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Derek Cianfrance on “The Place Beyond the Pines”

Bradley Cooper and Derek Cianfrance (Focus Features)

Bradley Cooper and Derek Cianfrance (Focus Features)

The only things that I knew about Derek Cianfrance when I was first invited to interview him were the sentimenta he told a solitary crowd at Sundance after one of the final screenings of his film Blue Valentine. That it took him ten years to have made, that he forced Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams to live together in the house for a week before filming resumed in order to make certain that they were familiar with it, and how touched he was that such names were a part of his humble projects. I knew that, if Blue Valentine was his first narrative film, we could continue to expect great things from the man.

Fast forward several years to The Place Beyond the Pines. Pines is a grandiose look at legacy and, in particular, the consequences that can be passed down and inherited from secrets. Cianfrance’s background in documentary filmmaking is present in the way he averages longer cuts and takes a look at complex people in a way Hollywood too often glamorizes. The film, staring Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, and others, demands a level of real acting. Even Cooper himself told our group at the screening that he would never have been able to achieve the emotional intensity he reached in Silver Linings Playbook if not for this film, whose production came before the Oscar-nominated picture’s.

Entering the room, Cianfrance displays such natural comfort and humility as he makes himself coffee and offers the beverages to share that I half expect him to be someone else entirely. His presence is understated and he speaks as if collaborating on some greater idea, telling stories and clearly wanting to be genuinely understood. Here are the amazing insights, motivations, and Ryan Gosling anecdotes of one of the most intensely real directors you will find in theaters.

PRESS: So Ryan Gosling shrieks in this movie. When you heard those for the first time, were you just unbelievably excited? Did you have to work on those?

DEREK CIANFRANCE: Okay, here’s what happened. I’m always trying to find this collision between real life and fantasy, between fiction and non-fiction. I’m always trying to take actors and kind of drop them into this aquarium of life and see how they swim. There’s real cops in this movie alongside Bradley Cooper. There’s real judges or retired judges up on the stand, because I feel like I can’t teach someone how to be a judge, you know? They can teach me. So I try to make real scenes happen.

I come from a documentary background, so I look for the real world to inform my movies. I’m trying to find that collision. So I had this idea for these bank robberies. I told the cops in Schenectady, “I would love to meet a real bank robber. If you guys know of a bank robber, bring him by.” So one day I’m in my office with Ben Mendelson and the cops knock at the door and they had this kid with them that was a bank robber and I spent a couple days with this kid. The funny thing was he looked a lot like Ryan Gosling in the movie. He was kind of jacked up, he had tattoos, kind of blondish hair. Great guy and he told me all about why he robbed banks and the feeling he had. One thing that stuck with me is, he said, “In movies, bank robberies are so perfect, but in real life, they’re messy.” So I try to do him proud.

My concept was I would put all real tellers who had been robbed before and all the people in the bank people who had been in a bank that had been robbed before, because I felt that they could, you know, draw on something real. So we take the first take of this and Ryan comes in and.. no one was scared. Everyone was just like, relieved, I think, that it was Ryan Gosling robbing them this time, instead of a real guy.

Ryan Gosling (Focus Features)

Ryan Gosling (Focus Features)

Normally, you go with a gun into a place, people are going to freak out, but they were just like taking out their cell phones and taking little snaps of him. So Ryan and I between takes are like, “What are we going to do?” This is like, all of a sudden, my idea of making a movie, my whole concept, my whole process is failing on us. It’s backfiring. So I was like, “You better work harder. If the gun’s not scaring them, you better scare them.” So, for every take, for all fifteen takes we did, Ryan had to ratchet it up more and more and go over the top and go over the top until finally he was just so desperate to just scare these people that it came off as being terrified and desperate and full of anxiety and his voice started cracking.

PRESS: From a documentary background, do you feel like you find your narrative?

DC: In scriptwriting, I find my story over the course of years. This was five and a half years writing this, 37 drafts. I write from a very personal place; I write from all my inner vulnerabilities and insecurities and fears. I confront all those in my writing and then put them into stories up on the screen. And then when I’m on set, I get so sick of my script. I tell my actors two things: I say, “Surprise me and fail.”

