“I'm interested in telling stories about families,” Derek Cianfrance, the director of “The Place Beyond The Pines,” said this week during the Toronto International Film Festival, where his hotly anticipated drama finally premiered to much acclaim. Cianfrance stormed Sundance in 1998 with “Brother Tied,” a picture that was critically acclaimed at the festival, but then vanished afterwards. It wasn’t until twelve years later that he returned with his sophomore feature effort, “Blue Valentine,” a searing family drama about a marriage in irreparable decay, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, which put him squarely back on the map.
“‘Brother Tied’ — the first film I made that no one saw — was about brothers,” he explained about his affinity for the familial subject. “ ‘Blue Valentine’ was about husbands and wives, and this, [‘Pines’] is about fathers and sons.”
Starring Ryan Gosling alongside Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, Dane Dehaan, Emory Cohen, Eva Mendes and many more, the sprawling, three-part ‘Pines’ is unconventional and epic. At two hours and twenty minutes long, the picture focuses on lineage, legacy and the sins that are passed down from generation to generation.
“Families are full of secrets,” Cianfrance said of the appeal of his subject matter. “Their stories are intimate places where you can really get to know people and get to see people with their masks off.” With a second child on the way, Cianfrance said the film was inspired about his own personal concerns and distresses about becoming a dad once more.
“It was born out of my own fears and anxiety about becoming a father again,” he admitted of his latest film. “I was reading a lot of Jack London in 2007 and I was thinking a lot about the calling down of my ancestors. In [Jack London’s] ‘Call of the Wild’ when the domesticated dog goes out at night and he cries in the middle of the night and he feels the pain and the hunger and the starvation from his ancestors…” he explained. "And it's the same call [in this story].”
Intense and wiry, resembling Ryan Gosling’s older brother with a little less hair up top, Cianfrance said he drew from the legacy in his own family and the sometimes often unproductive “fire” that was inside his grandfather, father and himself.
“The fire that I feel inside of me that helps me do things, like make movies, but it also destroys things in my life,” he said. “I was thinking about how far back that goes and about my unborn child and how he was going to come into this world clean and I just didn't want him to have that fire." You can read the rest of our conversation below. “A Place Beyond The Pines” comes out TBD in 2013 via Focus Features [beware some hints towards spoilers in the film on the second page].
So with ‘Pines’ was it a conscious decision to do something on a bigger scale than Blue Valentine”?
Yeah absolutely. At the same time there's things that are similar between this and “Blue Valentine.” “Blue Valentine” was one moment kind of under a microscope whereas this is a film about legacy, it's a film that just has a larger canvas but you know it's equally as personal of a film as “Blue Valentine” was. I wanted to make a film about legacy in that way. About the passing on of the torch through family.
It's a very expansive story. Can you talk about how you decided who to hone in on, because it could have kept on going.
Yeah, you could keep passing it on. We used to joke in the editing room when the old man sells him the motorcycle like, 'Let's start with the old man now.' But that triptych idea came twenty years ago and I was in film school and I saw [Abel Gance's] “Napoleon.” I was just like ‘I've got to make a triptych one day’ and I had all of these ideas.
I went to a very formalist film school and studied under Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon so I had this idea of making a triptych for twenty years, I just didn't know what to do, what to tell. And then in film school also I saw "Psycho," which I had only seen the shower scene when I was 19 years old, but I had no idea that you spent forty five minutes with [Janet Leigh] before she went in that shower. I just had that experience watching "Psycho" of what Hitchcock must have wanted me to have and it just blew my mind.
Then I had this deep feeling of needing to tell something about legacy in my own life and it just found its way into this movie.
There’s also the legacy of violence in the film.
In terms of what happens in the movie, in terms of also dealing with feelings of gun violence, movies and actually dealing with reverberations of death, the aftermath of that — to deal with death in a real way, in a linear way. There's some detractors of the script. Five years ago I remember them saying, 'Have you seen 'Babel'? What did you think about intercutting this?' I loved “Babel,” you know, and I love it. But I've also seen it and this is a story about lineage and I think it needs to be linear and…having an experience in a movie theater where you actually experience that [twist] or whatever. I actually don't think it ruins the movie to know about it, you know?
It's just a smaller part of a bigger story.
Yeah, but to deal with death in a real way in a movie and not to have the security of a flashback or a cut to go back. Because death is permanent and there's a great absence and a great void afterward. Thankfully with an actor like Ryan Gosling he has a presence that emanates beyond his time on screen and he can haunt and I think he does haunt.
