After director David Lowery's latest film premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2017, audiences who caught the indie were talking about one thing: Rooney Mara's pie scene in A Ghost Story. The film, which centers around a ghost (Casey Affleck), who returns to his home after his death to try and connect with his grieving wife (Mara). And as anyone who has experienced loss knows, grief can manifest itself in strange ways. Like, for example, eating an entire pie in one sitting.
I sat down with Lowery at A24's Los Angeles office to chat about the inception of this aforementioned scene, in which Mara's character eats an entire pie in one very long, unabridged sequence. "It was always going to be uncut," the director says, sitting across from me in a minimalist office with glass walls. "Every single person told me to cut it shorter. Even after we had sent it to Sundance and they had accepted it, one of the programmers and I were emailing, and he’s like, 'Yeah, the movie was great. The pie scene went on a little too long, maybe you could trim that...'"
And yet, the director was resolute in his vision. He wanted the audience, as he puts it, "to feel uncomfortable," while watching Mara scarf down an entire pie. "If people were wanting it to be shorter, that meant it was working," he says.
And the reason for the scene's excruciatingly long duration (OK, it's only a handful of minutes long, but it feels like an eternity) is simple: This is what grieving looks like. "I did a bunch of reading to try to understand what the grieving process is like, particularly when you lose a spouse. It seems that the common thread was that grief presents itself in the most mundane moments, and the most quotidian activities — that’s when it really rears its head and catches you off guard."
So when Rooney's character comes home to find a concerned friend has left her a pie, she grabs a fork and goes to town. It sounds silly, but it's a grounding moment for the film, and for Rooney's character seeking comfort. "I wanted to have this moment in the movie where Rooney’s character would be able to define herself and define her grief in a really profound and momentous way. I wanted it to be physical. You feel [grief] in your stomach and you feel it in your bones, and it really kind of takes over your body. It moment felt unusual, it felt private," he says of the scene.
In fact, the entire movie feels very private, as if the audience is privy to a series of moments they shouldn't be looking at. "It was really pushing the limits of what our expectations are as an audience, what our tolerance for a single moment is."
Though Lowery can, and will, talk at length about the weight and intention of the scene, when it came to actually shooting the thing, Lowery gave Mara very little direction. "She's an actress and she understood what the purpose of the scene was. She could have ended it at any point. I told her just bring it to a close whenever [she] felt appropriate, and as long as nothing goes wrong technically we will just do one take — and that’s all we did."
In fact, the only conversation Lowery and Mara had concerning pie was what flavor it would be. "Chocolate," he says with a grin. "We made an apple pie, a pumpkin pie, a chocolate pie, and she went for chocolate. She stands by the claim that she had never had pie in her life up until that moment — and never will again. So that’s the one time in human history that Rooney Mara will eat a pie."
A Ghost Story, which hits theaters July 7, is a significantly unique experience, and the now notorious pie scene is a big part in what makes this film so strange and special. So sit back, relax, and indulge in every uncomfortable moment.