find it a hopeful and uplifting experience.