I feel like, as an audience member, when I watch movies and I feel surprised, I feel like that’s.. Like, when I watch Pirates of the Caribbean, I know I’m never going to be surprised. I know, no matter what, Johnny Depp’s never going to be in real danger in those films. I’m so bored. I want to watch films where there’s actual life on the screens. That’s why I love documentary films. Anything can break at any time. So as a narrative filmmaker, I want my actors to surprise me. I want them to break it on set. Because, to me, that’ll be alive.

That makes it very difficult to edit a movie, when you shoot it my way. Already, I had a 158 page script for this film and my financier told me, “If you get it down to 128 pages, you can have the ten and a half million dollars.” I couldn’t figure out how to do that, so I found the shrink font button on the script and extended the margins. No one caught it.

But then I’m on set and we’re doing these scenes. I never say “action” and I never say “cut.” When the film runs out, nine and a half minutes later, I talk to the actors, we reset, we instigate new things. Then you get into the editing room – I was six months into my editing – and I had a three and a half hour movie on my hands. It’s like sculpture. You take away and then, all of a sudden, the form gets reveleaed underneath.

PRESS: So is it almost a controlled type of improv on set?

DC: Yes. We know where we need to get to, but how you get there. I want it to be fresh. I want it to be unexpected. And then there’s certain things that happen that we do that you never even know how you’re going to get there. I always look to [Stanley] Kubrick for inspiration.

I always heard on Full Metal Jacket – I don’t know if this is true or not, but I heard – [Vincent] D’Onofrio blowing his brains out in that scene in Full Metal Jacket, that they were shooting it for days and days and D’Onofrio kept blowing his brains out and Kubrick would say, “Okay, do it again.” D’Onoforio was like, “What do you want me to do? What am I supposed to do?” Just hundreds and hundreds of times, just blowing his brains out. Until finally D’Onofrio wanted to blow his brains out.

What I’m trying to do in the film, too, is find where acting stops and where behavior begins. I take the actors in as my collaborators on that. So Ryan, for instance, calls me a few months before we start shooting and he’s like, “Hey, D, how about the most tattoos in movie history?” I said, “Okay, really, you want tattoos?” He says, “Yeah. And I’m going to get a face tattoo.” And I’m like, “Really, a face tattoo? That’s a lot to do.” He says, “No, they’re the coolest.” He says, “And this is going to be a dagger and it’s going to be dripping blood.”

Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes (Focus Features)

Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes (Focus Features)

So he showed up with a tattoo one day, a fake face tattoo, and he’s walking around with it, and he’s like, “I don’t know, D. I think it’s too much. I think we should take it off.”

I said, “Too late. You already put it on. This movie’s about consequence. Now you’re going to have to live with that consequence.” And all the sudden, what it did to his character was really interesting. It shamed him. So it was this idea that he thought was cool, but then, in practicality, he couldn’t get away from it. He was a marked man.

We had a scene in the church, this baptism scene. I have the camera in the back of the church and I tell Ryan, “Come in and find a place to sit.” I don’t tell him where to sit. He walks in.. There’s no place for him. He can’t sit down with everyone else because he’s marked. Ryan is ashamed of himself. He walks over to the side of the church and sits down way in the corner.

I’m shooting Ryan and I notice he’s trembling. It’s not written that he’s trembling. I see this well of emotion rise in him; he’s starting to cry. I want to cut the camera and hug him, because he’s my friend, and tell him it’s all make believe anyway. But I can’t, because what we’ve gotten to is a place of behavior, that no one is prepared for. It’s discovery.

PRESS: How was [the single take in the opening scene], to make sure no one does anything wrong? There were a lot of extras in that scene, right?

DC: Yes, but they’re not extras. We’re shooting that at a working fair. The two biggest challenges to that scene are you can’t have anyone look in the camera, because it keeps unfolding.. I’ll just say I wanted to do a long take at the beginning of the movie and long takes throughout the film because I feel like there’s a truthfulness in the unbroken take, in not cutting. [Cinematographer] Sean Bobbitt and I were looking at the scale of this movie and realizing that we should start it out, as so many of our favorite films do, with this long, unbroken take. So we came up with this shot.

