David Lowery has done it all in independent film. He made an acclaimed short film, “Pioneer,” that won the Grand Jury prize at SXSW. He edited the cult sci-fi favorite “Upstream Color.” And he’s written, directed and edited moody indie favorites “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “A Ghost Story,” both of which starred Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Meanwhile, and perhaps improbably, he’s become a go-to Disney director. After the success of his reimagining of “Pete’s Dragon” in 2016, he’s been tapped to write and direct a live-action adaptation of “Peter Pan.” Also coming soon: an adaptation of New Yorker journalist David Grann’s story “The Old Man and the Gun,” starring Robert Redford and Casey Affleck.
What follows is a Q&A with the filmmaker that’s been edited for space and clarity.
Do you think you’ll continue to bounce between doing indies like “A Ghost Story” and big-budget films like “Pete’s Dragon” and “Peter Pan,” or do you see it as “these are all just movies, I’m going do what feels right”?
I have to make what feels right to me, or else I just want to make it. When I was 7 years old, I decided I wanted to spend my life making movies solely because I loved “Star Wars” movies. That’s always been a part of me. That big populist side of filmmaking has always appealed to me, and I’ve never shied away from it. But I’ve always been very stubborn in my personal life and career and that manifests itself in an independent streak that runs through my life and my work. I never want to limit myself to just being an independent filmmaker, but I do know that whatever I make, whether it’s big or small, will have what might be deemed an independent spirit just because of who I am.
When you’re doing a classic story for Disney, like “Pete’s Dragon” or “Peter Pan,” how much freedom do you have to take the story where you want it to go?
It’s an interesting gray area. It’s not “my way or the highway.” I know when I’m making a film like “Pete’s Dragon” that it needs to appeal to a wider demographic than something like “A Ghost Story,” so I’m naturally going to be stepping a little bit outside my stubbornly independent mindset in an attempt to embrace a wider audience. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a wonderful thing.
My stubborn independence comes in with things like the tone of the movie, or the way the movie looks, or the soundtrack to the movie or some formalist ideas that I tried to sneak in there. Those are the things that I fight for and things that make it feel like one of my movies. But I was very clear from the beginning, when I sat down with Disney, that in spite of that, I wanted it to feel like a tried-and-true classic Disney film.
It’s interesting because I’m writing “Peter Pan” right now; it’s one of the top five crown jewels in the Disney animation library. I have to be a little bit more respectful of that than I was with “Pete’s Dragon.” There are fans of the original undoubtedly, but there are not many of them in the grand scheme of things. So I was able to pretty much make my own movie with that title. With “Peter Pan,” it’s a little different, because it’s falling into a category of films like “The Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast,” these live-action adaptations that have been incredibly successful because they honor the original source material but also bring it to the audience with a new technological, live-action spin.
How far along are you?
We’re on the third draft right now, so it’s relatively far along, but it’s something we have to be really careful with. You don’t want to screw it up. You don’t want to have another “Peter Pan” movie that nobody likes.
You kept the shoot secret for “A Ghost Story” in case it didn’t work. Why did you think it wouldn’t work?
It was very high concept. I find when you’re doing things for high concept there’s a high risk for failure. Because we were making this movie on such a small level, on such a small scale, I felt there was no upside to publicizing it. We didn’t have to publicize it to get money or find investors. We didn’t have to let anyone know we were making it because we were making it ourselves on our own terms with our own money. Because it was so out there conceptually, I knew that there was a chance it might not work. And I felt that it might be better to fail in silence. Also, I mean, there’s no denying that secrets are fun. Mysteries are fun, and I like surprises, so that played into it as well.
Does this make you want to replicate doing it DIY, something that a lot of filmmakers at your level don’t often do?
That must have been liberating. It was liberating, but it wasn’t as liberating as you might think. It didn’t feel that different from making “Pete’s Dragon,” but it was nice to function under a veil of anonymity. That was fun. I think it’s a useful model. I don’t ever want to replicate anything I do. The next time I make a self-funded independent film, it’s probably not going to be done the same way I made “A Ghost Story.” But we’ll take things we learned from “A Ghost Story” and apply that to whatever we do in the future, whether it’s a big studio movie or in tiny indie territory.
Have you finished shooting “The Old Man and the Gun”?
It’s done. I’m actually headed to my post-production suite now to finish editing. I look forward to seeing what people think of it. On the subject of not repeating myself, it’s about as different from “A Ghost Story” as you can get. But I watched it last night, and it still felt like one of my movies, for better or worse. It also felt like a great Robert Redford movie, which I’m really excited about.
Casey Affleck has been in nearly every one of your movies. Is it a goal to get him in everything you do?
It’s worked out that way. But I do like to work with the same people repeatedly. I always admired directors who have their ensembles before the camera and behind it and I’ve sought to do the same. It’s fun. It fills this meta-continuity from one film to the next, and it also just makes the process easier because you already have a shorthand with someone. There’s also value in pushing yourself outside that comfort zone, and I definitely will do that in the future. But thus far, it’s made sense to cast Casey repeatedly and make him do ridiculous things like talk in a Texas accent, wear a mustache or put a sheet over his head.