Craig Gillepsie, Lars And The Real Girl
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie for our Director Interviews section of the Website. Lars and the Real Girl is nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Nancy Oliver).
In one of the more unusual coincidences on this year’s movie release schedule, Craig Gillespie has seen his first two movies, Mr Woodcock and Lars and the Real Girl, released within a month of each other. Gillespie, an Australian who came to the U.S. to study at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts and never left, worked at an ad agency for eight years, then moved on to directing commercials. After twelve years as one of the most successful directors in his field, Gillespie helmed his first feature, Mr Woodcock, a broad comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton, Susan Sarandon and Seann William Scott about the titular gym teacher from hell who returns to torment an old student. Gillespie, however, was not ideally suited to the film and failed to nail the tone the studio wanted, so Wedding Crashers‘ director David Dobkin was called in to take charge of (uncredited) reshoots.
Gillespie, though, says his second movie, Lars and the Real Girl, is exactly his kind of movie, and there is a restraint and quiet poise inherent in proceedings that suggest that he was much more in his element. With a script by Six Feet Under scribe Nancy Oliver, Lars and the Real Girl is a distinctly offbeat romance about a socially and emotionally maladjusted young man, Lars (Ryan Gosling), who tries to reengage with the world around him through his new girlfriend, Bianca — an “anatomically correct” sex doll who he believes is totally real. With the help of Lars’ brother (Paul Schneider), sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) and the understanding local doctor (Patricia Clarkson), the whole town agree to play along with the fantasy in the hope that Lars will eventually recover from his “delusion.” Oliver’s sensitive script, Gillespie’s surehanded direction and a sterling supporting cast are a number of the film’s genuine strengths, however it is Gosling’s exceptional performance that illuminates Lars and the Real Girl and takes it to another level. Whereas most actors would have made Lars one-dimensional and risible, Gosling brings an incredible humanity, depth and subtlety to the role, not only making a complex character believable but also, against all the odds, utterly charming.
Filmmaker spoke to Gillespie about his two, highly contrasting first features, the influence of 70s cinema, and why Crocodile Dundee forced him to lose his Australian accent.
Filmmaker: How long have you been here in America?
Gillespie: 20 years. I came over when Crocodile Dundee came out and it was fun to be Australian for about three weeks, and then I had to lose the accent because I couldn’t get through a conversation without people going, “Oh, my God, you’re Australian!”
Filmmaker: When you were in advertising, was it always your aim to get into directing?
Gillespie: Yeah, I mean features was [always the aim]. I enjoy doing commercials, it’s a great way to try things and take risks and work with really good people. The cinematographers you get to work with, everybody works in commercials: Adam [Kimmel, the DP on Lars and the Real Girl] I did hundreds of commercials with, and Rodrigo Prieto I worked with, who did Babel and Brokeback [Mountain]. There’s all these guys you get to pick their brains and learn from, so it’s great from that aspect.
Filmmaker: So was there a conscious game plan to get into features?
Gillespie: Well, for the last seven years I’ve been trying to do a movie! [laughs] Woodcock happened to be the one that I got to do first, and it was a great learning experience and I’m actually really happy it worked out this way. In some ways it was humbling, and then to be able to take those things that I learned and worked through and then apply them to Lars was great.
Filmmaker: Mr. Woodcock wasn’t the smoothest of productions.
Gillespie: Depends what you mean by smooth. [laughs] I was trying to make it an Alexander Payne film, which didn’t suit the concept. I was making a much more dark, complex film than I think the concept could sustain. It’s a great concept, but it’s a broad concept. What I realized when we went to a test screening [is that] it’s a gym teacher from hell that torments this guy, and they wanted those big gags in there and I miscalculated the audience.
Filmmaker: There were reshoots, weren’t there?
Gillespie: Yeah, and David Dobkin came in to do those. It’s a sensibility that I think he was better suited for.
Filmmaker: Mr. Woodcock certainly seems like much more of a David Dobkin kind of movie, and is comedically extremely different from Lars and the Real Girl.
Gillespie: They’re dealing in very different ways. In Mr. Woodcock it’s a conventional comedy in the sense that it’s all about the writing and the punchlines, and that’s what a large studio comedy is. It’s about the witty one-liners, and each scene builds to that moment, whereas in Lars it’s much more of a character story. The humor comes from the relationships and it’s not about the writing, it’s about the situations. It’s a different kind of humor.
Filmmaker: You said Mr. Woodcock was a learning experience, so what lessons did you take away from it?
Gillespie: Honestly, the really basic one [is this]: I came into Woodcock a first-time director and I thought that I had to show that I know exactly what I’m doing and the reins were really tight and I had to have all the answers, and so I would say, “You’re doing this and this and this, and this is how it’s going to work,” and it wasn’t as collaborative as it really should have been. After that experience, I came into Lars and I realized it’s really a group effort and you’ve got to let everybody contribute.
Filmmaker: So you’re saying you were being too controlling?
Gillespie: Yeah. It was really liberating [on Lars and the Real Girl]. I could come in and say to the actors, “So, what do you want to do?” and turn to the DP say, “What do you think?” It was a creative process with all of us and you have all these great ideas coming up.
Filmmaker: Was there about a year between the two films?
