'A Ghost Story' Director David Lowery Explains That Unsettling Ending
The director discusses Rooney Mara's mysterious piece of paper and Casey Affleck's haunting, yet spontaneous, final scene.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for A Ghost Story.]
The ending of A Ghost Story is quite loopy.
The A24 supernatural drama stars Casey Affleck as a recently deceased, white-sheeted ghost who returns to his home to console his wife, played by Rooney Mara. However, he continues to haunt the location long after she has moved out and other homeowners take over. He even sticks around as the house is torn down and turned into a high-rise office building, off of which he manages to “kill himself.” The movie then loops him back to the past, when early settlers were living off the land that later became his suburban home.
The time loop continues into the film’s final scene, which sees the ghost watching himself watching his wife. “One version is the naïve ghost that still hasn’t figured out what he needs to be doing, and the other that’s sitting at the piano is the version that’s achieved some sort of clarity,” writer-director David Lowery explains to The Hollywood Reporter of the ending of the film, which first debuted to strong reviews at Sundance.
Though Lowery wrote the time loop into the first draft, he didn’t initially anticipate the unsettling shot with the two ghosts. “That was a spontaneous day on set that ended up being a very definitive and profound visual, and we could have kept it going!” he recalls. “We had done three takes of that shot, and then I thought, ‘When we shot this earlier for the first version, the ghost was standing at the window, so shouldn’t he be there? And if he could see the ghost next door, couldn’t he also see himself?’ I didn’t want to get too bogged down in rules, but it seemed like a nice visual reference to what’s happening. When we saw it on camera that day, we thought it really brought the movie home in a significant fashion.”
Before Mara’s character moves out of their home, she writes something on a small piece of paper, folds it up, inserts it into an opening in the wall and traps it there by painting over it. Affleck’s ghost spends much of the movie trying to retrieve her secret note.
Hiding something personal within a home is a regular ritual of Lowery’s. “The idea of leaving a little memento of yourself, for yourself, is something I’ve always been a fan of ever since I was a little kid — I’d bury time capsules in the backyard and scratch my initials into the beams of our house. Just knowing it was there made us feel more at home there and connected to the spaces we lived in,” he explains. “I’m always looking for ways to make a space my own. You can decorate and pick out wallpaper, but those things fade when you move out and someone else will change it. But finding a way to leave a little bit of yourself behind so that part of that house is always gonna be yours, that’s something I’ve always loved.”
At the end of the film, the ghost finally does retrieve his wife’s note, and upon reading it, he is free of the time loop and immediately disappears. However, what’s written down is never revealed to the audience. “We thought about whether or not we should show it, but it doesn’t matter as much as just knowing that he got it,” says Lowery. “Nothing written there would mean anything to the audience at that point, and it would just complicate that moment — you’d see something, process it, and then wonder what it means.”
So what did Mara actually write down on that piece of paper? As it turns out, nobody knows. Lowery put the placeholder “(We’ll probably see what it says)” in the script “because I didn’t want people to ask me about it yet, and I didn’t even know what to put.” While shooting the scene, he simply asked Mara to write down something that “felt personal and meaningful to her, the movie and her character.” What she wrote, folded and painted into the wall “went down with the house” in the demolition scene, and the note that Affleck’s ghost retrieves was shot with a different piece of paper (since logistically, Mara’s note was already deep inside the wall).
“None of us know what it said — I looked at the footage and you can’t see it, and Rooney says she doesn’t remember. I’m sure she knows and isn’t gonna say. And Casey has no idea, with the sheet he could barely see through,” laughs Lowery. “But it doesn’t matter. It could be something completely goofy. We always joked that it just says, ‘Boo.’”