An Occupational Hazard

November 30, 2017


There used to be a bunch more on this post, as has been much remarked upon. I've removed it but am leaving my addendum below, so as not to completely look like I'm trying to saving face.

* * *

A friend alerted me that Steven Soderbergh, who produced Godless, replied to the above (since redacted) on Twitter to point out that Scott Frank's script was written prior to 2003. The putting-me-in-my-place wording of the tweet - and the fact that he wrote it at all! - has had the desired effect. To be clear, my post was not any sort of claim to authorship. Nor was it meant to be begrudging. Godless is a completely original project; mine was likewise, and what I wrote was meant to be a musing on how two people can, all on their own, in completely separate chronologies, come up with remarkably similar ideas - a phenomenon which I suspect every writer is familiar with, and one I should have taken a bit more care and tact in elucidating.

Re-reading myself, I see how this could be perceived otherwise, and also how it seems dismissive of Mr. Frank's work; this pains me, partially because one never wants their intent to be misread but also because I would hate to come down on the wrong side of two filmmakers I so admire (indeed, one doesn't have to scroll too far back on this blog to find evidence of my longstanding affinity for Mr. Soderbergh's work). I offer my sincere and mortified apologies to them both. I am tempted to delete the post altogether, but will leave it up there untouched for another day or two (now since passed) as a reminder to myself that I am definitely not writing these things in a bubble anymore.

Posted by David Lowery at 11:19 PM

Old Articles, pt 3

November 9, 2017


This one was written for A24's zine this past summer.

* * *

The first part of my growing up occurred in a tiny white house on Laundale Avenue in Waukesha, Wisconsin. I lived there until I was almost eight, and all of my notions of home can be traced right back to its walls and windows and little narrow staircase. In my memory it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The backyard stretches out for acres, and the wood paneled living room is warm and cozy. There’s the sound of a crackling fire, even though there is no fire place, and there’s always snow outside the windows, even in the summer.

It was in this house that I learned to read, and one of the books I read was All-Of-A-Kind-Family, by Sydney Taylor, along with its many sequels. This series was about five sisters growing up in at the turn of the 20th century. It was similar to The Little House On The Prairie, (which I also loved) but deeply ingrained in Jewish culture in New York City.

One of the books - maybe it was the first one - ended with the family moving out of their home. I don’t remember the specifics, but I remember that it made me cry. It was vis-a-vis this book that I learned how personal a home was, and how much of ourselves we put into the spaces we live in. I felt like I’d grown up with these girls, and that I was leaving along with them. I could hardly bear it.

Not long after that, my dad got a new job and so we had to move in real life, too. We packed up that little white house and sent everything we owned to Texas. I remember sitting on the basement stoop, not wanting to leave. Probably crying. I remember the smooth wood grain of that step and the cool air beyond it. I remember trying to hang onto something - literally, llest I be pulled away.

A few weeks later we had a new home just outside of Dallas, in a little suburb called Irving. The first night there, my mom joined me and my two brothers and one sister in the bedroom to read to us, as she always did every night. I asked her to read that chapter from All-Of-A-Kind-Family. I needed the support and sympathy of those girls. I lay there in bed, listening to her voice, and was comforted, and I looked at my siblings and wondered if it meant as much to them as it did to me. Probably not, I reasoned, with the seven-year-old logic that still serves me well. They were younger. They didn’t have as much to leave behind.

Next time I see them I’ll ask them if this was true.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:52 AM

Old Articles, Pt. 2

September 28, 2017

This piece is older. It was written for IFP over four years ago, right after ATBS played at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Since writing it, I've read Soderbergh's follow-up journal, Getting Away With It, several times. The parallels persist. I need to seek out new touchstones.

* * *

In the days and weeks leading up to our film's premiere at Sundance, I pulled from the shelf my dog-eared copy of Steven Soderbergh's sex lies and videotape diary, which I'd purchased from a second-hand bookstore my sophomore year in high school and devoured (along with the screenplay included therein) before I actually saw the film it chronicled. This ordering was oddly habitual at that point in my life, a natural progression from all the reviews I grew up reading of movies my parents wouldn't let me see. I read Spike Lee's School Daze and Malcom X journals before I ever saw the films; I saw Hearts Of Darkness before I saw Apocalypse Now. But Soderbergh's was my favorite, and the one I hung onto the most. I took (and still take) to heart the recipe for success he cites in his forward: talent + perseverance = luck.

