Interview: Derek Cianfrance Uncovers The Place Beyond the Pines
March 22, 2013
Although director Derek Cianfrance's first movie Brother Tied did the festival circuit in 1998, it wasn't until 12 years later when he started getting attention as a director with Blue Valentine, a relationship drama starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams that got the latter nominated for an Oscar.
Fans of that movie don't have to wait nearly as long for The Place Beyond the Pines, the title being the literal translation for Schenectady, New York where Cianfrance's latest film is set. It's a film that's far more complex than Blue Valentine's two-person character drama literally taking place over the course of years, plus there's also a good deal of action as it delves into genre territory.
It also reteams the filmmaker with Ryan Gosling, playing Handsome Luke, a circus stunt cyclist who's convinced to use his skills to rob banks. The film then switches focus to Bradley Cooper's Avery, the police officer who stops Luke's crime spree only to get injured in the line of duty and get caught up in the corruption within the local police force. The movie's last act takes place 15 years later where two very different high school students, Jason and AJ (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen), become friends only to discover their shared legacy.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Cianfrance a few weeks ago to talk about his latest piece of filmmaking, which may be even more divisive than Blue Valentine.
ComingSoon.net: It's been a while since we've talked I guess, a little over a year?
Derek Cianfrance: Yeah, not as long as it would have been if ComingSoon.net was around when I made my first film.
CS: I was really bummed that I missed this at Toronto which was literally the one movie I really wanted to see and was disappointed to have missed.
Cianfrance: Were you finally able to see it?
CS: Yeah, I saw it a couple of weeks ago, but when it got bought at Toronto, I thought, "Oh, great, now I have to wait until Focus gets around to screen it." But I'm glad I got to see it finally. Now I remember you mentioned the movie back when we spoke, and I'm not sure, but this is something you originated, right? I know there's a bunch of co-writers on it, but this was something you were already working on "Blue Valentine" came out?
Cianfrance: Yeah, I started… I mean, like 20 years ago I saw "Napoleon" by Abel Gance and I always dreamed of doing a triptych. That whole movie blew my mind, but especially the end, so I always wanted to do a triptych. Then, also 20 years ago I saw "Psycho" for the first time and I'd always known that there was a shower scene in "Psycho," but I didn't know that you got to spend 45 minutes with Janet Leigh before she went in the shower, so I had this kind of form of "Napoleon" and this structure, these compasses that were kind of laid out for me in "Psycho," they were poking around my head for all these years. I was always thinking about, "What is that? What is that movie?"
Then in 2007, my wife was pregnant with our second son and I was speaking a lot about legacy. I was thinking about all the things that I was born with and all the things that I was going to pass onto my children, and thinking about all the sins that I had committed in my life and all the wrongdoings, and thinking about how I just didn't want my son to be born with that. I was also reading a bunch of Jack London books at the time and thinking about the calling back of ancestors. I started just thinking about, "Wow, my ancestors had to have led such brutal, ruthless lives to just survive, and here I am today eating with a knife and a fork and I'm saying please and thank you and I'm domesticated." But my history, all of our history, is brutal, brutality, you know? It makes me think like, my kids are obsessed now with dinosaurs and they ask me, "Why are dinosaurs so scary?" It's because if they weren't so scary they would get eaten. They had to be ruthless and brutal and ferocious and the meanest monsters they could be to survive. Human beings are like that too, you know what I mean? That's why were here is because we could survive, so yeah, this movie kind of played on that guilt of being a human.
CS: I didn't really read anything about the movie even after it played at Toronto, so it was still very fresh, and I didn't know about the triptych format and the shifting narrative. It was an interesting surprise to me because I was not expecting that at all.
Cianfrance: Yeah, I have to say, the first big surprise that happens in the movie, I love to be in the theater when that happens because to me it's just a transcendent moment that you're just so unused to seeing in a movie. It doesn't ruin the movie if you know it, I don't think, but to go into it fresh is to me, one of those real cinematic experiences.
CS: It's really daring because some people going into it who saw "Blue Valentine" will be expecting another movie with Ryan Gosling, but then you have a whole other movie that features Bradley and with the two younger guys. Was it hard planning this story as a triptych either in the writing or while shooting it how you were going to do it?
Cianfrance: Well, yeah, I mean, this movie's incredibly challenging and ambitious. My film professors 20 years ago used to always tell me, "As an artist, you must risk failure. That's your responsibility." After "Blue," I had a lot of opportunities to direct things, scripts that were offered to me. I thought that I should just go back to the well and make something that was personal, something where I could be vulnerable again, something where I could push the boundaries. I had been doing documentaries for so many years, I remember I interviewed Danica Patrick one time (and I asked,) "How do you do it? How did you get so good at what she's doing?" She says, "I just know how fast I can go," she says, "but every time I go out and drive I try to go just a little bit faster and push myself to the brink of crashing," she said.
