Director Craig Gillespie on Dolls, Ryan Gosling, and Lars and the Real Girl
All Dolled Up
After a painful childhood, Lars lives isolated in his brother’s garage. One day, he introduces Bianca, an anatomically correct polyurethane doll, as his girlfriend to his family and the people of his small town, turning their lives and his own upside down. This is the plot of Lars and the Real Girl, this fall’s biggest and most unexpected celluloid surprise. Reminiscent of the work of Frank Capra and the Jimmy Stewart film Harvey, the movie is one of the funniest and most heart-warming of the year, not to mention one of the best acting performances by Ryan Gosling as Lars. I recently sat with director Craig Gillespie to discuss the film.
The premise is obviously so unique. Was it hard to get everyone on board? It was actually ranked high as one of Hollywood’s best unproduced scripts : at number three. Nobody wanted to make it. Literally, we shopped it around for four years.
How hard was it to capture the tone of the film? It could have deteriorated easily into something silly. Maybe I should have been scared, but I wasn’t. The writing by Nancy Oliver from Six Feet Under was so great. It was really the only script I’ve read where I could see the tone in it and what it was going to be. There’s humor in the script and there’s humor in the situations, but I wanted to ground it in reality more than trying to push for the comedy. I wanted to approach this with dramatic actors-the five leads are all known for their dramatic work as opposed to their comedy. And with Ryan, I mean, Half Nelson hadn’t come out at this point, but I had seen The Believer and The United States of Leland, and he is a very intense actor. When I met with him, I just saw his face and the way he would process his thoughts; there was this innocence and this openness to him that I thought, “He could be this character so easily, and he is going to take it to a much more emotional place.” I knew he would be fearless there. I thought for this film to work it has to work at the emotional level-I knew it would get the humor from the script.
How did Ryan go about preparing for the character? He’s so thorough. We started meeting three months before we started shooting and we would go through every scene and what his character is going through, what his character thought, and what his reality was. Mostly, it ended up being that we approached his character as being in a love affair with a person, and her being a doll was never a part of it. So we sort of figured out what his dynamic was in the story. When he fights with the doll, why was he fighting? All the typical stuff in the relationship.
This film is not shot like your typical comedy. There are a lot of long shots and the lighting is austere. My director of photography and I went back to the ’70s and saw a lot of old films, and they didn’t use a lot of close-ups. If you use too many close-ups, I feel like the audience is aware of it and you are trying to tell the audience, “Hey! Pay attention, this is a moment!” I just wanted to let them decide where the moments were. We would shoot two shots and wider shots so the audience has to figure out what they want to choose to think. Is it funny or not funny? We did that with music as well-there are only 24 minutes of music in the film and it creates tension.
I read the studio has been showing the film to church groups. Why? Go figure. I don’t know. I know when we were trying to make the movie, we couldn’t get into a church. They would see the script and they would say no. When they actually saw the final product, they felt it was a good message about community and tolerance.
Tell me about the casting of Bianca. How did that come about? [Laughs.] There’s a RealDoll factory down in San Diego, so I started going down there trying to figure out who Bianca was going to be. And there are just overwhelming choices. There are 10 bodies and 15 faces and five skin colors and you start doing the math and you’re like, “Oh my God, it could be anything.”
Were you familiar with the RealDolls before? No. I’m gonna go with no.
Was she treated like a real character on the set? Honestly, for Ryan to be in character, we had to. And when we started meeting with the crew, they started snickering immediately. I told the crew to stop it so Ryan can be in his space more and work. We interviewed handlers for Bianca. Her body language means a lot and how she’s sitting-are her legs crossed or not? We always had her change clothes off-set. She had her own room. As I said to Ryan, we shot it like there was a no-nudity clause, so in the bathtub scene I deliberately didn’t show anything because with an actress you wouldn’t. Then if she wasn’t in the scene, she was on set; she was never just lying around like a prop. It even got to the point where she was behind camera for Ryan when he did his lines.
Where’s Bianca now? You know, there were actually two of them.
Who has them? Um, this is actually becoming public knowledge: I have one and Ryan has the other.