I was sixteen then. I was about to turn 32 when I began reading it again over the holidays, for what was probably the third or fourth time. It was glib and entertaining and insightful, as always, but it also seemed deeper and richer - a natural side effect to my own evolving understanding of the filmmaking process. There's not a lot of technical jargon in the book, and each journal entry is often comprised of a span of days or weeks, but I didn't notice that the first time I read it. It all seemed breezy and exciting and fun. Soderbergh made filmmaking - serious filmmaking, great filmmaking - seem like something efficient and doable. When you're sixteen and don't even know what the word coverage means, you're drawn towards the broad strokes. You need the broad strokes. And then, as you grow as a filmmaker, you start to read between the lines.

What I found between Soderbergh's lines - and sometimes not between them at all but right smack dab on the page in clear and simple text - was a marvelous reflection of what I'd just been through, and a projection of what we were about to embark upon. How had I not previously picked up on the fact that there were days that didn't go well for him, too? How had I missed the bit of his production journal in which he mentions his AD pulling him aside and telling him he should have serious conversations with his actors in their trailers during the set-ups and not on set when the cameras were ready to roll? The days where they ran out of time? Where the Louisiana heat wore everyone down? There on the page is a description of conversations I felt like I had been having on a regular basis. There at the outset of the book is mentioned a financing meeting with Cassian Elwes that came out of the blue but didn't quite pan out, which felt alarmingly similar to the sudden financing meeting we had with Cassian Elwes, which did in fact work out and lead to our film getting made.

I don't mean to say that I was reducing his experience - and mine - to a checklist of corresponding points. But the parallels were unavoidable, and also amusing, interesting and gratifying. All of this information deepened my understanding of his humbly triumphant first-person narrative, and it also helped me contextualize what I'd just been through. And indeed, to see it in broad strokes. I realized that my own shoot was breezy, exciting and fun in its own way. And, too, that I was unquantifiably lucky and quantifiably persistent (and that hopefully the talent quotient of that equation wasn't running at a deficit).

So then there was Sundance. Back when sex, lies was invited to screen there, it was still called the U.S. Film Festival, but it was up there on the same Main Street, at mostly the same venues, with lots of the same people. Soderbergh describes in nonplussed terms (or maybe he was dazed) his first screening, and then the second, and then the point at which Todd McCarthy hints at the positive review he's going to give the film in Variety. He also describes having enough free time to join the festival volunteers in shuttling other directors and actors to and from the airport.

Since then, Sundance has become Sundance, and while I imagine the intrepid filmmaker might still find time to volunteer services here and there, I don't think it would be possible (if it ever truly was in the first place) to be nonplussed about showing a film you've finished only days before to an audience of 1200 people. I anticipated a quickening of my pulse, but not my transformation into jelly when John Cooper called me out onto the stage at the Eccles. I have no idea what I said up there, other than thank you. When in doubt, those are always good words to fall back in, especially if you mean them, which I did.

This is not the sum of my experience there, but a small part of it, and here is where I leave my parallels with Soderbergh's narrative behind (aside from the fact that Todd McCarthy, now writing for Hollywood Reporter, gave us a really great review after our own first screening) and dovetail fully into my perception of the experience. When one's been aspiring towards premiering a feature at Sundance since the age of sixteen, it would be natural to assume that a sense of culmination would accompany that moment. But the thing about persistence is that it renders success in varying shades of gray. Accomplishment is not divided into the setting of a goal and its achievement, nor is that achievement a plateau which one rests upon. Everything is a step. Some steps are bigger than others. Sometimes they lead you right back to the bottom. Sometimes they provide an opportunity to step back and survey the view. As you look back, all the little footholds and switchbacks blend with distance into one singular path, one broad stroak, but you don't forget that each one came with its own encompassing sense of triumph, of disappointment, of accomplishment, of knowing you can do better. In the moment, each one was everything you were working for - and then you achieved it, and you moved on. You may have done well. You'll do even better.

At some point you might find yourself referring to the process in vaguely distended metaphors, which is a good time to turn back to that script you were writing or that book you were reading. We left Sundance two weeks ago. It was spectacular. It was overwhelming. It was equivocal to running a marathon, except that marathons end. Time now to keep persisting, and hoping the luck holds out.

