Craig Gillespie has helmed all kinds of films, ranging from prestige pictures (I, Tonya), Disney fare (Million Dollar Arm), horror remakes (Fright Night), and a 1950s-set disaster film (The Finest Hours). Above all, though, Gillespie is still best known for his sophomore feature, Lars and the Real Girl.
Ryan Gosling plays the titular character, a lonely man in search of love at any cost (or design). In the absence of another human, Lars begins dating Bianca, a doll he met (and ordered) on the internet. The community believes Lars has come undone. In an effort to help our protagonist, the small town rallies together and plays along with Lars’s delusions of romance.
More than a decade removed, it’s the kind of movie that many mock and even more mimicked. It unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve, unafraid to be sentimental. When Fandor sat down with Gillespie, he reflected on the twists and turns of his winding career, what he learned as a director on the set of Lars, and how he kept moving forward as studios rejected the film for five years.
Sam Fragoso: Looking back on Lars now, how do you feel about the movie at this point?
Craig Gillespie: It’s honestly really close to my heart. On a personal level, it was an enormously gratifying film to do and I learned so much from that film. I was coming off quite a failure with Mr. Woodcock, so I’d been quite humbled coming into this movie, and really wanted to try to do a film with a different approach of being so much more collaborative with all the other people involved, as well as [with] the actors. It was so much truer to what my voice is, that it’s always going to have a warm spot in my heart. I feel like honestly, Lars and I, Tonya are the closest to my sensibility.
SF: Did you at all expect that Lars would become the film it became? It blew up in a way that a lot of indie films don’t.
CG: I think if you start worrying about that, you go down a dangerous rabbit hole. And for me, [with] both Lars and… I, Tonya, was truly trying to make a movie that I connected to and that spoke to me, and not worry as much about… the audience or perception of the film, or where it’s placed in the marketplace. I was just trying to make a film that I could respond to, and appreciate the characters and the sensibility of it. It’s shot from the perspective of an outsider and trying to understand them, and trying to have empathy. I think that’s a trait that obviously can resonate today.
SF: Do you identify with those who are outsiders?
CG: I do. In my case, I moved from Australia to the States when I was eighteen to go to college in New York. I didn’t know anybody. And then I lived in the States, and I sort of never felt quite Australian or American. You’re never quite at home in either place. I’ve always been wrestling with that. And I think that translates into the work.
SF: The tone is so unique to this film. Was this the project where you discovered your voice as a director?
CG: Absolutely. Not being a writer, I have to find the material that speaks to me. And in this case, I had Lars and the Real Girl for five years. I had that script, and couldn’t get anybody to make it because it was such an unusual script, and such a tightrope to walk. Nobody wanted to give it to a first-time director, which is why I managed to get it set up after my first film, as quickly as possible, as the first film came out. I do a lot of commercials, and I get to hone my sensibility there. But this was the first time that I was truly channeling my voice and my sensibility.
SF: You mentioned that there were five years before Lars could be made. Did you ever think to yourself, “Well this is just never going to happen?”
CG: You can’t do that, or it’s just never going to happen. It’s funny, ironically. I never gave up on it. And I was like a dog with a bone. We had just finished Mr. Woodcock, and I was going in for a meeting with a studio head, like a week after I’d wrapped the movie. I’m on my way driving there and I’m like, “What am I talking to this guy about and what are we meeting on?” And my agent is like, “Oh, you know, they’re going to talk about their slate and everything.” He’s like, “Don’t talk to them about Lars and the Real Girl. It’s a studio, they’re not going to be making Lars and the Real Girl.” That’s how much it was on my agenda — my agent is telling me, don’t bring it up. And of course, I brought it up. I was constantly trying to fight for it.
SF: How close to the initial vision of this movie did the final product look?
CG: It’s extremely close. The big thing that’s interesting… [is] the first day that we shot with Bianca. Ryan [Gosling] and I had talked for months about this — what were they talking about, Bianca and Lars? When they were off-camera, or when you’d see them in the distance having an argument, what were they literally arguing about?
So we really developed the arc of that character off-screen and had a lot of conversations about it. So the first shot that [Gosling is] doing with Bianca, was arriving at a party and he’s pulling her up the stairs to go to the party. And he came over and he’s like, “I think I would be talking to her. I think I’d be trying to make her feel comfortable. She’s meeting all my friends.” I said, “Go ahead.” And so he improvised this whole piece as he’s pulling her up the stairs.
And after that, I said, “Talk to her as much as you want.” All the times that he’s talking to her in the movie are improvised and not scripted. And it worked beautifully. It would be the middle of the scene when he’s with his brother, and he’d stop and talk to Bianca, and it would just add so much to the scene.
SF: Is there something you wish you knew as a filmmaker at that age that you know now?
CG: I kind of learned it on that movie: You’ve got to be feeling it, and open to collaboration… Actors will throw things out to you, and you’ve got to try and respond from a place of excitement as opposed to fear. Because on the set, when actors are throwing ideas around, it can really derail a day quickly if it’s not going to work, or if you try it and have got to go back to what you had. There’s a lot of pressure on your day. So trying to remain relaxed and fluid in a way that you can be spontaneous with ideas is huge. And that’s what I allowed on Lars, and that was a huge turning point for me.
Watch Now: Lars and the Real Girl, now streaming on Fandor.