It’s the day after the U.S. premiere of his debut feature as a director, Lost River, at SXSW, and Ryan Gosling is downright sequestered. Across town, stars like Sally Field and Aubrey Plaza are conducting interviews in hotel conference rooms and coffee shops and on benches on the street, but not Gosling. Warner Bros, which is distributing Lost River, has taken over the restaurant in a downtown hotel. The building is closed except for those who are scheduled to meet with Gosling, and after you’ve been granted entrance, you’re sent to a waiting room nowhere near the star. Eventually, you’ll be escorted through the restaurant, stocked with other members of the film’s cast–which includes Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, and Saoirse Ronan–and then to a booth in an alcove at which Gosling sits. There is roughly a 0% chance that anyone is going to catch a stray Instagram shot of him scratching his nose. Before the interview starts, the ground rules are laid out: “No ‘hey girl’ questions, and no personal life questions. You’ll be pulled so fast,” one of his publicists explains.
Ryan Gosling, in other words, is fairly insulated, both as a result of the unique nature of, and reaction to, the film he’s made, and just as a by-product of the stratum of stardom he inhabits. The 34-year-old has been famous since 1993, when he served as a Mousketeer on Disney’s New Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera, and since, he’s earned both acclaim as an actor in films like Drive, and a frenzied level of adoration from fans that’s made him an Internet phenomenon. But all that insulation couldn’t prevent Gosling from the experience of listening as Lost River was booed at its world premiere at Cannes last year.
Being booed at Cannes is kind of like being booed by Philadelphia sports fans at an Eagles game–it tells you more about the crowd than about your own worth. The audience at SXSW was significantly more receptive, which makes sense: Lost River isn’t by any stretch a mainstream film, but it’s full of fascinating imagery and wonderful performances–particularly from De Caestecker and Ronan, as well as a terrifying turn from former Doctor Who star Matt Smith–that captured the imagination of the Austin crowd. A dark fairly tale set in the dreamlike city of “Lost River”–and shot in Detroit–Lost River is the sort of film that gets described as a “meditation” or a “vision.” But in the restaurant in Austin, Gosling (who also wrote and produced) talks about his film in down-to-earth language.
“I grew up in Canada, and Detroit always loomed large in its legend–the place of Motown, the Motor City, the American Dream–and it took me a long time to get there,” Gosling explains. “I got there when I was 30, and it was very different from how I had romanticized it. And my heart just went out to some of these families living in these neighborhoods where they weren’t even getting power or water. It felt like, if you spend any time there or around them, you could see how they might feel like they were the last people on Earth. And the idea sort of started: Is there a way to make a film just about this family, and how this might feel for them? And it felt like a fairy tale was the best way to do that because it would eliminate all of the political minutiae, and you could just focus on their emotional experience.”
That emotional experience is carried by Hendricks, certainly, but perhaps even more poignantly by De Caestecker (a revelation here, for those who know him from his role on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Ronan, who play a pair of neighbors growing up in the crumbling city and looking for a way out. It’s not exactly a love story between the two–something that Ronan says appealed to her about the idea–but their relationship provides a sweet core to a movie full of gruesome imagery and depictions of devastation.
“You know, it’s funny–there is a romance between them, I guess, but one of the things that I really loved about the script, even though it sounds silly, is that they don’t kiss,” Ronan says. “The relationship has so much potential to be a really lovely, tender friendship, or companionship, or something else. It meant that we had so much to play with within that, I think. The way we worked, we would turn up on the day with the text memorized, and then Ryan would usually tell us to forget about it and see where we would take it, and our relationship kind of became established as we started to work together.”
De Caestecker and Ronan carry the sweetness of the emotional experience, but it’s Matt Smith who embodies the film’s other key emotion: stark fucking terror. It’s a side of Smith that fans are unlikely to have seen before (“Doctor Who is such an asshole in this film,” Ronan quips), and it’s something that Gosling was keen to show the world.
“I had this idea for a character who basically had someone drive him around in his own shitty version of the Popemobile, trying to be the king of a place where there were no subjects–a character who in a functioning society would be a few prescriptions away from being all right,” Gosling says. “And Matt is like a cruise missile–you should be careful of what direction you send it, because he won’t stop till he destroys the target.”
So how did Gosling know that Smith was the guy to play the aspiring king of his bizarro version of Detroit? Let’s call it an actor’s intuition.
“I saw an episode of Doctor Who where he was screaming into a microphone at all these aliens, reading them the riot act, and there was so much conviction–and I just know as an actor, none of that stuff was there,” he says. “None of those aliens were really there, and yet there was so much conviction that I thought, ‘imagine if you were there on the day that they were shooting–he would have just looked insane.’ Those were the rough ideas, and then Matt came in and just, I don’t know–he found this gold-sequined jacket and shaved his head, and the rest is history.”
Gosling insists that the Lost River that Smith’s character inhabits isn’t meant to be a thin allegory for Detroit–it’s an inspiration, but not a comment on the city. But De Caestecker got to know the sort of character who can scavenge a living in a city like that by really inhabiting the role. “Iain lived the life of his character for a month,” Gosling says. “He stripped copper.”
De Caestecker’s time in Detroit before filming began involved walking blocks in empty neighborhoods and entering abandoned buildings. And it quickly began to influence how he saw the world–including while sleeping.
“Dreamlike” is another word that one might use when describing Lost River, and De Caestecker says that it was something that Gosling was interested in exploring. “I was never that big on dreams, but before we started, I had this dream one night that I got attacked by this swarm of rats, just hundreds of rats, and all I was saying was, ‘Please, can you stop?’” De Caestecker recalls. “And [Gosling] would talk to me about how we were going to do this thing where we would talk about our dreams and try to collaborate through them.”
There’s a memorable rat scene in Lost River, and other elements of improvisation run through the film, as well. Gosling recalls the origin of one significant sequence that started with Ronan.
“One day, we were shooting this scene and Saoirse sang this song. I encouraged it, but just this little song she sang up in her room, and I filmed it with my Red [digital camera], waiting for the film camera to come upstairs,” Gosling recalls. “It was just so beautiful, and even though it wasn’t in the script or anything, it felt like the movie to me, and it became the theme for the movie. It became this really important way that [Ronan and De Ceastecker’s characters] communicated: The idea that he sits outside of his house and listens to her sing in her room. Those are the things that we were looking for–we were looking for the things that would tie into these themes that we were trying to tap into, but that were kind of just happening naturally.”
Gosling has spent a lot of his career making unconventional choices, which is surprising for a movie star with as much firepower as Gosling possesses. Probably the closest he’s come to a blockbuster, at least after his 2004 breakthrough in The Notebook, involved backing up Steve Carell in the 2011 rom-com Crazy, Stupid Love. He’s never played an action hero. (People who expected him to play one in Drive famously ended up being issued refunds). So the fact that his directorial debut is a noir sci-fi/fantasy film for Warner Bros., with the full heft of the studio’s PR machine blocking the doors at downtown restaurants in Austin during SXSW, almost seems a little surprising. But the film itself doesn’t look anything like what all of those studio trappings might lead one to expect, and that’s a fact that Gosling seems very comfortable with.
“It wasn’t a Warner Bros. film when we made it,” he points out. “I think people see that it’s Warner Bros. and they have an expectation of that, and really it’s a small, independent film that we made in this really intimate way, and Warner Bros. came on at the end. So that’s an interesting mash-up, and it does sort of give you expectations. But this is just an expression of my tastes and my aesthetic. It’s dark, and there’s not a lot of light, but it’s very rich and colorful and lush.”