“A Dark ‘Goonies.’ Cool, I’m in.” That was the reaction given in text message by Chromatics member/composer Johnny Jewel to Ryan Gosling, when the actor gave him the script for his first directorial project, “Lost River” (previously titled “How To Catch A Monster”). An apt summation for Gosling to hear, it proved a worthy touchpoint for the “Blue Valentine” actor to focus the swarm of ideas in his writing and directing debut, a self-described “neon-colored fairy tale” that stars Ian De Caestecker, Saoirse Ronan, Christina Hendricks, and Matt Smith as citizens of a bizarro urban wasteland.
Held under strict secrecy during its production, the film finally premiered at Cannes last year to a particularly scathing reaction — it fell prey to the most exaggerated dismissals available, while others like us saw it as a greatly flawed but ambitious venture worth a look. It’s been mostly silence from Gosling in the year that followed, but during the opening day of SXSW on Friday afternoon he took the stage with Guillermo del Toro to discuss the soon-to-be-released film and its influences.
Revealing that the two met several years prior at del Toro’s infamous Bleak House to discuss a project (they didn’t say which), the “Pan’s Labyrinth” director spoke about his friendship with Gosling and his appreciation for “Lost River.” “We really hit it off, and midway he showed me his photographs and his ideas for this movie, and I fell in love with the project back then,” del Toro said. “Its rare that a director shows you his project and then you see the film and its exactly like how it was pitched before.”
Gosling also recounted a comment that de Toro made that inspired him greatly. “You said to me, ‘If you don’t direct it, I’ll direct it myself.’ And I don’t think you meant that, but something about you saying that was the coolest thing. It was like, I felt the wizard had given me the sword and the shield and sent me off on this quest.”
During their hour-long chat the two covered Gosling’s involved experiences with Detroit years before making “Lost River,” casting and working with non-actors, and finding the distinct visual tone and look of the film. Read on for more.
Detroit Was Always Going To Be Central To Gosling’s Film Debut — He Just Needed A Reason
Coming from Canada, Gosling said they he always viewed America as “that pinup girl you put in your locker,” and especially Detroit — Motown, the Model-T, and the American Dream all found residence in his brain. However, when he finally arrived in the city at age 30, he was faced with the reality.
“There were thirty miles of abandoned buildings, and people burning houses faster than the city could tear them down — as a hobby or in some cases because it was cheaper to burn it than tear it down. There were still families living in these neighborhoods, and I saw this one family that felt like they were the only ones for blocks. And I thought, ‘This is what it felt like it might be like to be the only ones left.’ ”
Gosling said he knew he wanted to make a film there, but keep the emotional reality without dragging in Detroit’s political and economic struggles. So he began to dream up a heightened fairy tale concept, while also taking repeated trips to the Midwest to take photographs.
“Over the course of a year I just kept going back to Detroit,” he said. “At first I just took photographs with my phone, then I went back with a 5D, then I went back when I bought a RED camera, and the final time I went back with an actual crew. It was a slow process, but I just wanted to shoot these buildings because they were tearing them down, because there were so many historic buildings that are gone now. For instance, one of the setpieces in the movie is in the Motown projects, where Diana Ross and the Supremes grew up. And that’s gone now.”
Gosling’s Script Was Rooted In Personal History And Family Dynamics
Perhaps because he’s so linked to the theme himself, Del Toro mentioned Gosling’s script and its focus at the concept of family early on. The film follows the relationship between single mother, Billy (Hendricks), and her son, Bones (De Caestecker), as they fend off the dangerous characters of the city, and Gosling responded that the dynamic between the two came from his own life.
“My mother was very central in my life. She was a single mom, and I think when you’re a kid and you have a single mom, in a way all men feel like wolves. I remember walking with my mother and cars would circle us — it’s very predatory. Very threatening, especially if you’re a young kid and you know that if something went sideways you couldn’t do anything about it, really. So I started to imagine all these versions where I could.”
A section of the film also takes place in a sunken, underwater city, a concept that Gosling also remembered from his childhood.
“I was thinking about when I was a kid, I saw this road going down into a river that I grew up next to, and later I found out there was a town at the bottom. They had made that river and they had sunk these towns. It scared the shit out of me; I couldn’t believe I had been swimming, and there might have been a roof or a street lamp underneath, a graveyard, I don’t know. I didn’t want to take a bath if that’s where the water was coming from.”
When it came to actually realizing the sunken city though, Gosling and his DP, Benoit Debie (“Spring Breakers”), found a change in tone for which they weren’t prepared. “At first we thought, ‘We’ll just make a cardboard town, film it through a fishtank, we got this.’ ”, Gosling recalled. “It was tough though because the visuals that we were filming elsewhere were so unaffected and real, that anything you affected felt that way. It just felt phony. So we eventually got a drone and shot actual buildings from the air, and then composited them with things that we had shot in an actual lake.”