You know, that really resonated with me. It's how I've always felt, so with "Pines," it's a movie about evolution, about Darwinism, that's how you get better. To me, it was clear that's what I had to do. I had to really challenge myself with it, and at the same time, make something that was still cut from the same cloth as "Blue Valentine," which is making a film about family. I think family is places where there's great secrets and great intimacies, and I think cinema is also a place for secrets and intimacies. This is a much larger scale and scope than "Blue Valentine" was. "Blue Valentine" was two people under a microscope. This is 56 actors told over two generations, but even with the epic scale of it, I still felt like it needed to be about human beings and it needed to be intimate. I just approached it like I was telling the story of people, and I just did a ton of research, wrote 37 drafts, just worked with every actor in the same way I worked on "Blue," and worked on every detail, just cared about the people and decided that in terms of the style of the film, that I needed to keep it consistent. There needed to be a consistency between the three stories because ultimately, it adds up to one, you know? Any triptych still adds up to one, even if you look at triptychs in paintings, they all still are one piece at the end. So I wanted it to be consistent that way.
CS: I remember you talking about how you worked with Ryan and Michelle for "Blue," but with Bradley, who's obviously very busy, he's making a lot of movies, did you have the same amount of time with him and the other actors who worked on their sections?
Cianfrance: Yeah it was an absolutely exhausting process, but to me, process is everything. I have to say, I met a lot of actors for this role of Avery, and I didn't really care to meet Bradley, to tell you the truth. I thought he was just the guy from "The Hangover." This is before he made "Silver Linings," and I remember meeting him for the first time and just seeing this kind of depth of a human being in this guy. He really changed my perception of who he was when I met him. I rewrote the script specifically for him, and he did everything he needed to do. He spent a lot of time with cops and going out on patrols with them and just learning how they walk, how they did their thing. He learned that they chewed gum - they call it gum, their Xanax, because it calms them down. He just delved into that. He interviewed a lot of cops who had been involved in shootings, then him and Rose Byrne, they played house together, went out on dates together to develop their whole romance and the thread of their narrative. They spent time with his father, who is Harris Yulin, and when we went on set, to me, I'm just trying to get moments of behavior from actors. I'm not trying to get them to act. I'm trying to get them to behave. So in that early scene, for instance, when Bradley wakes up in a hospital bed, he's in that hospital bed for a long time and the camera is far away from him. He had to lay in that bed for so long with no clothes on with that smock on. He was peeing in a urine bottle, and he was in it. So when he wakes up, it was just real. I'd say the biggest difference between this and "Blue" is like we all have a reference for love. Me and the actors all know what love is, what love has meant to us. In "Pines," we're dealing with a little different syntax. We're dealing with bank robberies and cops and those kind of things, so there had to be more research to know about those things. But then, in terms of Bradley's character, he's a character that's kind of a force of self-preservation. That's a challenging role to play because it can be construed as a selfish character, but we all have that trait inside of us, and so, he had to go find it inside of him and confront it. So I'm very proud of him and what he was able to do with that.
CS: I imagine you and Ryan have a really great understanding having done two movies together and he gives great performances in both, but in this one, he has to ride a motorcycle and do a lot more stuff. So you pushed yourself to do more with this movie and I imagine he was pushing himself as well. Did he want to do as much of the riding himself as possible?
Cianfrance: Oh yeah. Well, the thing is, if "Blue Valentine" was known for anything, it was a frank take on sexuality and realism, which in this movie, there's stunts and action scenes and stuff, and I wanted it to all be true, you know? So my reference points for the stunt sequences, it was not other movies, it was "America's Wildest Police Chases" and "Cops." That's what I was watching. So that meant we had to really do stunts. I tried to shoot a large part of this movie in single takes because I feel like any time you cut, there's a chance for a lie, there's a chance for a manipulation in a cut. But if you don't cut, if you have a single take, then you can get to a truth. There were just a lot of scenes where Ryan needed to rob a bank in one take and have him get on his motorcycle, start the motorcycle, pull out into traffic and blow through an intersection and avoid being hit by 36 cars. I couldn't hide a stunt guy in there, so that meant he had to train. I remember we were about eight weeks out from shooting and Rick Miller, who was his stunt double - Rick Miller's like the best motorcycle rider in the world, when Batman gets on a motorcycle, it's Rick Miller. He puts on the Batsuit.
