Movies And Books That Inspired ‘A Ghost Story’
Its hard to talk about A Ghost Story with anyone who hasnt seen it.I knew little about the film when I took my seat at its Sundance premiere in January, and I wish everyone could experience this time-shifting masterstroke without preconceived insight. At the very least, wait to see it before reading reviews.
Do, however, familiarize yourself with the forerunners that inspired writer/director David Lowerys jewel about a dead musician (Casey Affleck) who returns to haunt the rural home he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara). Opening in limited release this weekend and expanding to additional cities throughout July, A Ghost Story as a whole is unlike anything else. But it is the sum of many parts indebted to classic literature and cinema as varied as Virginia Woolf and Beetlejuice.
During a recent interview, Lowery, whose previous credits include Petes Dragon and Aint Them Bodies Saints, walked me through a smattering of influences that led to his stunning meditation about mortality.
Virginia Woolfs literature
A Ghost Story opens with a quote from A Haunted House, a Virginia Woolf story that captures an entire lifetime of experiences in fewer than 700 words. Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting, a black screen declares within the first few minutes. Woolfs paragraph continues thusly: From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making surea ghostly couple.
Lowery didnt base A Ghost Story on A Haunted House, per se, but the movies quiet journey through past, present and future takes cues from Woolfs work.
Virginia Woolfs literature really transformed my own ideas about how to formally represent the passage of time and how time affects us, Lowery said. Specifically, the benchmarks areMrs. Dalloway,To the Lighthouseand Orlando, all of which have time as a central conceit.
Following a car accident, Afflecks late character rises from a gurney at the end of a minute-long stationary shot that lingers right outside a hospital doorway. The ghost, wearing a Halloween-style bedsheet with peepholes, walks the halls unseen, reaching a wall that slits open, producing a warm, glowing rectangle. That inviting light, as gentle but startling as the mans reanimation, is an homage to the gleaming green portals in Tim Burtons Beetlejuice.
When Maras mourning, pie-bingeing character moves out of her home and forward with her life, new tenants take over. Having marked the spot as his emotional territory, the specter smashes a Spanish-speaking familys dishes and makes lightbulbs flicker in an attempt to drive them away, much like the spirits in the 1982 horror classic Poltergeist, who move furniture and break glasses in the Freeling clans California dwelling.
The narrative developed as Lowery wrote the script, so much so that he initially questioned whether the movie should culminate with Maras departure. It doesnt feel like thats [the] end, he said, recalling his drafting process. What would I like to see happen next as an audience member? I answered that by writing a scene. Then its basically a remake of Poltergeist in Spanish.
The films of Tsai Ming-liang
Lowery said most of the Ghost Story touchstones were goofy, but the movie is also indebted to esoteric foreign art films. Key among them: the long, unbroken shots featured in Japanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liangs work, specifically Stray Dogs, The Wayward Cloud and What Time Is It There?
One of the all-time great ghost movies, Ugetsu also concerns dead lovers whose spirits linger in humanistic hauntings. Lowery saw the 1953 Japanese film, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi,shortly before making A Ghost Story.
Lowery didnt cite Richard Linklaters coming-of-age masterpiece while working on A Ghost Story, but he saw the parallels after finishing his film. In Boyhood, one year fades into the next, the characters aging without grand proclamations, time slipping forward whether desired or not.
The Tree of Life
As I said in my list of the years best movies to date, A Ghost Story could be described as Terrence Malick meets Poltergeist. Weve already covered the latter. Lowery claimed The Tree of Life as an inspiration, and its easy to see why: Malicks 2011 magnum opus slips back and forth between a modern-day domestic drama and the origin of the universe. The mileage on A Ghost Story isnt quite as broad, but it does rewind to a colonial family that once occupied the same property, presenting time as an ever-revolving circle.
In a separate interview, Lowery told my Screen Crush pal Erin Oliver Whitney that he nixed a sequence inspired by the 1990 romantic thrillerGhost.
We had more rules in the screenplay in terms of what the ghost could or couldnt do, Lowery said, referring to Afflecks apparition. We had a lot of scenes that were sort of directly lifted from Ghost, the Patrick Swayze movie, about how hes learning how to physically move things in the real world.We had an entire sequence defining the rules of the world, where hes running through the house trying to figure out how to get out and realizes that he cant. And ultimately that stuff proved to be unnecessary. This movie was too simple to require that sort of explanation as to why you cant leave the house. … We even had a cat that was directly meant to be an echo of the cat interaction in Ghost, but our cat did not behave so we knew we were wasting too much time trying to get a cat in there.