Footnote: I went to see Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects last night. I have a feeling he won't be publishing a journal about this one, and I am OK with that. But if he were to write it, I'd definitely read it, and read it again in 16 years.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:13 AM

Old Articles, pt. 1

I'm digging up a few old articles I've written and posting them here for posterity. This one is recent: a piece for Moviemaker Magazine that I wrote back in June. I had no prompts, no subject - just a word count to fill.

A LIST OF WHERE-I’M-ATS

  1. I’m a big fan of routines. I don’t like sticking to them, or setting my clock by them, but I like having them, losing them and then finding them once again. In 2011 I made a short illustrated film about how I spend my days (which contains the first appearance of my sheet-ghost friend), and last fall I found with no shortage of satisfaction my day-to-day existence falling back into those old patterns. There’s great comfort in familiarity for me. I like revisiting, returning, resting easy on the same-old-same-olds, sinking into nostalgia. A daily routine allows that nostalgia to accumulate like mold in the nooks and crannies of every twenty-four-hour period.
  2. Letting go of nostalgia is a large part of what my new film A Ghost Story is about. It’s also something I’ve had to get used to because making movies is a lifestyle (not just a craft, not only a career, but a way of living) that is anti-routine. Or rather, that regularly upends one routine in favor of another. The process of making a film is surprisingly if not pleasantly rote, but it’s always occurring at a different place, at a different time. You walk past the same fleet of trucks (or vans, or one van, or just a few cars) you walked past last year, but now you’re on another continent. The Fisher dolly your camera is mounted on is the same model you used six months ago, but now you’re pushing it yourself.
  3. I write this from an aisle seat somewhere above Seattle, en route back to Texas. This time last week I was in London; in another week's time I’ll be packing for New York and Los Angeles. A month from now I’ll be getting ready to head home from a zig-zag tour of the Western continents. This is the part of filmmaking you don’t think about when you’re making your movie, that you don’t realize you’re embarking upon until you’re in the middle of, and which you look back on fondly once the film has receded and no one wants to talk about it anymore. The questions, answers, faces, voices, cameras, microphones, tape recorders, and hotel rooms all blur together and fade, and what you’re left with are snippets of cities, foreign currency jingling in your pocket, strolls across cold cobblestones, detours down winding alleys in towns and burgs you never knew and still don’t. At some point on each stop you find yourself standing in the same place at the front of the same theater, in front of what seems to be the same audience, all waiting to hear what you have to say after just having just spent ninety minutes hearing everything you thought you had to say. All of this leaves you worn out and talked out and never not grateful. This isn’t why you do this - except that actually, it sort of is. This engagement is exactly what you’re after, but it is usually assumed, invisible. So here is a rare opportunity to not take it for granted.


  4. Here are the questions you can count on while doing press:

    • Where did the idea come from?

    • What it was it like working with so and so?

    • Why was this story important to you?

    • Tell me about that scene.

    • What were some of your influences?

    • What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

    • What are you making next?


    These are all fine questions. There will be others mixed amongst them, a few curveballs here and there, some deeper digging and critical points of discussion and pleasant surprises and occasional stumpers, but the consistency of these core queries is hard to ignore: as you answer them you wonder if you’re putting too much of the same thing out into the world, and yet you want to be truthful and earnest in your response. You want to preserve some sense of mystery but you don’t want to be vague or, even worse, dismissive. You figure out ways to make each answer unique, to make each interview feel like a conversation, but there are certain phrases that just work. They become your bedrock on these long days, and they slip out almost unconsciously after a while. You build for yourself a modular set of responses and you adjust them as needed. I was reading interviews with James Gray around the time his great movie The Lost City Of Z came out and in each and every one he made exactly the same joke about being genetically indisposed to the jungles of Columbia. I get it. Say one thing enough times about your movie and it becomes part of its lore.

  5. I saw The Lost City Of Z on the weekend while shooting my most recent film, The Old Man & The Gun. When I’m not working on a film I generally watch a movie a day, and when that number dwindles I start to get anxious. But when I’m not making a film I get anxious too. I enjoy watching movies more than I enjoy making them, but if I don’t make them I feel like I’m not keeping up with the conversation. No one is asking for my participation and my arguments may not hold muster, but interject I must.


