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September 28, 2017

Old Articles, Pt. 2

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

September 18, 2017

My first Ghost Story

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