It should have come as little surprise that one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic actors would make a purposefully, powerfully odd movie for his debut as filmmaker. When Ryan Gosling’s “Lost River” first screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival nearly a year ago, however, it received a punishingly harsh and dismissive reception. It hasn’t been seen publicly since.
Now the Oscar-nominated actor is hoping that his first effort as writer and director finally will find an audience with its U.S. premiere Saturday night at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
South by Southwest is likely the ideal place to reintroduce the film ahead of its theatrical and VOD release next month. Harmony Korine’s similarly outré “Spring Breakers” was rapturously received in Austin two years ago, and the freak-friendly audiences of SXSW may be more receptive to Gosling’s cracked horror phantasmagoria and romantic fable than those who saw it at Cannes.
“In a way Cannes was my test screening. I had only seen the film in my basement before I saw it in Cannes,” Gosling said earlier this week in a interview over breakfast at a Los Feliz bistro. “We were just making it at my house; everything about it was just so small and so personal and intimate. Then I ship off the film and suddenly I’m in a tuxedo watching it in this giant theater. The whole thing, I was unprepared for all of it.
“But it’s part of the film’s history now. I wouldn’t change any of it,” he added. “I love the film; I’m proud of it. I can’t control people’s reactions to it.”
And what reactions they were. Time magazine critic Richard Corliss said the film “wavers between the stupefying and the obscure, between LOL and WTF.” Variety’s Justin Chang declared, “Had Terrence Malick and David Lynch somehow conceived an artistic love-child together, only to see it get kidnapped, strangled and repeatedly kicked in the face by Nicolas Winding Refn, the results might look and sound something like ‘Lost River.’”
“I didn’t understand it,” Gosling said of the critiques. “I really didn’t. There’s beautiful work in this film,” he added, wishing more people acknowledged the work of his cast, cinematographer Benoît Debie and composer Johnny Jewel. “You can think I didn’t do a good job, which is fine, I’m happy to take that.”
Gosling also noted with a smile that the references frequently cited regarding “Lost River” are off-track, as he was in fact drawing from “The Goonies,” “Purple Rain” and the animated “The Secret of NIMH.”
Gosling has long gone his own way, preferring moody, intense roles to those that might make him a more conventional, and more commercial, leading man. Yet his unpredictable choices, which include “The Notebook,” “Half-Nelson,” “Drive” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” are exactly what have cemented his mystique as a charmingly enigmatic heartthrob.
He put his acting career on hold to make “Lost River.” Gosling hasn’t been on-screen since the divisive “Only God Forgives” in 2013, apart from a recently released documentary on its turbulent production.
In “Lost River,” Billy (Christina Hendricks) is a single mother of two trying to hold on to her house as others in her neighborhood are being demolished. Her older son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) steals scrap from abandoned buildings to try to make extra money and is falling for a neighbor girl named Rat (Saoirse Ronan) who cares for her grandmother (Barbara Steele).
After a sleazy bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) recommends her for the job, Billy is driven by a kind-hearted cab driver (Reda Keteb) to a seedy nightclub. There she works for Cat (Eva Mendes) and can earn even more if she allows herself to be encased in a horrifying peep-show sarcophagus. All the while Bones is trying to avoid local crime boss Bully (Matt Smith), who has it out for him.
“It started by going to Detroit,” said Gosling, 34, of the story’s origins. “I think for a lot of Canadian kids, Detroit was like the pinup girl in your locker, the locker in your heart. I was just crushin’ on the States pretty hard. And Detroit, because it was closest, but also because of what it was, sort of embodied America to me: Motown, the Model T, techno, Eminem, the refrigerator, really that whole iconic America.”
Gosling first went to Detroit while shooting the 2011 movie “The Ides of March” directed by and costarring George Clooney. When that movie was done, Gosling bought himself an HD digital camera and stayed behind, exploring the city and shooting footage of empty buildings. (That footage is used in the opening credits of “Lost River.”)
Among Gosling’s adventures in Detroit, he says he was at one point picked up by local police, who thought he was trying to steal copper from within an unused building. “I’m not proud that I was arrested, but it did give me one of the central pieces for the main character,” he said.
One thing that might have made the reception of the film go down a little easier would have been if Ryan Gosling the movie star had appeared in the debut feature by Ryan Gosling the filmmaker.
“I thought about it, but it’s not easy. There’s guys out there, actor-directors, surfing and turfing, making it look easy, but it’s not,” said Gosling. “It took everything I had to do this.”
Gosling’s sense of discovery and openness to collaboration extended to the film’s score, created by Jewel, known to many for his music in “Drive.” Jewel gave Gosling mixes to listen to while he was in production and was creating music, more than 20 hours’ worth, all through the shoot, which Gosling would sometimes play on set.
“Normally when you work on a picture, you don’t come on until the temp score is already there, so you’re kind of cornered in, and the director thinks they already know what works best,” Jewel said. “What was cool with Ryan was he was, like, ‘Let’s try every … thing possible. Try anything.”
That collaborative spirit was also felt by cinematographer Debie, known for his vibrant work on “Spring Breakers” and “Enter the Void.”
“He was very attentive; he was taking care of everybody,” said Debie. “He cared about the actors, about me, and it’s quite unique. You are more like a partner, and in the end I think this is the best way to work. You give more because you know you have room to work.”
Gosling would like to direct again but doesn’t yet know what his next project will be. Directing a film of his own has also reenergized his acting, he said, and he recently finished shooting “The Nice Guys” with Russell Crowe and will soon shoot a supporting role opposite Brad Pitt and Christian Bale in “The Big Short.”
His trip to South by Southwest with “Lost River” is his first time at the film festival, though he did attend the music festival a few years ago as part of a movie shoot. While filming with Terrence Malick, the director instructed Gosling to surprise punk legend Johnny Rotten by jumping on his back.
“He said, ‘Be brave.’ I said, ‘You jump on Johnny Rotten’s back; you be brave,’” recalled Gosling. “But he’s got a way of making you do that stuff, so I jumped on Johnny Rotten’s back, and he gave me a piggyback ride. And I felt safe on his back.
“So that’s a very specific way to experience South by Southwest. It will be interesting to be back and experience it this way.”
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