  6. As of this writing I’ve seen 102 movies so far this year.


  7. It’s been almost a year since I quit Twitter. June 18th, I think. That was my last post. I didn’t want to delete my account (nostalgia!) but I also didn’t want to access it again, so I changed my log-in setting to a random series of numbers that I would never in a million years remember or be able to reverse-engineer, and that was that. Except that it wasn’t. I still find myself visiting the site frequently enough that if I type the letter t into my browser it will automatically pop up. Muscle memory, I’ll tell myself. Except that then I take the next step and enter my own name into the Twitter search bar. I stalk myself. I did this last night, in my hotel room, after my screening, looking to see if anyone had said anything about me (they had). Doing this is a more perverse form of Googling oneself, and more personal, because so often the search results are directed specifically to you. The @’s have dwindled in the year since I stopped responding, but they haven’t completely ceased. And the instances of your name without the ampersand - those are the truly dangerous one. I need to stop. I need to stick to Instagram. It is safer because it’s short on opinion and high on impression.


  8. Now I’ve landed back in Dallas. I got home from the airport, changed my clothes and went for a run. Next to movies, this is the one thing I maintain some consistency with. When I’m not shooting, I try to run almost every day. While in production, it dwindles to the weekends, and sometimes not even then. This, like going a week without seeing a film on the big screen, is a sadness. I read about Steven Soderbergh spending no more than six to eight hours on set and having time for leisure activity in the evening (after editing the day’s work no less!) and I think: this guy’s got it figured out.


  9. I’m supposed to be editing that new film now but I’ve abdicated the cutting room for press duties. It was perfect timing. I watched the first assembly from beginning to end last Tuesday and had just enough time to decide the film was a disaster before grabbing my suitcase and heading to the airport. Now I’m not thinking about it (although of course it’s all I’m thinking about) and not dealing with it (this much, at least, is true) and putting off the process of making it better until I’m done talking about A Ghost Story. And in this context, there is a certain safety in the knowledge that I’ll be talking about it for the rest of the summer. At some point I’m sure I’ll even talk about how that first cut also felt like a disaster and I very nearly buried it my backyard.


  10. Sometimes I freak out and feel overexposed and just want to shut up for a while. I want to let the movie speak for itself. Even that sometimes feels like too much. But then I meet someone who’s just seen it and is excited about it and wants to understand it, and their excitement is vicarious and to them I feel like I’m opening up about it for the first time. Then maybe they ask me what I’m working on next and my exclamation points turn into ellipses. It is very hard to think about nexts at this point in the process. I can imagine myself writing, because I’m doing that, and I can envision myself on some distant and future set. But all the necessary, physical, pragmatic steps between those two points feel not just impossibly far away, but impossible. The idea of getting in a van and scouting locations or casting or walking the racks with my costume designer is downright overwhelming. So I say I don’t know what I’m doing next. For first time in a long time, that is the honest truth.

* * *

Upon writing this article, I never again searched for my own name on Twitter. It cured me. I finally logged in last night, just for long enough to delete my account once and for all. RIP @davidlowery. Also, I'm now up to 180 movies for the year.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:59 AM

My first Ghost Story

September 18, 2017

I've been looking for this movie all summer.

This was the first movie I ever made. I shot it in the fall of 1988, which means the VHS tape I pulled it from is nearly 30 years old. I was seven and a half at the time. The last six months of my favorite age. We had just moved to Texas. My dad's friend came to visit, with his camcorder in tow, and I was ready with scripts, props and a cast of siblings. This one was my version of Spielberg's Poltergeist, which I was aware of but definitely hadn't seen. Finally having the means to make a movie felt monumental to me. You don't have to look to closely to see my hanging around the edge of the frame, anxiously making sure things happened the way I intended. It didn't occur to me to actually look through the viewfinder. Or maybe my dad's friend just didn't trust me to hold the camera.

There's no preternatural brilliance on display here, no innate talent. But I still feel like there's something there, even if it wasn't completely intentional.

On the other hand, I made another ghost movie, ten years after this one. It's called Ghostboy. I produced it my senior year in high school, right around the same time I started this website. Everything about it was intentional. And it is terrible. It was shot on Hi8, on the camcorder I bought as Best Buy with my first paycheck, and it was also my first experience editing on a nonlinear editing system, via some off-the-shelf software I also found at Best Buy. I exhumed it from the same box of VHS tapes that Poltergeist was found in, and had every intention of sharing it here, until I watched it myself. It is bad. Really bad. I made it through all ten minutes of it in piecemeal, and was depressed for the rest of the day. At age seven all I wanted to do was terrify, but by eighteen I was trending towards a terrible, treacly goth sentimentality - a pit from which I am still struggling to emerge. It was a real bummer to see, and I'm sure it'll end up on YouTube someday.

