David Lowery Returns to The Sundance Film Festival with A Ghost Story
David Lowery decided he wanted to make movies when he was seven years old after reading a book on the making of Star Wars. His large, creative family encouraged him to follow his dream, but with no TV or VCR in the house he fueled his inspiration by watching movies in the theater. In his early 20s, Lowery made short films that played in local festivals, and also learned how to make his living as an editor.
After receiving a grant from the Austin Film Society he made the movie St. Nick, which was a hit on the film festival circuit, followed by the short film Pioneer, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. Those two projects paved the way for the critically acclaimed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, another Sundance Film Festival pick in 2013.
To his surprise, Lowery was then chosen to direct Disney’s 2016 summer blockbuster Pete’s Dragon. Before starting work on his next big film The Old Man and the Gun, he decided to make A Ghost Story, a smaller film that has him returning to The Sundance Film Festival for a third time.
Adobe: How did you get started making your own films?
Lowery: I first learned about independent film and the Sundance Film Festival when I was 12 or 13. My mom told me about how Robert Redford started this festival for filmmakers outside of the Hollywood structure and it sounded great to me because I liked the idea of doing things on my own. In high school I got a job and saved up enough money to buy a camcorder and some non-linear editing software.
My senior year in high school I submitted a script to the Sundance Labs. When I received the notification that I’d made it to the next round I promised myself that even if I didn’t get in I would make the movie myself. When I didn’t get in, I took some of my college money, bought a camera, an early power Mac, and Final Cut 1 and started making movies.
Adobe: Tell us about A Ghost Story.
Lowery: It’s a very quiet movie about a guy who dies in a car crash and goes back to his house as a ghost. At first he is just observing his wife, and then she moves out and someone else moves in. From a human perspective, he’s a ghost haunting the inhabitants of a house. From his perspective, he is just watching and reacting to them in his space. It’s really a movie about the passage of time, how we relate to both time and space on a physical level, and what really matters to us as time goes by.
Adobe: What was unique about how you shot the film?
Lowery: We shot two characters at two different frame rates. The ghost in the movie is a guy in a sheet. It’s a serious movie, but that’s a weird, funny element. We found that to make him feel real, even though he’s just wearing a sheet, we needed to shoot him at 33 frames per second. If there was someone else in the scene we would shoot them separately. Most of the movie was shot locked off, but we did do a little bit of motion control as well.
Adobe: When did you start working with Adobe Creative Cloud and Premiere Pro?
Lowery: I was a Final Cut Pro 7 user, but after Final Cut 10 came out I downloaded Adobe Premiere Pro to try it out. It was really easy to pick up on everything. My first use of it in a practical way was on the set of Pete’s Dragon. It was a snap, just as I had expected.
Our editor Lisa Zeno Churgin was in New Zealand editing the film in Avid, but she was working on what we shot the previous day. I would take the current day’s footage and cut it together using Premiere Pro during lunch or in between setups just to make sure we had everything we needed. They were incredibly rough edits, but all I needed to know was that we were moving in the right direction, especially with some of the big action sequences.
Adobe: What made you decide to use Premiere Pro on your next project?
Lowery: As my next projects started to materialize, I really wanted to use the entire Creative Cloud. I had a brief window of time between Pete’s Dragon and The Old Man and the Gun, so I decided to make A Ghost Story. Using Premiere Pro was a no-brainer because I knew I was going to cut it myself. I also want to use Premiere Pro on The Old Man and the Gun, which Lisa Zeno Churgin will be editing, so she’s learning Premiere Pro now.
Adobe: What do you like about working with Creative Cloud?
Lowery: I love knowing that everything works together. A lot of the frustrations I’ve had in post-production came from having to go from one piece of software to another, exporting and importing. With Dynamic Link, it’s so easy to move between editing and visual effects. One of my favorite ways to distract myself when I’m editing a movie is to go and find something to paint out in After Effects. It’s like doing a magic trick.
On A Ghost Story we have so many little composite shots, and Dynamic Link has been really helpful. We were able to mask some of the basic splits in Premiere Pro, and we often went to After Effects if a shot needed a bit more blending. My favorite thing is that I don’t have to look up anything. Premiere Pro is very intuitive and I can just open everything and start working right away. We also used the Lumetri Color panel in Premiere Pro for all of our rough color correction. When we submitted to Sundance we put looks on everything just using Lumetri.
Adobe: How does your background as an editor inform your work as a director?
Lowery: When I’m shooting I’m constantly thinking about how one thing will connect to another and what scenes will likely hit the cutting room floor. Sometimes I even make the choice to cut them in advance, as you can always use more time in production. Having an editor’s perspective also helps me make those split second calls with a lot more acuity because I already have an idea of how the scene is going to get cut together. It’s a type of mindset that comes from spending a lot of time cutting other people’s movies.
Adobe: Will you always have a hand in editing your films?
Lowry: I think I’ll always need to have a hand in editing or at least have that option available to me. There are always scenes where I’m cutting things together in my head as we’re shooting them, and it’s just faster for me to cut those than to try to explain to someone else how to do it. On the other hand, it’s a great joy to relinquish control sometimes and sit back and see what someone else creates.