Editor’s Note: This article originally ran during the 2015 SXSW Film Festival. “Lost River” opens in select theaters on April 10 and is currently available to watch on video on demand platforms.
Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut “Lost River” wasn’t exactly a critical darling when it world premiered last May at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, with Indiewire’s own critic Eric Kohn going so for as to say in his negative review that “rather than making his own movie, Gosling has composed a messy love letter to countless others.” Luckily for the Hollywood heartthrob, he has a “Lost River” fan in one of the most revered filmmakers working in the medium today: Guillermo del Toro.
On the first day of the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, the Mexican filmmaker moderated a packed panel, with Gosling as guest, to discuss the genesis and making of “Lost River,” which screens over the weekend at the event. The love del Toro had for Gosling and his film was apparent from the outset of the discussion, with the filmmaker recounting how in the early stages of “Lost River’s” development, Gosling came to del Toro with a batch of photos and ideas for his debut. “It’s exactly the film that was pitched years ago,” del Toro marveled to the crowd. “He went for something that was completely personal to him.” As the conversation progressed, del Toro made sure that every question about “Lost River” also included a effusive praise of the film itself.
Below are highlights from their hour-long talk. “Lost River” opens in select theaters April 10.
Gosling shares equal love for del Toro.
“He’s such an inspiring filmmaker and friend,” Gosling said of his moderator. He went on to describe del Toro’s house, where he first pitched “Lost River,” as a “cabinet of curiosities.” “It’s like his house is built on some bedrock of dark magic,” he said. “There’s even a room where it rains all the time. [laughs] It’s magical and everything seems possible.”
Gosling said that del Toro was so behind “Lost River” that he offered to direct it if Gosling chose to bail. “I don’t think you meant that,” he said to del Toro, “but something about you saying that was the coolest thing you could say. I felt like the wizard gave me the sword and put me on this quest. Thank you so much for doing this and encouraging me to make the film.”
“I’m not going to cry,” Gosling said, when del Toro asked about the role his single mother played in the inspiration behind “Lost River” (it centers on a single mother of two, played by Gosling’s “Drive” co-star Christina Hendricks). “My mom is very beautiful and was a single mom,” Gosling said. “When you’re a kid and you have a single mom, all men feel like wolves. Guys would whistle at her — it was very predatory and threatening. As a kid I felt helpless, so you start to imagine all these [scenarios] where you can do something. You see the world through the filter of your imagination.”
Even though “Lost River’s” setting of Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects doesn’t seem like it has personal significance for someone like Gosling, who grew up in Canada, he revealed that the opposite is actually true. “I’m from Canada and I [grew up] not too far from Detroit,” he said. “When you’re a Canadian kid, America is a pinup girl you put in your locker. It took me a long time to get to Detroit. I think I got there when I was 30. It’s very different from what I had imagined it and it really affected me.”
“There’s something about it that feels universal,” he said of the city’s decline. “I thought a fairytale format would be the easiest to connect.”
For Gosling, a lot of prep work was essential.
Gosling said that before he got on set, he kept going back to Detroit to prep over the course of a year. “First I took photos with my phone,” he said, “then I went back with a 5d, then back with a Red camera, then I went with a crew. I wanted to shoot these buildings because they were tearing them down; I wanted to shoot them before they were gone. It gave me the feeling that I was making this film. It felt like the train had left the station. It let me show people not what it could be, but what it was.”
Gosling had his lead actor, Iain De Caestecker, do a very unorthodox audition to bag the role.
“With Ian we used this website called Cast It Talent, which is amazing ’cause you don’t have to have an agent to audition,” Gosling said, when asked by del Toro about how he found his leading man. “You get these wildly intimate auditions,” he said of the site. “You really get a sense of this person. It’s not a generic process. I asked all the guys who auditioned to do two things: to do that Robert Frost poem from ‘The Outsiders’ and…to dance.”
Gosling explained that he had his actors dance to get a good read on the performers, from the song they chose to the way they moved. Of the poem reading, Gosling said he was looking for someone who didn’t read it an “emotional way – without any salt or pepper.” “[Iain] read it like he had to do it for school, resentfully, and that’s what I wanted,” he said of why he chose to cast the actor. “He’s selfless and gives the scenes to the other actors. It’s a beautiful quality. When he danced he did the waltz with an imaginary girl and he kept leaving the frame. He just had me.”
Child actor Landyn Stewart influenced the visual style of the movie.
Landyn Stewart plays Hendrick’s toddler son and Caestecker’s brother in the film. Gosling said he was surprised to learn that the young actor didn’t like the camera when they got to set. “When he saw it he’d go the other way,” he said. The solution, Gosling said, was to become “nature photographers.” “We hid in bushes with long lenses just waiting to get him on camera,” he said. “But my God it was worth it. He’s Marlon Brando. So fascinating to watch. But it really changed the whole style of the film. We had to adapt to the fact that we had to hide. He was just so good and so real that it was worth all of it.”
Gosling loved having locals invade his set.
Because of where they were shooting in Detroit, Gosling said a “lot of the locals would just show up.” “In a way they’re living it,” he explained. “In some cases we found ourselves in situations where it was easier to let whoever showed up to be in the movie as opposed to keep them out. The actors had to try to weave these strangers into the reality of the movie.”
“There’s one case where we were shooting in the gas station,” he recounted, “and I think they were selling something else in the gas station, and some people really wanted it. It got really intense so at a certain point we said, ‘Fuck it, just let them into the scene.’ They were so amazing; characters you could never write. Something happened in the scene where you felt like people were working without a net. The movie really started to come to life in those moments for me. It’s what I hoped would happen. That became like a barometer for us. We kept looking for opportunities to bring the world in.”
Gosling only “acted” confident on set.
“You do to a lot of acting as a director,” Gosling said, laughing. “More acting as a director. You’re always acting confident, even if everything is going south. The sun’s going down and you have five shots to get — you’re always acting like it’s not a problem. And there’s always a problem.”