Posted by David Lowery at 7:05 PM

End Of The Tour

July 23, 2017

On May 31, just over a week after wrapping The Old Man & The Gun, I hopped on a plane to London to show and thereby engage with A Ghost Story for the first time since Sundance back in January. It played simultaneously on three sold-out screens at the West End Picturehouse, less than twenty-four hours after a band of deplorables did something terrible on the London Bridge. I wasn't sure if anyone would want to go to the movies after that; the fact that they did - and en masse at that - made the whole world feel a little more ship-shape.

That was the beginning of an entire summer of introducing our ghost to the universe. From London I went to a screening and press day in Seattle, which felt curiously apocalyptic, and then back to a hometown debut at the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas, which was as cozy as a night at the movies can get. We had a week off, so Toby and Annell could at long last get married and I could get a little work done on the Old Man edit, and then I packed up two suitcases and left for Austin, New York, Los Angeles, Prague, New York again for opening weekend and then San Francisco, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto and one more stop in Los Angeles. This trip lasted a month. It felt longer. Now it is almost August, the end of summer is in sight and yesterday was the first day in what feels like forever that I didn't have to say a single word in public about this movie.

A year from now, the many interviews and Q&As will have all congealed into one recessive mass in my subconscious. I know this from experience. The gravitational impact of a month-long press tour will almost entirely diminish, leaving in its wake happy memories of traveling the globe with friends old and new in support of a little movie whose hand I was happy to hold as it took its first baby steps. Looking back, I won't remember what I said, nor will I cringe thinking about what I said. All the interviews and press breaks and Q&As will have more or less vanished, leaving just the movie. It'll be there for anyone who wants to find it, and it says everything I wanted to say in the first place.

But right now - right now I wish someone would forbid me from ever speaking in public again. Or, in lieu of that, force me to undergo a crash course in debate, public speaking and extemporaneous elocution. I look back with despair on all the times I said the wrong thing, or when, in pursuit of a cogent statement, I'd wind up arguing against an idea I'd espoused a few minutes earlier. Which isn't to say those ideas were ever clearly presented in the first place (they weren't). When speaking aloud, my vocabulary decreases by about sixty percent. The periods that would end my ramblings with a modicum of grace are forever beyond my grasp. I predictably, consistently fall prey to those ands and buts that turn my sentences into precarious, Seussian ziggurats. Every now and then I'd manage to get my point across before these constructions collapse on themselves, but more often than not, I fear I did not illuminate the movie. Word by word, I may have actually diminished it.

Perhaps I'm exaggerating. Perhaps it's not as bad as I think (although, in some cases and one case in particular, I know it's actually worse). Perhaps most filmmakers feel this way when they have to talk about their own work. Perhaps I'm overcompensating unnecessarily by pushing back here, in the private-public of this page, with a modicum of good grammar and syntax, as if to say See, I really do know how to use words good. None of this needs to be said; I'm indulging myself by saying it.

On the upside, everyone I spoke to was wonderful and patient and, as is always the case, taught me much about the film that I didn't know. A gratifying amount. I know now that in making the movie I only scratched its surface. Listening to other folks talk about it, and question it, and poke holes in it and then stitch those torn seams back together enriched my own understanding of just what it was we made last summer.

So, to everyone who came to a screening or sat down for an interview or transcribed my rambles; to everyone whose excellent questions served as a pre-emptive antidote to my answers: you have my thanks.

The film has been open for three weeks now. On the 28th it expands even further. We've already finalized the Blu-Ray extras and home video art, but for now the fact that the movie only available on the big screen thrills me. A24 has done an amazing job. I went to see Dunkirk, Valerian And The City Of 1000 Planets, Lady Macbeth and Endless Poetry this weekend and feel like we're in great company at the cinemas. In a few weeks I'm heading back to London for a bit more press, with a quick jaunt to Poland and Hong Kong after that, but the movie is mostly in my rearview now. Having been able to do this is a luxury. A luxury that wears me out and makes me hate myself sometimes, but still: small price to pay for getting to do it in the first place.

Now it's time to get my hands a little dirtier on The Old Man & The Gun. I just watched the latest cut, which currently stands at 88 minutes long. It's not even close to being done, but already that running time feels pretty damn perfect. I'll try to stay a little bit more mum on this one.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:48 PM