The trick was then to have people not look at the camera.. And you just.. You know.. I don’t know how we did that. We just did it. There were a lot of takes where people screw up the shot, but we just keep going.

I think in the first five, ten minutes of any movie, you teach the audience how you want them to watch. I wanted the audience to be active. I wanted them to be engaged and active participants. I wanted your imagination to be turned on when you’re watching the movie. But you have to actually watch this movie, not just sit back and have it hammered into you.

PRESS: The baptism scene is a pretty emotionally cathartic scene for so early in the movie, before you’ve really spent a lot of time with Ryan Gosling’s character, and there were a few of those in the movie. What made you want to include those kinds of scenes that maybe the audience doesn’t know the character that well, but still has to experience them having this emotional moment?

DC: To me, it’s the mystery of their past. The guy that we were always talking about, Ryan and I, was the guy that the [singing group] Shangri-Las used to sing about [in their song “Leader of the Pack.”] This matinee idol, who was scary on the outside. But, dad, if you only knew him, you would know that he has a soft heart. He’s a good guy, dad.

Ryan Gosling (Focus Features)

Ryan Gosling (Focus Features)

So that moment became the moment when you realize the fragility of this guy, the humanity of him. It also goes back earlier when he holds the baby for the first time and Ryan, being the actor that he is, wipes his hands on his pants because he feels too dirty to hold this baby. Just all those things. Ryan says he built this guy around these archetypes of masculinity, with the muscles and the tattoos, but then, when faced with this baby and being a father, he realized that none of those things that he had meant anything. To be a father required a whole different range of masculinity. His idea about what a man was was different once he had a kid. Those scenes help set the stage for that.

PRESS: You’re covering a lot of content and a lot of stories in the movie. What drew you to the tryptych format?

DC: Tryptych format. 20 years ago, I saw Napoleon [1927] by Abel Gance and I always wanted to do a tryptych movie after seeing the ending of that movie. I had all these ideas in my notebooks for the holy trinity, all these years. Also, I had seen Psycho about 20 years ago and I had always known there was a shower scene in Psycho; I just didn’t know that you spent 45 minutes with Janet Leigh before she went in the shower. That kind of baton pass, between her to Tony Perkins, really blew me away.

I had this structure of these baton passes and this tryptych. Then, 2007, my wife is pregnant with our second son and I was reading Jack London, all these Jack London books about calling back of ancestry, and I was thinking about legacy. I was thinking about all the things I was born with and all the things I was going to pass on to this baby. And thinking about this baby coming into the world being just clean and pure and thinking about myself being impure. All of a sudden I started thinking about that fire, passing the fire between generations. That was the tryptych.

Then I was also thinking a lot about violence in movies, mostly gun violence. Having kids, my perception of movies was really changing. I started to really have an allergic reaction to this kind of cool violence that I would see on the screen. I don’t want this just to be part of their life, like normal.

I see a lot of filmmakers now days choosing viscousness. They’re going to do the ballet of violence. Then you see slow motion of bullets coming out of guns and hit people in the brain and the brains splatter on the wall and paint the wall red. That’s not beautiful to me. That’s not cool. I don’t like the fetish of it.

I wanted to deal with violence in a narrative way. If I was going to put a gun in a film, I wanted it to have an impact. I started thinking about this story about adrenaline and these choices that lead you to this violent moment where a gun comes in. There are three shots fired in this movie. I wanted them to actually have a consequence, a real narrative consequence.

So this shot happens and, as a viewer, you’re like a person in this movie. You can’t go back from it. There’s no sanctity of a flashback. Early on, a lot of people said, who read the script, “Why don’t you cut it up? It’ll be more marketable that way.” It’s great, the parallel storytelling, the crosscutted storytelling, but I thought the bravest choice we could make with this film was to keep it chronological.

Derek Cianfrance, Ryan Gosling, and Bradley Cooper (Focus Features)

Derek Cianfrance, Ryan Gosling, and Bradley Cooper (Focus Features)

Because it’s about lineage, it needed to be linear. Because this gun violence, this violence that happens in the movie, happens to the audience. They have to experience it and they never go back from it. I have to say, that moment has transcended to me when I watch it, because I feel like, when I’m watching it, there’s a sense of denial that happens often times in the theater. “No. That didn’t just happen. Okay. Bring him back now. Where’s he wake up in the hospital bed? Where’s the flashback?”

