Ryan Gosling is the kind of actor that harkens back to a different time. A former mouseketeer turned romantic lead, Gosling could have seamlessly slipped into one easy-to-digest role after another in a series of formulaic movies — but he chose something different. Rather than taking the well trod path, the actor has not only pursued, but also actively developed, films that challenge the audience to engage with characters and circumstances that may bring us partially (or in some cases well) beyond our comfort zones.
Blue Valentine, Half Nelson and Gosling’s latest offering Drive, each stand out in a sea of standard escapist fair – as films that are akin to some of the patient, character-driven movies that defined earlier generations in Hollywood. We had the opportunity to sit down with Gosling recently during roundtable interviews at the Los Angeles press day for Drive. The actor spoke about the appeal of working on projects that are (by most industry standards) small in scale; his relationship with director Nicolas Winding Refn; the somewhat counter-intuitive casting in Drive; Logan’s Run and his plans to direct in the future.
Based on the novel by James Sallis, Drive follows the story of a character known only as “Driver” (Gosling), a Hollywood stunt driver by day, and get-away wheel man by night. “Driver” (whose descriptive moniker reminds us of James Taylor’s “The Driver” in 1971s Two-Lane Blacktop) is drawn into a heist that goes horribly wrong when he attempts to help the ex-con husband of his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son.
Those are the broad strokes of the film, but the real genius of Drive is the restraint it uses in its exploration of violence, fantasy, and love. Like Two-Lane Blacktop, Drive relies more on what the characters don’t say than what they do, and as rare as it may be in our current cinematic climate, trusts the audience to follow the development of the story and emotional trajectory of the characters – sans spoon-fed exposition. For Gosling, the departure from an over-abundance of dialogue represented a welcome relief.
“On a more practical level I had just come off of doing “Blue Valentine” and on there I improvised and just talked, talked, talked, talked, talked. I had to promote it and I just talked, talked, talked and I was just tired of my own voice, with talking in general. I felt like the more I talked, the less I felt like I was saying. So we just went to set everyday with this and just removed all the dialogue that wasn’t absolutely necessary and it turned out that there wasn’t much that was. People are smart, you can look at a character and see how they feel about that person that they’re talking to or how they’re reacting to something, they don’t need to tell you. There was that and once he became so silent then he started to become like those characters that you were referencing, the man without a past, but it seemed to suit the character and it seemed to make the film feel like a fairy tale.”
The filmmakers invite the viewer into the archetypal world of the fairy tale with this film. A modern, gritty, violent fairy tale perhaps. A fairy tale that makes no apology for the monsters that dwell withing each of us, but a fairy tale none-the-less. Without using the signifier’s and sign-posts that are so common in contemporary fable imaginings, Drive draws a world in which heroes battle demons in order to save the princess.
“We thought that the audience is really going to connect with this on a deep level if we get into the mythology of these characters, this place and this story. Los Angeles is a fairy tale place built on fantasy so we made it fairy tale land and we tried to make the Driver a knight and Irene this princess in the tower who needed to be rescued. Bernie Rose was like the evil wizard and Ron Perlman was the dragon. We treat it as a fairy tale, we treat it like Grimms Brothers fairy tale, but Nicolas (Winding Refn) seems to think it falls under the genre of neo noir or something like that…”
The fantasy that Hollywood (by its very nature) inspires in those who live there is what drew Gosling to the project initially. Said fantasy can be just as nourishing as it is destructive. It can feed inspiration or illusion and often toggles between the two. Gosling’s own experience with getting caught up in movie magic fantasy is equal parts hilarious and disturbing. Keep this man away from the ginsu carving knives.
“I got connected to him (“Driver) by way of…So when I was a kid and I first saw “First Blood,” after I saw it it kind of put a spell on me and I thought I was Rambo. I went to school the next day and I put all of my mother’s steak knives in my Fisher Price Houdini kit and I threw them at all the kids at recess. I got suspended, which I should’ve been, and I’m sorry about what I did, and I learned my lesson, but my parents put a leash on me and said we can’t show this kid violent movies. He goes crazy, we can’t watch R-rated movies. So I could just watch only Bible movies and National Geographic movies, which are very violent anyways but I saw what they were going for. My point is I understand the spell that films can cast on you and that, when I read this script, the behavior of the character to me seemed to be somebody who watched too many movies and had become the star of his own action film. So that’s how I thought about it.”
In order to achieve their goal of creating a film that blends the brutal cruelty of the LA gang culture with the poetry of a man who imagines himself to be a hero, Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn virtually kidnapped screenwriter Hossein Amini.
“Nicolas forced Hoss to live in his attic, he had to be there for him 24/7 when he had an idea that they can write together. Hoss made a deal with him that he would only write at night and that he would have his days free. We would all meet at night and we tried to implement — it was a great script, me and Hoss had written a great script, but it was so authentic to Los Angeles and the gang culture that you would have to make a Ken Loach-style film in order to honor that script because it was so authentic. What we wanted to make was a violent John Hughes movie fairy tale of a guy who drives around listening to music at night because that’s the only way he could feel anything. A guy who’s seen so many movies that he’s turned himself into his own superhero and has made his own superhero costume. So that’s what excited us and so Hoss helped us to realize that.”
At the close of a summer packed with films defined by their ability or failure to deliver high-intensity spectacle a thoughtfully constructed, beautifully acted film like Drive with legitimately creative action sequences is a more than welcome change of pace.
Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Gosling in which we discuss his decision to cast Albert Brooks as a stone cold killer; why this is a movie audiences should see in the theater, Nicolas Winding Refn “fetishizing” his films; and, of course, Logan’s Run.
Drive opens in theaters this Friday, September 16th.
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