“Lost River” Was Almost The Second Collaboration Between Gosling And Benoit Debie
Even in the most savage reviews of the film, Debie’s cinematography is always singled out, and for good reason. A longtime collaborator of “Irreversible” director Gaspar Noe, Debie brings a signature visual experimentation to his work, and Gosling recognized that early on.
“I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, and when I was in my early twenties I wrote this script about child soldiers,” he said. “I found a way to get to him, and he agreed, you know? He came and met me and said, ‘I’m in.’ I really didn’t think he’d even answer me. But I wasn’t in a place in my life or career to actually get that made. I wasn’t able to make good on that; I wasn’t able to get anyone to finance it, but it meant a lot to me that he believed in it.”
He added, “I was determined to work with him, so when I wrote this I sent it to him first. He works in a really beautiful way — he only shoots on film, which is a hard thing nowadays to convince people of, certainly. We didn’t want to use any lights, so we shot on these T1 lenses that were very fast, and we lit things practically. There was a concern things would be too dark, but in our mind it would be like what it felt like to be there, which was dark and full of colors, and not affected.”
Gosling Needed Poetry And Dance To Cast His Lead Actor
For the role of Bones, Gosling wanted a fresh face, an unknown, so he took to the website Cast It, where anybody could audition, regardless of representation. For the audition tape, Gosling required actors to do two things: “To say the poem from ‘The Outsiders,’ ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay,’ and to dance. I just think what song they pick, how they dance, you can just tell a lot about someone by the way they dance.”
When De Caestecker read the poem, he “read it like he was at school,” without pretense, which Gosling liked. Gosling added, “Even when he danced he waltzed himself with this imaginary girl, and kept leaving the frame for minutes on end. He really made you watch and wonder, ‘When’s he gonna come back?’ “
When asked by del Toro how “Doctor fucking Who,” aka Matt Smith, ended up as one of the main villains in the film, Gosling explained the moment in that show where he was convinced of the actor’s abilities.
“He had a microphone and was screaming to the sky, kind of commanding all these spaceships and laying the smackdown. I thought, ‘Can you imagine being on set and seeing that guy doing that when nothing’s there?’ He would’ve looked insane. Just the conviction to go for it like he did, I started rewriting the part with him in mind, as a guy who wants to be king of a place where there are no subjects. He gets his friend to drive him around in a homemade Pope-mobile, and he lords over his nonexistent subjects.”
Letting Reality In Proved The Best Addition To The Movie
Shooting in Detroit over a month, with many night shoots scheduled, Gosling and his cast and crew were forced to work fast and deal with many of the locations as they were. That meant neighborhood residents would wander by and invade the set, a process that Gosling quickly added into the fold as an element of the film.
“We found ourselves in a few situations where it was just easier to let anyone who showed up be in the movie rather than try to keep them out,” he said. “The actors job was then — because the movie is in a slightly heightened reality — to weave these strangers into the reality of the movie.
Gosling even told a story about one of the more anxious incidents that made it into the finished film: “We were shooting in a gas station, where I think they were also selling something else. And some people really wanted it, and they couldn’t wait until we were done shooting. And it got really intense, so what do you do? At a certain point it was like, ‘Let them into the scene.’ They were characters who you could never write, and something happened in the scene where it felt like you were watching people work without an out. You didn’t know what it was, and hopefully in the film you notice that. You know that this could go south with the actors, but there’s something here. The movie really started to come to life in those moments for me.”
Gosling Kept His Film A Family Affair, And Plans To Repeat The Process
One large aspect where both del Toro and Gosling commiserated together was regarding the many problems on-set, with Gosling mentioning, “you do more acting as a director than you do as an actor. Just always acting confident, you know, even when things are going south. The sun’s going down, we have five shots left, we don’t have money for this thing, and you’re always acting like it’s not a problem.”
Despite those challenges, Gosling said he’s definitely planning to direct again, and it will likely be via the same selection process that he worked with on “Lost River.”
“I wanted to work with my friends, and I wanted to work with people that I had worked with before,” he said. “Everybody that worked on this movie, I love them, and there were qualities in people that I hadn’t seen that I wanted to show. Ben Mendelsohn, for example. He’s a human ice cream truck. When he comes around everybody just lights up. He would come to set on ‘Place Beyond The Pines‘ with a boombox playing old-school ’90s [songs] and he’d sing it like Al Jolson. So I wanted to find a way for him to play a terrifying song-and-dance man. The great part of the process was writing these characters, but the actors filled them in. At a certain point they took ownership of them, and that’s when it feels the best, when you feel like you can make this handoff.”
“Lost River” will be released in NY and LA theaters and On Demand on April 10.