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Interview: The Place Beyond the Pines Director Derek Cianfrance

By (April 5, 2013) No Comment

cianfrance pinesIn 2011, writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s feature film debut Blue Valentine, about a marriage in collapse, grabbed the attention of film lovers who appreciate powerful, perhaps even brutal emotional honesty.

For his follow up, Cianfrance has reteamed with his Valentine star Ryan Gosling, plus Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, Eva Mendes, and go-to character actor Ben Mendelsohn, to tell a generational tale of fathers and sons and violent legacies.

A big artistic step up from the intimate narrative of Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines is dramatically ambitious. Set in Schenectady, New York, it introduces us to Luke (Gosling), a former motorcycle stunt rider who turns to bank robbery in order to provide for his family (a son with Mendes he was previously unaware of and is kept at arm’s length from). Trading the thrills of carnival stunts for larceny gives Luke a continued macho rush, but it also hurls him headlong into the career path of a rookie cop Avery (Cooper).

From Avery’s side of the story, the film also explores questions of morality, ethics, and corruption, before jumping ahead 15 years to show how his and Luke’s choices and mistakes play out between their now-teenage sons.

I sat down with Cianfrance in Chicago last month to talk about his film, his filmmaking process, the sound of silence, and making a cops and robbers movie while having an “allergy” to on-screen violence. (And yes, in person Cianfrance very much does look and sound like a more “realistic” version of his two-time leading man, Gosling.)

The Place Beyond the Pines is playing in select theaters across the country.


The+Place+Beyond+the+PinesBlue Valentine is such a triumph of powerful, dramatic naturalism, but The Place Beyond the Pines tells a bigger story over several decades. Did you worry about how to maintain that authenticity on a broader narrative scope?

Derek Cianfrance: I felt like Beyond the Pines had an epic scale to it. This movie was such a large canvas to paint on, but I only know one way to make a movie—I have my process and that’s it. And my process is about trying to make it as true and honest as possible. The difference between this and Blue is that Blue Valentine is about love, and we all have a reference point for love. This movie has more genre elements; bank robberies and cops and robbers. So that requires more research, but it’s still the same process.

I spent the 12 years before Blue Valentine making documentaries, and before that I think I had, like a lot of people, the archetypical idea of the feature film director, the Cecil B. DeMille, the guy with the bullhorn. And with documentary making, I learned that bullhorn is turned to my ear and used as a listening device, a way to funnel in the world. As a documentary film maker, I couldn’t lead anyone—I had to follow people, literally behind them, following where they were going and listen to what they said in an interview, because they wouldn’t say exactly what I thought they would say. I had to be on my toes and sharpen my instincts and intuition, to be present.

place pinespgIn my narrative films, I try to make that collision between reality and fantasy, between an actor as a human being and the character they were playing, and try to find a place where they collided. And then trying to take these scenes I had written on the page and turn them into situations on set rather than scripted moments. For Blue I’d written 66 drafts and had 1224 storyboards, and when I went on set, I threw it all away. With Pines I had 37 drafts, five and a half years writing this script, and when I went on set we tried to find what was true and real about it.

I did the same thing I did on Blue; I surrounded my actors with the real world. We put them in real locations—Ryan Gosling was interacting with real bank tellers, real people who had been robbed in banks before, and he spent time with an actual bank robber. Bradley Cooper was surrounded by real cops in every scene, we had a retired judge in our courtroom, so we didn’t have to teach someone to be a judge—he could show us how it is to be a judge.

I have this script, but as a director, if I hear the script, I’m disappointed. I was an audience member before I was a film maker, so what I like the most as a film maker is when I feel surprised, because that’s what I like as an audience member. I tell my actors, “Surprise me,” and “Fail”—those are the two biggest gifts they can give me as a film maker.

The-place-beyond-the-pinesWith that wider scope comes more narrative construction, more storytelling artifice. There are plot points and themes that circle back and are repeated in Pines, so it feels more traditionally literary than Blue Valentine.

Cianfrance: It’s exciting for me to deal with the echoes of scenes. I was dealing with that in Blue, too. I’m interested in structure, I’m a structuralist. In Blue Valentine all that structure was very controlled, so that the world of the actors was very free-wheeling. It’s the same with Pines, a very defined structure. There are rigid boundaries in that world, but there’s room to play. If feel like working without boundaries, you don’t know where the edge is anymore. If an actor is in a scene that has no boundaries for them, they can just go anywhere, and all of a sudden you have a mess on your hands. You need to know what world you’re playing in, so you can push them to the edge.

