A derelict city lord who chops off the lips of his enemies; a banker who moonlights as the owner of a murder fetish club; a flooded town, home to a supernatural force. These are the pitch-black dealings of Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s behind-the camera-debut (in theaters and on VOD April 10th), but beyond the Mario Bava-esque imagery, it's a simple story about a mother (Christina Hendricks), and son (Iain De Caestecker) trying to survive (read VICE's review of Lost River here). Saoirse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn, and Matt Smith round out the cast of the film, which also boasts superb work from DP Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers) and Drive composer Johnny Jewel. It all melds into an utterly surprising dark fairytale from the Place Beyond The Pines actor, but a welcome one at that.
The legend of Detroit as a city and birthplace lingered in Gosling’s mind as his acting career gained steam. A lifelong admirer of Motown, he decided to take solo trips there in between projects, but instead of a thriving, majestic metropolis, found abandoned theaters, businesses, and homes, with an upturn occurring in pockets around the city. He began to take photos—first with his iPhone, then a DSLR rig, and finally with a RED camera before his film crew came to capture the distinct environment. After his film’s North American premiere at SXSW, I talked to Gosling about Lost River’s melding of fantasy and reality, his halted directorial debut about child soldiers, and more.
The Creators Project: How did the script for Lost River come together? Was it a quick burst or steady assembly?
Ryan Gosling: I was in Detroit on and off shooting over the course of a year, and while I was there I was just doing research and writing it in my head. When I finally sat down to write the script it took a few months, but it was really filled in by the actors when we actually got there. Because of them, and because we were incorporating people from the neighborhoods, the film definitely took on a life of its own. It really happened in stages.
The film takes its cues from a number of fairy tale archetypes and symbols—what sort of qualities did your chosen cast represent for their characters?
Christina has a really great combination of strength and fragility that was inherent to the character of Billy. Saoirse has an innocence that I really wanted. And Iain, I found him on this site called Cast It Talent, where you don't need an agent to audition for parts. He does, but it's amazing for anyone because you get so many submissions from different types and formats. Some are shot like a short film; others are shot on their iPhone. They're really intimate, and really telling. In a way you get to see your movie in a million different incarnations.
I'm so grateful to it because I found Iain, who came and lived for a month in Detroit, tearing up buildings with a professional scrapper. He lived the life of this character, and he did it in a very private, undercover way. So he brought an authenticity to it that was necessary, because we're trying to root all of this fantasy in reality.
During filming you had the cast write down their dreams every night and share them on-set the next day. Where did you concept first come into mind, and why?
That's a style of acting that's pretty popular right now, where actors use their dreams to connect whatever material they're working on. I wasn't sure about it—you know, you chum the waters and see what you can get. But it just played into the overall themes and narrative of the movie, which was about a woman whose dream was turning into a nightmare, and I thought that the film should have that same quality. I thought we could explore that privately and then in a literal way. I know that sounds kooky, but it’s like a symbol to represent a lot of things, and it gives you a shorthand. We tried it, and it came in handy a few times. I've also never said the word kooky before, so that's a first.
You also made very distinct choices in the media visible within the film—like the animated PSA about flooding the town or the old children’s TV program with a knight fighting a dragon.
That program was actually an old Detroit industrial musical. They used to do them back in the heyday. We made the PSA about the flooding of the town, and actually my storyboard artist animated that. He was an animator on The Secret of Nimh, a film that we referenced while making this, and also on stuff that was important to me as a kid—the animated opening titles of Breakin', Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the underwater sequence in The Little Mermaid. We became friends and he helped me storyboard the whole film, and then he animated that sequence.
The harsh reaction out of Cannes last year wasn't the first time that a media narrative has emerged on an aspect of you or your output. How did that affect you when it related to your film, and not just a film in which you were an actor?
Well… high school kind of prepares you for all this shit. It's not that different, really. In high school every time you stuck your neck out there was always a bunch of people there ready to chop your head off. Hollywood's not different. It's just their opinion of the film, and my opinion of their reviews is "two thumbs down."
One of the more surprising things I heard you say during SXSW was that you almost directed a film you wrote about child soldiers. What was the setting, and how far did you get into making it?
I went to Chad by the Sudan border in my early-twenties, and I met some people there who were around talk of the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army). And then I went to Uganda and started shooting, kind of in the same way as [Lost River]. At the time I had an Aaton A-Minima 16mm camera and I started filming out there in the hopes that I could use that footage in the film someday. Then I wrote the script and sent it to Benoit just on a lark—I never thought he'd get back to me, let alone agree to doing it.
I just wasn't at a point in my career or life where I could actually get a movie like that made, though. I just didn't have the relationships that I have now. Plus it was set in Africa and, you know, there weren't any white people in it. People kept saying that if we put a big actor in it that it would be more appealing, but that's not what we were trying to do. Opposed to doing that and making it, I decided to just not do it at all.
Lost River was a gradual building of resources that spanned over two years. Are there any projects, film or otherwise, that you find yourself returning to as a possible next venture?
I've really just been focusing on this, even in this whether we're cutting new trailers, or we're cutting the music video for the song that Saoirse sings in the film, working with every territory on their posters and artwork. Even though I made the movie a while ago, there's still so much to be working on, so I'm waiting for this to finish up before picking my next thing.
For more inspiring stories of fearless filmmaking, watch the first episode of The Creators Project's Art World series, A New Wave of Iraqi Cinema:
Lost River is in theaters and available on VOD April 10th.