Even amid the chaotic melee on the Dolby Theatre stage during the infamous best-picture Oscar flub, Ryan Gosling was typically unflappable. While most reacted with shock and confusion, there was the “La La Land” star — cool and bemused — chuckling on the side of the stage.
“What can you say?” Gosling said in an interview by phone from Los Angeles. “I was very happy for ‘Moonlight’ at the same time. It’s such a wonderful film. It’s great to see such great work acknowledged.”
It takes a lot to rattle Gosling. But making Terrence Malick’s largely improvised “Song to Song,” the 36-year-old actor grants, was like working “without a net.” Gosling stars in the film, which expands in theaters this weekend, alongside Michael Fassbender and Rooney Mara. It’s broadly speaking a love triangle set against the music scene of Austin, but plot describes only so much in a Malick movie. “Song to Song” is a careening kaleidoscope of light and love, wandering between the everyday and the transcendent.
Gosling is currently readying for another film with “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle, in which he’ll play astronaut Neil Armstrong. And he stars in this fall’s sci-fi sequel “Blade Runner 2049.” But his experience on “Song to Song,” shot all the way back in 2012, is still powerful for him.
How did Malick approach you?
It was just: Would you be interested in working without a script? I said sure. A little more than a year later, he asked me to come out to Austin. They were doing some kind of preliminary shooting at one of the music fests out there. The idea was that he wanted to try to cause what he called “collisions” between a narrative film and this music scene in Austin, to take these scenes into real environments that you couldn’t control and see what happened.
How did you talk about the film?
There were these themes of love and betrayal he was discussing a lot with us. It seemed to me that what he was trying to do with this unique process of shooting was to sort of take a sledgehammer to those themes and break them into smaller pieces so he could reassemble them into a different form that would give the audience an opportunity to see them from a different perspective — maybe his perspective. It was more like pointillism or something where you’re creating fleeting moments that he can later assemble into a bigger picture.
What was the atmosphere like while shooting in Austin during a festival?
My job was to try to encourage passersby on the street — non-actors, musicians, people in the crowd — to come into the world of the movie and take the scene where they wanted to take it and to try to keep the world in the movie. To try to keep them from looking into the camera, to try to make them address me as not an actor but as a fellow concertgoer or whatever the situation required. It was very different than just playing a character. It was almost like, I don’t know, your job — to get these people to reveal themselves.
It sounds like a challenging process, but you, Fassbender and Mara often exude such joyfulness in the movie.
We would basically travel in a van together with a small group of people. You would just hop out and play out the general idea of the scene in a certain location, and then hop in a van and look for another location to do the scene in. We spent most of our days that way. A lot of days you felt like you weren’t able to get something that Terry was looking for, because he’s looking for something beyond the scene. You just have to be ready for when it happens. We did kind of hit a wall at a certain point and Terry said, “Let’s just go to Mexico.” So the next day, we picked up and went to Mexico.
Fassbender’s chimpanzee impression on the Mexican beach was impressive.
He does an incredible chimpanzee.
You directed “Lost River,” a highly personal Detroit-set fairy tale, shortly after making “Song to Song.” Was Malick an inspiration?
He would give me the camera almost every day and have me shoot something. It was great for me just to be having that practice knowing I was about to go make a film on my own. He doesn’t place a lot of importance on the rituals that most people in the industry kind of depend upon: continuity, linear storytelling, traditional coverage, a script, hair, make-up, wardrobe, location. In some cases, he refers to them as cinderblocks holding you down. Obviously that doesn’t work for every film, but it’s very helpful to see from that perspective to sort of demystify the importance of all those things.
Do you think about directing again?
Absolutely. It was one of the best experiences of my professional life. I look forward to doing it again.