Casey Affleck’s Oscar-winning performance in Manchester by the Sea was noteworthy for its impenetrable sadness. In nearly every scene, depression, anger, and utter defeat are etched onto the actor’s face. Affleck’s character in A Ghost Story, his first since Manchester hit wide release in December 2016, bears similar shades of melancholy, but you don’t see them reflected in the Cambridge native’s eyes. That’s not because Affleck does a poor acting job, but because he spends the majority of the film with a sheet over his head.
In A Ghost Story, which hits Boston-area theaters Friday, Affleck and co-star Rooney Mara play “C” and “M,” a couple who share a house in the country. (For those who don’t want the plot spoiled, skip the rest of this paragraph.) When Affleck unexpectedly dies in a car crash, he returns to his home as a ghost that looks like an oversized child on Halloween, with only a sheet and two black spots where his eyes would be. As Mara’s character picks up the pieces of her life and eventually moves on, Affleck remains stuck in the house, unable or unwilling to progress to the great beyond.
Writer-director David Lowery, who also worked with Affleck and Mara on 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, said that he and the actors took an unconventional approach to this film. Eager to try something spontaneous after spending three years working on the Disney movie Pete’s Dragon, Lowery wrote the draft to A Ghost Story in one sitting, then shot the film in only a few weeks in early 2016, all without disclosing it to the outside world.
“We kept [A Ghost Story] a secret because we wanted to have room to fail,” Lowery said. “When I say fail, none of us thought the project was doomed to failure, but we all knew it was risky, and we all knew it would take awhile to figure out exactly how to make this movie, and what the tone would be.
“It would have added a lot of pressure on everyone’s shoulders if the film was announced in the trade publications, because the second it gets announced anywhere, all sorts of expectations are assigned to it,” Lowery continued. “We just made a simple decision not to tell anybody, and Casey and Rooney were excited about that.”
As the title indicates, A Ghost Story centers around Affleck’s post-mortem role. But the slow, deliberate pacing of the film and the stillness of the ghost soon lead viewers to divorce the actor from his sheet-covered visage. Lowery said he originally wanted Affleck to engage in a physical performance and audiences to always be conscious of the fact that Affleck was under the sheet; he quickly realized this approach would be a mistake.
“The more you recognize Casey Affleck under that bedsheet, the less that bedsheet felt like a ghost,” Lowery said. “The less that bedsheet felt like a ghost, the less it felt like a character. It felt like a stunt, or a mistake.
“We ultimately had to iron [Affleck] of the character, on a very literal level, since it was a bedsheet,” Lowery continued. “We ironed the performance out of the performer, and it became something much more akin to puppeteering.”
Affleck moved in a very mechanical way in order to convey the ghost’s emotions, the writer-director said, pushing against any physical instincts he might have had as an actor.
“The second he started to use intuition or physical body language to communicate, the illusion of that ghost would instantly evaporate,” Lowery said. “And then we were left once again with Casey Affleck with a bedsheet over his head.”
Despite what some may see as a thankless role, Lowery said that Affleck never wavered in his commitment to get it exactly right.
When the promotional tour for Manchester by the Sea forced Affleck to miss reshoots, Lowery had Art Director David Pink don the sheet. (Pink also wore the sheet during scenes in which Affleck and the ghost are both on-screen, which sounds confusing if you haven’t seen the film but makes sense in the context of the story.)
“I know he was disappointed that someone else was wearing the sheet,” Lowery said. “He wanted that character to be his. Even though it ultimately didn’t matter, he wanted that character to resonate in a way that felt personal to him, and it was important to him to be under that sheet.”
Beyond A Ghost Story, Lowery just wrapped production on the much more amusing The Old Man and the Gun. It’s based on a true story about a robber named Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford, who Lowery previously worked with on Pete’s Dragon), who continues to hold up banks into his 70s. The film also features Affleck as John Hunt, a police sergeant assigned to investigate a string of robberies.
Lowery said watching Affleck and Redford together on set and on-screen is “a true joy.”
“When they finally did a scene together I realized they both get that gleam in their eyes,” Lowery said. “They both get that bemused look — I don’t know what it is, but it’s an electric charge that’s equal parts bemusement and excitement when it comes to performing a scene or engaging with the material. … [The Old Man and the Gun is] not a melancholy movie like A Ghost Story or Pete’s Dragon. It’s fun and very lighthearted. It’s great seeing these two actors who I love so much spend time smiling.”