Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance took twelve years to make his sophomore effort, “Blue Valentine.” A searing relationship drama about husbands and wives starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, it quickly put the almost-forgotten director – who made his feature debut with 1998’s still unreleased “Brother Tied” and had turned to documentaries in that time – firmly back on the cinematic map. His follow-up, “The Place Beyond The Pines” arrived a relatively quick two years later, but was six years in the making and Cianfrance actually had Gosling on board before ‘Valentine’ had even begun shooting.
Cianfrance presents a triptych of stories in “The Place Beyond The Pines,” exploring themes of fatherhood, legacy and the sins we pass down to our children. A sprawling and engrossing drama that spans two generations (read our review here), ‘Pines’ stars the outstanding cast of Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Ray Liotta, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn and Rose Byrne. About a motorcycle stunt rider (Gosling) who turns to crime to provide for his family and the cop that he’s on a collision course with (Cooper), ‘Pines’ also centers on the tragic consequences of misguided decisions and how they stain our families. We sat down with the director last month and he told us how Bradley Cooper got cold feet and almost left the project, how a conversation about bank robbery during the making of “Blue Valentine” lead Gosling to star in ‘Pines,’ how he fooled and tested his financiers and studio often (which seems to be a theme) and much more.
The opening shot of the movie is fantastic [a long, epic and unbroken tracking shot where Ryan Gosling’s character eventually gets into a globe of death and rides around in a motorcycle] and it looks as if Ryan actually pulls off the stunt.
I’ll say there’s 22 people in America that can do the globe of death and Ryan’s not one of them. There’s not a cut. We use something called the Texas switch. I can’t tell you what it is but it’s a stunt terminology. They say a magician doesn’t give away his tricks, but if you watch the film again, or just look at it you might be able to see.
I wanted to instantly rewatch that scene and examine it, but then I thought, just let it retain the magic.
You know [cinematographer] Sean Bobbit and I were talking about the scope and the scale of the film and we quickly understood that we needed to open the film up with an epic shot like so many of our favorite films. From “Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days,” “Touch of Evil” and onward, just great shots. In the first ten minutes of any movie you kind of teach the audience how you want them to watch the movie and for this I wanted people to be active participants.
I want the viewers to actually be active and be looking and not know what’s going to happen. “What’s he doing with his shirt off with the knife? Is he going to go kill someone?” No. He’s in a carnival, “Where’s he going? Oh he’s a performer. There are three blonde guys with their hair bleached blonde. Is he part of a boy band? Oh, look he’s in globe of death.” It all implies that he’s dangerous; he’s like an animal in a cage.
Linearity is important in this picture.
Yeah, trying to set up everything because the movie is definitely – it unfolds in this chronology which was very important to me. To me that was one of the crucial courageous choices of the film was to do it in chronological order and not intercut and not flash back, you know not cross cut it like [Alejandro González] Iñárritu who I love, but I feel like I had done that before with “Blue Valentine” so I wanted this one to be linear.
The story just sprawls and feels like it could just keep on going. I’ve got to imagine there’s a longer cut of this movie.
My shooting script is 158 pages, draft 37. Sidney Kimball Entertainment, the financier, told me, “You get it down to 120 you can have the money.” So I found the shrink font button and extended the margins and no one knew, no one caught it.
But I’m in the edit, six months into the edit and I had a 3 and a half hour cut on my hands and you know we weren’t going to make our can deadline. Plus when I shoot it’s “throw the script away and find living moments.” I had these scenes with Ben and Ryan are arguing about their cut of the loot. We have hours of footage of those two. It’s great to me, it’s hilarious to watch it but it also doesn’t get anywhere and you know you need to remove some of these things to see the sculpture underneath.
My contract said I had to be under 2:20, and this final version is one frame under 2:20. It is the director’s cut — it is my cut of the film. The longer cuts, you get lost in different things you get side tracked by all of these moments that I loved. When we sold it to Focus I remember we were in the Presidential suite of some fancy hotel and Lynette Howell, my producer, asked James Schamus if he was happy with the cut and he said “What do you mean? We love the movie.” She says, “But you’re happy with the running time?” and he’s like “We want to buy the movie.” He’s like, “Look in the history of Focus Features we’ve never released a director’s cut and he said that’s because every release is a director’s cut” and he said if there’s things you want to do to the film that’s fine but we love this movie. I actually did go back to it and try to recut, trim up a couple of minutes from it and I showed it to him and he said, “Look I’ll release this if you want to, but he said I preferred the longer version,” which to me, I was just testing him, to see if he really meant what he said.