So as a filmmaker then, what is the challenge? Trying to sustain characters beyond their time on screen?
First off, on an actor level, I have to find an actor that has the kind of charisma and chops that Ryan has and who on an artistic level is a collaborator with me. Someone who can help build a character and delve into a human who is riddled with flaws and understand the story of a guy — which is a very true story, and many police officers that I talk to or that Bradley and I talked to before, and who, one guy in particular that had gotten shot ten years ago and ten years later he was involved in a shooting. He said killing somebody was — he'll never recover from those wounds.
Beyond family and lineage, what else drove you to make this movie?
You know after making “Blue Valentine” — that was a movie that I just wanted to go on forever and there was a lot of risk in that movie, and then I had the opportunity to do something else and ‘Pines’ seemed like the next risk, you know what I mean?
It seemed nearly impossible. Even up to six weeks before shooting I had no idea who was going to play [Dane Dehaan and Emory Cohen’s roles] because I saw 500 kids and I couldn't find anyone who could take the flame from Ryan Gosling to Bradley Cooper. I was watching “Fish Tank” and I was like, "I've got to find someone like that," someone raw, but I couldn't find anyone raw because all of a sudden it becomes a different movie. Raw talent doesn't work, you need to find another actor, finally I found Emory and Dane and they could do that, but that's almost on a technical level of how to make it work and how to make it compelling. But the challenge in the film was to have three stories, but not make it three different movies. It was about how to make it one movie.
I read in the notes for the film that you had like 30 drafts of the script and the rough cut was long. What was the editing process like? Were there things that you were disappointed to lose?
I hate editing, it's the worst part of filmmaking. I like dreaming, which is writing a script, I like living which is shooting and I hate editing, because it's like death because you're killing things. It's murdering moments and you know I always get bored on set when we're doing the script, I’m always trying to find new things or a great moment when Ryan and Ben are listening to “Dancing in the Dark” and just Ryan setting the stage for a three minute dialogue scene where they're counting money and that was the magical moment.
Editing — it's tricky because you can get lost in the details in the editing room. You can get lost in all of these moments that are great but the sum is not greater than their parts, and so the edit of the film was nine months. A full term pregnancy, seven days a week, 16 hours a day, [it] had a way of putting that puzzle together and making it one. Making it one movie, not three movies, The only thing that makes editing tolerable is that I'm working with two of my best friends, Jim Helton who also studied with me and my friend Ron Patane, and at least we can be together.
How did you get Mike Patton involved with writing the score?
When I was a teenager I saw Mr. Bungle play at the Ogden theater in Denver. And Mike Patton was on stage and he was wearing a bondage mask with horse blinders and there was a moment where I saw him licking a bald mans head in the front row. At that point forward he became my hero and when I was in highschool I would always put Mr. Bungle songs as the soundtrack for my high school films. I just always dreamed that I would work with Mike Patton, and when I was like 18 I went to a Mr. Bungle concert, and I was wearing these big Army pants at the time, they were so big that I could keep a VHS cassette in one of the pockets. I brought my VHS cassette to the Bungle show to try to meet Mike Patton to give him my movies to see if we could work together, and of course I could never meet him there. It just took another 25 years to meet him. I always thought his music was incredibly cinematic, and you know we talked a lot about Bernard Herrmann.
He's a big Ennio Morricone's fan too.
Yeah, we use one more Morricone track in ‘Pines.’ We use “Ninna, Nanna,” which I heard for the first time by listening to the Crime and Dissonance album, on [Patton’s] Ipecac label, and Patton is just a dream come true. The same thing as to work with Ray Liotta, because for me and Ben Coccio, the co-writer, “Goodfellas” was our favorite movie. It's just nice. If you have the opportunity to make your dreams come true you should, that's the way I feel about it.
Speaking of the music, I know your first film had a super R&B heavy soundtrack and “Blue Valentine” you had Grizzly Bear do the score and it seems to me a musical would be something you'd be interested in doing.
I’m dying to do a new musical. You read my mind. Last night I was riding over to a midnight meeting with Ryan and I was just dreaming of it, I was just dreaming of the musical. But I've been thinking about it for a long time, a musical. Did you ever read the David Lynch book, “Catching the Big Fish”? It's nice. You never know when the fish is going to come, you've just got to keep your pole in the water and so I have the pole out in the musical ocean right now and I'm waiting to catch a big fish.