I know the film so well by the time I’m shooting—I’ve watched it in my head so many times, I’ve spent so long writing it, that I know what every scene is supposed to do, so that gives me freedom to go in there and let come alive because I know where we have to steer it. We always do the script, but that’s always the last thing we do, on like take 30, just to have it. Being open to the unexpected has always given me gold—it’s making films with a sense of discovery instead of expectations.

place-beyond-the-pines-bradley-cooper-derek-cianfrance-set-photo-650x433There’s a scene in Pines where Ryan and Ben are dancing to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” That was not written in the script, but as they were preparing to do the scene, Ryan put on “Dancing in the Dark” and Ben’s got his shirt off, and this moment starts happening so we film it.

You also really use silence well in your films.

Cianfrance: I love silence. It’s my favorite sound. I knew my wife and I could be together forever when we could be quiet with each other. So much of cinema is talking heads, just people yapping at each other. It’s nice to just share these moments when you don’t have to talk. There’s a lot of talking in my movies, but there are a lot of moments that are communicated without any words. Silence is cinematic. The silent grammar of filmmaking.

When they do speak, I like how characters in your films talk like real people—they misspeak, they stop and start, even verbally stumble as trip over their thoughts.

Cianfrance: And that stumbling around lines is very important to me—that’s human. As an audience member, I sit in the theater and I see this proliferation of perfection on the screen. I see perfect people with game-show-host teeth, they say these perfect sentences, they know exactly what they want and how to get it, and they have well-defined character arcs. When I leave those movies, I feel so lonely. That’s not how I am—I don’t look like that, I don’t feel like that, I don’t talk like that. My life isn’t wrapped up in a bow like that. The fantasy that’s perpetuated on the screens leads to lives of disappointment and loneliness.

movies-the-place-beyond-the-pines-still-7So what I’m trying to do as a filmmaker is put people on screen who aren’t perfect, who are human and flawed—it’s our flaws that make us special, that define us. So I’m trying to put flawed characters up on the screen; people who aren’t black and white, who aren’t heroes or villains, who are more human.

And when the actors have to interact with real people in scenes, that must push them to step up and tone it down, not be “actorly.”

Cianfrance: It’s a built-in bullshit meter on set. You have real cops there watching Bradley Cooper go around the corner with his gun. As a filmmaker, I could care less about continuity—what I care about is the truth of a moment. I want people who are cops to see this film and say, “Yeah, that’s it.” I want people who’ve robbed banks to watch this film and say, “Yeah, that’s what it felt like.” I want people who are parents to say, “That’s what I felt like as a father.”

Your films revolve around characters’ lives and dreams—they can’t help but feel like observations of the average American experience. Do you set out with those kinds of grander themes in mind, or do you just find a character that interests you and start to write about him or her?

Cianfrance: I start very personally. I always start with movies that deal with something I’m dealing with. So with Blue Valentine, it was my nightmare as a child that my parents would get a divorce, then as a young adult trying to have a healthy relationship of my own. And Pines is also about legacy, children dealing with the sins of those who came before them. It’s about all my fears and vulnerabilities of being a father, thinking about my own children and what I’m going to pass on to them. So I start from that very personal place, and then I start thinking of bigger things.

130328_MOV_PlaceBeyondPines.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeWith Place Beyond the Pines, I started thinking about America and the tribes in America, and how you’re born into a certain tribe, and how these tribes live in small towns, places that had seen brighter days, and now these people are trapped in this town, and what happens when these two tribes collide. What leads to that collision and what is the aftermath of it? How does it reverberate throughout generations. So I wanted to tell a distinctive American story.

There’s also a lot in your films about how the past interacts with and affects the present.

Cianfrance: That was very important to me. Early on when I’d written the script, a couple people suggested I cut it up, intercut it, put it in the blender. But I felt like I’d already done that with Blue—Blue Valentine was a duet, but Pines is a triptych. It was very important to me to tell this story of lineage in linear order.

I’m dealing with violence in this film and the choices that lead you to a violent moment and then the reverberation of that violence. As a film goer and as a father, I’m so tired of this proliferation of guns and the fetishizing and romanticizing of violence on the screen. Maybe it started with Peckinpah, but Peckinpah’s violence feels like it’s writhing in the flames and ashes of humanity. I feel his violence.

628x471But the idea of just thoughtless, fetishized, “cool” violence is the worst. I have such an allergy to it. I don’t even want to put a gun in a movie, but this movie is about cops and robbers, and if I put a gun in this movie, I want it to have a real narrative effect. As a filmmaker, I wasn’t interested in the viscosity of violence—how realistic I could make it look or the sound of the skull cracking. I wanted the narrative; I wanted the audience to feel the story of violence and the effect of it, without the sanctity of the flashback.