Are we going to see some of that that stuff on DVD?
Absolutely, yeah. There are too many great moments. There was a great scene that was unscripted of Ryan before he went to jail and you know we had some time on the set and I wanted him to just get processed with a real cop behind the counter, “name, age, birth date, where are you born?” All of these questions. “Take off your clothes, put on this orange jumpsuit.” Emasculating, this degrading moment but it just didn’t fit in the film.
This additional scene with Ben [Mendelsohn] and Ryan is great. More scenes with Ray Liotta and Bradley Cooper and moments where Eva [Mendes] is just beating the shit out of Dane [DeHaan]. Great moments but there just wasn’t space in the movie. It was like “Blue Valentine.” I could have made two films. I was going to actually think about making just ‘Valentine,’ and just ‘Blue’ some day. And those things we put online and they kind of have their own life out there. You know I love getting those things out there. You know I saw the “The Master” deleted scenes the other day on The Playlist. It’s amazing.
What was the impetus for this? I love this movie but it’s also so aesthetically different from “Blue Valentine.” It feels like it could have been made from a different filmmaker.
Well it’s still dealing with family which my first feature was “Brother Tied” about brothers, ‘Valentine’ is husbands and wives, this one’s fathers and sons, still about legacy. Why I made “Blue Valentine” – my nightmare as a kid was my parents would get a divorce. And now as a young man I was trying to have a relationship that didn’t end the same way and ‘Pines’ is about that passing of the fire – from my grandfather to my father to me to my son and just wanting my son to have life but to have it on his own terms. [Cianfrance talked to us about similar themes of the film, the influence of “Psycho,” “Napoleon” and the books of Jack London in this early interview from TIFF that you should also read]
Did you write this before or after Blue Valentine?
We started writing it in 2007. “Blue Valentine” was shot in 2009. So I was preparing it, in fact I was at Ryan Gosling’s agent’s house in November of 2007 preparing to shoot “Blue Valentine.” That next year we were going to do it with Michelle but you know when Heath Ledger passed we postponed the shoot.
Anyway, we were talking about ‘Blue’ and I asked Ryan at dinner one night, “Hey man is there anything you’ve done so much in your young life, what haven’t you don’t that you always wanted to do?” He said, “Well I’ve always wanted to rob a bank but I’ve been too scared of jail to do it.” I said well, “I’m making a movie about a bank robber, how would you do it?” He said, “Well I’d do it on a motorcycle so I could go in with a helmet, no one would know who I was and I’d leave on a motorcycle because they’re fast and agile and I’d have a cube truck about five blocks away and I’d run it into the back of the truck and no one would know. They’d be looking for a motorcycle, not a cube truck.” And that was crazy because that’s exactly what we had written for ‘Pines’ and I told him so. I’d always thought about this as a western. [Co-screenwriter] Ben Coccio was like, “Why don’t we do motorcycles instead of horses,” and that sounds pretty modernized. Make a modern America about modern tribes, not the direct western.
Lots of stories about families, fathers, sons… What’s next?
I’ve written the pilot for “Muscle,” the HBO series, I’ve planned out the six seasons of that and I feel like a ship in HBOs busy port right now, let me come to land already. I’ve experienced it before with “Blue Valentine” having to wait but there’s that great line in Robert Altman‘s “Popeye” when he says, “I ain’t no doctor but I know when I’m losing me patience.” So I feel like Popeye right now, “What am I, a barnacle on the dingy of your life?”
You were briefly attached to that “Chef” project with Bradley Cooper for a second. What happened there?
Yeah, it just wasn’t my movie to make. I felt like the script was great and Bradley was great and I love Harvey Weinstein, just ultimately wasn’t mine; something I created. You know what I mean? I didn’t know what I could put into it but I can’t wait to see it.
“The Place Beyond The Pines” is in limited release right and goes wide on April 12th. — Interview by Rodrigo Perez