The actor talks 'Song to Song' and working with the reclusive filmmaker

By Christopher Rosen
March 23, 2017 at 07:18 AM EDT
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"Song To Song" Premiere - 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals
Credit: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW
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Ryan Gosling was cast in what would become Terrence Malick’s Song to Song back during Barack Obama’s first term, in 2011. Which is to say the new film, expanding to more theaters nationwide this week after a limited release on March 17, has been in development for quite a long time.

“It’s interesting to watch Terry’s movies because Terry’s the star of the film. It’s his vision,” Gosling says about the project, which started filming in Austin, Texas in 2012. “It was so educational to watch his process over these years because it doesn’t end with filming. There were a few years that went by where it was just voice-over — he would play with voice-over on these images and so many different cuts of the film, like a painter who kept painting over his own painting even though it was finished. It’s a different perspective. It’s a completely different way of looking at all of it. I think everyone would tell you that deconstructing it in that way was so helpful because it just adds a perspective to the future challenges you’re going to have on more traditional films.”

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Ostensibly set in the world of the Austin music scene, Song to Song — which premiered at the city’s South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this month — stars Gosling as BV, a fledgling musician who catches the eye of a fellow talent (Rooney Mara) and a slippery record producer (Michael Fassbender). The trio’s complicated relationships make up the heart of the film, which also costars Cate Blanchett (as a socialite who enters Gosling’s world) and Natalie Portman (as a waitress who embarks on a doomed romance with Fassbender). Song to Song caps what has been a prolific period for Malick, the reclusive director who went 20 years between 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line; since his comeback feature, 2011’s best picture nominee Tree of Life, Malick has released three films — To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song — and even made a rare public appearance to promote Song to Song at SXSW.

“He’s one of the funniest people I’ve worked with,” Gosling says of his director. “You don’t get a sense of that really from his films, but he’s much funnier than I expected. … The way he sort of sees the world is really funny.”

Asked about Malick’s nontraditional filmmaking method, which values creating a mood over servicing narrative, Gosling adds, “It just seemed to me like he was trying, through this unique process of shooting, to take a sledgehammer to [basic] themes and break them into smaller pieces. So he could reassemble them into a different form that could sort of give the audience an opportunity to see them from a different perspective.”

For an actor, that meant breaking from traditional as well. “There’s no real regard for the rituals that most people are dependent on in filmmaking: continuity, linear storytelling, traditional coverage, a script,” Gosling says, adding Malick would call those expected pillars of filmmaking “cinder blocks that are holding you down.”

“He’s pushing himself and the people around him to not fall back on tradition and to sort of find new ways of telling a story about traditional themes,” he says.

Malick’s desire to push the limits of storytelling extends to audiences that watch his films, too: The director’s last three features — all broadly about themes of male ennui — have won a fair share of praise from film critics and also some scathing critiques. According to Gosling, the response is par for the course.

“I think they’re polarizing because his work is so unique. There’s nothing like it,” he says. “Again, you can watch a few seconds of a Terrence Malick film, and there’s no doubt who made it. You can never confuse a moment of his films for someone else’s films. Someone who is that unwavering and uncompromising in their artistic pursuits is bound to polarize people.”

Song to Song is out now.

Song to Song

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