PRESS: Is that why you had to sneak in the “He’s dead; it’s over” line?

DC: Well, I also wanted it to be matter-of-fact. Just, he’s gone. A piece of meat. Because this movie is also about American tribalism. I wanted to talk about the events that lead up to that collision and then the fallout from those collisions. Thinking about American legacy, where we are, thinking about the massacres and the brutality and the ruthlessness that our ancestors experienced and now we’re living here and we’re in the Four Seasons and we’re polite to each other. But we have this incredibly vicious past. I don’t think it goes away.

What’s also interesting to me is the way the news would then deal with it. They talk about Luke as this guy who has a violent past, all this stuff. The media’s telling you about the heroes and the villains. But you know Luke isn’t. He’s not a hero or a villain. And Avery is being paraded around as the hero, but you know that this guy feels corrupted inside. He doesn’t feel that way. Again, to me, there’s no black and white in the world that I know. There’s a lot of grays. So I wanted to make a film about the gray places.

PRESS: [Filmmaker] Stan Brakhage taught you in an aesthetic way. If somebody looked at The Place Beyond the Pines and looked at, well, that’s not beautiful violence, that’s disturbing, gutter violence, do you think maybe there’s beauty in that?

DC: The old Andy Warhol line is, “Can you see beauty in ugliness or is it playing in the dirt?” I think there’s this prevalence of perfection on screens in Hollywood. You have perfect people on the screen. They have game show host teeth. They can clearly, cleanly, efficiently say what they want, what they don’t want. They have nice character arcs. I go to movies and, often times, I feel like, “Where do I fit in? Who’s me? Who are the people that I know?” These people are gods up on the screen. Human beings are not gods. They are imperfect. I think it’s our flaws that make us beautiful. I think it’s our flaws that make us unique.

My characters are resolutely human. They’re human beings up on the screen. Now, when I’m making my narratives, I’m trying to take these normal people and tell a story about them that’s epic, that’s full of epiphanies in their normal lives. But then I’m taking movie stars and putting them in there and asking these movie stars, who are amazing people, and just trying to bring them down to earth. So, again, I’m just trying to find that collision between extraordinary and the ordinary.

PRESS: Can you tell us a little bit about Ray Liotta in the film?

DC: Okay. My co-writer Ben Coccio and I. Found out that he was from Schenectady, where my wife was from. He was like, “Let’s shoot this movie, let’s do it in Schenectady.” I’m like, “Great.” Told him about the idea of legacy. We were like, alright, let’s do this movie a tryptych movie, let’s not intercut it, let’s do it in linear order. Okay, shook on that. Then found out his favorite movie was Goodfellas, as was mine, so let’s write a role for Ray Liotta. And then, five years later, I’m sitting in a room with Ray Liotta and he’s actually consdering doing my movie.

Derek Cianfrance (Focus Features)

Derek Cianfrance (Focus Features)

I feel like he’s a national treasure. I feel like someday they’ll carve his face into a mountain top. So he agreed! And, you know, he came to set and came up to Schenectady and I invited him over for dinner with my family – I have two kids – and I introduce him to my four-year-old boy, Cody. Within 30 seconds, Cody was crying. It was just like, tears. Ray is like a human knife. He has a real edge to him. He’s a beautiful, gentle, amazing soul, but he’s also intense. I just thought, “Man, I can’t wait to see what he does to Bradley Cooper.”

Ever since I was a kid, I was trying to film those moments of conflict. I never knew why people in my family.. why we had pictures of us smiling on the walls. We weren’t sitting around smiling all the time. I never understood, when I went to my friend’s house, why there was pictures of their family smiling when I heard their parents beat each other up upstairs. What’s this about?

I feel like movies are full of secrets and intimacies and so are families. To have a guy like Ray come and kind of instigate things and provoke things, it’s a gift. And he’s in the Muppet movie now!

PRESS: Thanks for your time!

DC: Thanks. I hope I gave you what you needed.

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