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One of the year’s most entertaining films has a leading lady without an agent, without a limo, no personal assistants and no dietary needs. Expat Australian director and the cast talk about working with a RealDoll.

Weird things happen on movie sets, but nothing compares to the peculiarity of having a silicone doll for a leading lady. Expat Australian director Craig Gillespie’s debut feature stars an anatomically correct silicone doll – but fear not, there are no sleazy scenes. It’s a sweet story about an introverted, traumatised young man who has difficulty relating to people …. And so well written, it won the National Board of Review’s 2007 prize for original screenplay, in a year that was dominated for American film by the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men) and Atonement.

"a life size doll"

Lars (Ryan Gosling) lives and works in a small northern US town with his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer), secluding himself in the ample garage. He resists all Karin’s attempts to socialize, but one winter’s day he announces he has a visitor. A female one, at that. It turns out to be a life size doll; he calls her Bianca and treats her like a real girl, complete with her life story. Unsure how to behave, Gus and Karin ask local doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) for help; she diagnoses delusion, but has no remedy, except to suggest they treat Bianca as real, too. Slowly, the community – even his workmate Margo (Kelli Garner), who has a soft spot for Lars - also befriends Lars’ silent girlfriend, and Lars struggles to overcome the demons that bind him.

“I’ve had many weird jobs,” recalls writer Nancy Oliver about the inspiration for Lars and the Real Girl, “during the course of which I often wander around the Internet.” Oliver came across RealDoll, a company based near San Diego that manufactures lifelike “anatomically correct” silicone sex dolls. “These dolls were so bizarre they stuck in my head, because you can totally see the reason for them. How many people do you know who can’t operate with real human beings? That’s a large part of Lars’ journey: he’s been so deprived of female companionship and mother love, he’s hungry for that kind of comfort and softness.”

But where it would have been easy to descend into bawdy humor, Oliver chose instead to write a sweet, off-kilter story about loss and pain and the power of kindness. “It seemed to me there were a lot of movies that were dark, edgy, sarcastic and sometimes mean-spirited. I wanted to write something about compassion and goodness, something that was sincere, because I wasn’t seeing any of that anywhere. And this particular story ties together a lot of the themes I work with often.”

Kelli Garner, who competes with Bianca for Lars’ affection, was particularly taken aback by her onscreen nemesis. “It was, like, how do I relate to this doll?” asks Garner. “Is she going to be in a chair hanging on set when she’s not in use? Is this going to be cool; are people going to be friends with her? And she’s very expensive so I tried not to touch her. I’m a klutz. I felt like she was sacred to Craig and Ryan so I just let her be.”

"to treat her like we would treat any actress in a film"

The film's star Ryan Gosling, director Craig Gillespie and producer John Cameron (of Titanic fame) had decided in advance that the best way to maintain the tone of the film was to treat Bianca as she is treated in the film, as real and one of the family. “Our approach,” explains producer John Cameron, “thematically and from a practical aspect, was to treat her like we would treat any actress in a film, with respect. We don’t make jokes about people on set so we didn’t make jokes about Bianca. It would have been so easy to fall into that because this is such a fantastical idea. It’s crazy. But she’s real to Lars. So we asked the crew to play along and they were great about honouring that request.”

“It was beautiful to see how kindly people treated Bianca even when the camera wasn’t rolling,” adds Patricia Clarkson. “It was very funny. She had such an effect on everyone. A case of life imitating art. She permeated the consciousness of all of us on the film.”

“She’s a really soulful actress,” quips Ryan Gosling. “Even when she’s not saying anything she’s communicating everything. It was amazing to watch. And it’s a really rare, rare quality. It’s intimidating, to be honest, because she has no agenda for a scene. A lot of actors come into a picture and they have this idea of the way it’s supposed to go, the way they’ve rehearsed it in the mirror so it will be best for them, but it doesn’t involve anyone else’s side. So it was hard to embrace that freedom and not try and control it a little bit. But I learned. I learned a lot.”

“It’s so true,” laughs Emily Mortimer. “Bianca’s a very subtle actress and incredibly modest. She sits quietly, she waits. She doesn’t pace around and throw hissy fits and demand things. She’s very well-behaved. And her performance is incredibly low key.”

"a fine line somewhere between the ground and one foot above it"

“It was a difficult piece tonally,” adds Mortimer, turning serious again, “because it treads a fine line somewhere between the ground and one foot above it. The absurdity of life can often be very funny so the tone of this was sometimes hard to gauge. And the lines were so brilliant and often hilariously funny, so you had to resist the temptation to play the joke.”

“To be honest I didn’t know where that balance was going to be,” admits Gillespie, “but I felt as long as everything was honest, and everybody was grounded in reality, grounded in the trauma of having to deal with somebody who has a mental illness, the delicacy of that but also the hopefulness, that was the main thing. Because the script had that. As long as we stayed true to that I knew we’d be fine no matter how much or how little humour there was in the film.”

“It’s an archetypal story about somebody dealing with feelings of loss and grief and loneliness, an inability to cope with the world, feelings of rejection and neglect, and acting out,” concludes Emily Mortimer.

Published: April 3, 2008

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