Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery seems obsessed two things: time and loss. And he mulls them both deeply in his quirky new film, A Ghost Story.
In the R-rated movie, a recently deceased character known only as C is a ghost—one draped in a sheet like Charlie Brown on Halloween. He spends most of the movie inside his beloved suburban home, watching mutely as his newly widowed wife leaves and a parade of new owners comes and goes. The world around him changes even as C himself stays the same—unable or unwilling to move on.
Lowery says that the film was partially inspired by an argument with his wife over whether they should both move to Los Angeles (where Lowery needed to spend a year finishing Pete’s Dragon), or whether she should stay in Dallas so that they could keep a shabby rental house that Lowery inexplicably loved.
“I recognized that I was at fault there and I should let go of this place, and move on. And yet it was really upsetting to me,” he told Plugged In. “And I just—I wanted to understand why. I wanted to do some soul-searching. And understand why I was so attached to physical spaces, particularly this one.”
The result is a truly haunting, albeit problematic, movie, but not in the way you might expect. The ghost is rarely frightening. Instead, he can be quite sad and, frankly, a little silly—all of which was by design.
“I liked [the sheet] because it made me laugh,” Lowery says. “But at the same time, I wanted to take him seriously. There was something about that image that was not only funny, but very, very sad and lonely. Something about the childlike nature of it, the very simple, almost cartoon-like symbol that that represents, that humor made it lonely.”
And it is indeed lonely. Only a couple of people, if that, ever seem to see C (though a few others feel his presence). But the ghost’s existential emptiness extends well beyond that immediate loneliness. C must also face the unfathomable sweep of time. Even long after the house is gone, the movie suggests, C might remain—tethered to this place in space.
“[Time is] something I’m just fascinated by to no end,” Lowery said. “That sense of history, which ripples out both behind us and ahead of us, is really interesting to me. It’s something that you pick up at a history class in college, the idea that history and time is something to which we can’t even hold a candle to. We as human beings are just a small element in the overarching sweep of narrative history. That really had a profound effect on me, that realization.”
We get a glimpse of that sense of time in one of A Ghost Story’s most resonant scenes. C’s house is filled by partygoers, drinking and dancing and talking. One reveler, known in the credits as the “Oversharing Man,” tries to impress on his audience (which begins as just one person but grows as he talks) the enormity of time and the futility of it all … unless you happen to have faith in something greater than yourself.
“Maybe you got God,” he asks his audience. “Do you?” A woman answers that she doesn’t, and the Oversharing Man admits that, without God, finding meaning is much harder. Without God, the Oversharing Man surmises, we must live for ourselves—ultimately to be remembered after we die. Our friends and family will remember us. If we create something memorable, like a beautiful symphony, it could live for centuries.
But the man’s outlook without God is ultimately nihilistic: Our friends and family will pass on, too, and our memories will vanish with them. Even the greatest works of art won’t survive, ultimately, the passage of time, because the universe itself will eventually cease to be.
“I feel like [that] character in the movie gets two-thirds of the way through a pretty good argument as to how one could live a hopeful, positive life without looking forward to an afterlife,” Lowery says. “And he doesn’t quite get there, but he’s working his way there, which is what I was having to do myself.”
Lowery’s father taught theology at a Catholic university, and he himself was raised in a profoundly religious home. “When I was younger, it was definitely a big part of my day-to-day existence, and now it no longer is,” Lowery says. “But the fact that I was raised in such a religious family and a religious household definitely has an impact on my work, whether I think about it or not. In this case, I wasn’t really thinking about it until I got to that monologue. That monologue is very representative of me trying to figure out how to define value in my life if I’m not subscribing to the ones that I was raised to believe in.
Lowery continues: “And so yes, if you have God in your life, as the character says, and use that as the end-all, be-all of existence, the standards to which you hold yourself, then there is a great deal of hope in your life. And one can define meaning in everything that one does and apply that meaning towards one faith. And that’s a beautiful thing. But if you don’t have that—whether you rejected it or never believed in it in the first place or for whatever reason—you have to look elsewhere.”
Lowery himself continues to look elsewhere … for now. He says that he never really walked away from the faith he was raised in, but it just stopped being quite as important to him. He leaves a door open to return to faith. But for now he processes the big issues of life without God.
Grief and loss is perhaps one of the biggest issues that Lowery thinks about. Loss was a central theme in A Ghost Story, and is equally as important in Pete’s Dragon. “All of my movies … have been an attempt to reconcile that inevitability [of losing someone],” Lowery says.
Why this preoccupation with loss?
“I think I’m just afraid of it,” he says.
“I’m the oldest of nine children,” he adds. “I hope that I’m the first one to go so I don’t have to, you know, bury a sibling, but that might happen. I’m very aware that that might happen. And I don’t know how I will handle it. I know I won’t handle it well. …So telling these stories that deal with that [subject] and engage on that level is a way for me to prepare myself for the fact that, one day, I will have to be there when someone I love passes away, and deal with a world in which they no longer there.
“That’s something we all have to deal with, and we all have to deal with it in our own ways,” he says. “And my way is to make these films.”