Director Derek Cianfrance :: About ’The Place Beyond The Pines’
"I never knew why my family had pictures of us smiling on the walls. We weren’t sitting around smiling."
Derek Cianfrance, the hotshot director behind the 2010 indie hit "Blue Valentine," is holding court with a group of Boston journalists after a screening of his recently released The Place Beyond the Pines. That the conversation eventually turns to the topic of unhappy childhoods came to the surprise of exactly no one. What is surprising, however, is that this chronicler of melancholic home movies is as upbeat and effervescent as the Hollywood stars he employs.
He answers questions with the spirit of a longwinded raconteur; a born storyteller; taking minutes to weave together long anecdotes in response to every query. And he truly seems to be enjoying it. In fact, one could see an alternate universe where the ruggedly handsome Cianfrance could be starring in his own super low-budget movies; had he not been able to locate his doppelganger Ryan Gosling.
But Cianfrance is comfortable as the documentarian; as the taker of pictures of people not smiling. His films deal with emotional violence; they manage to be ’masculine’ and ’about masculinity’ at the same time; they feel ripped directly from memory, from subconscious (if anything, the rigorous intimacy hurts "Pines" - it takes a mythical story and makes its characters eminently human.) They’re painful, inward, almost masochistic. And the man who made them, when it comes to the public eye, is anything but.
Scaring Ryan Gosling
EDGE: So, first things first: where in the hell did Gosling’s performance come from? Especially those shrieks during the robberies.
Derek Cianfrance: 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 drop them into this aquarium of life, and see how they swim. There are real cops in this movie alongside Bradley Cooper; there are real or retired judges up on the stand. Because I feel like I can’t teach someone how to be a judge - they can teach me.
So I try to make real scenes happen, you know? The abortion doctor in ’Blue Valentine’ was a real abortion doctor. 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 told the cops in Schenectady ’Man, 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 Mendelsohn, the cops knock at the door and they have this kid with them.
The funny thing was that he looked a lot like Ryan Gosling in the movie - he was kind of jacked up, had tattoos and blondish hair. One thing he said that stuck with me: ’In movies, bank robberies are so perfect, but in real life they’re messy.’ So I tried to do him proud.
So we do the first take and Ryan comes in, and no one was scared. They were just, like, relieved that it was Ryan Gosling robbing their bank, not a real guy. Normally when you go into a place with a gun, people freak out, but this time they were just taking their cell phones out and taking pictures of him. I thought that my whole concept behind making the movie was starting to backfire, so I was like ’Well, you better work harder! If the gun’s not scaring them, YOU better scare them!’
And so, for all 15 takes we did, Ryan ratcheted it up more and more until finally he was just so desperate to scare these people that he came off as being terrified, desperate, and full of anger - and his voice started cracking. The process didn’t happen the way I thought it was going to happen, but his performance became so much more interesting.
Bursting at the seams
EDGE: Most indie movies now are small, intimate. Yours is bursting at the seams. Where did that come from?
Derek Cianfrance: Twenty years ago I saw ’Napoleon,’ by Abel Gance and I always wanted to do a triptych movie after seeing that. So I always had these ideas in my notebooks for the "holy trinity." Also, I had seen ’Psycho’ about 20 years ago. I had always known about the shower scene; I just didn’t know that you spent 45 minutes with Janet Leigh before she went into the shower. So for 20 years I kept thinking, ’what is that?’
And then in 2007, my wife is pregnant with our second son... I was thinking about this baby coming into this world being clean and pure and thinking about myself being impure. I grew up Catholic so I think just being a human is bad, you know? I ate the apple, I was hungry, what do you want me to say? Just wanting my son not to have my sins. And all of a sudden I thought about passing the fire between generations, and was the triptych.
EDGE: This ’passing of the fire’ can be pretty startling when it happens on screen.
Derek Cianfrance: I was thinking, a lot, about violence in movies. Mostly gun violence. Having kids, my perception was really changing. I started to have an allergic reaction to this ’cool violence’ I see on the screen. I’ve always liked Sam Peckinpah, but with his violence I thought I was riding in the flames with the characters. But once I had kids, all of a sudden I was turning off the TV during commercials, because I didn’t want it to be a normal part of their lives.
I see a lot of filmmakers nowadays doing the ballet of violence, seeing slow-motion bullets coming out of guns and into a brain and splattering the wall red. And I’m like, ’It’s not beautiful.’ It’s not cool. I don’t like the fetish of it. So I wanted to deal with violence in a narrative way. If I was going to put a gun in the film, I wanted it to have an impact. So all of a sudden, I started to think about this story of adrenaline, and the choices that lead you to this violent moment where a gun comes in. There are three shots fired in this movie and I wanted them each to have a consequence. A real, narrative consequence. There is no sanctity of a flashback.
Early on a lot of people said who read the script, ’Why don’t you cut it up? It would be more marketable that way.’ But to me, I’ve done it already with ’Blue Valentine’ I thought the bravest choice to make with this film was to keep it chronological. It’s about lineage, so I needed it to be linear. This gun violence that happens in the movie happens to the audience. And no one goes back from it.
The Place Beyond The Pines is in limited release.