Gillespie: There was a year, but literally Lars got set up three weeks after I finished principal photography on Woodcock. Actually, we had the great luxury of prepping Lars for a year, so I went to Canada three times and scoured it, and worked with Ryan [Gosling] for months in advance, and we really got to thoroughly prepare for this movie. All those visits to Bianca down at the factory… [laughs]
Filmmaker: The film is set over the course of a long winter, so how long did you shoot for?
Gillespie: 31 days.
Filmmaker: That’s quick for a whole winter.
Gillespie: Yeah, and particularly because there’s 196 scenes in the film. There were days when Ryan would go through nine different scenes and wardrobe changes, basically go through the [timeframe of] the whole movie in a day, and all the different grieving processes and alienations. But it was a movie that we thoroughly blocked out beforehand, my DP and I, and we were very economical on the coverage which I think served the movie and the tone of it.
Filmmaker: There seems to be an interesting conflict between the low-key tone of the film and what was presumably a very frantic feeling on set, due to your restricted shooting time.
Gillespie: The shooting style came from the creative process rather than from the schedule but we approached the way that we were telling story in a very 70s style. I looked at a lot of 70s movies trying to figure out how they captured these tones in this moment, and one of the basic things is there’s not a lot of coverage. You let scenes play out, and you let them play out in wide shot.
Filmmaker: Which 70s movies did you watch as reference points for this?
Gillespie: The closest were the Hal Ashby films, like Being There. The best thing that I wanted to capture from Being There was the sense that [Chance, the protagonist] is in this protective bubble, and you hope all the way though the film that it’s not going to burst and that his story’s not going to be ruined. I wanted to try and capture that in Lars and try and figure out what that tension is that you have to keep sustaining so the audience is invested and on the edge of their seat a little bit but ultimately totally relieved that it works out. That was a good reference in terms of the pace and the patience of that film. We [also] looked at Harold and Maude, Local Hero, but the funny thing with those films is that they didn’t go to quite as deep an emotional place as I knew Ryan would want to go. That was the part that I really felt like we were going out on a limb, the part that was really interesting.
Filmmaker: How clear a vision of the film did you have when you first read Nancy Oliver’s script?
Gillespie: Honestly, it’s the only script I’ve read that I knew exactly how I wanted to shoot. I don’t know particularly why that is, but there’s a style to her writing that I completely got the tone of what was going on, and that hasn’t happened before or since.
Filmmaker: You’ve said that Ryan Gosling was first choice for the role of Lars, and yet it’s totally unlike anything he’s done before.
Gillespie: It’s completely unlike anything he’s done before, but I was first and foremost approaching this from a dramatic place and treating the material with the utmost respect, so I wanted an incredibly capable actor. When I met him, he has this accessibility and this openness about him, and as we discussed the scenes I could see this innocence in the way that he would think about things. Within 45 minutes, I thought, “This is the guy.” And it was really exciting to see that it was him and that he’d be able to take it to some really emotional places and not shy away from that. I wasn’t quite sure how far he would go, but that’s what was exciting.
Filmmaker: How involved was Ryan in the creation of the character?
Gillespie: Enormously. All the details and the clothing, the layers, the blanket, the watch, the moustache, the weight, it’s all stuff that he builds slowly and is part of the process of figuring out his characters. It’s all stuff that’s not on the page that we have to talk about and design and discuss. He gets consumed with it, and completely gives himself over to it.
Filmmaker: It’s heartening to see that, despite his success, he’s still doing character roles like this.
Gillespie: I felt we were being spoiled while we were making this film because we truly had the freedom to explore the character and try things in scenes and make mistakes, and we were allowed to go out on that limb. It’s such a rare thing these days. We stuck very closely to Nancy’s script but there are half a dozen scenes that were really Ryan’s creation that are some of the most memorable moments in the movie for me, like when he’s dancing at the party or the resuscitation with the teddy bear. There are some beautiful moments that aren’t on the page. We’d get a call from the studio: “I guess you didn’t shoot the script yesterday.” [laughs] But they were OK with that, it wasn’t a big deal. I think they instilled confidence in us with that.
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Gillespie: To me, the unlimited budget part’s not really relevant because I don’t think you need a lot of money to make a beautiful piece. Honestly, I’d like to work with Ryan again. Just to find that collaboration, somebody that you’re in sync with, is rare. There’s actually a project that we want to do that we can’t get, so I won’t get into the details of that. It’s frustrating. It’s a book, and we’re still working on [getting] it.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Gillespie: I remember seeing The Poseidon Adventure when I was four at a drive-in. I don’t think it was the best choice my parents made. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Did you have nightmares afterwards?
Gillespie: Yeah. I remember the kitchen scene, throwing the jacket over the burnt face. That was the first [movie] I can remember.
Filmmaker: What impact did it have on you?
Gillespie: It’s funny, I didn’t really create a passion for film until I was in my twenties, and even then it was a friend of mine who got me into directing, because he was doing it. So it wasn’t really on my radar. I enjoyed films, but it’s something that I became more educated in as I got older.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was your dream job as a kid?
Gillespie: I wanted to be a pilot, a jet pilot. I wasn’t smart enough. But I feel like now I’m in my dream job. I’ve made a film that’s a good reflection of me and my sensibilities and was a great experience.