Anyway, Rick was training Ryan on the first day. After it was over, I asked Rick, I said, "What do you think, Rick, on a scale of one to 10, where do you put Ryan?" He said, "He's about a three." I was like, "Oh sh*t." I said, "Okay, you got eight weeks with him. How far, best case scenario, can you get?" He said, "Maybe three and a half or four." He's like, "Look, Derek, it just takes a long time to do this stuff." I was like, "Okay. Well, just keep working with him. Let's see where he gets." The day before production, I pull Rick aside. I said, "You've had eight weeks with Ryan. Where is he now on a scale of one to 10?" He said, "He's about a seven." So that speaks to Gosling and his magic and his ability to do the impossible. So he did a lot of those scenes, then a lot of the scenes that had to be done by Rick. For instance, Rick Miller had to crash. He had to lay down his motorcycle at 70 miles an hour. That's done for real. That's at the culmination of a two-minute shot where we introduce Bradley Cooper for the first time. SoI liked living in that dangerous space, but at the same time, I'm very conscious of movie history and I don't want to repeat Vic Morrow*, you know what I mean? (*Actor Vic Morrow famously died during the shooting of John Landis' segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie.)
CS: Oh, absolutely.
Cianfrance: I don't want to hurt anybody, but I do want my film to live in a dangerous place, not only from a physical, but from an emotional place. I'm asking my actors to go into an emotional battlefield in the film.
CS: I remember with "Blue Valentine" you had Grizzly Bear kind of really before they exploded, and for this one you've got Mike Patton, who doesn't do a lot of score work. I actually loved his score for "Crank 2" and he does amazing filmwork. How did you approach him, knowing that he doesn't really do a lot of that kind of thing?
Cianfrance: When I was a teenager, my brother gave me the Mr. Bungle album for Christmas one year. I listened to it until the tape broke in the car. I went to go see his show at the Gothic Theater in Denver one year, and I saw Mike Patton up on stage, and he was wearing a bondage mask with horse blinders on the side. He was belting out a beautiful rendition of The Alan Parsons Project's "Time," you know, "Time flowing like a river." And he got down on his knees and started licking the head of the bald security guard in the front row. And from that moment forward, he became my hero. To say that I worshipped him as a teenager and as a young man would be an understatement. I'd been obsessed with Patton for a large part of my life. I just respect him so much as an artist and as a performer. I've always thought that he would do great movie scores because I could always sense the Ennio Morricone, the Nino Rota influence in his music, and the Goblin influence in his music.
So, I was at a meeting at WME some years ago and this guy came up to me and said, "Hey, I just started representing this new composer that I think you should really know about." I said, "Yeah, who is it?" He said, "His name is Mike Patton." I was like, "Stop. Just stop. Stop talking. There is nothing you can tell me about Mike Patton that I don't know. Let me just interrupt you by saying can I meet with him, please?" You know, I had reached out to him. I used to go to his shows as a teenager with VHS tapes in my army pants waiting at the base of the stage after the show, hoping he would come out so I could give him my student movies in the hopes that some day that we would be able to work together.
CS: At what point did this happen that Mike Patton's rep approached you? Had you already shot the movie or was it before you shot the movie?
Cianfrance: Oh, that was before I shot the movie. So I had a meeting with Mike. He loved the script of "Pines." His brother was a cop and I was just like, "Man, this is going to make my dream come true now." So he did a beautiful score for the film and yeah, it's one of those moments in my life… also working with Ray Liotta was another one of those moments of like a real dream come true.
CS: Yeah, that was great casting, so what are you doing now? I understand you have a couple of other projects you've been developing?
Cianfrance: Yeah, I'm writing a TV series for HBO called "Muscle," and I'm waiting for their greenlight. I'm a ship in HBO's port, waiting for them to greenlight us. I'm writing a couple of other original scripts and reading a bunch.
CS: What's this "Metalhead" thing I was reading about?
Cianfrance: "Metalhead" is a film that I was making before I shot "Blue Valentine." And it's about half finished and it's one of those, I guess, a neglected child that I haven't been able to get back to because of various financial and creative reasons.
CS: As far as doing the HBO show, how far in advance have you planned while waiting for the greenlight? Do you have a bible for where to take the show beyond a pilot?
Cianfrance: Oh yeah, I've been working on it for about seven years with the writers, it's based on a book. It's this man's life story, Sam Fussell, so he and I have been preparing it for seven years and all we need to do is just… I'm trying to be patient. I learned about that on "Blue Valentine," that my favorite chef is that guy Justin Wilson who wears this belt and the suspenders. You know him? He always would say, "The longer it cooks, the better it tastes." So I'm trying to be patient like that… the longer it cooks.
CS: You really are the poster child for patience. Every time I talk to a filmmaker and they talk about how it took them so long to get their movie made, and usually "long" for them is like three or four years, I respond "That's nothing." But these days, getting a movie made at all is amazing.
Cianfrance: Exactly, it's a miracle.